The National Academy of Sciences and the FBI have agreed on the scope of the NAS' independent review of the science that the FBI used in its anthrax mailings investigation.
At a cost of nearly $880,000, it won't be cheap. But when it comes to the government spending taxpayer money, it would be difficult to find a more worthy project.
Bruce Ivins apparently committed suicide last July after discovering that he was about to be indicted in the infamous anthrax mailings that killed five people and sickened many others not long after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
After Ivins died, the FBI publicly identified him as its sole suspect in a case that it had been feverishly working on for nearly seven years. The FBI turned to Ivins after its earlier prime suspect, "person of interest" Steven Hatfill like Ivins, a researcher at Fort Detrick's USAMRIID was finally ruled out. Not before, however, Hatfill's career and reputation were left in tatters by the FBI's long, public investigation of him.
Some scientists appear to believe that the science the FBI employed in coming to its conclusion that Ivins was the true culprit is suspect. The NAS appears aimed at discovering if those concerns are valid. The NAS states that its review will evaluate, "the reliability of the principles and methods used by the FBI, and whether the principles and methods were applied appropriately to the facts." In other words, was the FBI's investigation credible, and did it reach appropriate conclusions based on the scientific techniques it used? The academy will examine esoteric issues involving genetic, chemical, dating and other studies the FBI used in formulating its belief that Ivins was its man.
The academy will not issue any finding of guilt or innocence regarding Ivins or anyone else. It will not examine the persuasiveness of the scientific evidence in regard to the investigation or any prosecution or litigation. It will simply examine whether the bureau's techniques were sound and its conclusions appropriate.
If the NAS puts its stamp of approval on the FBI's investigative techniques and conclusions, that will go a long way toward closing the book on this case. However, should the NAS determine that the FBI's techniques or conclusions were flawed, skepticism will remain regarding the bureau's characterization of Ivins as its "sole suspect."
If the NAS finds fault with the FBI's handling of the investigation, the case will remain open in many people's minds, including in the scientific community. It will also mean that the truth about Ivins' guilt or innocence will remain at question perhaps forever.
Barring a new revelation or another solid suspect surfacing, this review may provide the last, best answers the public will ever get on the anthrax mailings case. It remains to be seen whether the NAS' conclusions will ostensibly close the book on this story or result in it remaining open forever.