Monday, October 10, 2011

Scientists’ Analysis Disputes F.B.I. Closing of Anthrax Case/ NY Times

William Broad and Scott Shane have written a very useful NYT piece on the anthrax letters.  It discusses a new academic paper by Martin Hugh-Jones, Stuart Jacobsen and Barbara hatch Rosenberg, which explores the meaning of the tin and silicon found in the anthrax spore preparation of the anthrax letters.
A decade after wisps of anthrax sent through the mail killed 5 people, sickened 17 others and terrorized the nation, biologists and chemists still disagree on whether federal investigators got the right man and whether the F.B.I.’s long inquiry brushed aside important clues.
Now, three scientists argue that distinctive chemicals found in the dried anthrax spores — including the unexpected presence of tin — point to a high degree of manufacturing skill, contrary to federal reassurances that the attack germs were unsophisticated. The scientists make their case in a coming issue of the Journal of Bioterrorism & Biodefense.
F.B.I. documents reviewed by The New York Times show that bureau scientists focused on tin early in their eight-year investigation, calling it an “element of interest” and a potentially critical clue to the criminal case. They later dropped their lengthy inquiry, never mentioned tin publicly and never offered any detailed account of how they thought the powder had been made...
Both the chairwoman of a National Academy of Science panel that spent a year and a half reviewing the F.B.I.’s scientific work and the director of a new review by the Government Accountability Office said the paper raised important questions that should be addressed.
Alice P. Gast, president of Lehigh University and the head of the academy panel, said that the paper “points out connections that deserve further consideration.”
Dr. Gast, a chemical engineer, said the “chemical signatures” in the mailed anthrax and their potential value to the criminal investigation had not been fully explored. “It just wasn’t pursued as vigorously as the microbiology,” she said, alluding to the analysis of micro-organisms. She also noted that the academy panel suggested a full review of classified government research on anthrax, which her panel never saw.
In interviews, the three authors said their analysis suggested that the F.B.I. might have pursued the wrong suspect and that the case should be reopened. Their position may embolden calls for a national commission to investigate the first major bioterrorist attack in American history...
In a reprise of the DOJ's "hang tough and deny" MO:
Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said the paper provided “no evidence whatsoever that the spores used in the mailings were produced” at a location other than Fort Detrick. He said investigators believe Dr. Ivins grew and dried the anthrax spores himself.
“Speculation regarding certain characteristics of the spores is just that — speculation,” Mr. Boyd said. “We stand by our conclusion.”
The tin is surprising because it kills micro-organisms and is used in antibacterial products. The authors of the paper say its presence in the mailed anthrax suggests that the germs, after cultivation and drying, got a specialized silicon coating, with tin as a chemical catalyst. Such coatings, known in industry as microencapsulants, are common in the manufacture of drugs and other products.
“It indicates a very special processing, and expertise,” said Martin E. Hugh-Jones, lead author of the paper and a world authority on anthrax at Louisiana State University. The deadly germs sent through the mail to news organizations and two United States senators, he added, were “far more sophisticated than needed.”
In addition to Dr. Hugh-Jones, the authors of the new paper are Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a biologist, and Stuart Jacobsen, a chemist; both have speculated publicly about the case and criticized the F.B.I. for years.
In 2008, days after Dr. Ivins’s suicide, the bureau made public a sweeping but circumstantial case against him. Last year, the bureau formally closed the case, acknowledging that some scientific questions were unanswered but asserting that the evidence against Dr. Ivins was overwhelming.
Investigators found that the microbiologist had worked unusual late-night hours in his lab in the days before each of the two known anthrax mailings in September and October 2001; that he often mailed letters and packages under assumed names; that he had a history of homicidal threats and spoke of “Crazy Bruce” as a personality that did things he later could not remember.
Dr. Ivins had hidden from family and friends an obsession with a sorority — Kappa Kappa Gamma — with an office near the Princeton, N.J., mailbox where the letters were mailed. The F.B.I. recorded Dr. Ivins’s speaking ambiguously to a friend that he did “not have any recollection” of mailing the letters, that he was “not a killer at heart” and that “I, in my right mind, wouldn’t do it.”
Yet no evidence directly tied Dr. Ivins to the crime. Some of the scientist’s former colleagues have argued that he could not have made the anthrax and that investigators hounded a troubled man to death. They noted that the F.B.I. pursued several other suspects, most notoriously another former Army scientist, Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, whom the bureau eventually exonerated and paid a $4.6 million legal settlement.
In its report last February, the National Academy of Sciences panel sharply criticized some of the F.B.I.’s scientific work, saying the genetic link between the attack anthrax and a supply in Dr. Ivins’s lab was “not as conclusive” as the bureau asserted.
If the authors of the new paper are correct about the silicon-tin coating, it appears likely that Dr. Ivins could not have made the anthrax powder alone with the equipment he possessed, as the F.B.I. maintains. That would mean either that he got the powder from elsewhere or that he was not the perpetrator.
If Dr. Ivins did not make the powder, one conceivable source might be classified government research on anthrax, carried out for years by the military and the Central Intelligence Agency. Dr. Ivins had ties to several researchers who did such secret work.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is conducting its own review of the anthrax evidence. Nancy Kingsbury, the official overseeing the project, said the agency had spoken with the paper’s authors and judged that “their questions are reasonable.”
Beyond the world of forensics, tin is a humdrum additive used to kill micro-organisms in products like paint, wood preservatives and even toothpaste. But microbiologists say that the nutrients and additives used to grow Bacillus anthracis, the anthrax bacteria, are typically free of tin.
So in late 2002, when the F.B.I. found significant quantities of tin in the mailed powders, it set out to find its source. By 2003, the bureau was calling tin “an element of interest” — echoing its terminology for human suspects — according to disclosures culled from 9,600 pages of F.B.I. documents by The Times.
Over the years, the bureau performed hundreds of tests to explore tin’s use in microbiology and significance in the attack germs. It also hunted for clues to how the spores had become laced with silicon, which the United States had used decades ago as a coating in germ weapons. In 2005, scientists at an internal F.B.I. symposium called tin a possible fingerprint of the attack germs.
After that, the forensic clue disappeared from public discussion, except for a passing mention in a 2009 press release. “Although the chemical fingerprint of the spores is interesting,” the release said, “it was not relevant to the investigation.”
In the end, the F.B.I. — without alluding to its private tin labors — declared publicly that the attack germs had no special coating, saying that conclusion supported its finding that Dr. Ivins had grown and dried the spores alone, using standard equipment in his lab at Fort Detrick.
Several anthrax scientists who reviewed the new paper at the request of The Times said they believed it neglected the possibility that the tin and silicon were meaningless contaminants rather than sophisticated additives.
Johnathan L. Kiel, a retired Air Force scientist who worked on anthrax for many years, said that the spores “pick up everything” and that the silicon might be residue of a commercial product used on laboratory glassware to keep spores from sticking. He said tin might even be picked up from metal lab containers, though he has not tested that idea.
“It doesn’t have to be some super-secret process,” Dr. Kiel said. Other experts suggested that the tin might have come from anti-foam products, disinfectants or water.
The trouble with such conjecture is that the F.B.I. spent years testing for tin in microbiology lab supplies — and reported none, according to bureau documents.
Dr. Gast, the head of the National Academy of Sciences panel, noted that her group strongly recommended that future investigations of the attacks examine the government’s classified work on anthrax.
She called access to secret records “an important aspect of providing more clarity on what we know and what we don’t know.”  


