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 State’s 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 lethal anthrax.

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, putting the
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 FBI’s 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.