Tuesday, September 30, 2008

FBI won't release details on anthrax suspect

Thanks to Marisa Taylor at McClatchy Newspapers for this well-researched report on where the release of the records stands, and how the FBI justifies withholding these records.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Nature: Silicon highlights remaining questions over anthrax investigation

Nature discusses weaponization and silicon, but not much new yet.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Another anthrax accident was reported at Fort Detrick in 2002

A letter published in the Journal of Environmental and Occupational Medicine, April 2004 described two lab workers using standard procedures to grow and handle anthrax at USAMRIID. Despite this, medium leaked from a flask and spores were recovered from the nares of one of the workers. The potential for inhalation anthrax was considered serious, and the worker received an extra vaccine booster dose and both took cipro for a month.

There was also a case of cutaneous anthrax reported in a lab worker in Texas in 2002 (MMWR 2002;51:482). It appears Ivins' accident was by no means a unique event.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Congressman Rush Holt files HR 7049

Following two dissatisfying Congressional hearings on the anthrax letters, and in the 110th Congress' final week, Congressman Rush Holt filed HR 7049 as a shot across the bow: he is serious about getting to the bottom of the anthrax letter attacks. The 111th Congress will have to pick up this ball and run with it, following a change in Administration.

HR 7049: To establish the National Commission on the Anthrax Attacks Upon the United States, to examine and report on the facts and causes relating to the anthrax letter attacks of September and October 2001, and investigate and report to the President and Congress on its findings, conclusions, and recommendations for corrective measures that can be taken to prevent and respond to acts of bioterrorism.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Biotechs Get Rival Deals To Build Anthrax Vaccine

The Washington Post reports on $113.6 million in government contracts to develop new anthrax vaccines. Two rival biotechs -- Emergent BioSolutions of Rockville and PharmAthene of Annapolis -- announced yesterday that they received separate federal development contracts. This is further evidence that, despite a $448 million contract landed by Emergent to supply 18.75 million doses of anthrax vaccine, the Emergent/Bioport vaccine is unsatisfactory and must be replaced--primarily due to its weak efficacy, required yearly boosters and frequent serious (and permanent) side effects.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

FBI Proposal to NAS

Here is the FBI letter to NAS with a list of questions for NAS to address. Perhaps of interest, it is dated September 15, the day before the first Congressional hearing, but fails to commit to the study financially until October. NAS was not aware of the FBI's interest in moving forward until Director Mueller announced it at the September 16 hearing.

NYT: Anthrax-Case Affidavits Add to Bizarre Portrait

A judge unsealed a new batch of court documents in the anthrax case on Wednesday, at http://www.usdoj.gov/amerithrax/

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

FBI investigation did not analyze anthrax from biodefense lab

USA Today: The FBI never examined anthrax samples from the 2001 contamination event at (Ivins') biodefense lab, which he allegedly covered up after the anthrax mailings. Yet these samples should have been the first to examine once Ivins was deemed a suspect.

Additional comments by Dr. Popov on producing anthrax

1. I agree with all scientific conclusions [of the Analytical Chemistry article] except for the one that the silicon in the spore coat excludes its artificial origin. Sandia people think about the exosporium as an absolute barrier for small molecules but it is a diffuse, loosely-bound, and permeable layer. We can think about the spores as impregnated with the silicon compound. It may be true that the silicon did not help make the spores more dispersable, but it was added on purpose. See the following:

PERMEABILITY OF BACTERIAL SPORES II. Molecular Variables Affecting Solute Permeation. Philipp Gerhardt and S. H. Black, Department of Bacteriology, The University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, Michigan. J Bacteriol. 1961 November; 82(5): 750-760.

2. In order to test my scenario of the inconspicuous preparation of anthrax powders in the lab by somebody like Bruce Ivins, I estimated the amount of spores required for one letter. The information on internet says that the letters contained about seven to ten grams of material, of which roughly two to three grams were weaponized spores . Federal investigators say the Leahy anthrax powder had not been lost in the letter's opening. The amount, typical of the tainted letters, was 0.871 g .

So, let’s assume it was 0.9 g. According to Dugway and my estimates of the spore weight (based on the spore size of 1 micron^3) one gram of dry spores contains from (0.7 to 1)x10^12 spores. It is (0.6 to 0.9)x10^12 spores/letter. If the Bruce anthrax was 3x10^9/ml, it would take him at least 200 ml of the spore suspension per letter from the flask he possessed. For all five letters, he must have used up the whole one-liter flask. The solid medium process in the lab gives us 5x10^9 spores from a regular Petri dish. It would require at least 100 plates/letter. This number of plates is impossible to handle inconspicuously. In any case, if the amount of powder in the letter is correct, and the spores constitute the majority of it, there is more than a 10-fold discrepancy between the required amount of spores and the amount the perpetrator could have covertly taken from the flask or prepared on the agar plates. This bolsters a hypothesis of the fermentor-cultivated spores at the microbiological facility.

