Documents question Justice Dept.'s handinling of Amerithrax case

Documents in the files of a recently settled Florida lawsuit detail how severely the U.S. Justice Department contradicted its own conclusions in its investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks.

The investigation that eventually pointed to Bruce E. Ivins as the perpetrator of the attacks was plagued by mistakes and complications since it began over a decade ago, according to the Washington Post.

Initially, investigators focused on the wrong man, a misstep that would cost the department a $6 million settlement. Ivins escaped trial by committing suicide in 2008. Now, court documents show how Justice Department civil attorneys contradicted their department's own conclusion in the case that Ivins was unquestionably the killer.

The lawyers claimed the type of anthrax in Ivins laboratory was "radically different" from the anthrax used to kill five people and infect 17 others. They suggested that a private lab located in Ohio could have been involved in the case and cited witnesses who claimed Ivins was entirely innocent.

The unusual instance of one portion of the Justice Department publicly questioning another could serve to undermine one of the most high-profile investigations conducted in recent years.

"I cannot think of another case in which the government has done such an egregious about-face. It destroys confidence in the criminal findings,'' Georgetown University law professor Paul Rothstein said, the Washington Post reports.

The documents were filed as part of a lawsuit over the 2001 death of Robert Stevens, a Florida tabloid photo editor who died as a result of exposure to anthrax. His surviving relatives accused the government of negligence in handling anthrax research at Ivins' laboratory at Maryland's Fort Detrick. The department quietly settled the case in November.

Justice Department prosecutors and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation maintain that their conclusions about Ivins are correct - that he was solely responsible for the attacks. They said the civil filings were simply a means to shield the government from the lawsuit, according to the Washington Post.

Regardless, when criminal investigators learned that their colleagues were challenging their conclusions, they were reportedly furious. Furthermore, the government's inconsistencies have added another layer of speculation and doubt to the case against Ivins. Experts say the civil lawyers went beyond what was needed to protect the government from liability and have served to damage the department's credibility.

"When there have been so many public statements about Ivins's guilt, someone higher up in the department should have seen this collision coming down the tracks,'' Rothstein said, the Washington Post reports.