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FBI: Ivins held identical anthrax strain

The scientist was the sole custodian of anthrax spores genetically identical to the powder used in 2001 attacks, say documents unsealed Wednesday.

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This new law enforcement tool received a large push from FBI efforts to solve the 2001 anthrax case. The government's years-long probe into the attacks has cost millions of dollars and been criticized both for its slow speed and for pointing wrongly toward another Ft. Detrick scientist, Steven Hatfill.

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Hatfill was publicly named as a "person of interest" in the case, but has since won a judgemnt for millions of dollars from the government for false accusation.

The FBI now believes it has cracked the case with the aid of microbial forensics. But whether the genetic evidence would have stood up in a court of law will not now be tested.

"Microbial forensics has yet to be rigorously challenged in an adversarial setting," said Dr. Randall Murch, a former FBI agent and microbial forensic expert, at a January symposium on the subject sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

According to an affidavit, when the FBI first asked Ivins in 2002 for samples of anthrax drawn from RMR-1029, he submitted material drawn from other sources.

On the afternoon of April 7, 2004, an FBI agent accompanied Ivins into the Suite B3 and seized the RMR-1029 flask itself.

The documents contain some hints as to why the targets of anthrax letters might have chosen. They note, for instance, that Ivins was angry that an NBC television investigative reporter had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for certain information from his lab.

Tom Brokaw of NBC was among the letter recipients.

The envelopes used in the attacks could have been sold only at post offices in Maryland or Virginia, according to the FBI. The documents allege that from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, Ivins sent hundreds of handwritten or typed letters to various members of society, including news organizations and US Senators.

Sen. Pat Leahy (D) of Vermont and former majority leader Sen. Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota also received anthrax-laced letters in 2001.