The findings, released just a month after the nation remembered the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, reopen discussion about the deadliest bioterrorism attack in the history of the United States — a case that, for a time, revolved around Princeton. The anthrax spores, placed in envelopes and mailed to news organizations and politicians, killed five people and sickened 17 in late 2001. The FBI released a report in early 2010 that laid out the evidence for their case that the anthrax attacks were carried out by Bruce Ivins, who worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
But the researchers, who will publish their findings in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Bioterrorism & Biodefense, write that the anthrax spores contained elements that indicate technical expertise beyond that of Ivins.
The team, comprised of international anthrax expert Martin Hugh-Jones, molecular biologist Barbara Hatch Rosenberg and chemist Stuart Jacobsen, claim that the particles of tin and silicone found in the anthrax spores are not random contaminants. Instead, they argue, the particles are indicators of the complex coating used in the mass production of pharmaceutical products.
Neither Ivins nor the Fort Detrick, Md., lab in which he worked had the equipment required for this process, according to the researchers. Under scrutiny from federal authorities, Ivins committed suicide in 2008. Ivins had denied involvement in the mailings.
The Department of Justice, which formally closed the anthrax investigation last year, has strongly disputed the researchers’ findings. In a statement, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd dismissed the scientists’ claims.
“Speculation regarding certain characteristics of the spores is just that — speculation,” he said. “We stand by our conclusion.”
In response to the DOJ statement, Hugh-Jones said in an email to The Daily Princetonian that he challenged the government to test his team’s hypothesis in a lab in order to take the discussion “out of the realm of lawyer talk of you said/we say nonsense.”
“The DOJ forgets that we are scientists and all ‘speculation’ are hypotheses which are subject to testing to see if they have any basis in hard fact,” he said. “I hope [the findings] will add to the pressure that the investigation be actively reopened.”
These recent findings come less than a year after the National Academy of Sciences issued a review that criticized the FBI’s scientific analysis of the anthrax spores.
New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt has also condemned the FBI’s handling of the investigation. A spokesperson for Holt referred questions about the latest anthrax finding to an editorial Holt wrote last month, in which he called for a commission, styled after the 9/11 commission, to investigate the mailings.
“Because of Ivins’ suicide, he will never be tried or convicted — yet the need remains for the public to know that the FBI has finally built a strong, credible case,” Holt wrote.
The anthrax investigation began to center on Princeton after federal investigators learned that the deadly letters passed through a Trenton mail processing center. Agents subsequently swabbed more than 600 mailboxes to determine the point of origin of the anthrax, according to FBI documents. The blue mailbox at 10 Nassau Street, across from the Rockefeller College Dining Hall, was found to be “heavily contaminated,” according to the FBI’s final report.
Authorities believe that Ivins made the more than three-hour drive from his Frederick, Md., home to mail the letters from Princeton.
“While this might seem like quite an undertaking to the average person, Dr. Ivins had a penchant for taking drives precisely like this, for mysterious, and even at times criminal, purposes,” the FBI said.
The FBI’s report also noted that “strong circumstantial links between Dr. Ivins and the mailbox in question were established,” such as the fact that the box was located down the street from the offices of the Princeton Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. Investigators said Ivins had a “self-described obsession” with the sorority.
They also noted that Ivins’ father, T. Randall Ivins ’28, had previously been a psychology concentrator at the University.