Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Innocent Explanation for Ivins' "False Anthrax Sample"

Short Facts

The FBI and most of the media continue to claim that Dr. Bruce Ivins submitted false anthrax samples designed to mislead investigators -- therefore, this goes to show that Ivins must be guilty of mailing the anthrax letters. If true, this would be fairly strong, although circumstantial, piece of evidence. If untrue, I think we can reasonably accuse the FBI of trying to mislead us.

In February 2002 the FBI asked for anthrax samples from flask RMR-1029 in Bruce Ivins' lab. Ivins provided two; one went to the FBI (they subsequently destroyed it) and the backup sample went to scientist Paul Keim in New Mexico. These samples were smears, or a representation of the entire set of cultures in the flask. After destroying the first sample, the FBI asked Ivins for another sample, which he provided early in April. The instructions were given verbally, and the subpoena with written details on the required protocol was not delivered until May 2002, a month or more later. The sample Ivins provided this (second) time was a pure culture sample instead of a smear. Remember, he had already provided a smear.

The FBI now says the first sample was prepared in such a way that it would make for poor evidence in court, and that is why they threw it away. (Is this believable?) The FBI also now says the second sample was false, that is, not from the RMR-1029 flask, because it did not contain the newly discovered genetic markers unique to the anthrax used in the attacks. (Are all the king's horses and all the king's men unable to distinguish a smear culture from a pure culture? Apparently so. Otherwise, at the time, they would have asked Ivins for another specimen or gone and gotten a replacement smear culture sample themselves.)

The second sample was a pure sample cultured from the dominant strain in this flask of mixed cultures. Of course it didn't match the initial sample precisely. Years later, the FBI remembered there was a backup of the original sample provided by Ivins, and they retrieved it from Keim. Surprise, surprise, it had the newly-significant genetic markers. It was exactly what Ivins had given them in the first place.

Do I need to point out how ridiculous this "proof of guilt" is? It looks to me like Dr. Bruce Ivins was doing his best to help the FBI, when it was the FBI itself who trashed his first sample and miscommunicated what they wanted for the second sample. So, who is really misleading who? (Related documentation with links below.)

FBI Supports Request for Search Warrant (pdf)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service investigation ... has led to the identification of Dr. Bruce Edward Ivins... as a person necessitating further investigation for several reasons: ... (4) Ivins is believed to have submitted false samples of anthrax from his lab to the FBI for forensic analysis in order to mislead investigators...

USA Today Still Headlines False Sample Story

Ivins submitted a second sample in April — one that court papers say was intended to mislead investigators. That sample did not contain the specific genetic markers of the anthrax used in the attacks.

LA Times Repeats False Sample Claim

Ivins, recruited to assist the FBI, had failed in February 2002 to provide an anthrax sample, known as RMR-1029, as requested by a bureau agent. The FBI did not obtain the RMR-1029 from within the Ft. Detrick laboratory complex where Ivins worked until two years later, when an agent took possession of a flask holding that material.

NPR Repeats, Then Questions Claim

(4) Ivins is believed to have submitted false samples of anthrax from his lab to the FBI for forensic analysis in order to mislead investigators;

That is a far cry from the picture Justice Department officials painted Wednesday. They say Ivins not only dodged their inquiries, but also tried to outright "mislead" investigators. They say Ivins submitted false anthrax samples from his lab to throw off investigators.

In one instance, the documents say, investigators asked Ivins for a specific sample of anthrax they needed. Ivins gave a sample, but when they went to the lab themselves and took the sample, it did not match what Ivins had given them. When they confronted Ivins, the documents say, he denied it was true.

Kemp says when investigators asked Ivins for an anthrax sample, he thought they were asking for a pure culture sample. It wasn't until six weeks later that they called and said they had wanted something else.

Christian Science Monitor Buys FBI Story

Yet the FBI had requested a sample from a flask of anthrax spores which Ivins held as early as 2002. In April 2004, after discovering that the samples Ivins submitted in fact had not come from the requested flask, RMR-1029, an FBI agent accompanied Ivins into a biocontainment suite at Fort Detrick to seize the flask.

Daily Princetonian Attempts to Counter

The documents allege that Ivins sought to mislead investigators, claiming the anthrax used in the attacks was different from the batch maintained in his laboratory and giving them false samples of anthrax from his laboratory. They also say Ivins had mental health issues and sent a suspicious e-mail a few days before the anthrax attacks with similar wording to the laced letters.

