Monday, August 11, 2008

Back to Court, Decades After Atomic Tests

Identifying the Anthrax Killer

Friday 08 August 2008

by: The New York Times

The F.B.I. seems convinced that it has finally solved the long-festering case of who mailed the anthrax letters that killed five people in 2001. Yet its description of the evidence pointing to a mentally disturbed Army bioweapons expert as the sole culprit leaves us uncertain about whether investigators have pulled off a brilliant coup after a bumbling start, or are prematurely declaring victory, despite a lack of hard, incontrovertible proof.

Federal agents relied on sophisticated scientific tests and laborious investigative work to conclude that only Dr. Bruce Ivins, who killed himself last week, could have made and mailed the anthrax used in the letters. They say that recently developed tests enabled them to identify telltale genetic mutations in the anthrax and to show that it came from a flask kept by Dr. Ivins at the Army laboratories at Fort Detrick in Frederick , Md.

More than 100 people might have had access to the deadly substance, but over a four-year period, investigators gradually eliminated suspects until only Dr. Ivins was left.

None of the investigators' major assertions, however, have been tested in cross-examination or evaluated by outside specialists. It is imperative that federal officials make public all of their data so independent experts can judge whether the mailed anthrax was indeed identical to Dr. Ivins's supply and only that supply.

It is also critical for officials to explain more fully how they eliminated the many other people with access to the material.

The investigators came up with lots of circumstantial evidence to bolster their case. The envelopes used in the mailings had print defects that indicate that they could only have been bought at a small number of post offices, including one where Dr. Ivins had a mailbox under an assumed name. Dr. Ivins had obtained equipment that could turn his wet anthrax into the dry spores that were mailed.

In the days before the mailings, he worked long hours alone at night and on weekends, outside his usual pattern. E-mail messages indicate that he was mentally disturbed and worried about an anthrax vaccine project that was failing, a possible motive for mailings to generate public fear about anthrax. There is also evidence that he had a history of driving to other locations to mail packages anonymously.

But there is no direct evidence of his guilt. No witness who saw him pouring powdered anthrax into envelopes. No anthrax spores in his house or cars. No confession to a colleague or in a suicide note. No physical evidence tying him to the site in Princeton , N.J. , from which the letters are believed to have been mailed.

Because Dr. Ivins killed himself before he could be indicted, there will be no opportunity for an adversarial testing of the F.B.I.'s conclusions. The bureau, unfortunately, has a history of building circumstantial cases that seem compelling at first but ultimately fall apart. Congress will need to probe the adequacy of this investigation - and to insist that federal officials release as much evidence as possible, so the public can be assured they really did get the right person this time.

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t r u t h o u t | 08.10

13 Workers Dead: A Look at the "Shocking" and "Disgraceful" Imperial Sugar Tragedy

Thursday 07 August 2008

by: Phil Mattera, Dirt Diggers Digest

VP at Imperial Sugar admits that working conditions at the plant where an explosion took the lives of 13 workers earlier this year were terrible.

"Shocking" and "disgraceful" are not the sort of words we expect to hear from a corporate executive when referring to his or her own company, but that's exactly what happened at a recent Senate hearing about the conditions at Imperial Sugar. Those descriptors made up part of the testimony of Graham H. Graham, vice president for operations at the company, which was recently hit with a proposed fine of $5 million by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in connection with conditions that caused a dust explosion earlier this year at its Port Wentworth, Georgia plant that killed 13 workers. Another fine of $3.7 million was proposed by OSHA in connection with similar problems at the company's operation in Gramercy , Louisiana .

"It was without a doubt the dirtiest and most dangerous manufacturing plant I had ever come to," said Graham about the non-union Port Wentworth refinery, which he toured after being hired by Imperial Sugar late last year. He claimed to have pointed out more than 400 safety violations and was in the process of having them corrected when the accident occurred. CEO John Sheptor, who declined to testify at the hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, told the Associated Press that Graham has "exaggerated numerous things regularly about our facilities." Sheptor's p.r. people should have told him that line doesn't work when you have the blood of 13 workers on your hands.

In addition to the fines - which Imperial Sugar is contesting and in any event would not put too much of a dent in a company which in its last fiscal year had profits of $53 million on revenues of $875 million - AP reports that criminal charges are possible.

Any investigation should not stop with the immediate managers at the plants. The conditions at the Imperial Sugar refineries appear to have been so horrendous that the failure to clean them up must have in effect been a company policy emanating from the highest levels - the CEO and other top executives. Accountability should also fall on the members of the board of directors of the publicly traded company, whose non-executive members are the following:

- James J. Gaffney (Chairman), a consultant to investment funds affiliated with Goldman Sachs

- Curtis G. Anderson, chairman of the investment company Anderson Capital

- Gaylord O. Coan, former CEO of poultry processor Gold Kist

- Yves-Andre Istel, vice chairman of investment bank Rothschild Inc.

- Robert S. Kopriva, former CEO of Sara Lee Foods

- Gail A. Lione, executive vice president of Harley-Davidson

- David C. Moran, president of U.S. consumer products at H.J. Heinz

- John K. Sweeney, a managing director at investment bank Lehman Brothers.

Sweeney deserves special attention because Lehman Brothers is the largest shareholder in Imperial Sugar, with a 28 percent stake. Lehman claims that part of its corporate mission is to "be one of the most responsible investment banks." It could show those words mean something by using its influence to get Imperial Sugar to start showing some concern about the safety of its workers.

Phil Mattera is research director of Good Jobs First and head of its Corporate Research Project.

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