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Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.

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The FBI on Trial

August 8, 2008. Shortly after it was announced that Steven Hatfill would be paid $5.8 million of our money for having his life ruined by the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI announced that it now knew who the real murderer was, but he wouldn't be going to trial either. The suspect had committed suicide. Case closed.

Obviously, Bruce Ivins couldn't face the humiliation of a trial and conviction in the face of overwhelming evidence. He took the easy way out and avoided being held in prison for years while waiting for his date with the executioner. Or did the FBI hound the man to his death because it didn't have a very good case? I don't know, but I do know that the FBI does not have a very good track record in recent years when it comes to investigating and prosecuting high profile crimes.

This is an agency that puts its faith in pseudoscientific gadgets like the polygraph (don't call it a lie detector) and pseudoscientific techniques like criminal profiling.

The FBI can't even be trusted with DNA testing. Remember FBI analyst, Jacqueline Blake who falsified statements about following protocol in over 100 DNA analysis reports? She dumped extraction blanks that "might have contained contaminating DNA before sending the samples through the computer-operated genetic analyzer that typed the DNA." Her misconduct "could have been detected by close examination of the electronic files produced by the genetic analyzer," but  no one checked. Hence, “Blake’s record of contamination-free testing for more than two years did not receive scrutiny.”* An FBI press release assured us that all is well with DNA testing. Yes, and we should be assured that there is nothing wrong with their labs that test fingerprints, bullets for lead, bomb squads, etc. It's not very reassuring when we all know what happens to whistleblowers like Frederic Whitehurst who go public about the abuse of forensic science by the FBI: they are not welcome, to put it mildly.

So, excuse me if I'm skeptical when the FBI says it has the goods on somebody. Remember Richard Jewell? Brandon Mayfield? Wen Ho Lee? Remember how these sleuths handled the Ted Kaczynski and the Cary Stayner cases?

The evidence against Bruce Ivins will never be subject to critical evaluation in court and I am not hopeful that the media will scrutinize the evidence released by the FBI. Journalism professor Ted Gup, however, is hopeful. Yesterday, he wrote in the Washington Post:

To their credit, in reporting the Ivins case, the media now appear somewhat chastened and more inquisitive than inquisitorial. It may well be that, absent a trial, it will fall to reporters to aggressively test the solidity of the case against Ivins. Perhaps they can restore a measure of credibility to their profession and to the government.

I don't think this can happen. After reading an article outlining the FBI's case against Ivins, I think that if the media is inquisitive and questioning of the evidence, the credibility of this government agency will decline even further. Gup notes that in the Jewell, Mayfield, and Lee cases "the news media were largely complicit, conveying incriminating details of the government's case as if they were the gospel." Have the media been chastened enough to be more critical this time around? Time will tell. It will take some courage, as well as some critical thinking. There's no real payoff for a journalist who goes after the FBI.

Did the FBI release their case to the media to assure us that they really can do their job? Come on. These crimes took place seven years ago. They already botched the job once. The article I read detailing why the FBI says Ivins killed five people with anthrax mail attacks was by Stephen Kiehl of the Baltimore Sun, reprinted in the Sacramento Bee yesterday, August 7. A quick look at Google News reveals that on August 5 Kiehl wrote a piece about doubts of survivors of the attacks and relatives of Ivins that the FBI is right. Today, Kiehl and Josh Mitchell wrote a piece called "Doubts persist on Ivin's guilt." So, at least one journalist is not joining the FBI team in the inquisition.

The evidence the FBI laid out makes a strong case that Ivins was a mentally ill person with a very unpleasant personality and many troubles, including alcoholism. He scared a lot of people, including the therapist who betrayed his confidence, perhaps believing she was serving her country in doing so. Despite his many mental and social problems, Ivins managed to work as a biochemist and run a lab where anthrax spores were studied. He had access to anthrax, which the FBI says it has DNA evidence was the same strain that was used to kill people several years ago. Who but a madman would do such a thing? How about a quiet madman who is not such an obvious suspect? The perfect crime is the one committed by the person nobody would suspect. Ivins and the ten other people in the lab who had access to the anthrax, which the FBI says its analysis shows is the same used in the murders, all would be aware that Ivins would be the prime suspect, given his history. I'm not saying Ivins did not commit this crime. I'm saying he may have been mentally ill, depressed, paranoid, bipolar, an alcoholic, and extremely unpleasant, but he was intelligent enough to get a degree in biochemistry and he was competent enough to run a very sensitive lab despite all his troubles. He may have threatened to kill people right and left, but who else in the lab quietly had the same thoughts? The one nobody would suspect. Is this person still at large? I don't know and neither does the FBI.

Other evidence presented by the FBI includes such things as he worked late into the night and he sent out an email in which he blamed Osama bin Laden, and wrote that bin Laden had decreed death to all Jews and all Americans. Some of the letters containing anthrax had the message "death to America...death to Israel." Case closed.

Circumstantial evidence can be very strong and much more reliable than eyewitness testimony or even a confession. In this case, however, the circumstantial evidence released so far would not be enough to convince me that Ivins is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I think any competent attorney would have been able to defend him successfully. Did the FBI hound him into committing suicide? I don't know, but the circumstantial evidence for that claim seems much stronger than the evidence that he is the anthrax killer.

further reading

NPR: Questions Remain After Death Of Anthrax Suspect

news stories

new Forensic Science System Needs Overhaul (With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, says the report from the National Research Council, "no forensic method has been rigorously shown able to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.")

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