Interestingly, the powder from the first letters sent on Sep 18th to NY contained a lot of unsporulated bacteria. It is impossible to imagine that the powder of this quality could have been prepared for the military experiments by knowledgeable personnel. They would certainly discard the prep. Was the perp in rush to prepare the spores as quick as possible to make a connection with 9/11and therefore, by mistake, stopped the fermentation before the culture sporulated completely? It was only a week between the bombing and the mailings – very tight but possible schedule for this kind of job, if all the equipment was readily available. The next preps were more successful, but took longer. Has the equipment been previously used to cultivate B. subtilis for training purposes? This would be consistent with a contamination. Again, it indicates availability of a facility, and I’m afraid to say – a team effort, which is something fundamentally different from a lonely Bruce using Petri dishes and alyophilyzer.

3. The perpetrator did not have to use plates, but it is the simplest way. However, I disagree with the investigators’ time estimate. 3 to 7 days for several grams of spores? Have they tried to do it themselves? Running a fermentor and drying spores is not a 3-day job. It is not enough time even for a growth and sporulation on plates (we harvest spores on the 5th day). As I said earlier, a week is a very tight schedule. For a fermentor, there are additional steps of growing the seeding cultures (one or more days, depending on the volume). And fermentation cannot be accomplished during the evening hours only. By the way, did Bruce have access to the fermentor?

The theory of fermentor can only stand if other people were aware of the perpetrator’s experiments. If we accept this, we ought to conclude it was a collective effort at the well-equipped facility: it wasn’t just Bruce alone.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tracing KIller Spores: The science behind the anthrax investigation.

News article from the journal Analytical Chemistry

NYT: Critics of Anthrax Inquiry Seek an Independent Review

September 23, 2008

WASHINGTON — Congressional critics of the F.B.I.’s anthrax investigation are seeking an independent review of the seven-year inquiry to assess the bureau’s performance and its conclusion that an Army scientist, Bruce E. Ivins, carried out the 2001 attacks alone.

Rush D. Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, would create a national commission on the anthrax attacks, a scaled-down version of the commission that studied the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Two Republican senators, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said they would not rule out a commission but thought a Congressional investigation or a series of hearings might work.

“Ultimately I may join Congressman Holt on this,” said Mr. Specter, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, who served in 1964 as assistant counsel to the Warren Commission on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “But first we need to decide whether the Judiciary Committee can do the job.”

Beth Levine, a spokeswoman for Mr. Grassley, said he supported Mr. Holt’s goal but feared a national commission might prove too expensive and time-consuming.

The proposals came a week after the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s director, Robert S. Mueller III, said he had asked the National Academy of Sciences to review the scientific aspects of the investigation. Mr. Holt and the two senators said they thought a review by the academy would be too narrow to resolve the case.

“They’ll give us a scientific analysis of the anthrax,” Mr. Specter said. “I don’t know that they can cover the broad spectrum of the adequacy of the investigation.”

Mr. Holt said that in addition to assessing the bureau’s detective work and management of the investigation, a commission could gauge the bioterrorist threat and consider how attacks might be prevented and how they should be investigated.

Mr. Holt’s draft bill calls for an 11-member commission appointed by the president and Congressional leaders. The commission would have subpoena power, would hold public hearings and would complete its report in no more than 18 months.

An F.B.I. spokesman, Bill Carter, declined to comment on the commission proposal but noted that Mr. Mueller said at a hearing last week that he was “absolutely open to third-party review” on the case.

Days after the July 29 suicide of Dr. Ivins, a microbiologist who worked on anthrax vaccines at the Army’s biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., F.B.I. and Justice Department officials said he alone had mailed the anthrax letters, which killed five people.

Since then, colleagues and friends of Dr. Ivins, bioterrorism experts and members of Congress have said they do not believe the evidence the bureau has released proves he did it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Congressional probe more than warranted

Editorial from the The New York Post, reprinted in the Troy, NY Record:

The often-partisan Democratic-run Congress has found a worthy target for the legislative branch's constitutional oversight responsibilities: The FBI anthrax investigations.

The House Judiciary Committee notified FBI Director Robert Mueller that oversight hearings will focus on the bureau's investigation of Dr. Bruce Ivins - and the conclusion that he was solely responsible for the 2001 anthrax attacks, which killed five people and injured 17 others.

Ivins committed suicide this summer when his name surfaced.

After his death, the bureau held a press conference to discuss the evidence pointing to Ivins' guilt. Yet the press conference raised nearly as many questions as it answered - including the FBI's admission that the sample of a unique strain of anthrax that it got from Ivins back in 2002 was discarded because he hadn't followed proper protocol. It took the bureau another four years to obtain a duplicate sample.

Meanwhile, reports surfaced recently that, in April 2007, just as the FBI linked the mailed anthrax to samples in Ivins' labs, he was notified by prosecutors that he was "not a target" of the investigation.

Hovering over all this, of course, is the recent FBI history of misidentifying individuals in high-profile cases. Indeed, another scientist in the same laboratory - Stephen Hatfill - was previously identified by the FBI and remained under a cloud for nearly five years. The government finally paid Hatfill $5.8 million this year as compensation for smearing his name.

That, in turn, was reminiscent of what occurred to Richard Jewell (wrongly identified as the Atlanta Olympic Park bomber in 1996) and scientist Wen Ho Lee (falsely accused of selling technology secrets to the Chinese).

Had Hatfill snapped from the pressure of FBI suspicion and taken his life, would the FBI have been crowing over how "sure" they were that that he was the guy thus eliminating the need for further investigation? Hard to say.

But a congressional probe is more than warranted. After years of sloppiness, the FBI has lost any benefit of the doubt.

