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Government lawyers backtrack on anthrax case

Red-faced Justice Department lawyers have backtracked on court filings that undercut the FBI's conclusion on who was responsible for deadly 2001 anthrax attacks.
/ Source: NBC News

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.

Bruce Ivins, seen in this photograph taken during an award ceremony at a Pentagon ceremony March 14, 2003 where Ivins was awarded the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service, which is equivalent to the Distinguished Service Medal for military service, took an overdose of painkillers and died on July 29, 2008 in an apparent suicide. Ivins, 62, who worked for the last 18 years at government biodefense research laboratories at Fort Detrick, Maryland, was close to being charged in connection with a series of deadly anthrax attacks in 2001, according to federal law enforcement officials. REUTERS/USAMRIID/Handout (UNITED STATES)X80001

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.