NYT Takes Another Look at the Anthrax Attacker

In this post and this one, TalkLeft wondered how the FBI could be so sure that Bruce Ivins was the sole perpetrator of the anthrax attacks seven years ago. (Some of the comments to those posts are quite informative.) Ivins, you will recall, committed suicide but never admitted responsibility.

Scott Shane writes that The New York Times has finished a thorough examination of the investigation, and is less persuaded of Ivins' guilt than is the FBI:

That examination found that unless new evidence were to surface, the enormous public investment in the case would appear to have yielded nothing more persuasive than a strong hunch, based on a pattern of damning circumstances, that Dr. Ivins was the perpetrator.

[more ...]

Particularly in high profile cases, a "strong hunch" can be all the proof a law enforcement agency needs. When the pressure to solve a crime is intense, accuracy sometimes gives way to expedience. Revealing the villain becomes more important than making sure the chosen villain is actually guilty.

If the F.B.I. is wrong, then a troubled man was hounded to death and the anthrax perpetrator is still at large, as many of Dr. Ivins’s colleagues at Fort Detrick believe.

Circumstantial evidence points to Ivins' involvement, but circumstantial evidence earlier convinced the FBI that Steven Hatfill was guilty -- a conclusion that, once released to the public, ruined Hatfill's life. Others were also once viewed with strong suspicion, as well. Here are the evidentiary gaps that remain in the Ivins investigation:

No evidence placed him in Princeton, N.J., where the letters were mailed. No receipt showed that he had bought the same type of envelopes. No security camera had caught him photocopying the notes. Nor, in his e-mail messages and conversations with confidants, could agents find any hint of a confession.

The inability to link Ivins to the place where the letters were mailed is the most disturbing weakness in the FBI's case. Also disturbing is the decision to close the case when the results of the investigation are less than certain.

< Bon Jovi To Help Hillary Reduce Campaign Debt | Sunday Morning Open Thread >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    weapons grade anthrax (none / 0) (#1)
    by TexasYellowDog on Sun Jan 04, 2009 at 05:39:40 AM EST
    I recall that a lot was made out of the weapons grade nature of the anthrax, probably to pin the responsibility on foreign organizations.  But now they seem to be arguing that this anthrax could be made in a typical bacteriology research lab. It was reported that dryer in Ivins' lab was standard equipment.  Didn't they condemn an entire Post Office because a letter passed through a sorting machine there? Either we are in a lot more trouble from anthrax attack than we thought, or something's still fishy about this.

    off topic, but (none / 0) (#2)
    by sarany on Sun Jan 04, 2009 at 08:00:34 AM EST
    I just saw this Talk Left post mini-headlined at the NYTimes' alternate "Extra" home page in one of the news feed boxes. Maybe this is old news, as it's the first time I rolled over the "Extra" option.

    As the article says, what if Hatfill had committed (none / 0) (#3)
    by jerry on Sun Jan 04, 2009 at 08:33:39 AM EST
    suicide as was feared.  Would the FBI have concluded the case then and said the had found the perpetrator?  Quite likely.

    Hate to Be Nit-Picky (none / 0) (#4)
    by daring grace on Sun Jan 04, 2009 at 09:38:23 AM EST
    But I would have liked to see the term Anthrax Attacker framed as "Anthrax Attacker" instead since the man has only been accused and not found guilty in court.

    And, of course, now will never be.

    There really (none / 0) (#7)
    by TChris on Sun Jan 04, 2009 at 12:53:56 PM EST
    isn't any doubt that there was an anthrax attacker.  The question is whether Ivins, alone or in concert with others, is the anthrax attacker.

    Quality (none / 0) (#5)
    by nellre on Sun Jan 04, 2009 at 11:09:31 AM EST
    When the pressure to solve a crime is intense, accuracy sometimes gives way to expedience.

    This mind set is ubiquitous in our culture these days. Pressure to get results without consideration for the quality of said result. Many of our current problems can be attributed to this attitude.

    False accusations.... (none / 0) (#6)
    by jerry on Sun Jan 04, 2009 at 11:43:55 AM EST
    You raise a good point, and in fact, this is what we see with accusations of rape, child abuse, and domestic violence.  We get demands to stop rape/child abuse/domestic violence to zero and no consideration whatsoever to what this does to false accusations and how this harms the system.  (See Duke and McMartin.)

    The basic point has been expressed in statistics for quite a long time, Type I and Type II error, false negatives and false positives are linked.  Try to decrease one without consideration of the other and the other will increase too.

    Try to eliminate the false negatives (letting a criminal go free) and you will necessarily increase the false positives (imprisoning an innocent person.)

    And before it was codified in statistics, it was codified by Blackstone and Franklin.  Here is Alexander Volokh writing about the history of n Guilty Men.


    actually, this has been one of the (none / 0) (#8)
    by cpinva on Sun Jan 04, 2009 at 02:43:59 PM EST
    less attractive hallmarks of the bush administration: findings of guilt, without bothering with the annoying nicety of an actual trial. see: guantanamo bay, cuba.

    true, this has happened in the past, but i submit, not with same level of frequency as the past eight years.

    and look, they can point and say "since we identified him, there have been no more attacks!" of course, i could make the very same claim, with regards to killer metiorites, and you can't prove me wrong either.