Monday, October 27, 2008

Trail of Odd Anthrax Cells Led FBI to Army Scientist: Washington Post

Today's front page Washington Post article by Joby Warrick on the Ivins case appears to present the FBI's side of the story. I will post excerpts from the article and comment (in italics) on its inconsistencies.
Abshire focused her lens on a moldlike clump. Anthrax bacteria were growing here, but some of the cells were odd: strange shapes, strange textures, strange colors. These were mutants, or "morphs," genetic deviants scattered among the ordinary anthrax cells like chocolate chips in a cookie batter...

Ivins, the FBI discovered, had spent more than a year perfecting what agents called his "ultimate creation" -- his signature blend of highly lethal anthrax spores -- and guarded it so carefully that his lab assistants did not know where he kept it...

"It was his ultimate creation," said Jason D. Bannan, an FBI microbiologist assigned to the Amerithrax case. "This was the culmination of a lot of hard work."

Exceptionally pure concentrations of anthrax spores were Ivins's trademark and placed him in an exclusive class...

It was intended for garden-variety animal experiments, but the collection of anthrax spores known as RMR-1029 was anything but ordinary. Ivins, its creator, had devoted a year to perfecting it, mixing 34 different batches of bacteria-laden broth and distilling them into a single liter of pure lethality...

Ames-strain bacteria was essentially identical wherever it was found, the advisers said...

The art of "spore preparation" is a tedious job often relegated to novices and technicians.
Inconsistency: Ivins made exceptionally pure spore preparations, but his "master" prep was full of mutants.

Exaggerations: FBI agents call his flask of Ames anthrax his "ultimate creation," but all it contained was the combined product of 34 separate small production runs at Fort Detrick and Dugway, only some of which Ivins had made. FBI advisers said that Ames was pretty much the same wherever it was found. So the claim of Ivins' flask having special virulence, compared to other Ames batches, is doubtful.

Ivins spent a year perfecting it? How do you "perfect" 34 separate batches when you didn't make all of them? There has been no prior evidence that the flask contained "special" Ames spores, nor does this article report any such evidence.

Furthermore, as is noted in the article, growing anthrax is usually the work of technicians, and does not require advanced skills. Growing spores is not a method of perfecting them. The recipes are widely available in the open literature. Ivins could have spent a year growing the anthrax in the flask, but he would have been accomplishing plenty of other tasks simultaneously.

Unknowingly, Abshire had discovered a key to solving the anthrax case. But it would take nearly six years to develop the technology to allow FBI investigators to use it...
Some of the technology needed to solve the case had not been invented. And the FBI's top science advisers were warning that the effort would fail...
...the bureau had to invent an entirely new investigative field, microbial forensics...
When the FBI later asked Ivins for anthrax spores from his lab, he deliberately bypassed his prize spore collection, agents said, and gave them a false sample...
Inconsistencies: Ivins gave the FBI a sample from the RMR-1029 flask initially, one tube of which was sent to Paul Keim. When FBI complained about the way the sample was prepared, he gave them a pure specimen, rather than the mixture he initially provided, which contained the 4 mutations FBI later focused on. But why would Ivins have done this to fool the FBI, when he gave them RMR-1029 first, and provided both samples before the methodology to track the mutations had even been invented?

And the WP article acknowledges this:

But Ivins could not have known that RMR-1029 contained genetic mutants, in relatively high numbers. A batch of spores like RMR-1029 might be expected to contain, at most, one mutated variant. But Ivins's flask, because of its unusual pedigree, contained five.
Furthermore, FBI obtained voluntary specimens from most scientists; would a guilty party volunteer the specimen used to prepare the letter spores, as Ivins did initially?

For one thing, no one besides Ivins seems to have known where they were kept. The plain, triangle-shaped storage flask was one of many kept in plastic tubs inside a refrigerated storage room in Ivins's restricted lab. It had only a handwritten label -- RMR-1029, shorthand for "reference material received, No. 1029." When spores were needed for experiments, Ivins alone would retrieve them. "His own people who worked with him on a daily basis didn't know which flask it was," Langham said.