The American people deserve to have Congress take an independent look a the entire anthrax investigations - if only to render an objective assurance that the real culprit actually was identified.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Overcoming Anthrax Doubts (Las Vegas Sun)


Overcoming Anthrax Doubts: Panel that will review government investigation of attacks must be independent (September 20, 2008)

The FBI, the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., and postal inspectors did not convince everyone last month when they laid out their case against the late Army microbiologist Dr. Bruce Ivins.

Ivins, they said with surety, committed the anthrax attacks that took place in September and October 2001. The attacks killed five people, injured 17 and spread fear that terrorists responsible for 9/11 were branching out into biological warfare.

But not everyone was sold on the federal officials’ presentation, which followed Ivins’ apparent suicide ["apparent" as there was no autopsy--Nass] July 29 as federal agents were finalizing their largely circumstantial case against him.

Skeptics include members of Congress, who are still expressing concern that the case, which for years focused on another Army microbiologist, has not been fully solved.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told FBI Director Robert Mueller at a hearing Wednesday that he believes the anthrax attacks involved more than one person.

One of the anthrax letters was addressed to Leahy. That letter, which never reached the senator, was the likely source of an anthrax infection contracted by a government mail worker.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee who today is its ranking Republican, also expressed doubts. He was rebuffed when he demanded that some of the scientists who will do an independent review of the Ivins investigation be selected by the Judiciary Committee.

Mueller had announced Tuesday that, partly owing to pressure from members of Congress, he will ask the National Academy of Sciences to conduct the review.

Responding to Specter, Mueller said he would consider his request, but the academy and the Justice Department would likely have to agree to it.

Specter responded: “What’s there to consider, Director Mueller? We’d like ... to name some people there to be sure of its objectivity. We’re not interlopers. This is an oversight matter.”

Specter is right. To help prevent doubt from lingering forever, the public — and Congress — must be assured the review panel is indeed independent.

Seven Years Later: Electrons Unlocked Post-9/11 Anthrax Mail Mystery

Scientific American today posted an article on the Sandia anthrax investigation performed by materials scientists. I'm not sure how much it adds to the weaponization discussion, and it includes some minor errors, but does expand on the role and timeline of Sandia's work for the anthrax investigation.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Comments by Professor Sergei Popov on anthrax and on Dr. B.H. Rosenberg's paper

Dr. Popov worked in the former Soviet Union's Biopreparat Program and is a professor at George Mason University. Having met with him several years ago, I can attest to his impressive knowledge of anthrax. Here he demonstrates a deep understanding of the principles of weaponization.

Some of his other comments include the following:
1. The Sandia pictures completely agree with my expectation of partially collapsed exosporium. It may be still there but hard to detect in the dry spores. Treatment of the B. subtilis spores with urea helped reveal the exosporium-like layer (A picture from Nature 263, 53 - 54 is on the second of the attached slides). Please notice the similarities with Sandia spores. This technique could be useful to determine the amount of exosporium in Sandia samples. Your calculations present a strong argument that the silicon content is unnaturally high. However, I’m in doubt that the highly variable amount of Si in the samples can be used as a reliable forensic marker on par with genetic ones. The anthrax attack was a deliberate action, and there is nothing surprising to learn that the spores were treated deliberately. Can this conclusion help identify a particular perpetrator?

2. The nature of debris clearly visible in the spore prep is intriguing. It looks quite similar to dry agar from a Petri dish

3. I think you may overestimate the technical difficulty of the siliconization. It may be just a drop of an old-style school glue (liquid glass). A well-developed technology is supposed to give consistent results, but we see a high variability of the Si content, which indicates experimentation with different treatments. In your opinion the perpetrator is primitive and this effectively exculpates Detrick. In my opinion, even at Detrick there could be people with a creative mind who know chemistry beyond written protocols.

4. I don’t know what the FBI has tried for reverse engineering. Did they even consider soluble silicates, not siloxanes? I guess we have to admit that the perp was/is a clever guy. Why should he leave a trace ordering a reagent if it was available from Wal Mart? The person obviously realized the possibility to be traced back and therefore took advantage of his unique knowledge of how to accomplish his task in the most inconspicuous way possible?

5. As I wrote, a familiar example is the drug Simethicone, which is the active ingredient in drugs such as Gas-X. Simethicone is generally available over the counter under many trade names in varying dosage sizes, including: Flatulex, Baby's Own Infant Drops, Gas Relief, Gas-X, Genasyme, Maalox Anti-Gas, Maalox Max, etc. The use of antifoaming agent such as Simethicone will result in detectable Si without other inorganic component. I’m not talking about a paper glue, which is a pure sodium silicate.

Anthrax Suspicions (Washington Post Editorial)

Anthrax Suspicions: Why an independent look at the FBI probe is essential
Friday, September 19, 2008; Page A18

THERE'S NO better proof of the need for an independent review of the FBI's anthrax investigation than the words of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). Mr. Leahy was one of the intended recipients of anthrax-filled letters sent in 2001. Chairing a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday at which FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III testified, Mr. Leahy rejected the agency's assertion that government scientist Bruce E. Ivins acted alone in creating and dispensing the deadly spores that killed five people and sickened 17 others.

