Because I’d read some of Preston’s earlier work and found it interesting, I picked up a copy of The Demon. It wasn’t entirely what I expected; about a third of the book follows the anthrax attacks and the investigation, and the rest describes the global effort to eradicate smallpox. Still, it was a good book and an easy read.
There was one passage in the book, however, that bothered me. In it, Preston describes a conference call between Dr. Peter B. Jahrling, who was a senior researcher with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick (and who was one of Preston’s principal sources when writing The Demon), and scientists at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta:
The CDC officials on the call asked Jahrling if he could characterize the particle size. This was an important question, because if the anthrax particles were very small, they could get into people’s lungs, and the powder would be much more deadly.
Peter Jahrling replied that USAMRIID’s data indicated that [the anthrax taken from the letter sent to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle] was ten times more concentrated and potent than any form of anthrax that had been made by the old American biowarfare program at Fort Detrick in the nineteen sixties.
The passage bothered me because I was a prosecutor for many years, and in that time I became used to people using seemingly-superfluous modifiers to try to avoid telling everything they know without out-and-out lying. In this case, the words that stood out for me were these:
... more concentrated and potent than any form of anthrax that had been made by the old American biowarfare program at Fort Detrick in the nineteen sixties.
It was almost as if Jahrling was trying to avoid saying that he knew of a more recent American biowarfare program, located somewhere other than Fort Detrick.
Of course, Preston didn’t put quotes around anything in that passage, and so it’s possible that the superfluous modifiers came from the author, rather than from Dr. Jahrling himself. But then yesterday, I saw the same modifiers in these passages in the Wall Street Journal op-ed about the Dr. Bruce Ivins case, written by Dr. Richard Spertzel, the former USAMRIID deputy commander:
Let's start with the anthrax in the letters to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The spores could not have been produced at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, where Ivins worked, without many other people being aware of it. Furthermore, the equipment to make such a product does not exist at the institute.
... the potential lethality of anthrax in this case far exceeds that of any powdered product found in the now extinct U.S. Biological Warfare Program.
Again: it’s almost as if another USAMRIID scientist is tiptoeing around saying that there is a more recent U.S. biological warfare program, located somewhere other than Fort Detrick, that does have the ability to make anthrax like that in the Daschle letter.
I’m not subscribing to any theories about Dr. Ivins’ culpability or lack thereof. I simply find it interesting that these two descriptions of the anthrax used in 2001 contain the same modifiers that suggest an effort to be technically truthful without necessarily revealing the whole truth.
There was another interesting tidbit from Spertzel’s op-ed that caught my eye:
Another FBI leak indicated that each particle was given a weak electric charge, thereby causing the particles to repel each other at the molecular level. This made it easier for the spores to float in the air, and increased their retention in the lungs.
... the product was described by an official at the Department of Homeland Security as "according to the Russian recipes" -- apparently referring to the use of the weak electric charge.
In The Demon, Preston discusses the defection of Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, who was until his defection to the U.S. in 1992 the first deputy chief of research and production at Biopreparat, the Soviet biowar program. Dr. Alibekov (who now goes by the Westernized name "Ken Alibek") was the director of "the research team that developed the Soviet Union’s most powerful weapons-grade anthrax." Preston's description of the Dr. Alibekov's work sounds like the same product Dr. Spertzel describes:
The Alibekov anthrax, as Alibek described it to me, is an amber-gray powder, finer than bath talc, with smooth, creamy, fluffy particles that tend to fly apart and vanish in the air, becoming invisible and drifting for miles. The particles have a tendency to stick in human lungs like glue.
When Dr. Alibekov defected in 1992, what are the odds that he gave "the Russian recipes" to his CIA debriefers? I would hazard a guess that the odds are very nearly absolute that he did. And if so, what are the odds that someone within the Department of Defense, or some contractor employed by the government, attempted to replicate the Alibekov anthrax – if only to work on countermeasures, as Dr. Ivins supposedly did? I would again suggest that the odds are close to 100 per cent that someone tried – perhaps at the Dugway Proving Grounds, as was suggested in late 2001, or elsewhere. And if they had "Ken Alibek's" help, they probably succeeded.
Where does the demon live now?