Thursday, August 28, 2008

FBI's August 18 Briefing: full text

A transcript of the FBI's scientific (afternoon of Aug. 18, 2008) briefing for media can be found here.


Anonymous said...

The FBI narrative on the silica content of the attack spores is based upon previously documented levels of silicon found in related bacillus species. A 1981 paper by Somloyo et al (Distribution of calcium and other elements in Bacillus cereus spores) recorded Si levels of around 0.14% in certain spore samples. These levels are considered trace levels and may result from silicon in the water used to ferment the spores, especially if the water was not deionized. Tap water contains around 10 ppm silicon. Other sources of silicon would include impure chemicals and/or nutrients used in the spore prep.
In one particular sample the concentration of silicon in the Bacillus cereus spore coat was 0.45% - however the overall spore contained less than this as total weight percent silicon.
Thus the FBI characterize the presence of silicon in the attack spores as being "naturally occurring" (see exerpts from briefing below).

From this, and their reference to the previous study by Somloyo where natural silicon levels in the range 0.14% - 0.45% were reported, it is then fair to ask what exactly were the % silicon levels found in the attack spores? If the levels found were in the range 0.14% - 0.45% then this would be consistent with their characterization that the silicon was "naturally occurring".

However, the silicon levels in the spores may be much higher than this - possibly more than an order of magnitude higher or more. Evidence for this is the fact that in 2003 Michael Mason the FBI's Washington DC head, stated on the record that an 18 month effort to reverse engineer the attack spores had failed. It was disclosed at the briefing (see below) that this failure was related to the inability to reproduce the high silicon level.

It was asked at the briefing what the actual silicon % was in the attack spores. An answer was not given - and finally and unnamed FBI official stated "It was high".

It would be important to find an answer to this as yet unanswered question. How much silicon was present? This is a definite quantitative number expressed as a weight %. With this number if would be immediately obvious if the narrative about naturally occurring silicon is consistent with the actual result. Naturally occurring silicon levels (if they happen to exist for a particular sample) are in the range 0.14% - 0.45% according to the literature.

If the % silicon in the attack samples is considerably more than this and cannot be reproduced by reverse engineering this means the attack powder is not understood and it's production method is not understood. This then raises serious questions with the FBI's theory that a lone person at Fort Detrick was able to make this powder - especially if there are no existing samples of spores inside Detrick that contain this high level of silicon.

Excerpts from August 18 briefing:

Naturally occurring silicon discussion:

QUESTION: Did you develop any theories on where the silicon and oxygen came from, and do you think it played any role in making the spores super buoyant?

DR. MAJIDI: If I can actually pass that question to Dr. Burans, because he's our expert on processing.

DR. BURANS: In essence, as Dr. Michael described, the silicon associated with oxygen that was found within the spore, not on the surface of the spore, being present within the spore coat, which is covered by something called an exosporia, the silicon would not have contributed to the fluid-like qualities of the Anthrax powders.

QUESTION: And as to where it came from?

DR. BURANS: It's known that Bacilli are capable of mineralizing different types of elements including silicon, so as early as 1982 Bacilli species Bacilli species have been shown to localize silica within their spore coat.

QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up?

DR. MAJIDI: It could have been within the growth media. It could have been within --

DR. BURANS: It was a natural occurrence.

Discussion on quantity of silicon present:

QUESTION: Dr. Peter Jarling and Dr. Tom Geiserd of USAMRIID said that they both saw silica on the exosporium, and Dr. Frank Johnson and Dr. Florabel Mullick of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology both said that they found silica, not -- you know, in their elemental analysis at APHID. I went back to them several times and they both -- all these scientists insisted it was silica on the surface of these spores. So I was wondering what --

Can you please account for the discrepancy between your findings and those of two U.S. Army laboratories?

BACKGROUND OFFICIAL: I can answer that for you. They did not have the technology to make those statements. They would not have been able to give an elemental analysis using the technology --

QUESTION: You're telling me energy-dispersive x-ray fluorescence spectrometry is not capable --

BACKGROUND OFFICIAL: -- I'm not aware that they --

QUESTION: -- of doing elemental analysis?

BACKGROUND OFFICIAL: -- performed that.

DR. HASSELL: It's not capable of locating where it is. It could -- if there is bulk silica in there, but x-ray fluorescence is not capable of doing location.

BACKGROUND OFFICIAL: The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology used scanning electron microscopy to do a gross examination of the spore preps to see if there was exogenous material mixed with the spores. So it's Dr. Michael who did the x-ray analysis on the spores and showed that --

QUESTION: Wait, wait, wait. APHID published a newsletter saying that they did energy-dispersive x-ray fluorescence spectrometry on the spores.

