In 2001, anthrax spores found in letters mailed across the country were responsible for killing five people and sickening 17 others, shutting down the U.S. Postal Service in certain areas and alarming Americans.
A panel of scientists, led by Lehigh President Alice P. Gast, was charged with reviewing the scientific evidence related to the FBI investigation of the anthrax letters. The panelâ€™s report found that it is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion about the origins of the anthrax in letters based on the science alone.
â€œWe find the scientific evidence to be consistent with their conclusions but not as definitive as stated,â€ Gast said during a news conference in Washington, D.C. She emphasized that this case rests on the complex interface between science and the law enforcement investigation. The panel, after reviewing 9,600 pages of material, could not rule out that there were other sources of the anthrax spores.
In 2008, the FBI asked the National Research Council to appoint a panel to conduct an independent review of the scientific approaches, methodologies and analytical techniques used in its investigation and to determine whether the FBI reached appropriate scientific conclusions. Panelists whose expertise included microbiology, medicine, physical chemistry, biochemistry and forensic science were not asked to judge the law enforcement investigation. The FBIâ€™s investigation connected the letter materials to a flask in the lab of a researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID).
"We believe this independent review â€” done at the FBI’s request â€” will help strengthen the law enforcement and national security community’s scientific and analytical capabilities in future investigations," said Gast, who is also a member of the National Academy of Scienceâ€™s Committee on Science, Technology and Law. â€œThis was an opportunity to provide a really in-depth look at how science is performed in the context of a national emergency and in the context of a law enforcement investigation with many experts being worked with across the country.â€
Click here to view a webcast of the panelâ€™s findings.