Anthrax Redux: Did the Feds Nab the Wrong Guy?

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Illustration for WIRED by Goñi Montes

Noah Shachtman has an epic, 11,000 word piece in the current issue of Wired Magazine on the biggest case in FBI history. It's a long read, but an amazing one. Here's an intro to the story, from Noah:

For years, FBI agents insisted that they knew exactly who launched the anthrax attacks that killed five people and scared the living hell out of the county in the fall of 2001. Now, the Bureau is admitting for the first time that the case still has major holes.

Days after Army biodefense researcher Bruce Ivins committed suicide, the FBI declared that he was the one who mailed the lethal, spore-filled letters. The combination of ground-breaking science and circumstantial evidence damning Ivins was overwhelming, the Bureau insisted. Then the FBI ended this biggest investigation in its history: a nine-year, thousand-suspect manhunt to track down the anthrax killer.

But in an interview with WIRED, agent Edward Montooth, who headed up the anthrax investigation, acknowledges that he's still unsure of everything from Ivins' motivation to when Ivins brewed up the lethal concoction. "We still have a difficult time nailing down the time frame," Montooth says. "We don't know when he made or dried the spores."

And Montooth isn't alone. The scientists who developed the most convincing evidence against Ivins have even deeper reservations. Paul Keim, who identified the anthrax strain used in the attacks, now tells WIRED, "I don't know if Ivins sent the letters." Claire Fraser-Liggett, who used DNA sequencing to tie the killer spores to an anthrax flask in Ivins' possession, concedes that "there are still some holes."

It's been nearly a decade since the deadliest biological terror attack ever launched on U.S. soil. The manhunt that followed it ruined one scientist's reputation and saw a second driven to suicide. But an in-depth look at the anthrax investigation in this month's WIRED magazine shows that nagging problems remain. Despite the FBI's assurances, it's not at all certain that the government could have ever convicted Ivins of a crime.

Anthrax Redux: Did the Feds Nab the Wrong Guy? (wired.com)

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