Monday, August 11, 2008

Questions from Grassley and Greenwald

One of Glenn Greenwald's fans thinks they've found a glitch in the Washington Post's article about the anthrax killer's window of opportunity before the first mailing occurred:
If the Post's reporting about Ivins' September 17 activities is accurate -- that he "return[ed to Fort Detrick] for an appointment in the early evening, about 4 or 5 p.m." -- then that would constitute an alibi, not, as the Post breathlessly described it, "a key clue into how he could have pulled off an elaborate crime," since any letter he mailed that way would have a September 17 -- not a September 18 -- postmark.
Wonder if the Post's sources got it wrong? Perhaps they meant Tuesday the 18th? If not, then Greenwald has exposed a major flaw, because any letter mailed in that scenario would indeed be postmarked one day too early.

Looking over the affidavits on the DOJ Amerithrax page the circumstantial evidence looks just as strong as when I last viewed it, especially some of the emails (the one about multiple personalities is especially weird). But loose ends are still dangling, such as all the emails they didn't show. It's hard to get a mosaic based on a series of selected missives.

One of the most compelling arguments for Ivins's guilt was the FBI's contention that he misled them with different spore samples when they initially requested samples from his RMR-1029 sample in 2002. If Ivins was the culprit he might have figured he was home free at that point, thinking his deception had thrown them hopelessly off course. From reading the affidavit they never informed Ivins of the results of these tests, which they claim did not match the evidence anthrax samples.

After taking time out of their pursuit of Hatfill they came back to Ivins in late 2003 to look around some more. An FBI agent accompanying Ivins into the B3 facility then makes a seminal discovery--there were other samples not produced in the 2002 production. It's possible this was a common investigatory technique designed to test Ivins but whatever the case, he subsequently produced more slants for the FBI in April 2004:
On the afternoon of April 7,2004, an FBI Special Agent accompanied Dr. Ivins into Suite B3, and seized the original samples Dr. Ivins had used to prepare the slants submitted to the FBIR earlier that day. Additionally, the Agent seized the RMR-1029 flask itself.
It was sent to a Navy lab, where it tested genetically and phenotypically positive for all four evidence samples. The jig's up, right?

Apparently not. When confronted with the discrepancy Ivins did like any criminal (or wrongfully accused person) might do--he adamantly denied the original submission was not from RMR-1029. I'm assuming he didn't know the results of the 2002 tests until that very day, telling them he was told by a Special Agent some months earlier the evidence anthrax was from RMR-1029. The FBI adamantly denies it.

But we're back to the "new tests" issue, ie, how did they conclusively match the 2002 submission with the evidence anthrax when they admit the most definitive tests didn't arrive until much later? In a 2007 interview Ivins told them he was informed by 3 Fort Detrick scientists only three months after the event that the letter anthrax vaguely matched RMR-1029, which would have been around January 2002. He was then asked for samples in February 2002.

It makes sense that if he knew these scientists had told him it was close to RMR-1029 they had told the FBI as well, meaning they would be expecting his flask to match the letters. With that knowledge he couldn't very well switch the samples and incriminate himself, knowing they'd eventually come back and check at some point. This seems to be a crucial sticking point and most likely the reason the FBI doesn't believe his 2005 or 2007 assertions on the matter.

Something else:
Phenotypic and genotypic analyses demonstrate that the RMR-1029 does not have the Bacillus subtilis contaminant found in the evidentiary spore powders, which suggests that the anthrax used in the letter attacks was grown from the material contained in RMR-1029 and not taken directly from the flask and placed in the envelopes.
Excuse me, but aren't we assuming the material in the letters was brewed then dried in the lab, not poured directly out of the flask into an envelope? This sounds oddly cornball, unless I'm missing something.

By the way, the search warrants never turned up any traces of disease in his cars or property, meaning they had to assume he grew it and dried it at the Fort. Weren't security cameras on that area in 2001 after a major terrorist attack? Most federal offices began to install security cameras en masse after the Oklahoma City bombings of 1995.

Now might be a good time to introduce some questions posed by Republican Senator Charles Grassley on his website. Here's one pertinent to the above:
7. Of the more than 100 people who had access to RMR 1029, how many were provided custody of samples sent outside Ft. Detrick? Of those, how many samples were provided to foreign laboratories?
In other words, just because RMR-1029 was the root doesn't mean it had to come from that lab, right? The FBI would need to conclusively prove no material had ever been sent or stolen from that sample unless the new testing can zero in on which lab made what. This is consistent with Ivins not worrying during the 2002-2005 time frame, being under the impression they knew RMR-1029 was the root of the letters and not knowing (we assume) his first tests had come back negative.

On a tangential note, the affidavit talks of the franked postal envelopes used in the mailings and says the following:
Of the sixteen domestic government, commercial, and university laboratories that had virulent RMR-1029 Ames strain Bacillus anthracis material in their inventory prior to the attacks, only one lab was located in Maryland or Virginia, where the relevant federal eagle envelopes were distributed and sold by the U.S. Postal Service: the USAMRID facility at Fort Detrick, MD.
Seems they are needlessly bringing these other labs in play by mentioning their lack of proximity to the postal facilities of note. If they knew the evidence anthrax had come only from the flask in Ivins's lab then this is a moot point not worth mentioning.

On the other hand, if the evidence anthrax wasn't limited to the Detrick lab then it's possible some quantity of pilfered RMR-1029 could have been grown and dried off-site (it wasn't weaponized) then brought into the DC area, whereupon the perp(s) purchased envelopes locally and mailed them in New Jersey. Admittedly rather far out, but the letters alone hardly condemn Ivins without other evidence.

I'll leave off with one final Grassley question:
14. What role did the FBI play in conducting and updating the background examination of Dr. Ivins in order for him to have clearance and work with deadly pathogens at Ft. Detrick?
Nice observation. Maintaining a top secret clearance requires an FBI background investigation and one would certainly think they updated his clearance in 2001 before allowing him to work on the evidence anthrax. They gave him a lie detector test at the time. One of the emails in evidence is this:
July 7, 2000, in an e-mail, Dr. Ivins offered to be interviewed as a case study, as long as it' remained anonymous. Dr. Ivins indicated that he did not want to see a headline in the National Enquirer that read, "PARANOID MAN WORKS WITH DEADLY ANTHRAX!!!"
So it seems like what wasn't very significant then is highly incriminating now. But hindsight is 20/20. If the psychological problems were as bad as they are now saying the FBI and Army are basically incriminating themselves for not pulling his clearance in 2000, assuming it was reviewed before the attacks. It's possible these insinuations are being trumped up to bolster the relatively weak circumstantial evidence since he seemed to recover pretty well, winning the highest civilian award in 2003. But it's interesting that his mental state was described as "manic" right after 9/11 yet he was tagged to analyze the evidence and passed a lie detector.

He got the award for getting anthrax vaccines back online in the government, which they leave hanging as another possible motive but it's impossible to say the contracts wouldn't have been re-upped anyway after 9/11. The attacks certainly didn't hurt, though. Overall, it's another weak horse argument for committing mass murder and risking everything. Short of that we're left with his psychological problems explaining everything, suggesting some sort of crime of passion, yet it was rather well planned.

Aside from all the loose ends it still seems like he's the best fit. It'd be nice to get the 2002 test results and the September 18th mailing issue cleared up before suspending disbelief.

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