The anthrax letters

The latest report on the anthrax letters of 2001 comes down to this: "it is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion" about the origin of the letters, based on the science alone. That’s the thrust of a report by a panel of experts of the National Research Council. They raise some fresh doubt about ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The latest report on the anthrax letters of 2001 comes down to this: "it is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion" about the origin of the letters, based on the science alone. That's the thrust of a report by a panel of experts of the National Research Council.

They raise some fresh doubt about the firmness of the FBI's conclusions linking the anthrax spores in the letters to a flask in the laboratory of Bruce Ivins, the U.S. military researcher whom the U.S. government blamed for sending the letters. The panel says they did not review the entirely of the massive law-enforcement investigation into the letters -- only the science -- and thus reached no new conclusion about whether Ivins was the perpetrator. Ivins committed suicide in 2008.

But the new report offers a potent reminder about bioterrorism: pathogens leave few fingerprints. You can figure out the identity of the organism, but it is a lot harder to determine where it came from or why. The contaminated letters in 2001 resulted in five deaths and sickened at least 17 others. The subsequent probe by the FBI and others involved many years of interviews, evidence gathering and laboratory work, yet, nearly a decade later, is still not conclusive.

The latest report on the anthrax letters of 2001 comes down to this: "it is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion" about the origin of the letters, based on the science alone. That’s the thrust of a report by a panel of experts of the National Research Council.

They raise some fresh doubt about the firmness of the FBI’s conclusions linking the anthrax spores in the letters to a flask in the laboratory of Bruce Ivins, the U.S. military researcher whom the U.S. government blamed for sending the letters. The panel says they did not review the entirely of the massive law-enforcement investigation into the letters — only the science — and thus reached no new conclusion about whether Ivins was the perpetrator. Ivins committed suicide in 2008.

But the new report offers a potent reminder about bioterrorism: pathogens leave few fingerprints. You can figure out the identity of the organism, but it is a lot harder to determine where it came from or why. The contaminated letters in 2001 resulted in five deaths and sickened at least 17 others. The subsequent probe by the FBI and others involved many years of interviews, evidence gathering and laboratory work, yet, nearly a decade later, is still not conclusive.

In any future biological attack, it could be difficult if not impossible to identify the perpetrator. There is always a sense of chaos in any emergency, and helping the victims will be first priority; preparation is critical. But it makes sense to prepare for the forensics, too. A decade ago, there was not a clear scientific plan to guide the gumshoes. The new report suggests that the government create a science go-team, always on standby with the proper clearances, ready to swing into action alongside the detective work. Not a bad idea.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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