"I believe there are others involved, either as accessories before or accessories after the fact," Mr. Leahy said. "I believe there are others who can be charged with murder." Mr. Leahy's skepticism was echoed by GOP Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Charles E. Grassley (Iowa).

Mr. Mueller said this week that the FBI would turn to the National Academy of Sciences to review the novel genetic fingerprinting test the bureau developed to identify the unique spores used in the attacks. The bureau says that test enabled it to trace the spores to a vial in Mr. Ivins's lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland. Agreeing to a review of its lab work is a good if belated first step, but it does not go far enough: Even if the FBI got the science right, it still must explain how and why it eliminated from suspicion some 100 other people who had access to the vial.

Because Mr. Ivins committed suicide in July, as the government was close to indicting him, the evidence will not be tested in a court of law. Serious missteps throughout the investigation -- including the original identification of a different Fort Detrick scientist as the FBI's top suspect -- demand that all of the bureau's work be examined by an independent commission or the Justice Department's inspector general.

The FBI does not do itself or the public any favors by rolling out its evidence in the anthrax matter in a piecemeal fashion. If anything, its attempts to share pieces of information and justify its conclusion have raised more questions than they have answered. The FBI may very well be right that Bruce Ivins was the anthrax killer and that he acted alone. But the only way to ensure confidence is to subject its work to a comprehensive outside review. That is the right approach for victims, survivors and would-be victims such as Mr. Leahy; for Mr. Ivins's family; and for the public.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

More on the Senate hearing

Webcast of the hearing can be viewed here

Remember Senator Grassley's 18 questions about the case, posed to the FBI on August 7? They have still not been answered. Senator Grassley was very impressive during the hearing: logical, refusing to be sidetracked, steady like a bulldozer. He also submitted a Statement for the Record, from which the following is taken:
Dozens and dozens of serious questions remain unanswered...there needs to be a substantive, in-depth, and independent inquiry of the sort that only Congress can conduct at this point. I challenge Director Mueller to embrace this sort of scrutiny and open the FBI's files on this matter for inspection by representatives of the American people. I challenge the leadership of the Senate and this Committee to put the time, resources and energy necessary into conducting a thorough review in which the public can have confidence.

I have a question for FBI Director Mueller. During both hearings he noted how much he "abhors leaks." Then why did FBI try to convince us of Ivins' guilt using a crescendo of leaks? Many were unsubstantiated, while some of the leaked events had been orchestrated by FBI. Then, following criticisms of the 'leak method' in the media, FBI official John Miller apologized.

If Mueller so abhors leaks, why has no one been punished for them, and why have they been so carefully aligned with the FBI's game plan for this case? The Bureau looks more like a public relations agency than a law enforcement agency these days. How much farther can its credibility fall?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Jahrling: Honest Mistake

An LA Times article by David Willman discusses an email response by virologist Peter Jahrling, one of the first people to examine the Daschle anthrax, and to remark repeatedly on its properties that indicated deliberate weaponization:
After being informed of the events at the (9/16/2008 House Judiciary Committee) hearing, Jahrling renounced his earlier analysis. "In retrospect," Jahrling said, "I believe I was mistaken and defer to the experts."
In "The Demon in the Freezer," a 2002 book by Richard Preston, Jahrling:
...said that USAMRIID had found that the anthrax powder in the letter mailed to Senator Daschle was "professionally done" and "energetic". By "energetic" he meant that the particles had a tendency to fly up into the air if they were disturbed.
Please see Comments 3 and 4 for an informed and referenced discussion on this.

Mueller was also interviewed by Preston. He attended Jahrling's White House briefing, and:
Mueller thanked the Army for bringing the nature of the anthrax to the FBI's attention. He said that the FBI had received conflicting data on the anthrax. The FBI had been trying to sort this issue through, but Mueller now acknowledged that the Army had been right: the Daschle anthrax was a weapon.
Well, Jahrling may be correct now. Or he may have been correct then. Same goes for Mueller.

Senate Judiciary Hearing 9/17/2008

Webcast of the hearing can be accessed here.

Eight senators attended some of today's hearing, and had a lot more to say about the anthrax letters. The Washington Post, AP, Reuters, USA Today and Salon (Glenn Greenwald) have all posted reports of the hearing, in which the FBI was lambasted over the letters case. Most notably, Senator Leahy told Director Mueller he was convinced that if Ivins was a culprit, that he had not acted alone, and Leahy was convinced there are more persons who can be charged with murder.

Senator Spector wanted to know why there was no attempt to obtain DNA from Ivins until the week he died. (Since it takes a while to die from tylenol, it is possible the DNA wasn't obtained until after Ivins overdosed.) He asked why Ivins received an April 2007 letter indicating he was not a target of the investigation; whether the anthrax was weaponized or not; how did FBI come to its conclusion when the investigation is still ongoing; and he noted that so many questions have yet to be answered.

Leahy asked whether any US facilities besides Dugway and Battelle were capable of making this kind of anthrax. Mueller tried to muddy the water by responding about how many facilities had Ames, but the Senators weren't buying it. Leahy told him to make a call and get some answers during the break.

Senator Spector asked if the committee could designate members of the NAS committee performing the review, and Mueller refused to commit to this.

