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Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Anthrax again

So the government released its evidence against Bruce Ivins today. If the evidence is what they say it is, it seems convincing that he is a conspirator in this crime. Whether he had any co-conspirators is less obvious, although as I (and mostly Glen Greenwald) wrote the other day, it seems certain that he had implicit post-facto co-conspirators, i.e, people who did their best to throw suspicion on Muslim terrorists in order to help whip up public sentiment for a war.

I'd just like to share a few random thoughts. During the press conference today, the FBI asserted that it had focused on the Fort Detrick lab in 2005, and on Ivins in 2007. Are you kidding me? Maybe they meant those dates to mean that's when they had conclusive proof that that was the source (they had to wait for new DNA tests to be perfected to firmly pin down the anthrax source), but on first principles, surely they should have known that Fort Detrick was a prime suspect from day one. There are only a handful of labs in the world which handle anthrax. And, since the letters were mailed from Princeton, N.J. it had to be highly probable that the source was within driving distance of Princeton. I mean, if you had some kind of, say, blackmail letter, you could mail it to a co-conspirator in Alaska and ask them to post it from there. But you could hardly do that with an anthrax-filled letter without risking the life of your co-conspirator and contaminating postal facilities from your own city all the way to Alaska.

Now the FBI asserts that Ivins was known to be "unstable," whatever that means. He was also one of the primary Anthrax researchers at Fort Detrick. Surely, if they're telling the truth about his instability, he would have been a prime suspect from day one (and of course one might wonder why an "unstable" person was allowed to work with deadly diseases in the first place). Then we have the question of his hours. The claim now is that the lab records show that he was uncharacteristically working late on the nights before the letters were mailed, and couldn't explain why. So, why are they just getting around to this in 2008? Were these lab records not available in October, 2001? Look, I know murder mysteries all can't be wrapped up in an hour like they are on TV, but seven years to come up with some basic evidence like that?

One strange piece of "evidence" was that Ivins was the lab expert on the lyophilizer, with the implication that only he could have used that item which was used to prepare the dried anthrax powder. "Lyophilizing" is just a fancy word for "freeze-drying", a technique involving vacuum-pumping on a frozen item to remove the water. I've used a lyophilizer, and believe me, you could learn how to use one in about two minutes. No doubt Fort Detrick had a fancy one, probably equipped to handle deadly materials, but honestly, it still couldn't be very complicated to use, and the fact that they had to dredge up such a flimsy piece of "evidence" does make me wonder.

The second very strange piece of "evidence" was one which they didn't elaborate on, and, from what I heard, none of the reporters thought to question. That is the claim that Ivins had a "habit" of mailing packages from distant mailboxes using pseudonyms. Whaaaaat? What were these packages, to whom were the mailed, and when did they learn about this "habit"?

It might sound like I'm skeptical. As I said, I'm actually not that skeptical about Ivins, because a U.S. government lab was always the most likely source, and a principle scientist in the field had to have been a prime suspect. A random person (e.g., a CIA agent), even a random scientist, doesn't just walk into the anthrax lab, even if they could sneak in in the dead of night, and start dealing with a deadly substance like anthrax. I'm far more skeptical of the FBI, both as to its competence, and to the pressure which may have kept them from solving the case quickly (for fear of making clear that Muslim terrorists had nothing whatsoever to do with it). And, who knows, one can even speculate that now they're being pressured to wrap the case up before a new Administration comes in and tries to expand the case to find out if Ivins in fact did not act alone.


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