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Investigators: Anthrax Indictment Was Not Imminent

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Government investigators say they were still several major legal steps away from indicting Dr. Bruce Ivins as a suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks. Ivins is the army scientist who committed suicide last week.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston covers the FBI for NPR, and she joins me now in the studio. Dina, we've heard for days now that Ivins was just about to be indicted before he died. What have you learned?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the case is a little more nuanced than that. While the FBI felt it had enough to press charges against Ivins, they still had all these legal hoops that they still had to go through.

They'd written up the case, but they hadn't received a nod yet from the Department of Justice basically saying that they could go forward, and that could've taken days or even weeks, and then on top of that, there's this whole separate question of the grand jury.

They'd been approving subpoenas all the way along, during the investigation of the case, but jurors had yet to hear the evidence in its entirety about the case, and they had not been asked to vote yet on whether or not they were actually going to bring an indictment. That, too, could've taken weeks. So this idea that the indictment that the indictment was imminent just isn't true.

SEABROOK: What do you know about how strong the case actually is against Ivins.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well again, we're not quite sure. Because of grand jury secrecy requirements, the FBI can't release all the evidence quite yet. I mean, sources close to the investigation say the real smoking gun that they have consists of the science that they specifically developed for this case, and basically as I understand it - and I'm not a scientist - it allowed them to uncover the DNA code of a specific strain of anthrax.

It was like a type of genetic fingerprinting, and once they'd narrowed things down, they just had to look at who had access to this kind of anthrax, and that narrowed the field dramatically.

Sources I talked to at the FBI said that they started zeroing on Fort Detrick virtually from the start, and then they brought in an FBI profiling, trying to narrow that down a little further.

SEABROOK: Yeah, and that led to Steven Hatfield initially being a person of interest. Let me ask you, does Ivins' suicide mean that the case is now closed?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there's still a process that the FBI has to go through to close the case. Usually, they present evidence they have to a U.S. attorney, and then that U.S. attorney signs off on closing the case.

In this case, I think this might get kicked all the way up to the attorney general, Michael Mukasey.

SEABROOK: And if the case is closed then, will we learn what the FBI actually had on the guy?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's a good question. Again, there are a couple of steps to go through. If Mukasey closes the case, FBI Director Mueller promised the victims and their families that the FBI would brief them on the investigation, and they wouldn't have to read about all of this in the paper or see it on TV, and the FBI can't brief them until the case is closed and the grand jury secrecy rules are lifted.

All these things will probably take a couple of days to complete. What we're hearing is that there's going to be an FBI press conference, presumably where some of the evidence going to be revealed, toward the middle of the week.

SEABROOK: NPR's FBI correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thanks very much for coming in.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.