DEVLIN BARRETT

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -A panel of scientific experts on Thursday launched what is expected to be a long, complex examination of the FBI's research in hunting the creator of the deadly anthrax letters of 2001.

The National Academy of Sciences convened a 15-member panel to begin a review that is expected to take a year and a half. Investigators hope the results will validate their findings and put to rest some of the lingering doubts about the case.

"We at the FBI laboratory are confident in our conclusions," FBI Assistant Director Chris Hassell told the panel. "This is what we did, please tell us what you think."

Last year, troubled government scientist Bruce Ivins killed himself as prosecutors prepared to indict him as the suspect that killed five people and sickened 17 others through mailings of anthrax spores in 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Since his death, skeptics have questioned the FBI's work in the case, and the scientific panel has been asked to determineif the bureau's novel forensic methods used in the case were correct.

In particular, the panel will scrutinize the genetic research that led the FBI to focus on Ivins after years of chasing dead ends.

The panel will also examine whether there was any cross-contamination of key samples of anthrax.

On Friday, the group will meet again to hear from scientific experts and Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who has criticized the FBI's work in the case.

The panel will not reach any conclusions about whether Ivins sent the letters or not, or whether he acted alone. Instead, the group will limit itself to whether the research work done by the FBI was accurate.

Last week, the Justice Department tentatively decided to close the case, but reversed course after government lawyers raised a number of lingering legal questions, particularly about what officials can say publicly about the evidence in the case.

On the Net:

National Academy of Sciences: http://www.nationalacademies.org/

FBI anthrax investigation: http://www.fbi.gov/anthrax/amerithraxlinks.htm