Justice Dept.'s withdrawal of court filing approved

Justice Department lawyers won a judge's approval on Friday to withdraw a court filing that appeared to undermine the FBI's assertion that an Army researcher was behind the 2001 anthrax letter attacks.

U.S. District Judge David Hurley of West Palm Beach, Fla., accepted a government attorney's declaration that federal prosecutors and the FBI didn't alert the government defense team to 10 errors in a statement of facts until after it had been filed in court on July 15, the Sacramento Bee reports.

While the initial filing asserted flatly that Bruce Ivins, who the FBI accused of manufacturing the anthrax, lacked the specialized equipment needed to produce the powder, the revised filing said that Ivins had access to a refrigerator-sized machine known as a lyophilizer, which can be used to dry solutions such as anthrax, at the Frederick, Md., facility in a less secure lab.

Ivins committed suicide on July 29, 2008, after federal prosecutors advised his attorney that they were about to seek his indictment on five capital murder counts. Early last year, the Justice Department closed its investigation, officially declaring that Ivins mailed the letters shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The legal flip-flop occurred as the government sought the dismissal of a $50 million wrongful death suit that was filed eight years ago by the family of Robert Stevens, a photo editor in Boca Raton, Fla., who was the first person in U.S. history known to have died from an anthrax attack.

In the suit, Stevens' family alleged that the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases was negligent in failing to secure stocks of anthrax.

The government also retracted statements suggesting that live anthrax spores from a flask in Ivins' lab had been more widely distributed than the FBI asserted in making its case against Ivins.