Senator Grassley noted that the NAS would not be reviewing the FBI investigation, only the science--not the detective work, and said both need to be reviewed. He also wondered when the FBI learned about Ivins' late nights in the lab: 2002, and why it took 5 years to focus on Ivins. He also asked why it took so long (until after the death of Ivins) to exonerate Hatfill. Mueller also "abhorred" the Hatfill leaks.

After the break, Mueller requested a closed session to discuss the matter of labs making anthrax powder, since the subject was classified. Leahy agreed to arrange this.

Senator Cardin wondered why Ivins maintained his security clearance until July 10, 2008. Mueller replied that Ivins' access to some facilities at USAMRIID had been limited earlier.

Grassley wanted to know if Ivins' flask contained silicon, but Mueller was "out of his expertise" on that question. (Why were the four officials sitting behind him keeping quiet for these questions, I wondered?)

It was gratifying to see that the Senators grasped the essentials of the Ivins case, and were asking the right questions. But it was disheartening to hear them say how badly the FBI and Attorney General had responded to their questions and concerns in the past, and how they were unable to perform their oversight function due to stonewalling on the part of the executive branch agencies. Senator Whitehouse even used the word "Toadies" to describe appointed agency officials who were required to "bow down" to the White House, ignoring agency needs and failing to provide the administration with appropriate feedback.

So whether anything will come of this exercise in legislative branch oversight is anyone's guess.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

FBI Director Mueller Not Forthcoming

The House Judiciary Committee hearing can be viewed here.

Eleven or twelve members attended the House Judiciary Committee's FBI oversight hearing today. Repeatedly, they expressed disappointment with the FBI's continuing failure to answer their questions, and to respond to written questions. Director Mueller only produced a written response to the Committee's September 5, 2008 letter last night, and copies were not made available to the audience. His verbal testimony had nothing to do with their questions: instead it was an exercise in cheerleading for the FBI team and proposed new guidelines, which would expand FBI authority. Oh, and by the way: Mueller abhors leaks.

Mueller spoke in generalities, failing to answer specific questions. Rep. Delahunt suggested that the FBI's lack of transparency skirted our system of checks and balances and placed our democracy at risk. Mueller could only reply, repeatedly, that he was happy to sit down "informally" with members, but essentially refused to answer their questions on the record.

Only Rep. Nadler asked about anthrax (details from Glenn Greenwald), and to his credit inquired pointedly about the Silicon signature and weaponization. Mueller had no answers.

Instead, responding to Nadler's question of whether the FBI would cooperate with an independent investigation, Mueller attempted to confuse the issue of an independent investigation, saying FBI was requesting this from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). However, the NAS will only be asked to review FBI's "microbial forensic" science. (FBI's M.O. is to keep trotting out the genomics, no matter what question is asked.) And NAS didn't even know they were going to get this gig until today's hearing, suggesting NAS' study might just be a bone thrown to the committee to head off a truly independent investigation of the letters case.

FBI's science takes us to a flask, and stops there. I have no bone to pick with FBI's science, although many details have yet to be revealed.

It's FBI's investigation that is unsatisfactory in every way, requiring an independent appraisal. Don't be fooled by an expensive and time-consuming NAS smokescreen.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Anthrax Case: Congress Must Demand an Independent Inquiry

David Harris of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law says that in light of questions about the FBI's public identification of the late Dr. Bruce Ivins as “the only person responsible” for the 2001 anthrax attacks, Congress should demand an independent investigation to test the government’s evidence of its accusatory claim.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Black Art of Weaponization

With respect to whether and how the spores were weaponized, I have both feet in the weaponization camp, having reviewed numerous anthrax epidemics and seen nothing like the Senate letters' effect elsewhere, except Sverdlovsk. Yeltsin later admitted the 1979 Sverdlovsk epidemic resulted from a leak of anthrax from a biowarfare program.

However, the problem remains that nearly all research on weaponization is unavailable in the open literature. Although we can make educated guesses about how the letter spores may have been prepared, the only way to be certain is to experimentally demonstrate that a particular method produces an identical product. While the FBI waffles about how Ivins could have dried the spores this way or that way, and they don't really care how, FBI has failed to demonstrate that any of the methods they don't care about would yield the correct product. FBI has further failed to demonstrate that Ivins could dry and prepare the volume of spores used, within the window of time available between September 11 and the mailings.

The new field of forensics has led us to a flask available to hundreds. The old field of weaponization could narrow down that number of suspects considerably, but has remained unexplored.

Since the weaponization field of study is classified TOP SECRET, it will require a classified venue to review this material. What is needed is a scientific and investigative review of the evidence, keeping in mind that this "black art" may be encumbered with more than its share of dis/misinformation.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

On Weaponization: Some Contributions from Others

From Sandia is a press release discussing their analysis of the spores

From Dr. Henry L. Niman is a discussion of how some letters only caused cutaneous anthrax, while others only caused inhalation anthrax, strong indirect support for weaponization, since in nature there are vastly more cutaneous than inhalation cases, even in areas where spores are regularly inhaled.

Dr. Barbara Rosenberg presents a detailed and well-referenced discussion of several aspects of weaponization. Unfortunately, I have lost the links she provided, but will try to correct this asap.

An Anonymous Scientist made some salient points as comments to my blog that I'd like to highlight also.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

If the case is solved, why isn’t it solved?

