WASHINGTON — The FBI is declining to release at least 15,000 pages of documents related to the now-deceased prime suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks despite lingering suspicions that the bureau has accused the wrong man.
In August, the FBI and Justice Department identified Bruce Ivins, a former microbiologist at the U.S. Army’s biological weapons research center at Ft. Detrick, Md., as the “only person involved” in the attacks that killed five people.
But David Hardy, the section chief of the FBI’s records management division, notified McClatchy Newspapers that his office couldn’t immediately release the records because there were “investigative leads still open” and the FBI needed to withhold the documents to protect confidential sources, privacy, law enforcement techniques and a suspect’s right to a fair trial.
McClatchy had filed a request for the documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act, which generally permits the release of records of a dead person. Ivins committed suicide in July.
In a letter received by McClatchy today, Hardy said the FBI has identified a “significant number” of documents related to Ivins that haven’t been released and is still searching for other relevant records.
The investigation, known as Amerithrax, isn’t officially closed. But when it is, Hardy said, the FBI will release documents on a “rolling basis as soon as practicable.” So far, the FBI has received eight requests for records related to Ivins.
“Although the FBI cannot predict with absolute certainty when the Amerithrax investigation will be formally closed, we can assure you that the FBI has already begun to make initial preparations,” he said.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said she wasn’t surprised by the decision because open records exemptions give the FBI broad latitude to cite the need to protect law enforcement efforts.
“There’s virtually no chance of getting FBI records in this case until they decide to close it,” she said. “This is a situation where it’s probably going to be years before we figure out what they’ve got.”
David Schulz, an attorney who’s represented media in open records lawsuits, agreed the bureau had that prerogative under the law, but said it seemed “a bit of a stretch” for them to be invoking that exemption because they have publicly stated they have solved the crime.
The Justice Department has released hundreds of pages of court records and detailed a trail of circumstantial evidence against Ivins, including his access to anthrax with genetic mutations that matched the DNA of the spores that were mailed in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
The government identified Ivins as the sole culprit a week after his suicide and a month after the government paid another former Ft. Detrick scientist almost $6 million for wrongly implicating him for years.
However, some experts have continued to question the bureau’s evidence, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., whose office received some of the anthrax-laced letters, recently said he did not believe Ivins acted alone.
In an attempt to bolster confidence in the bureau’s handling of the case, FBI Director Robert Mueller said recently that a panel of independent scientists would review the FBI’s DNA analysis of the anthrax spores.
Given widespread skepticism, open records advocates said the FBI should move more quickly to release additional records.
“The FBI is asking us to trust them that they got the person responsible, but they’re not releasing all the evidence that would reassure us that this is the case,” said Jane Kirtley, an open records expert at the University of Minnesota. “I would argue that as a matter of policy they should be releasing much more to make their case.”