BACKGROUND OFFICIAL: Right, they did a bulk analysis of it. They could not tell where the presence of the elemental signature was coming from. They couldn't tell whether it was coming from the outside of the spores or the inside of the spores. The type of analysis they did was a bulk elemental analysis.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what the dry weight percentage was on the silicon and the oxygen?

BACKGROUND OFFICIAL: There was no exogenous silicon in the spores.

QUESTION: I appreciate that, but can you please tell me what the dry weight percentage was of the silicon?


QUESTION: It was high?


QUESTION: Which was, according to Dr. Frank Johnson of APHID, consistent with the silica signature, because they did a reference sample of silica before they examined the spores.

BACKGROUND OFFICIAL: Nobody is saying that there was no silicon, elemental silicon.

QUESTION: But he said they were silica.

BACKGROUND OFFICIAL: Okay, we're going to get to that. We're going to let Dr. Michael answer that. But I'm telling you what APHID did was a bulk analysis. They would be able to tell that there was silicon and oxygen present in the prep, which would be hypothesized as silica. But their gross examinations did not show any exogenous silica --

QUESTION: I appreciate that but obviously what Dr. Jarling and Dr. Geiserd said they actually saw the silica on the surface of the spores.

DR. MICHAEL: But that's just not possible. It's not possible.

QUESTION: You're saying they're mistaken?

BACKGROUND OFFICIAL: Yes, they are mistaken.

BACKGROUND OFFICIAL: -- and there have been presentations at the American Society for Microbiology where some of those photographs were presented and --

QUESTION: Can you tell me what they saw then? How did they make such a mistake?

BACKGROUND OFFICIAL: -- I don't know that. I don't know where their statements came from.

DR. MAJIDI: What we can do is we can stay within the scope of what we know. Telling you what other people say on our samples, based on our knowledge of what they have done is -- this is the list of methodologies that we have; it's unlikely with the methods that they used they were able to actually derive that conclusion that silica was added. And again, it becomes very critical to look at those electron microscopies with energy-dispersive x-ray to be able to do the spatial location identification of the silicon signal you see.


QUESTION: All right. But were you --

The reason I'm asking is because of 2004, a Michael Mason, who was the head of, I believe, the Washington Office of the FBI, went on the record and said that the FBI attempt to reverse-engineer the powders at Dugway failed --

DR. MAJIDI: Yeah. He was exclusively talking about the silicon signal.

QUESTION: So -- he was exclusively talking a about the silicon signal, not the powders?

DR. MAJIDI: That's right.

QUESTION: Not the powders?


Ellen Byrne said...

The New York Times, August 18, 2008

Richard O. Spertzel, a retired microbiologist who led the United Nations’ biological weapons inspections of Iraq, said he remained skeptical of the bureau’s argument despite the new evidence. “It’s a pretty tenuous argument,” Dr. Spertzel said in an interview, adding that he questioned the bureau’s claim that the powder was less than military grade.

The F.B.I. scientists said they had been able to reverse-engineer the production and properties of the attack spores, producing bacteria that flew into the air with ease. One person could have prepared the attack anthrax in three to seven days, with equipment available at Fort Detrick, a bureau expert said.

The F.B.I. had been unable to reproduce one feature of the attack spores — their high level of silica — but attributed that to natural variability.

Dr. Spertzel said the failure to reproduce the silica content “raises more questions.” But he added that if the F.B.I. was right and “an individual can make that kind of product, just by drying it, we are in deep trouble as a nation and a world.”

'Guess the FDA better get crackin' on the vaccine!

Elizabeth Ferrari / San Francisco said...

Three more questions:

Am I wrong or did the FBI only reverse engineer that anthrax in the press -- made is common enough for Bruce Ivins to be able to produce it but rare enough to try to tie it exclusively to his lab equipment?

Also, why has no one raised the issue of the standing of science under the Bush Administration? Bush political appointees have a history of falsifying, suppressing and censoring science and scientists. People who find or assert inconvenient facts are cut off from interacting with the media or heavily monitored. That's in the Congressional Record -- I believe Mr. Waxman took this testimony.

And yet, we're supposed to believe the unpublished work by scientists working for the Bush JUSTICE Department -- possibly the most politicized arm of this administration outside the White House? Really?!

Third, has any competent person agreed with this report who is not working for the Bush government in some capacity? Mr. Buran is a cheerleader for the War on Terror (or "Terra", as I tend to hear it).