WASHINGTON — The chairman of the of Senate Judiciary Committee said Wednesday he does not believe that Dr. Bruce Ivins acted alone in the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks. Sen. Patrick Leahy was one of the targets of the lethal anthrax-laced letters that killed five and sickened 17 in fall 2001.
At a hearing in front of his committee, the Vermont Democrat told FBI Director Robert Mueller that he thinks other people must have been involved.
Leahy did not say why he believed Ivins had help and he also cast doubt that the Army scientist was the attacker in the first place.
"If he is the one who sent the letter, I do not believe in any way, shape or manner that he is the only person involved in this attack on Congress and the American people. I do not believe that at all," Leahy said.
He added: "I believe there are others involved, either as accessories before or accessories after the fact. I believe that there are others out there, I believe there are others who could be charged with murder. I just want you to know how I feel about it, as one of the people who was aimed at in the attack."
Mueller did not directly contradict Leahy, saying "I understand that concern."
Still, Mueller maintained the Justice Department's view that Ivins was the mastermind and sole attacker.
"In the investigation to date, we have looked at every lead and followed every lead to determine whether anybody else was involved, and we will continue to do so," Mueller told Leahy. "And even if the case does become closed, if we receive additional evidence, indicating the participation of any additional person, we certainly would pursue that."
The Justice Department and FBI have yet to close the case on the "Amerithrax" investigation after declaring Ivins its only suspect last month. Ivins killed himself in July after learning that prosecutors were preparing to indict him.
Republicans shared Leahy's doubts surrounding the case.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top GOP member of the panel, said he had problems with some of the evidence against Ivins that has been made public. In a testy exchange with Mueller, he also demanded to have a say in selecting scientists who will be performing an independent review of the DNA fingerprinting analysis of the anthrax that lies at the heart of the government's case.
The review by the National Academy of Sciences will be made up of private scientists who did not assist the FBI in the investigation, and could take up to 18 months to complete. Mueller said he would consider allowing the Judiciary Committee to suggest scientists, but noted that the NAS and Justice Department likely would have to agree to it.
"What's there to consider, Director Mueller?" Specter said. "We'd like to have the authority to name some people there to be sure of its objectivity. We're not interlopers here. This is an oversight matter. What's there to consider?"
Mueller said "to the extent that the rules of the science allow that to happen, I have no objection to that request."
"Well, that's not far enough," Specter snapped.
NAS spokesman William Kearney said the organization would "welcome input on potential committee members" from Congress, federal agencies, scientific community and the general public. Still, all suggestions must be approved by the NAS president, Kearney said.
Sitting in the front row of the audience at the Senate hearing was Dr. Steven Hatfill, another Army scientist who for years was wrongly accused of orchestrating the attacks. The Justice Department in June settled a $5.8 million lawsuit with Hatfill, who claimed his privacy rights were violated by officials speaking with reporters about the case.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a longtime skeptic of the anthrax investigation, grilled Mueller on how the FBI could have focused on Hatfill for years when investigators as early as 2002 had lab records showing Ivins was conducting late-night research in the days immediately before the deadly letters were mailed.
"Shouldn't the FBI apologize to Dr. Hatfill?" Grassley asked. "Please explain how chasing an innocent man for four years was not a mistake, as you said it was not a mistake."
Mueller said the FBI investigators acted appropriately throughout the case _ based on the information they had at any given time.
Hatfill, smiling, left the hearing after Grassley's questions.