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Vol. LXII, No. 44
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
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Holt Asking Hard Questions About Anthrax

Ellen Gilbert

Representative Rush Holt (NJ-12), chair of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, recently sent a letter to two National Academy of Science (NAS) directors regarding a prospective review, requested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, of the scientific methods used by the Bureau during its investigation of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks.

In his 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, Mr. Holt expressed concern that the questions posed in the September 15 letter to the NAS from Vahid Majidi, assistant director of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate at the FBI, “are 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.”

Referring to suspect Bruce L. Ivins, who recently committed suicide, Mr. Holt asked whether it was possible to exclude “multiple actors or accessories” as the FBI did in its scenario, and wondered about the ruling out of “the possibility that there are other stocks (including daughters of Dr. Ivins’ flask) that share the RMR-1029’s mutation combination for which the FBI has not accounted.”

In a phone conversation yesterday, 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.” Once the charge receives approval from NAS’s governing board, Mr. Kearney said, they would enter into a formal contract with the FBI, and begin nominating a “provisional committee” that would handle the investigation. In response to a question about the identity of committee members, he noted that they “won’t be scientists who have been working on this for the FBI,” but would be “experts from a variety of disciplines.”

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