Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 27
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Coldwell Banker Princeton Office

Prudential Fox and Roach, Realtors

Gloria Nilson GMAC Real Estate

Henderson Sotheby's International Realty

N.T. Callaway Princeton Office

Stockton Real Estate, LLC

Weichert, Realtors

Advertise in Town Topics

Iris Interiors

Advertise in Town Topics

Weather Forecast

Review of the FBI’s Anthrax Investigation Taking Shape at the National Academies

Ellen Gilbert

In response to an October, 2008 request by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to review the scientific methods used by the Bureau during its investigation of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, the National Academies (NAS) recently posted a statement describing the scope of the study, and the names and biographies of the provisional committee that will conduct the independent review. The origin of the anthrax-tainted letters in question is believed to be a Nassau Street mailbox, which tested positive for anthrax spores following the attacks.

The ad hoc committee will, according the NAS statement of scope, “evaluate the scientific foundation for the specific techniques used by the FBI to determine whether these techniques met appropriate standards for scientific reliability and for use in forensic validation and whether the FBI reached appropriate scientific conclusions from its use of these techniques.” The statement notes that in those instances “where novel scientific methods were developed for purposes of the FBI investigation itself, the committee will pay particular attention to whether these methods were appropriately validated.”

In an October 16 letter to Board on Life Sciences Director Fran Sharples, and Science, Technology and Law Policy and Global Affairs Division Director Anne-Marie Mazza, Congressman Rush Holt (D-12) expressed concern that the questions posed in an earlier letter to the NAS from Vahid Majidi, assistant director of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate at the FBI, were “narrowly focused and do not truly test the FBI’s conclusions in the case.” Mr. Holt went on to say that he hoped the NAS panel would “look at the full range of scientific evidence and the methods the FBI used to reach its scientific conclusions,” in order to “give the public the greatest possible confidence in the conclusions.”

Saying that he was writing in his capacity as chairman of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel of the House Committee on Appropriations, and as a Representative whose constituents were directly affected by the anthrax attacks, Mr. Holt posed several of his own specific questions for the Academy’s consideration, should it choose to undertake the independent review. He wondered, for example, whether any of the FBI’s scientific findings are inconsistent with the Bureau’s conclusions, whether other scientific tests not carried out by the FBI might refute its conclusions, and whether the FBI followed “all accepted evidence-gathering, chain of possession, and scientific analytical methods.”

In a phone conversation at that time, News and Public Information Executive Director Bill Kearney said that Mr. Majidi’s letter was being used by NAS as the basis of a “statement of task,” and that Mr. Holt’s letter would be “taken into consideration” in writing up an “appropriate charge.”

The National Academy’s July 1 release described the areas of scientific evidence to be studied by the committee as including, but not limited to, “genetic studies that led to the identification of potential sources of B. anthracis recovered from the letters; analyses of four genetic mutations that were found in evidence and that are unique to a subset of Ames strain cultures collected during the investigation; chemical and dating studies that examined how, where, and when the spores may have been grown and what, if any, additional treatments they were subjected to; studies of the recovery of spores and bacterial DNA from samples collected and tested during the investigation; and the role that cross contamination might have played in the evidence picture.”

While the committee will, the release noted, “necessarily consider the facts and data surrounding the investigation of the 2001 Bacillus anthracis mailings, the reliability of the principles and methods used by the FBI, and whether the principles and methods were applied appropriately to the facts,” it “will offer no view on the guilt or innocence of any person(s) in connection with the 2001 B. anthracis mailings, or any other B. anthracis incidents.” In August scientist Bruce Ivins, who was reportedly about to be indicted for the anthrax attacks, died in an apparent suicide. Mr. Ivins’s father was a 1928 graduate of Princeton University.

There is a 20-day comment period on the provisional committee; feedback can be submitted at As of Wednesday, July 8, there are 13 remaining days to comment, although the website notes that “viewers may communicate with the National Academies at any time over the project’s duration.”

Return to Previous Story | Return to Top | Go to Other News

Town Topics® may be purchased on Wednesday mornings at the following locations: Princeton — McCaffrey’s, Cox’s, Kiosk (Palmer Square), Krauszer’s (State Road), Olives, Speedy Mart (State Road), Wawa (University Place); Hopewell — Village Express; Rocky Hill — Wawa (Route 518); Pennington — Pennington Market.
Copyright© Town Topics®, Inc. 2011.