Science, Suspects, and Systems: Lessons from the Anthrax Investigation
Issues in Legal Scholarship, Vol. 8, No. 2. 2009
42 Pages Posted: 17 May 2009
The anthrax mailings of late 2001 triggered one of the costliest and most complex criminal investigations in the history of the United States Department of Justice. Parts of that investigation were carried out with impressive skill and creativity, but parts were not. The seven-year history of the anthrax investigation highlights certain longstanding problems at the Department of Justice: the Department's underdeveloped interface with organized science, its insufficient preparation for criminal investigations conducted at the intersection of public health, and its lack of formalized processes for institutional learning. This article reviews the course of the Department of Justice's anthrax investigation and then draws two sets of lessons, one having to do with thinking systematically about science, and the other having to do with thinking scientifically about systems. The ﬁrst set of lessons includes the need for better and clearer decision-making and communication protocols for crises arising at the intersection of law enforcement and public health, the benefits of preserving the values of transparency and neutrality in harnessing scientific expertise, and the desirability of institutional structures to bridge the culture gap between law enforcement and science. The second set of lessons centers on the advantages of developing formal procedures for institutional learning within the Department of Justice, modeled on the "after action" reviews conducted by other government agencies.
Keywords: criminal procedure, anthrax, DOJ, Department of Justice, FBI, Federal Bureau of Investigation, institutional learning, bioterrorism
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