Exaggeration: He kept the vial, properly labeled, in the refrigerated storage room where it belonged. Maybe he didn't share its exact location with others because it contained a huge number of highly lethal spores, equal to millions of lethal doses? Isn't that exactly what he should have been doing from a biosafety perspective?

The list of suspects narrowed, officials said, until only one was left: Ivins. Ivins alone created and controlled the distinctive collection of anthrax cells that provided the seeds for the attacks. And he was the undisputed master at manipulating the bacteria into dense concentrations of deadly spores. While graduate school microbiologists could have performed most of the tasks, Ivins had the experience and the "good set of hands" required to achieve a spore preparation of such quality, a government scientist said.
Exaggeration: you need a master to concentrate spores. No: you need a centrifuge, or a filter, and a college student can do it. Good hands not required.

Exaggeration: "Ivins alone controlled the distinctive concentration of anthrax cells..." But everyone he gave a sample to from that flask also controlled the same distinctive concentration of anthrax cells. That is why FBI received multiple matching samples from other scientists.
"When you go to the true experts and ask them how many people can develop [anthrax spores] into something with this purity and this concentration, they shake their heads," said Montooth, the lead Amerithrax investigator. "Some will say there are perhaps six. Others will say maybe a dozen."

Misleading: the spore purity was a result of the spores having been washed thoroughly after they were grown. When experts say only 6-12 people could have produced similar spore preparations, they are referring to the special features of the dry, weaponized spores, not to the fact the spore preparation was concentrated or lacking in debris. It remains uncertain whether Ivins could have produced such dry spores, and it is doubtful that the spores in the flask, in liquid medium, had the same concentration as the dry letter spores.

But drying the spores turned out to be no obstacle at all, FBI scientists said. It required only one more step, using a common laboratory machine known as a lyophilizer. Ivins had one in his lab.

"Because he grew spores on a daily basis, he was in a position to make [the powder], and no one would be the wiser," Montooth said.

Misleading: The lyophilizer reportedly available to Ivins would have required many runs to dry the volume of spores used in the letters, thus taking a longer time than was available between 9/11 and the letter attacks. It would also be more visible to colleagues, some of whom have said he could not have done it without being detected.


Barry Kissin said...

Though, as always, I truly appreciate Dr. Nass's pains-taking, the tone (and the approach) of her post about today's front-page Washington Post article is quite inappropriate. This Washington Post article is pure disinformation that may as well have been, if it weren't actually, written by the DOJ-FBI. If you agree with me and desire to feel that you are not relatively alone, check out the four pages of outraged comments to today's Washington Post article that can be accessed at

Some representative comments:

1. Absolute nonsense. You can keep printing the FBI's lies if you want, but everyone knows this is just a cover-up, aided by the government PR monkeys at the Washington Post. Absolutely disgusting - don't you even care that the real culprits got away scot-free? That would be Battelle, the nation's #1 biowarfare contractor . . .
2. As a scientist I have the utmost respect for good laboratory findings... But, in this case the stench of disinformation is all over this 'story', which reads like agitprop.. And the really hokey, posed photo with FBI agents in suits, ties, shined shoes, and freshly starched lab coats, looks like it is straight from the X-Files... I am an old lab rat, and I have never, ever, seen anyone look like that in a real lab...Maybe someone is re-using Joseph Goebbel's playbook to run this scam...
3. This is pure propaganda. The FBI is a bunch of liars led by the biggest liar Mueller. They can write their own CSI novel, but that doesn't change history. Everyone knows the Neocons and the Bush administration were behind the Anthrax. Everyone remembers it being blamed on the so-called terrorists. It's a big part of how they scared the American people and our do-nothing Congress into approving the fake war on terror. The cover-ups will continue until the PEOPLE take their government back. . .

Ellen Byrne said...

Thank you for your continued attention and expertise with this case, and in balancing the FBI's "evidence". Your blog will be an essential reference during the investigation. Your dedication is amazing.

