THE MAILED anthrax spores that killed five people in 2001 provoked fears of bio-warfare by overseas terrorists, particularly since the attacks came on the heels of Sept. 11. The FBI investigation that followed was one of the most intensive ever, finally concluding that a microbiologist at the Army’s laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md., Bruce Ivins, mailed the anthrax. Ivins committed suicide, so prosecutors will never get the chance to prove the FBI’s case in court. But a National Academy of Sciences panel reviewed the scientific analysis used by the FBI to link the mailed anthrax to a sample in Ivins’s lab. And it was convincing enough. Barring a shocking new development, the anthrax case should be considered solved.
The panel’s report last week made no judgment about Ivins’s guilt or innocence. It examined only the scientific methods used in the FBI investigation. And while it found that the FBI’s genetic analysis of the anthrax “did not definitively demonstrate’’ that the mailed anthrax came from Ivins’s stock, it declared that the analysis was “consistent with and supports an association’’ of the spores in the fatal letters with those controlled by Ivins. In other words, the evidence gathered by the FBI is persuasive, and perhaps conclusive, even if it does not equal scientific certainty.
Nonetheless, the FBI’s flawed pursuit of another scientist before targeting Ivins, combined with the conclusion that the link to Ivins’s lab was not completely definitive, suggests that the case will be fodder for endless conspiracy theories. It would be truly unfortunate if those theories led people to fear that overseas terrorists still possess deadly spores and are preparing for another attack. That’s highly unlikely. Scientific clues as well as circumstantial evidence gathered in the FBI investigation point toward a lone perpetrator — almost certainly Ivins — and away from Al Qaeda.