The Scott Shane/Eric Lichtblau New York Times article, titled "Seeking Details, Lawmakers Cite Anthrax Doubts," is found in today's Sunday paper, although it went online yesterday. It deserves its own post, because it is so important to this developing story.

It is chock full of interesting information and quotes, like this one about how the FBI solves a multiple murder case:
“Who had the means, motive and opportunity?” said John Miller, assistant F.B.I. director for public affairs. “Some potential suspects may have had one, some had two, but on the cumulative scale, Dr. Ivins had many more of these elements than any other potential suspect.”
and this one by Senator Grassley:
“If the case is solved, why isn’t it solved?” Mr. Grassley asked. “It’s all very suspicious, and you wonder whether or not the F.B.I. doesn’t have something to cover up and that they don’t want to come clean.”

Saturday, September 6, 2008

New Information on FBI's Case Against Ivins from NY Times and the FBI Briefing of Aug. 18

Today's excellent NY Times piece by Scott Shane and Eric Lichtblau reveals that Ivins as "sole custodian" of the RMR-1029 anthrax flask was a fiction. The flask was not always stored in Ivins' laboratory, but kept in another building at different times between 1997 and 2001, greatly increasing the number of those who had access to 200-300, and weakening the claim that access was controlled by Ivins. Furthermore, the FBI sent Ivins a formal letter in April 2007 stating that he was "not a target" of the investigation. And the FBI only took a mouth swab for DNA a week before Ivins died.

Careful reading of the August 18 FBI briefing transcript suggests that the FBI became suspicious of Ivins as a result of Ivins' first sample not meeting the requirements of their protocol, and his second sample not containing the expected 4 mutations. An unnamed official at the briefing stated, "
We had reason to believe that there was something wrong with the April submission. It didn't have these mutations, and so that caused the investigative team to say that it (sic) might be something more to this." In response to a question about when suspicion first turned to Ivins, FBI's Majidi reiterated what the unnamed official had said: "Investigatively, after we saw various mutations outside the RMR-1029, it all pointed back to RMR-1029, so the question became “Why are we seeing these mutations in these samples, and we know where they're coming from and why are we not seeing it in their origin?” '

Yet the FBI admits this behavior, initially deemed "suspicious," is now being called simply "questionable." And that the protocol for sample submission had not even been established at the time Ivins submitted his first sample. But later another official disagreed, saying Ivins had received a subpoena with protocol before he submitted a sample... yet his was the first (of 1,070 total samples) FBI received. Back in 2002, when Ivins' samples were submitted, the methodology to trace the anthrax origin by looking at
variable colony morphologies resulting from insertions and deletions did not exist, so Ivins could not have been specifically trying to thwart it.

The FBI said that all 8 of 1070 Ames samples that had the same 4 mutations as Ivins' first sample came from the RMR-1029 flask originally. How many others of the 1070 samples also came from that flask but lacked all 4 mutations? Choosing a different method to use, or seeking a different set of mutations, may have given a different result. It seems obvious that if a pure culture were obtained from the flask (one or even a few spores) it could not contain all four mutations, since each occurred in less than one per cent of colonies derived from samples in the flask. Might other scientists have submitted pure samples though their culture had an RMR-1029 origin as well? Did the FBI do its own collecting at all the labs with Ames anthrax? I don't think so.

Dr. Keim said during the briefing that Ivins' flask contained about a trillion spores (or enough to fill only half a Daschle letter, if he is accurate). But the flask contained a good portion of 35 separate production runs pooled from Dugway and Detrick. This makes it unlikely that sufficient anthrax to fill the letters could have been made in 3 to 7 days (time for only one or two production runs) using Detrick's standard equipment, as claimed by FBI, unless considerable additional equipment was used.

FBI started screening samples for mutations in 2004, but even then the repository of Ames samples was not complete. It would have been much more likely for someone who submitted a sample after the methodology was developed (in 2004) to attempt to hide his tracks, rather than the person who submitted the first sample (which did contain all 4 desired mutations).

During the briefing, Dr. Majidi implied that the method used to dry the spores was of no interest to the FBI investigation. He was asked if the method wasn't an important part of the evidence, and he said no, the important part of the evidence was relating the 4 mutations to RMR-1029! This reflects unwillingness to grapple with a critical part of the case: how the spores were prepared. Then again, Majidi claimed that there was no special preparation of the letter spores.

If the spores were not specially prepared, then the FBI should have had no difficulty re-engineering their precise preparation, and demonstrating the product to us. If FBI could not reproduce it, then the method by which it was produced is an even more essential part of the case to be solved, not dismissed. (BTW, various officials waffled over whether the spores had a charge, or not, during the briefing.)

In summary, when you read the entire FBI transcript, you are left with the impression that almost none of the questions raised by the scientists and journalists in the audience were answered satisfactorily.

Building on 'Outstanding Questions'

The FBI has completed its disclosures, and the media, bloggers and scientists have spent a month discussing the anthrax letters case and putative guilt of Bruce Ivins. Where does the case stand, and what remains to be answered?