Kenneth J. Dillon said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

To Kenneth Dillon,

Interestingly you mention anthrax and George Mason University. The timing of that tidbit is a bit off. George Mason did not have a Bioterrorism Institute until December 2001 which was AFTER the Anthrax Letters. The letters resulted in an outpouring of support for Dr. Alibekov and his former Soviet bioweaponeers, and only then did Dr. Bailey get hired.
I agree with the others that the Washington Post Article wasn't News and appeared to be a cameo piece on the "brave, brilliant and fancy photographed" FBI scientists who followed up on a USAMRIID Technician's good observation, and then overstated the capabilities of their analyses.

Anonymous said...

Joby Warrick and the Washington Post appear to be completely bought and paid for by the FBI. It really is astonishing - in fact, beyond astonishing.
Pasted below is an excellent comment from the Wash Post comments section.
I can only add that the FBI must know the weight % of silicon in the attack spores. By all accounts it is very large. In the Daschle powder it is around 5%. In the New York Post powder at is more than 50% !. It's no wonder the FBI's Mueller refused to answer this specific question of % silicon at the recent hearings. Even Mueller would not have been able to keep a straight face as he stated "Er, the New York Post powder contained 50% silicon, and, er, yes it was naturally occurrring".
Why publish 3,264 words (including this sidebar: regurgitating the same old FBI garbage?

Particularly offensive is the reference made in the sidebar to "the weaponization myth" and the claim that it has been debunked. In that sidebar, the Washington Post asserts the following: "The anthrax letters mailed to U.S. Senate offices contained a wispy powder that some experts initially described as "weaponized" -- treated with chemicals or additives so it would spread easily and kill more people. It wasn't true. Scientists found no additives and no evidence of deliberate genetic manipulation. A small amount of silicon was found inside the outer shells of the microbes, but tests showed it was a natural phenomenon resulting from the way the bacteria were grown."

Absolutely no evidence has been provided to support that claim. See Gary Matsumoto's 2003 article in Science describing the FBI's abrupt and unexplained reversal on this issue:

Some excerpts:

Early in the investigation, the FBI appeared to endorse the latter view: that only a sophisticated lab could have produced the material used in the Senate attack. This was the consensus among biodefense specialists working for the government and the military. In May 2002, 16 of these scientists and physicians published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association, describing the Senate anthrax powder as “weapons-grade” and exceptional: “high spore concentration, uniform particle size, low electrostatic charge, treated to reduce clumping” (JAMA, 1 May 2002, p. 2237)...

By the fall of 2002, the awe-inspiring anthrax of the previous spring had morphed into something decidedly less fearsome. According to sources on Capitol Hill, FBI scientists now reported that there was “no additive” in the Senate anthrax at all...Even the astonishingly uniform particle size of 1.5 to 3 micrometers, mentioned in 2001 by Senator Bill Frist (R–TN), now included whopping 100-micrometer agglomerates, according to the new FBI description recounted by Capitol Hill aides. The reversal was so extreme that the former chief biological weapons inspector for the United Nations Special Commission, Richard Spertzel, found it hard to accept. “No silica, big particles, manual milling,” he says: “That’s what they’re saying now, and that radically contradicts everything we were told during the first year of this investigation.”

Military scientists did not back off their findings. The August/October 2002 newsletter from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) reported that a mass spectrometry analysis found silica in the powder sent to Senator Daschle (The AFIP Letter, August/October 2002, p. 6). “This was a key component,” said the institute’s deputy director, Florabel Mullick, in the AFIP newsletter. “Silica prevents the anthrax from aggregating, making it easier to aerosolize,” she added. Frank Johnson, chief of AFIP’s Chemical Pathology Division, corroborated this in an interview. “There was silica there,” said Johnson, “there was no mistaking it.” Maj. Gen. John S. Parker, commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at the time of the attacks, says he saw AFIP’s lab reports. “There was a huge silicon spike” consistent with the presence of silica, he says. “It peaked near the top of the screen.”

Moreover, the FBI's own affidavit ( released just after the news of Ivins' death came out stated: "Microscopic examination of the evidentiary spore powders recovered from all four letters identified an elemental signature of Silicon within the spores. This Silicon signature had not been previously described for Bacillus anthracis organisms."

