FBI seeks delay in outside review of its anthrax probe

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 9, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The FBI has asked the National Academy of Sciences to delay the release of its review of the bureau's highly controversial, seven-year investigation into the deadly 2001 anthrax mail attacks that killed five people and panicked the nation.

A New Jersey congressman has called the request "disturbing" and asked the FBI for an explanation.

In a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller Thursday, Democratic Rep. Rush Holt said that it appears that the FBI "may be seeking to try to steer or otherwise pressure the NAS panel to reach a conclusion desired by the bureau."

Holt, a scientist and the chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, said the academy recently shared with the bureau its draft report on the "Amerithrax" investigation, a narrow scientific review that the FBI requested in 2008 in an effort to quell controversy over its findings that a disgruntled government scientist was behind the attacks.

"This week I was informed by the NAS that the FBI would be releasing an additional 500 pages of previously undisclosed investigative material from the Amerithrax investigation to the NAS," he wrote. Holt said he understands that the "document dump . . . is intended to contest and challenge the independent NAS panel's draft findings."

"If these new documents were relevant to the NAS' review, why were they previously undisclosed and withheld?" Holt wrote. He requested a meeting with the FBI director.

The FBI's chief spokesman, Michael Kortan, said in a brief statement that the bureau "continues to work with the National Academy of Sciences to support their ongoing review of the scientific approaches employed in the Amerithrax investigation."

The FBI inquiry was highly controversial because it concluded, based on circumstantial evidence, that Army researcher Bruce Ivins mailed the letters that killed five, sickened another 17, and paralyzed mail operations in businesses and government offices throughout the country, including the U.S. Capitol. Ivins committed suicide in 2008. No criminal charges were filed.

The bureau found that the letters were mailed in the fall of 2001 from a mailbox in Princeton, N.J., in Holt's congressional district, to two Democratic senators — Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who is no longer in office, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont — and to two media outlets in New York and Florida.

Holt noted that the FBI had "consistently botched and bungled this case from the beginning," a reference to its earlier focus on another former Army scientist, Steven Hatfill, who filed a suit accusing the bureau of falsely defaming him and won a $4.6 million settlement.

The bureau's scientific findings were based on genetic fingerprinting that concluded that the mailed anthrax matched lots in Ivins' laboratory at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md.

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