Hoax Letters Remain a Mystery
At least one hoax letter was apparently thought by the FBI to have been sent by the anthrax perpetrator (it was sent from England while Steven Hatfill was training there, and was considered, at least by some, to be part of the case against him). Judith Miller at the NY Times received a hoax letter, and Tom Brokaw received both a hoax letter and an anthrax letter around the same time. Anthrax hoax letters were sent from Florida and possibly other places. It is critical that all these letters be publicly revealed, and that information on fingerprints, handwriting analysis, identification of the envelopes, identification of the tape used (if any) and the ink is compared to the true anthrax letters. If any came from the same source, then the anthrax perpetrator(s) must be able to be placed where they were mailed, in the appropriate time frame. Can any of the (now 200 plus--see Sept. 6 NY Times article) persons who had access to the spores from Ivins' flask be placed in New Jersey and the other locations at the right times? If not, the crime involves more than one person.

Sept. 3 note: Thanks to Ed Lake for pointing out that the Malaysia letter was mistakenly thought to contain anthrax, and was not a hoax letter. He also noted that a letter mailed in Florida had its image included in this article in the Saint Petersburg Times.

Allegations Against Dr. Ayaad Assaad May be Important Evidence
Although the letter sent to the FBI at Quantico suggesting former USAMRIID researcher Dr. Ayaad Assaad was a bioterrorist arrived just before the anthrax cases came to light, that is no guarantee it came from an anthrax perpetrator. But it certainly might have, so its provenance is important, as are other details such as the text of the letter (which allegedly contained details about Assaad that few people would know, suggesting a former coworker was the author), where it was posted, and the type of envelope, stationary, ink, possible saliva, fingerprints, etc. Why has the FBI been so secretive about this letter? Unless it is part of an ongoing criminal proceeding, it should be revealed to Congress and the public. On Sept. 7, Assaad told more of his story.

The Princeton Mailbox May Not be the Original Site Where the Letters Were Mailed
Were the letters originally mailed from the designated Princeton mailbox? The mailbox was not investigated for almost a year after the letters were sent, according to Congressman Rush Holt, whose district included the mailbox location. It has been reported that the mailbox that tested positive for anthrax was also used as a box to store bags of mail, in addition to being a box for mailing letters. Thus conceivably the box was cross-contaminated from mail being stored there, and the letters were originally mailed elsewhere. Learning the concentrations of anthrax found at various boxes and post offices might help support whether the Princeton box was the original site at which the letters were mailed.

Was the question of cross contamination, raised by local authorities in 2002, ignored once the Kappa Kappa Gamma storeroom was discovered near this mailbox?

The perpetrator(s) almost certainly lacked awareness that the spores could freely leave the envelopes. (The edges were taped because the perpetrator thought that was where leakage might occur.) So the perp could have been relatively careless about which mailbox was used, on the mistaken assumption it could not be traced. Seeking a suspect for whom this mailbox would be convenient thus makes a lot of sense, but only if the letter was mailed there, and not if the mailbox was only subject to cross-contamination.

Weaponized Spore Preparation of Senate Letters
A vast amount of contradictory information has been provided to the media regarding the "weaponization" of the anthrax spores in the Daschle/Leahy letters. It is critical that the actual weaponization process be identified and compared with what is known of weaponization techniques explored by US and foreign programs. This part of the investigation will need to be discussed in a top secret venue in order for a complete accounting of the facts to be made. Exploration of this topic must include an accurate description of the spore preparation when the Daschle letter was first opened, by those who first evaluated it, discussion of how it could have been produced (and whether FBI or others have successfully re-engineered the exact preparation) and discussion of the materials and equipment required to produce it. Who had knowledge of this process, access to necessary materials and equipment, and a Biosafety 3 or 4 laboratory, to safely produce at least 14 grams of product to fill at least 7 envelopes? (It is accepted that some of the envelopes contained a simpler, unweaponized form of anthrax, but total production was an estimated 14 grams.)

How Many Letters Were There?
Seven envelopes arrived at or were addressed to the following seven locations: the AMI building (The National Enquirer and several other tabloids were located here), FL; the NY Post, NY; ABC News, NY: NBC News, NY; CBS News, NY; Senator Tom Daschle, Washington, DC; Senator Pat Leahy, Washington, DC. Media outlets from which no letters were found had anthrax cases in employees or visitors. There could have been additional letters sent elsewhere that did not cause diagnosed anthrax infections, and were never found.

How Were Letter Recipients Selected?
The most likely explanation for sending letters to the media was to obtain publicity. Isn't it obvious that an anthrax letter would be worth its weight in gold to a tabloid? The National Enquirer produced a multi-page spread about the anthrax letter it received. I was interviewed for the story. I was also queried about what the AMI employees should be doing to prevent illness. How could you get better publicity than by having the story stare at customers from every supermarket checkout counter in the country? The NY Post was probably chosen for a similar reason: the fact it would be unlikely to suppress a story about an attack on itself. The other NYC media outlets were probably chosen because they are the sources of national TV news.

The Letters Weren't Meant to Kill, Though a Few Deaths Enhanced the Effect. What Were They Meant to Do?
Both the choice of recipients, and the letters' warnings, are the reasons I believe the letters were sent to create a major effect--but not to kill. If you wanted to kill, you would not tell the recipient the letter contains anthrax, and to take penicillin. In the absence of those warnings, there would have been a longer delay before recipients received lifesaving antibiotics, and many more deaths.

If you wanted to kill, you would put the anthrax into the ventilation system of a Congressional or other building (in those days there was no BioWatch system) and wait for the deaths to pile up. The anthrax letters were a "best case" scenario for bioterrorism, designed to give the US Congress and public a taste (and only a taste) of a biological Armageddon.