To repeat, this silicon signature has not been found in any other anthrax organisms ever analyzed, and there has been no evidence presented that it was found in any of the anthrax that Ivins worked with.

To conclude, the FBI has provided exactly zero evidence supporting its claim that Bruce Ivins was the anthrax terrorist.

Anonymous said...

The quantity of silicon present in the attack spores is the very first piece of information that any competent scientist would want to know when tasked with determining if that silicon was added accidentally or deliberately.
It is shocking that in the seven years Sandia conducted tests they did not determine this number, nor do they seem to believe it is important today.

Contrary to the claims of Sandia scientists EDX spectroscopy is a quantitative tool. Basically any sample of any substance can be probed with an electron beam and an EDX spectrum can be produced - the peak positions give the elements present, the peak heights give the quantities present.

You can be conducting your own quantitative EDX studies on anthrax spores within minutes on your own computer if you download Microanaltik's free EDX simulation software.

The manual is here along with links to download the 2 packages (software and MA-table):

This package is as sophisticated as any commercial package that comes with the purchase of a $0.5M SEM/EDX tool.

Try running these simulations by filling in the simulator table:

(1) The EDX spectrum on page C-2 of the Edgewood report is quite challenging, since it contains a lot of Na, Mg and Cl. It also has a small Si peak. Try entering the following quantities in the simulator table: 0.2% Si, 78% C ,18%O. Mg Cl and Na range from about 0.7% to 3%.

One can obtain a pretty good simulation of this EDX spectrum - note that the best simulation contains about 0.2% Si. (note that you have to enter atomic numbers for the elements, so for C this is 6, O is 8, Si is 14, etc)

(2) Now try entering Carbon = 25.5%, Oxygen = 29.5% and Silicon = 45%. Use 10keV as the excitation energy. What do you produce?
It's the AFIP spectrum of silica - the reference spectrum of silica that AFIP used to compare with the spectra they produced from the attack spores.

That's how easy this is. Dozens of people have had access to the AFIP spectra for the last seven years. It's just a question of running a simulation to determine the amount of silicon present.

So, what were the EDX peak ratios of carbon, oxygen and silicon found in the original EDX spectra recorded by AFIP on the Daschle and New York Post powders?

Here they are:

Daschle: C-100, Si-95, O-100

New York Post: C-200, Si-20,000, O-200

Anonymous said...

Mr. Dillon, Why would the al Qaeda connection be taboo? Why would the feds prefer to have the terrorist(s) be homegrown?

Kenneth J. Dillon said...

anonymous, thanks for your comments.
If my theory of the case ( is correct, it would greatly embarrass the Bush Administration and would account for the Administration's 180 degree turnaround on the question of whether al Qaeda perpetrated the anthrax mailings. The theory portrays Abderraouf Jdey, a known al Qaeda operative based in Montreal, as repeatedly crossing the border to carry out the anthrax mailings and then the shoebombing of Flight #587 on November 12, 2001 as the U.S. Government sat idly by. Moreover, the theory implies that the investigation of the crash of Flight #587 was either incompetent or a cover-up. In general terms, the theory undermines the oft-repeated claim that the Administration has successfully protected us since 9/11.
In turn, the Bush Administration has sought to cover up the Jdey story. The Administration would still be happy to pin the blame for the mailings on al Qaeda, but not at the expense of bringing attention to the activities of Abderraouf Jdey. As far as I know, since 2004 the Administration has not breathed a word about al Qaeda in regard to the anthrax mailings.
As for the journalists, they evidently sense that the story is highly embarrassing and that the connection to the Flight #587 crash is very sensational and could alarm many ordinary Americans, including those planning air travel. So the journalists won't touch this story with a 10-foot pole. In their defense, they would no doubt point out that the story is simply a theory. That is true. However, they have published lots of stories about other theories.
FBI has a great deal more information about Abderraouf Jdey. Congress and others should insist that FBI share it with us.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your nicely detailed response, Mr. Dillon.

