FBI - Federal Botching of the Ivins case

by dday

Anyone who was paying attention knew it was going this way:

Federal investigators probing the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks recovered samples of human hair from a mailbox in Princeton, N.J., but the strands did not match the lead suspect in the case, according to sources briefed on the probe.

FBI agents and U.S. Postal Service inspectors analyzed the data in an effort to place Fort Detrick, Md., scientist Bruce E. Ivins at the mailbox from which bacteria-laden letters were sent to Senate offices and media organizations, the sources said.

First of all, this gaping hole in the case, the lack of any physical evidence putting Ivins at the crime scene, has been obvious from the moment the FBI closed the case. In fact, they're STILL looking for additional evidence, which should tell you something about how secure they are in their determination that Ivins acted alone. They're basing the entire case on the remote belief that Ivins checked out of his lab with just enough time to spare to drive 4 hours to Princeton for pretty much no reason and mail the letters. Except the postmark on the letters reflects the day after it would according to the FBI's own timeline. (The FBI doesn't even talk about the other letters mailed; presumably they have no evidence tying Ivins to those locations, either). And now this - the hair samples don't match. That's really only one of the many questions remaining in the case. The FBI has checked Ivins's car, his house, his locker, and his safety deposit box and found no traces of anthrax spores. The evidence of the particular strain of anthrax could have been in the hands of up to 100 people, and anyway the DNA testing does not point to any individual. There is just nothing in what the FBI has presented that is in any way conclusive - in fact, more pieces point AWAY from Ivins than toward him. Meryl Nass has the definitive rundown of the Swiss cheese-sized holes in the case.

Congress is holding preliminary hearings, which is a start.

Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee announced it will call FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to appear at an oversight hearing Sept. 17, when he is likely to be asked about the strength of the government's case against Ivins. A spokeswoman for Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a vocal FBI critic, said he would demand more information about how authorities narrowed their search.

The House Judiciary panel, meanwhile, is negotiating to hold a separate oversight hearing in September with bureau officials, in a session that could mark the first public occasion in which Mueller faces questions about the FBI's handling of the anthrax case.

But it's not enough. The scope of any investigation must be broadened and it would be best if it occurred in the hands of an independent body with subpoena power charged with digging down to the truth. It must be said - if the FBI is not outright lying, they're certainly trying to cover up their years of mistakes and increasingly intimidating and bullying behavior as they sought a suspect on which to pin the attacks. This is what has become of accountability in Washington, and so a stand must be taken right here. It is unacceptable to let this pass. People died, others were sickened, and the tragedy was turned around and used to sow fear in the public and set us on a course toward unnecessary war. The attacks had a specific political and media target. It's not good enough for the puzzle to end without a full accounting.

This is especially unnerving because the FBI, the same entity that has consistently screwed up this case for half a dozen years, is about to get a whole bunch of new powers.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey confirmed plans Wednesday to loosen post-Watergate restrictions on the FBI's national security and criminal investigations, saying the changes were necessary to improve the bureau's ability to detect terrorists.

Mukasey said he expected criticism of the new rules because "they expressly authorize the FBI to engage in intelligence collection inside the United States." However, he said the criticism would be misplaced because the bureau has long had authority to do so [...]

In addition, agents assigned to national security investigations will be given more latitude to conduct surveillance based on a tip. Also, agents will be permitted to search more databases than allowed previously in criminal cases. As it stands now, agents who get a tip about a possible organized crime figure cannot use certain databases that they are allowed to access in national security cases, such as those containing information about state-issued drivers' licenses [...]

Michael German, a former veteran FBI agent who is now policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said if Mukasey moves ahead with the new rules as he describes them, he'll be weakening restrictions originally put in place after the Watergate scandal to rein in the FBI's domestic Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO. At the time, the FBI spied on American political leaders and organizations deemed to be subversive throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s.

If this anthrax case is a test case for how the FBI handles a sensitive domestic terrorism investigation, their powers shouldn't be increased, they should be removed, and the J. Edgar Hoover Building shuttered. Only a full investigation will lead to the proper and necessary rollback. This agency as it's currently constructed cannot be trusted to even keep a minimal standard of competency, let alone be trusted with any role in handling national security cases.