The FBI destroyed anthrax samples submitted in 2002 by the scientist who later became the prime suspect in the deadly mail attacks because he didn't prepare them according to the protocol spelled out in a court order, the bureau said today.
Dr. Bruce Ivins, the U.S. Army researcher who committed suicide last month as investigators zeroed in on him as the main suspect in the fall 2001 attacks, advised the FBI during its development of a standardized procedure for specimen collection. "Dr. Ivins was an adviser on the repository process," FBI laboratory director Dr. Chris Hassell told reporters today at FBI headquarters.
Investigators codified the protocol in a subpoena sent to scientists around the globe, which ordered them to submit anthrax samples to the FBI as it built a repository as part of the investigation.
During the course of the investigation, the FBI collected more than 1,000 samples of the Ames strain anthrax, which was used in the attacks. Eight of the samples, all originating from two U.S. labs, matched the genetic markers consistent with the anthrax that was used in the 2001 attacks.
In 2002, the FBI collected samples of anthrax that Ivins had in his possession at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md.
In December 2003 and April 2004, the FBI identified more anthrax samples in Ivins' possession, which he provided. The FBI also seized a flask of anthrax identified as RMR-1029, which was used by scientists at the medical research institute.
As the FBI constructed a genetic fingerprint of the anthrax used in the attacks, investigators found that the second set of samples Ivins provided to the bureau had none of those genetic markers, but that the sample called RMR-1029 matched the four key genetic markers.
But because the FBI had previously determined that they might not be able to admit the Ivins anthrax samples in court because they were prepared differently than the more than 1,000 other samples received, the FBI had them destroyed.
Dr. Vahid Majidi, the assistant director of the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, said, "Looking at it in hindsight, we would have done some things differently."
Despite the FBI's decision to destroy the sample, Dr. Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University, who was assisting with the FBI's repository of the Ames strain, had a sample of Ivins' original submissions to the FBI. That initial 2002 sample had tested positive for the genetic markers of the anthrax used in the attacks.
"There was no way to determine this at the time because the genetics were not online," Hassell said of the FBI's decision to destroy Ivins' initial sample.
During the seven-year investigation, FBI and scientific experts honed the science of microbial forensics, examining genetic fingerprints of the anthrax used in the attacks and that of the samples in the repository. With the technological advances, the FBI was able to focus on the medical research institute and Ivins.
Despite Ivins' advising the FBI on how to collect anthrax samples and the proper protocols that were needed, when he initially submitted a sample in 2002, he failed to follow the procedures he had developed. From the pool of researchers and scientists who submitted the anthrax samples, Ivins "was the only one to not follow protocol," Hassell said.
The scientists noted that the anthrax used in the attacks had no additives on the anthrax spores, but that the mineral silica was present in the deadly substance.
Although the FBI was able to reverse-engineer anthrax similar to the anthrax used in the mailings, scientists have been unable to reproduce it with the silica.
The FBI has yet to reveal the remaining mysteries of the forensic investigation, and some elements of the case might never be known. Asked how some of the victims contracted anthrax despite no letters being found, Majidi said, "Some are truly unknown to us. We never found the Florida letter" used in the attack that killed a photo editor at American Media Inc. in Boca Raton.
The briefing today by FBI scientists and outside experts who assisted the bureau noted that more scientific information will be released in peer-reviewed journals.
Despite some of the new information,. Majidi said that conspiracy theories will always be connected with the case.
"[We are] not going to put the suspicions to rest, there will always be a spore on the grassy knoll."