Robert Pate said...

Here is a real taboo theory on the anthrax letters which the administration will not discuss. The Mossad was behind the anthrax attacks.

The Anthrax Mystery: Solved

xaviero1 said...

To Anonymous (9:05 am),

What is the source for your statement that the Daschle powder had 5% silicon and the NY Post powder had 50% silicon?

-xaviero1 (the Washington Post commenter)

Ennealogic said...

Dr. Nass, please accept my thanks and appreciation for keeping on track in the Amerithrax case.

Only time will tell, but I firmly believe that solving this (and no, Dr. Ivins was not the culprit) will open a window onto far more egregious activities perpetrated against us by those we are supposed to trust.

May the truth prevail.

Anonymous said...

To xaviero1.
If you post an email address I'll get in touch with you.

Anonymous said...

Did you see this:

Ivins' personnel file has been released. Sort of.

xaviero1 said...

to Anonymous 7:23 pm,

sorry I didn't get back earlier.


Kenneth J. Dillon said...

In regard to the comment above by Anonymous: "Interestingly you mention anthrax and George Mason University. The timing of that tidbit is a bit off. George Mason did not have a Bioterrorism Institute until December 2001 which was AFTER the Anthrax Letters. The letters resulted in an outpouring of support for Dr. Alibekov and his former Soviet bioweaponeers, and only then did Dr. Bailey get hired."
Yes, but Hadron Advanced Biosystems had hired Charles Bailey on April 12, 2001. On the Hadron homepage dated June 1, its Advanced Biosystems laboratory was listed as located at GMU, Manassas--evidently in Discovery Hall. It is reasonable to infer that this was where Bailey was working in a DARPA-funded biodefense collaboration between GMU and Hadron ABS. It is also reasonable to infer that Bailey was the "former deputy commander" who FBI had considered one of its final four suspects, and that this meant that Bailey had received virulent anthrax from Bruce Ivins in addition to the avirulent Delta strain from NIH that was being used in the collaboration with GMU. Al Qaeda sympathizer Ali Al-Timimi (now under arrest) was a graduate student in computational biology in the same location, though I have not found documentation of the date he began there. My perception is that by a fair margin this is the most likely location for al Qaeda to have gained access to the anthrax from Ivins's flask. As a computer expert, Al-Timimi could also have obtained from Bailey's computer the instructions on preparing cells like anthrax with silica, which were in a patent application filed in March 2001 by Bailey et al.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Dillon,

Your construct about Al Qaeda obtaining RMR 1029 from George Mason University is fascinating and may be true. However, I beg to differ with your theory that Dr. Bailey made that possible. As he is an entomologist who worked on arboviral disease epidemiology, any attempt by him to enter a suite where Anthrax was used would raise a lot of interest among security personnel and would be noted. It is more likely that Dr. Alibek by himself or through any associates he brought to Battelle or Dugway where he oversaw as a Battelle employee the secret anthrax Aerosol Studies performed in Utah or Jefferson Ohio which are known in the public domain after William Broad's September 4, 2001 NY Times article.

Kenneth J. Dillon said...

My theory about Bailey is based on three inferences: 1) that he was the "former deputy commander" identified by FBI as one of four leading suspects; 2) that he was an FBI suspect in part because he had received RMR 1029 from Ivins; and 3) that he had some knowledge of anthrax as co-principal investigator of a DARPA-funded study of anthrax at GMU. Bailey might not have worked with anthrax himself, and other researchers at GMU might not even have known that he had received a sample of RMR 1029. Ivins could have offered it to him as a kind of gift to a former boss. Bailey could have wanted it because he thought RMR-1029 should be part of any serious biodefense lab or because he wanted other personnel at GMU to test it. Whatever the motives, relationships, and individual responsibilities, I think that the combination of RMR 1029, the Bailey-Alibek patent application with its repeated mention of silica, and the dynamic Ali Al-Timimi makes GMU by far the most likely place for al Qaeda to have obtained the anthrax. Lax lab and computer security contributed to the likelihood. See more at .