But Kemp said it is actually government officials who are making misleading statements and failing to mention that Ivins passed two polygraph tests in 2002.

"He submitted proper samples in February," he said. "The government lost one, and the other was sent to a lab in New Mexico, and the government can trace it right back to his lab."

NPR Conducts In-Depth Interview With Ivins' Attorney

NPR: One of the things that came out of this idea that they can link the spore sample exactly to Ivins was that he also misled the FBI. There was this big thing in Wednesday's press conference about how they had asked for a sample from him, and that when they went out themselves and took the sample, that in fact it was different from what Ivins had given them.

Kemp: So many problems with that statement. It's hard to know where to begin. No. 1, I'll try and be organized in this, he provided a sample in 2002, the month of February of 2002. He provided it in a way that he thought matched their directions that at that point were orally given.

There really were, I believe, two different vials or preparations, slides, I think they're called, and he did it in a way that ultimately matches their written protocol for the preparation of these slides. One of them is delivered to the government, and they either lose it or destroy it. The second one is sent to a well-known scientist, somebody on a caliber with Dr. Ivins, in terms of this kind of thing. Paul Keim is his name, now at the Northern Arizona State University, at that point from the University of New Mexico. And he has it, maintains it. It's available for analysis, and when the government loses their slide or destroys it, they do go to the slide that Dr. Keim has, and are able to make the analysis from that.

So, that's the story, as to the February one. Not only did he not falsify the submission of samples, this is a government screw-up, for the February sample.

In the April sample, here's what they contend is wrong. They contend that the nature of the slide he prepared was improperly taken from RMR-1029, that they wanted him to prepare a smear sample of the entire set of cultures in the beaker. What they say he submitted is what's called a "pure culture" sample. And to understand that, you have to know what these things look like.

If you examine grossly, meaning with the naked eye, the anthrax that is prepared in a petri dish, an open glass petri dish, you might extract some of this stuff from the beaker — you can't really work with the beaker because it has a narrow top — so you take it out and put it in a wide petri dish and you let it grow in an agar substance.

And it ferments and grows upon itself. There will be little globules of anthrax in a harmless form, it's like wet oatmeal or something like that, and you can dip down and take each globule, or a representative set of globules — that's called taking a "pure culture" sample.

What they wanted him to do with that open petri dish was to take a smear across them all. And that's what he did the first time. He submitted a smear sample, it was properly done.

The second time, he did the pure culture sample and sent it in. That should have been readily apparent to them, as soon as it was received. They don't get to it for a long time. RMR-1029 was there. It has never been adulterated. It has never been tampered with. Why didn't they go back and say, "You took a pure culture sample, can you take a smear sample?" Why didn't they go back and take a smear sample themselves? So that's a long-winded way to the first point.

Second point, he's polygraphed twice, during the same year. They ask him, you know, "Have you told us all you know about this? Are you hiding any evidence?" as part of these normal polygraphs, but also that are directed by the investigators here.

They now discount the reliability of his passing in the polygraphs because it was conducted by the Defense Department, not by the Justice Department. And so we're left with this disparagement of the Defense Department, the same way Mr. Taylor disparaged the Defense Department yesterday during his news conference, saying, in a backhanded way, "Well, that's a matter for the Defense Department," namely, why was he allowed to continue working at the lab, with full access to these pathogens, right up to the end of the investigation?

NPR: So in your mind, this idea that the FBI came to him and said, "We need this specific sample," and that it was some kind of test and that he sent in something different, it just has no credence?

Kemp: It is unbelievable to me that in, I guess the second-highest-profile case going on at the time, the first highest-profile case being the Sept. 11 attacks, in this time frame, that they wouldn't go take the sample themselves or direct him to do it while one of their agents watch him.

The final point, the biggest point: He doesn't get the written protocol as to how to submit the samples until May 24 of 2002. The sample was submitted at their direction on April 10 of 2002. They'll say, in defense of that screw-up, that he was present at a meeting at which they think it was discussed, that, "We want you to take smear samples."

That to me is inconceivable. It's part of an investigation of a case of this significance. All of that is beside the point. He'd already submitted a proper sample at the beginning of February, I forget the exact date, in February of 2002. And they lost the slide, or destroyed it. I don't know which. But [U.S. Attorney Ken] Kohl can tell you.