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Vol. LXV, No. 8
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
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After Inconclusive NAS Study, Holt Reintroduces Anthrax Investigation Act

Ellen Gilbert

In response to a National Academy of Science (NAS) committee finding that it was not possible to reach definite conclusions in the “Amerithrax” case based on evidence alone, Rush Holt (D-12) has reintroduced the Anthrax Attacks Investigation Act, legislation that would establish a Congressional commission to investigate the 2001 anthrax attacks and the federal government’s response to, and investigation of the attacks.

The committee’s report can be ordered online at www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13098, and the news conference at which the results were announced can be viewed at www.national-academies.org.

Mr. Holt introduced the bill on February 15, the same day that the NAS committee issued its report raising questions about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) scientific conclusions in the “Amerithrax” case. He first introduced the legislation in September 2008.

“The NAS report makes clear there are still questions to be answered and still lessons to be learned about the FBI’s investigation into the attacks,” said Mr. Holt “It would take a credulous person to believe the circumstantial evidence that the FBI used to draw its conclusions with such certainty. The FBI has not proven to me that this is an open and shut case. We still badly need a 9/11-style commission to determine how the attacks happened and whether we learned the lessons to prepare for another attack.”

The committee was charged with reviewing the scientific approaches, methodologies, and analytical techniques used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation during its investigation of the 2001 anthrax mailings, which were believed to have originated from a postal box in Princeton Borough, eventually killing five people, sickening 17 others, temporarily crippling mail service, and forcing the evacuation of federal buildings, including Senate offices and the Supreme Court. The U.S. Department of Justice closed its investigation of the anthrax mailings in early 2010, concluding that the attacks were carried out by Bruce Ivins, a scientist at a U.S. Army infectious disease laboratory in Frederick, Md., who committed suicide in 2008.

In the public briefing that preceded the release of the Research Council report, committee vice-chair David A. Relman noted that his group had not been “privy to discussions” about the closing of the investigation, but that they had “noted” it “with due interest.”

Chair Alice P. Gast and Mr. Relman also reported that “despite our repeated requests,” the FBI did not turn over all the documents relevant to the case. Following a required FBI security review of the committee’s draft report in October 2010, however, the bureau indicated its interest in providing the committee with some additional documents. From these materials, Ms. Gast said, the committee learned more about the organization and oversight of the scientific investigation and about the collection and analysis of environmental samples.

The fact that the committee was not intended to determine the guilt or innocence of anyone involved was emphasized, although the report did recommend that a review should be conducted of relevant classified materials from the 2001 episode. The goal of this next investigation, they said, “must be apparent” before, during, and after it is conducted.”

Noting that technology has evolved considerably since 2001, Ms. Gast observed that investigators are much better prepared today to conduct such an investigation. She also spoke of the nation’s ability to carry out an investigation that relied on authoritative, academic scientists. It would be risky, she suggested, to lose that body of scientists.

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