Why did the FBI allow the crucial evidence
of the Ames Collection to be destroyed?
The mystery began on the evening of October 12th, 2001,
when technicians with surgical masks at Iowa States
College of Veterinary Medicine destroyed the collection
of anthrax bacteria specimens that dated back to 1928.
They first sterilized the dried spores in a powerful
autoclave then burned them in an incinerator.
In carrying out this mission, they eradicated the trail
of the so-called Ames strain, which had been the type
of anthrax used in the attack on American Media in Florida,
NBC and NY Post in New York and Senators Daschle and
Leahy in Washington DC. The reason that the bacteria
leaves a trail is the minute copying errors it makes
when reproducing its DNA. These variations, through
DNA analysis, can be matched to different specimens
in the family tree, which have been sent to different
researchers. Consequently, the family tree
would have allowed investigators to pinpoint the variation
that most closely-matched the anthrax that had been
used in the attacks. But it was destroyed before it
could be used to locate the proximate source of the
Iowa State officials may have legitimately been concerned
about the liability of the facility. If the anthrax
used in the attacks could be held to have come from
its labs, it could be held responsible for any security
lapses. And security was a very real issue. The governor
already had ordered state troopers to guard the lab,
college under some pressure. Professor Jim Roth, the
assistant dean, explained: "We decided they were
more of a security risk now than we wanted to tolerate.
Iowa State then asked the Center for Disease Control
and the FBI if it was OK to destroy them.
When the CDC voiced no objections and the FBI replied
that it didn't need them for its investigation, the
officials proceeded with the cremation.
The CDC is not responsible for conducting criminal
investigations, but the FBI is. The FBI had already
opened up a criminal investigation of the anthrax attack.
It had also already determined that the attacker had
used the virulent Ames strain. So genetic evidence that
could lead to the precise source from which it came
certainly would be relevant to the investigation (and
possibly to a criminal trial that proceeded from it.)
In retrospect, such considerations makes the FBIs
lack of concern for the destruction of this genetic
evidence difficult to fathom. The most benevolent explanation
offered is that FBI investigators were so focused on
traditional surveillance and trying to follow
letters through the postal system that they neglected
the evidence contained in the bacteria itself.