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By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/19/2011 6:02:57 PM ET 2011-07-19T22:02:57

Red-faced Justice Department lawyers backtracked Tuesday on statements they made that undercut the FBI's findings about who committed the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks.

The FBI concluded well over a year ago that Ivins, a civilian scientist at the U.S. Army's biohazard lab in Maryland, was responsible for the deadly mailings. But last week, Justice Department lawyers argued in a civil case in Florida that the Army lab where Dr. Bruce Ivins worked did not have the materials and equipment to prepare the fine powder of spores that was sent in the letters.

The statements came in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the widow of Robert Stevens, a photo editor in Florida considered the first victim of the anthrax mailings. She claimed the federal government was negligent in failing to prevent the attacks, given that they were carried out using raw anthrax material prepared by the Army for research.

Image: Bruce Ivins
USAMRIID via Reuters
Bruce Ivins in 2003.

In its zeal to defend the government, Justice Department lawyers made several statements in last week's court filings that appeared to undercut the FBI's own conclusions about Ivins. The attacker would have needed more liquid anthrax than Ivins had in his lab, they said, and the Army facility "did not have the specialized equipment in a containment laboratory that would be required to prepare the dried spore preparations that were used in the letters."

But Tuesday, the lawyers amended their original filing, listing 11 separate errors, in an apparent effort to backtrack on any impression that Ivins wasn't responsible for the letters.

"The Justice Department and FBI have never wavered from the view that Dr. Ivins mailed the anthrax letters. The Justice Department and FBI stand behind their findings that Dr. Ivins had the necessary equipment," said Dean Boyd, a department spokesman.

In fact, Boyd said, one of the pieces of equipment that could be used to prepare the anthrax spores, stationed in a containment area near his lab, was ordered by Dr. Ivins and bore this label: "Property of Bruce Ivins."

"We are confident that we would have proven his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at a criminal trial, and maintain in the civil suit that the evidence of his guilt meets the lesser civil standard that it is "more likely than not" that Dr. Ivins mailed the anthrax attack letters," Boyd said.

Nonetheless, the court documents were seized by skeptics who have consistently doubted the FBI's conclusions about Ivins.

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Video: Feds close case in 2001 anthrax attacks

  1. Closed captioning of: Feds close case in 2001 anthrax attacks

    >> from florida tonight. thanks.

    >>> it's been over eight years since a terrorist started sending anthrax through the mail in the united states . it happened in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. our country was still hurting and offbalance and it was an awful time. some of the anthrax was sent to nbc news, some to the "new york post." tonight the fbi is revealing new details about its investigation as it closes the book on this case. our own pete williams with us with that from our washington newsroom tonight. pete, good evening.

    >> reporter: brian, formally shutting this investigation down, the fbi explained in riveting new detail what it did and why agents concluded that an army micro biologist named bruce ivans carried out the mailings attacks. the attacks alarmed the nation and baffled the fbi . who mailed the letters sent to two newspapers, two u.s. senators and nbc's tom brokaw , containing anthrax spores so potent that they killed five people and sickened 17 others? identifying the type of anthrax helped only a little. the fbi disclosed that agents actually scrutinized more than 1,000 scientists and lab workers once considered suspects. the breakthrough came six years into the investigation at a u.s. army laboratory in maryland. a new form of genetic testing created for this case revealed that the spores came from a single lab there, and in fact, from this very flask of highly-purified anthrax, created and maintained by dr. bruce ivins , and army anthrax specialist. his after-hours use of the lab spiked in september and october 2001 , just before each of the anthrax mailings. the letters were placed in a mail box in princeton, new jersey, near the office of a sorority kappa kappa gamma that they say he had a 40-year obsession. agents believe the letter sent to tom brokaw and "the new york post" contained a hidden code. in both, nine "a" and t" were highlighted. when combined in sequence as they appear in the anthrax letters , they stand for chemicals whose common appreciations are p-a-t. pat was the name of a colleague of ivins , someone they say he was obsessed with. a week after agents first searched his house, he threw out a book about codes that discussed using bolded letters to embed messages. the document says he stayed up the night his garbage was to be collected and at 1:00 a.m . came out in his long underwear, making sure the trash, including the book about codes was hauled away.

    >> the evidence in the case amassed in the course of this exhaustive investigation points to him and him only.

    >> reporter: as for motive, the fbi says the anthrax vaccine program he devoted his life to was failing, blamed for causing illness in veterans of the first gulf war . after the mailings, the program was rejuvenated. as the government prepared to charge ivins two years ago he committed suicide. his lawyer insisted the only way to determine guilt is through a trial, and that ivins would have been found not guilty, brian.

    >> what an unbelievable story, unbelievable investigation. pete williams with the story for us from washington tonight. pete, thanks.

    >>> now we move to the

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