Trial by innuendo in anthrax killings: update 4
Posted by Charles II on August 7, 2008
David Willman, LAT
A top government scientist who helped the FBI analyze samples from the 2001 anthrax attacks has died in Maryland from an apparent suicide, just as the Justice Department was about to file criminal charges against him for the attacks, the Los Angeles Times has learned.
Bruce E. Ivins, 62, who for the last 18 years worked at the government’s elite biodefense research laboratories at Ft. Detrick, Md., had been informed of his impending prosecution, said people familiar with Ivins, his suspicious death and the FBI investigation…
Ivins died Tuesday at Frederick Memorial Hospital after ingesting a massive dose of prescription Tylenol mixed with codeine, said a friend and colleague, who declined to be identified out of concern that he would be harassed by the FBI….
The scientist faced forced retirement, planned for September, said his longtime colleague, who described Ivins as emotionally fractured by the federal scrutiny.
“He didn’t have any more money to spend on legal fees. He was much more emotionally labile, in terms of sensitivity to things, than most scientists. . . . He was very thin-skinned.”
Is this the kind of legal system we want? One in which people, whether guilty or innocent, commit suicide because they can’t pay for legal defense.
There is no evidence in this article to connect Ivins to the anthrax killings. It’s all innuendo and ugly gossip.
Update 4. James Rowley and Avram Goldstein, Bloomberg:
“Scientists and legal experts questioned the reliability of novel genetic tests that the FBI says link deadly anthrax letters to an Army bioweapons scientist who authorities allege carried out the 2001 killings by himself.
Because the FBI has never offered such tests in criminal cases, it’s uncertain the results would have been admitted in court as evidence…
Gene sequencing that linked the highly refined anthrax spores used in the anthrax letters to a flask in Ivins’s laboratory was a key piece of evidence cited by the Justice Department yesterday as proof Ivins acted alone. The government said it will close the case soon.
“Microbial forensics is still a nascent field, and, as far as I know, no one has ever been convicted in a U.S. court on the basis of microbial forensic evidence,” said Peter Hotez, a microbiologist at George Washington University.
According to Paul de Armond, cited in Update 3:
Anthrax is remarkably immune from mutation, thanks largely to an odd life-cycle that vacillates between long periods of dormancy and brief periods of volatile activity. It’s estimated that over 100,000 cell divisions can occur before a mutation of the chromosomal DNA takes place. Since anthrax spends most of its time as dormant spores, this can take a long time — so long that two samples collected decades apart can and often do have the same DNA fingerprint.
What makes me think that the “novel genetics tests” will turn out to be like the novel fiber tests of the past?
Update 1: Thanks to PW for alerting me to the latest LAT article.
Misleadingly headlined “Anthrax scientist Bruce Ivins stood to benefit from a panic,” the article goes on and on about how Ivins stood to receive royalties on two patents. But when you read the fine print, a source is cited, saying that “Ivins would have stood to make tens of thousands of dollars, but not millions.” This is hardly a motive for murder.
Then we get this non sequitur:
One former senior official with Ivins’ employer, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, whom the FBI questioned at length about Ivins, said he believed his former colleague wanted more attention — and resources — shifted to biological defense.
“It had to have been a motive,” said the former official, who suspects that Ivins was the culprit. “I don’t think he ever intended to kill anybody. He just wanted to prove ‘Look, this is possible.’ He probably had no clue that it would aerosolize through those envelopes and kill those postal workers.”
Um? Earth to former senior official? The envelope had an addressee. The addressee would have opened the envelope. The addressee would have been infected.
No, whoever did this intended to kill people. He (or she) put great effort into making the anthrax so that it would aerosolize.
I want to elevate to attention a comment by Stormcrow: “For the love of god, let’s try to prevent this from degenerating into yet another Rorschach test. Which is what generally happens when popular culture gets fascinated by an incident they don’t know jack shit about.”
This is an important point. We, the chattering public, are part of the problem when we speak without carefully ascertaining the facts. While I don’t think discussion needs to be limited to biologists and biochemists, we need to read skeptically and post thoughtfully.
Update 2. Glenn Greenwald:
“It is so vital to emphasize that not a shred of evidence has yet been presented that the now-deceased Bruce Ivins played any role in the anthrax attacks, let alone that he was the sole or even primary culprit. Nonetheless, just as they did with Steven Hatfill, the media (with some notable and important exceptions) are reporting this case as though the matter is resolved.”
I agree with this characterization.
Update 3 (Via Curmudgeon at Cernig’s), Dave Neiwert has comments on the loose ends of the anthrax attacks. I don’t think Dave is right about the issue of whether the anthrax was produced in Fort Detrick necessarily implies a violation of treaties to which the US is a signatory. First, the production could have been unauthorized. Second, even if it was authorized, it could have been authorized for a purpose other than weapons production. Dave does link an interesting article on the technology for anthrax production.
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