Was the late U.S. biodefense researcher Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide under the belief that he was about to be indicted, a diabolical killer responsible for several deaths immediately after 9/11?
The FBI claims he was, and has released its evidence, which unfortunately raises more doubts than it answers. Bonafide experts on anthrax and bioterrorism disagree as to whether the FBI really made its case, or if it had merely found another scapegoat.
The problems with the FBI's conclusions are obvious:
The evidence is entirely circumstantial, although criminal cases quite often are based on circumstantial evidence.
The FBI already blew this case once, wrongly pinning the blame on another Fort Detrick bioterrorism expert, Steven Hatfill, whose career was left in ruins. The FBI recently paid him $5.8 million to settle litigation over the agency's wrongful, yet Ahab-like pursuit.
There are some credible alternative theories to explain the anthrax attack, including the possibility of al-Qaida terrorism.
Ivins did not leave a suicide note, so it is impossible to tell whether he killed himself out of guilt or he was literally hounded to death.
The problem, in essence, is that while it is entirely possible that the FBI is correct in its assertions, at the same time there is more than reasonable doubt about the conduct of the investigation and its conclusions.
Naturally, several prominent members of Congress have stepped to the cameras to offer up a full-blown congressional investigation, which is likely to shed more headlines than substance on the matter. A technical evaluation of the evidence is beyond the capabilities of a merely political body. But it is essential to conduct an expert evaluation of the FBI's case, and that is an executive branch function.
The White House should designate a renowned laboratory to pursue two lines of investigation: One to confirm the FBI's case, and another to attempt to build a credible alternative theory - and do it as much in the open as national security considerations allow. (It would be bad to reveal, for the sake of oversight, technical detail on how to produce anthrax letters.) But above all, remove the matter from politics and let the real experts hash it out. The truth will reveal itself.