How Solid Is the Anthrax Evidence?

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A technician at the U.S. Army's Fort Detrick biomedical research lab in Maryland opens a letter suspected of containing anthrax and addressed to Senator Patrick Leahy in December 2001

While the FBI waits to formally release its evidence against Bruce E. Ivins, the microbiologist it claims to have linked to the anthrax mailings seven years ago, who killed himself on July 29, the public is getting a sneak peek — by way of federal leaks to the media. The leaks are piling up almost too fast to keep track of. Some seem damning, others perplexing, but the pause is creating a strange void — in which leaks are followed by rebuttals from Ivins' colleagues and his attorney (who steadfastly denies that his client had any role in the attacks) and then followed by more leaks. The result leaves neither Ivins nor the FBI looking good.

Most notably, unnamed federal officials are telling media outlets that the FBI used new DNA technology to link the anthrax that killed five people in 2001 to anthrax handled by Ivins in his federal lab. But scientists who knew Ivins — and some who didn't — tell TIME this is not a simple matter, technically speaking.

For one thing, a group of people have access to the anthrax at any given lab. "What you can do with all those forensic techniques is trace the anthrax to a lab, but you can't trace it to a person," says Meryl Nass, a Maine doctor who studies the anthrax vaccine and was a professional acquaintance of Ivins for more than 15 years. What's more, Nass adds, the link is not accurate with 100% certainty. "You can't convict someone with that evidence."

Moreover, it is hard to understand why the match could not simply be explained by the lab's prominent involvement in the federal investigation, notes Randall Larsen, a retired Air Force colonel and a senior associate at the Center for Biosecurity, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The FBI itself sent the anthrax letters to Ivins and his colleagues at the biodefense lab for analysis "almost immediately" following the attacks in 2001, confirms Caree Vander-Linden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, where Ivins worked. An FBI spokesperson referred TIME to the spokesperson for the FBI's Washington Field Office, who did not return a call requesting comment.

Part of the confusion comes from the fact that bioterrorism cases do not generally produce stellar forensic evidence. "The nature of biological weapons is such that it is very difficult to figure out where something came from," says Larsen, author of a 2008 book on homeland security titled Our Own Worst Enemy. "The FBI does a marvelous job with guns and bombs, but anthrax is extremely difficult."

In the face of this challenge, Ivins' lawyer says, the FBI stalked his client in pursuit of evidence he didn't have, driving him to drink and to depression. Ivins took at least two polygraph tests, says his attorney Paul Kemp, and apparently passed both of them. "That certainly was our impression," he says. "That's certainly what he was told."

Contrary to previous media reports, Kemp says his client had not been negotiating a plea agreement at the time of his death. Indeed, contrary to some suggestions in initial reports, the grand jury investigating the case was at least a few weeks from handing down any kind of indictment. Kemp and Ivins met with the FBI four or five times, beginning last December, after the bureau informed Ivins that "he could be a suspect," Kemp says. Most recently, Kemp says, he met with agents the day Ivins committed suicide, not knowing he was already dead.

Ivins was "totally responsive to every single question and never refused to answer," Kemp says. Over the past seven years, before he was a suspect in the case, Ivins had been interviewed 20 to 25 times in the case. He had cooperated fully and had his security clearances renewed, Kemp says.

Given that the government already had to pay a multimillion-dollar settlement for linking an innocent government scientist, Steven Hatfill, to the attacks, FBI officials are clearly worried about their reputation for bumbling the anthrax case and are eager to share what they know. But they are waiting to proceed publicly until a judge unseals the evidence in the Ivins case and all the victims and their families have been briefed on the details. More information may become public in the next couple of days. Amid all the leaks and whispers over this grim episode in a grim case, some hard information will be a welcome development.