Why? The logical answer is that the second set of letters were designed to scare Congress members to death. This would induce them and the Administration to spend more money on bioterrorism, and pass legislation that appeared to reduce the likelihood of future biological terrorism or its impact. Examples of affected legislation included the Project Bioshield Act and the Patriot Act. DHHS Secretary Tommy Thompson purchased about a billion dollars' worth of Cipro and smallpox vaccine within weeks of the attack, and insisted on getting the moribund anthrax vaccine manufacturer re-approved and producing. Thompson, now a civilian, continues to reap the benefits through commercial interests in a variety of companies providing bioterrorism services to the government. But other government officials have reaped similar benefits; several are on the board of the anthrax vaccine manufacturer now, including a former Secretary of DHHS, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, and a former Assistant Secretary at DHHS.

The letters' messages were a crude attempt to direct blame at the Muslim community. The text, along with the general knowledge that Saddam Hussein possessed anthrax, is likely to have bolstered support in the US for war against Iraq, despite a lack of evidence that Iraq was involved with Al Qaeda and the September 11 attacks. (In marketing, perception is everything.)

Spore Virulence and Repulsion
With respect to the actual "weaponized" (or not) spore preparation in the Daschle and Leahy letters, a little more needs to be said. In factories contaminated by dry spores (such as 4 goat hair mills in the Eastern US in the 1940s and 1950s) virtually no one developed inhalation anthrax (prior to a suspicious vaccine trial) although there reliably occurred one cutaneous anthrax case per hundred person-years in factory employees. There were also subclinical infections in employees that led to immunity, as determined serologically. Inhalation anthrax was extremely hard to acquire, despite a study showing that spores were present in the factories' ambient air, and that hundreds were inhaled daily.

Reasons postulated for the lack of inhalation cases include the fact that spores readily adhere to things in the environment. They become subsumed in particles larger than 5 microns, which stick to the walls of the airways and are excreted. A very high spore count, or very impaired immunity, is usually required to overwhelm the lungs' defenses.

Was silicon, found in an elemental analysis of the spores, a natural occurrence or was it added? How much was found? This too is critical in pinning down the nature of the spore preparation.

Description of the first examination of the Daschle anthrax noted its tendency to repel other particles, rather than stick to them. If a charge were added to the spores, the charge would be expected to dissipate over days or weeks; thus the characteristics of the anthrax could have changed when inspected later. Furthermore, Dr. John Ezzell initially evaluated this anthrax in a high containment lab at USAMRIID. It was later processed before sharing with some other labs, to reduce its lethality. This processing likely changed other characteristics as well.

A charge could also lead spores to re-aerosolize after landing on surfaces, increasing virulence considerably. A UN official, Dr. Kay Mereish, reported that the letter anthrax had in fact been prepared with a charge, according to a 2006 lecture at a CBRN meeting by D. Small, who had worked with the anthrax. Marilyn Thompson reported that the US administration had USAMRIID "tone down" its description of the Daschle anthrax as "weaponized."

So there is reason to question the current FBI assertion that no special weaponization process of the spores was performed, beyond washing. How can a Congressional hearing arrive at the truth of this critical piece of information?

Knowing how the spores were weaponized to produce the Daschle product is essential to finding the perpetrator(s) of the crime. Only a small number of people will have knowledge of any spore weaponization processes, and an even smaller number will know how to prepare spores identical to those in Daschle's letter.

Whether the letter anthrax was made using a US or foreign process, such production (and even development of the process) might be considered to contravene the legal limits of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, to which the US and most nations are party. Thus secrecy and/or disinformation might have resulted from the perceived need to protect an illegal US or foreign program.

Getting to the bottom of the letters' weaponization will yield a very small number of suspects, and at least one will be a guilty party.

Friday, September 5, 2008

House Judiciary Wants Answers From FBI Chief on Anthrax

Sept. 5, 2008

Members of the House Judiciary Committee made clear Friday they expect more answers from the FBI about its August announcement that a government scientist was responsible for the 2001 anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

Committee members submitted a list of questions they want Director Robert S. Mueller III to answer about the anthrax investigation in advance of his first Capitol Hill appearance since the FBI announced Bruce E. Ivins was solely responsible for the attack. Mueller is to appear before the panel Sept. 16.

Ivins, a microbiologist who worked at a U.S. military research institute at Fort Detrick, Md., committed suicide as federal officials prepared to indict him.

“Important and lingering questions remain that are crucial for you to address, especially since there will never be a trail to examine the facts of the case,” wrote Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr. , D-Mich., in a letter co-signed by two subcommittee chairmen.

Among the questions they want Mueller to address are whether White House officials initially pressed the FBI to show the attacks were linked to al Qaeda or Iraq and why another government scientist, Steven Hatfill, remained a suspect in the investigation. Judiciary Committee Democrats also want Mueller to explain why Ivins retained his security clearance after becoming the prime suspect in the attacks....

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Anthrax: The Demon in the Mailbox

from the Daily Kos, by Califlander

A few months ago, Plutonium Page wrote a diary about the anthrax attacks that made reference to Richard Preston’s 2002 book on the subject, called The Demon in the Freezer.

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?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Outstanding Questions

See September 6 version above