Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Anthrax, the FBI, and Absolute Certainty

The 2001 anthrax attack - or attacks, since quite a few anthrax-loaded items were sent through the mail - is in the news again. Looks like it isn't absolutely, positively, totally possible to pinpoint exactly how anthrax got loose in the mail system: killing a number of people, making more ill, and scaring a fair fraction of the American population.

If this was a show inspired by the X-Files, there'd be at least one sinister conspiracy: and quite likely space aliens. If I was doing the writing, I might be tempted to have those shape-shifting, space-alien lizard men be the heavies.

But we're not in a television drama. This is the real world: and folks who commit heinous acts aren't always obliging enough to leave a clear trail of evidence. Preferably with written notes on what they did. And a confession recorded on video.

The FBI and Absolute Certainty

I've gotten the impression that there are folks who assume that anything FBI agents say is true. I've also gotten the impression that there are others who assume that everything FBI agents say isn't true.

I'm definitely not among the dreadfully earnest bunch who fear the FBI and CIA more than Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or Iran's ayatollahs. I also don't think every branch of the American government is staffed entirely by paragons of virtue and rectitude. I don't even think that everyone on the federal payroll is competent.

What I do think is that folks investigating the anthrax attacks probably discovered where the lethal microcritters came from - originally, at any rate. I also think there's a pretty good chance that the fellow they finally fingered, Dr. Bruce Ivins, actually was responsible for putting anthrax in the mail.

Too bad he (just happened?) to die as the FBI was about to take him in. That sort of thing makes for a rousing good thriller - in fiction. In situations like this, Dr. Ivin's inconvenient - or convenient - death adds more uncertainty to a high-profile terrorist attack.

Like I said, complete notes and a video confession would have been nice.

Fingering the Wrong Man - on Silly Evidence

Remember Steven Hatfill? He's the man that federal investigators tried to pin the anthrax attack on. Maybe that's putting it unfairly. On the other hand, as I wrote back in 2008:
"...The methodical, fact-based, reasoned approach that the FBI has been using lately is a welcome relief from the comic opera antics that led to Steven Hatfill being fingered as suspect number one. In large part, apparently, because he was seen in Charley's Place with a few of a Sultan's bodyguards.

"That Keystone Cops act was an unpleasant reminder of how law enforcement and the news media jumped on Richard Jewel with both feet, after the Olympic Park bombing...."
(September 17, 2008)

Conspiracy Theories, Anyone?

Space-alien lizard men aren't needed for a rousing good conspiracy theory. I could say that a cabal of Rosicrucians and Shriners joined forces with the Girl Scouts in a plot to make everybody wear funny hats. Their original plan was to spread anthrax in cookies - until someone pointed out how easily that'd lead back to the conspirators.

So they used subliminal messages imprinted on latte served in the DC area, to make FBI agents suspect first one innocent dupe and then another - and you get the idea.

The way I put it sounds silly. But I didn't bother to use emotional terms and muddle up the claims I was making.

I really do not think that the Girl Scouts is involved in the anthrax attacks, by the way. Or the Shriners, or Rosecrutians, by the way.

I'm even reasonably certain that Dr Ivins really is solely responsible for the attacks.

Or, maybe he was involved, along with others - who decided to drop that sort of attack after federal investigators worked their way around to Ivins.

Or, and I really do not think this is the case, the Girl Scouts, Shriners and Rosecrutians control the FBI, the CIA, and Turner Network Television. Now that would make a story.

Attention-Grabbing Headline, A Fair Amount of Explanation

From today's news:
"Panel Finds No Conclusive Evidence to Identify Source of 2001 Anthrax Attacks"
Catherine Herridge, State & Local, Politics, FoxNews.com (February 15, 2011)

"Despite the FBI's conclusion that an Army scientist sent anthrax letters sent to Congress and the media in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, a new report casts doubt on the bureau's findings.

"After a lengthy review, the National Research Council said the source of the anthrax powder could not be definitively identified.

"While evidence supports the FBI's contention that it came from Ft. Detrick, a U.S. Army installation outside Frederick, Md., a report by the NRC released Tuesday found that based on the science alone, no conclusion could be reached.

"The report is a significant blow to the FBI's long-standing case against Army scientist Bruce Ivins, who died of a suspicious Tylenol overdose in 2008..."

"...Among the findings by the congressionally chartered committee released Tuesday:

"* The FBI correctly identified the dominant organism found in the letters as the Ames strain of B. anthracis....
"* Spores in the mailed letters and in RMR-1029, a flask found at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), share a number of genetic similarities consistent with the FBI finding that the spores in the letters were derived from RMR-1029. However, the committee found that other possible explanations for the similarities -- such as independent, parallel evolution -- were not definitively explored during the investigation.
"* Flask RMR-1029, identified by the U.S. Department of Justice as the 'parent material' for the anthrax in the attack letters, was not the immediate source of spores used in the letters. As noted by the FBI, one or more derivative growth steps would have been required to produce the anthrax in the attack letters. Furthermore, the contents of the New York and Washington letters had different physical properties.
"* Although the FBI's scientific data provided leads as to the origin of anthrax spores in the letters, the committee found that the data did not rule out other possible sources. The committee recommended that realistic expectations and limitations regarding the use of forensic science need to be clearly communicated to the public...."
That article also lists some of the evidence the FBI sorted out, including:
  • 10,000 witness interviews
  • 80 searches
  • 26,000 e-mail reviews
  • Analyses of 4 million megabytes of computer memory
Bottom line? I think the least-unlikely explanation for how anthrax wound up in the U. S. mail is that Dr. Ivins put it there. I also think this is going to have folks coming up with imaginative alternatives for decades.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.