Anthrax Case Against Ivins Wasn’t a Slam Dunk

When the FBI publicly branded the late Dr. Bruce Ivins as the anthrax killer, it unsealed court affidavits suggesting a possible motive for the mailing to one target: NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. According to the affidavits, Ivins was angry about repeated Freedom of Information Act requests from Gary Matsumoto, identified as "an investigative journalist who worked for NBC News" who was looking into Ivins's work on an anthrax vaccine. "Tell Matsumoto to kiss my ass," the affidavit says Ivins wrote in an Aug. 28, 2001, e-mail, noting that was "weeks" before the Sept. 18, 2001, anthrax mailing addressed to Brokaw. But Matsumoto told NEWSWEEK the FBI never interviewed him as part of its investigation. If it had, he says, he could have told them he'd actually left NBC News five years earlier. At the time he was bombarding Ivins's lab with FOIA requests, he was employed by ABC. "They're trying to connect dots that don't connect," he said.

Justice Department official Dean Boyd said "there was no mistake in the affidavit" because Matsumoto had been employed by NBC in the past and Ivins told investigators he "believed" he still worked there. Still, the reference is one of a number of seemingly misleading passages, gaps and omissions that are raising questions about just how airtight the government's case against Ivins actually is. At a press conference last week, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jeffrey Taylor said Justice officials were "confident" that Ivins, who committed suicide last month, was "the only person responsible for these attacks." Among the FBI's evidence: new scientific tests that officials said traced the genetic material from the anthrax used in the deadly mailings to a flask in Ivins's lab at the U.S. Army's research facility at Fort Detrick, Md. But many of Ivins's former colleagues are unconvinced, noting unanswered questions about the FBI's scientific tests, most of which have not been peer-reviewed, as well as the lack of direct evidence showing Ivins actually mailed the fatal letters. Despite repeated searches, for instance, the FBI could not find any trace of the deadly anthrax in Ivins's home, cars or clothing. "I'd say the vast majority of people [at Fort Detrick] think he had nothing to do with it," said Jeffrey Adamovicz, who served as one of Ivins's supervisors in the facility's bacteriology division.

Paul Kemp, Ivins's lawyer, said some of what's presented in the unsealed affidavits are "speculative" theories that would never be admissible in court. An example: that Ivins might have sent anthrax letters to pro-choice Sens. Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle, because Ivins and his wife were anti-abortion. "I don't know what that has to do with anything," Kemp said. What's more, Kemp said, the FBI omitted evidence that might have been exculpatory, including that Ivins kept his security clearance after passing a polygraph in which he was questioned about the anthrax investigation. "He was told he had passed [the polygraph] because we thought he did," said Justice official Boyd. But after the FBI learned of Ivins's history of psychological problems, it had experts re-examine the results, and they concluded he'd used "countermeasures" such as controlled breathing to fool the examiners. All that and more is now likely to be reviewed by Congress. "There are clearly a lot of unanswered questions," said Iowa GOP Sen. Charles Grassley, who asked for a full probe.

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