Wednesday, August 06, 2008

IVINS AFFIDAVITS TO WEB: Crux of case seems to rest on scientist's time in source lab

Update: Thursday 10:07 Pacific Times

DD's longer analysis was posted to the Reg today here.

It covers what was addressed yesterday in greater detail and includes things which my preliminary write-up did not encompass. And the Wednesday afternoon blog entry includes some comment not carried over to the Reg piece. If readers look over both, they can see -- at least DD believes they can -- that the FBI's story against Ivins was strong. And DD believes it would have been enough to convince a grand jury to sign off on charges. However, it is the FBI's story and cannot now be tested by trial. Therefore, nagging questions remain. And they will not be easily dispelled due to the way this has gone down. It is a story where many can choose to take away from it those "facts" which most jibe with what their gut tells them because it is not (and may never be) an incontrovertible presentation.

In many ways, it's still something of mess. Or to paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones from No Country For Old Men after another policeman says the movie's slaughter- in-the-desert crime scene is a mess: If it's not, it'll do until the real one comes along.

The government has dumped a large number of search warrants and affidavits on the Ivins case to the web. A great deal of it either shows searches which came up empty or psychological material on Ivins mental health, which -- while interesting, doesn't conclusively link him to the anthrax mailings.

The most damning evidence, if it's entirely true, lies in FBI assertions -- found in affidavit -- that the unique anthrax mixture used in the mailings came from a flask in Ivins' lab. Ivins was the caretaker of it although he was not the only one with access to it. This flask was the source of two sets of anthrax mailings, one which produced pure anthrax spores, and a second which was slightly contaminated with Bacillus subtilis. This indicated to the FBI that the flask had been sampled from at least two distinct times.

The other set of FBI statements allegedly connecting Ivins to the mailings have to do with his time in a lab suite -- called B3 -- where the anthrax used in the mailings was stored. Fort Detrick has an access system which maps the times of its employees in the lab by card key. And it reveals the patterns of its employees' work afterhours.

Now, scientists almost always work afterhours. So the FBI mapped Ivins afterhour access over two years, 2000 and 2001, with 2000 acting as control period in which the scientists' comings and goings were very regular. Graphing it, Ivins' presence in suite B3 at night spiked directly before the start of the two sets of anthrax mailings in September and October. The FBI states Ivins could not adequately explain what he was doing in suite B3 at the time except to say he was using the lab as a refuge from a stressed homelife.

This is not an entirely unreasonable explanation. Scientists often go into labs late at night and do virtually nothing, for any number of reasons. However, the timing of Ivins in the implicated lab just prior to the mailings is part of the FBI's argument that he was engaged in preparatory work.

More damning, the FBI states no one else was in the lab at the time and no one witnessed Ivins' work.

Another FBI assertion involves statements having to do with Ivins handling of the anthrax sample implicated in the mailings and its turnover to the FBI. On two occasions Ivins was asked to furnish samples from the flask which was determined to be the source of the anthrax used in the mailings. Both samples returned by Ivins did not genetically match the mailed anthrax. When the FBI subsequently seized the anthrax flask which it had asked Ivins to provide samples from, its sampling showed the flask was an exact match.

Ivins could not explain the discrepancy between his samples and the FBI's. The upshot was that he was trying to avoid having the flask fall directly into the hands of those who would furnish independent assays. At some point Ivins said to the FBI he knew that the lab suite B3 anthrax was identical to that used in the mailings. The FBI indicates this was tightly controlled information and agents asked Ivins how he knew it. Ivins replied first that a special agent with the FBI task force had told him. Later, he said that other scientists at Fort Detrick had informed him. The FBI interviewed the special agent and other scientists, who all denied informing Ivins.

Read the documents yourself at here.

The collection of evidence is not a 100 percent lock. But these items are incriminating because they show a pattern of access to materials at pinpoint times and subsequent inadequately explained dealings with the FBI which look like evasion. There will, no doubt, be a great deal of argument over these assertions in the coming days, perhaps focusing on whether or not the window of times in the critical B3 lab at night afforded Ivins enough time to do his work. DD would estimate, perhaps just enough.

If the FBI is entirely correct and nothing is made up, while circumstantial, it still is a compelling case pointing at Bruce E. Ivins.

As for motivation, Ivins had been distraught over the failure of anthrax vaccine work at Ft. Detrick, vaccine work he and his colleagues had spent years of labor upon. And his mental state was fragile. Ivins expressed great concern in e-mail evidence that the work would be for nought and that the Army would drop plans to adopt the vaccine. The anthrax mailings changed everything. The vaccine was quickly adopted.


Blogger geozilla said...

This post has been removed by the author.

9:41 AM  
Blogger geozilla said...

Until now I had my husband fooled - he always thought I was doing incredible science when I spent my evenings puttering around the lab. Thanks for letting the cat out of the bag!

Actually, I'm just glad you pointed out how very not nefarious it is for scientists to work at night. I've been thinking it was comical that it always got dragged out as evidence against Ivins.

9:46 AM  

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