Babsin said...

The open question I'd have - why wouldn't a serious scientist conclude science would catch up with them?

That is if you are of the field, wouldn't it be a logical conclusion of advancement of science "spore fingerprinting"? While not a trained scientist myself it seems like scientists always have an open mind to the future. They accept the science as presented now, but are aware facts could change in the future. So while there was no test at that time to "spore fingerprinting" they'd surely guess there would be later on.

As much as it might have been narcissistic of Ivins to use his own "signature" mix - why needlessly put oneself through the stress?

Sorta seems like someone is going to kill someone - they're going to borrow someone else's gun

My personal feeling was always some retired/fired scientist type from the program old old days.

I get it even the best serial killers get sloppy...But one would have figured Ivins would have at least gotten the sorority house in NJ correct. You'd figure he'd at least have been at that location once before.

My two pennies on the matter...

Anonymous said...

"If the authors of the new paper are correct about the silicon-tin coating, it appears likely that Dr. Ivins could not have made the anthrax powder alone with the equipment he possessed, as the F.B.I. maintains."

And if pigs could fly, we could all feast on deep fried pig wings.

"If Dr. Ivins did not make the powder, one conceivable source might be classified government research on anthrax, carried out for years by the military and the Central Intelligence Agency. Dr. Ivins had ties to several researchers who did such secret work."

And if the anthrax powders had been made by Pinocchio, how would he have gotten a mask over his long nose?

What is the New York Times trying to accomplish by publishing articles where reporters fantasize about the beliefs of conspiracy theorists instead of looking at the facts?


barrykissin said...

I left the following comment at NY

Bingo!"If Dr. Ivins did not make the powder, one conceivable source might be classified government research on anthrax, carried out for years by the military and the Central Intelligence Agency."

This theme is developed further in the paper by the three scientists that is the focus of this article: "[T]he most likely sites of production of the letter anthrax are laboratories that work with dry spores: Battelle, Dugway, and DRES. Battelle, for example, is well-known for its aerosol study capabilities ... There is no evidence that relevant samples were ever collected at Dugway, Battelle or other potentially suspect sites."

The cover-up of military-industrial-intelligence involvement is not only the work of the Bush Administration. The national security complex now dictates to the Obama administration. Witness that on March 15, 2011, the Obama administration announced it would oppose any reopening of Amerithrax because a reopening would "unfairly cast doubt on [the FBI's] conclusions"!

For an outline of the contours of the cover-up, see memo at

Mediation Experts said...

Any evidence which would have supported the FBI claims, boosted the legality of this report.

Roberto said...

"And if the anthrax powders had been made by Pinocchio, how would he have gotten a mask over his long nose?"

So true, and kinda funny.

But at the same time, if Pinocchio had made it I would hope the evidence against him would be something other than him wanting to be a real boy and running away from home.

It seems that there is currently some bone fide questioning of the mere possibility of Ivins' ability to produce the anthrax...

barrykissin said...

The silicon-tin content in the attack anthrax just now being exposed in mainstream media will establish that the source of the anthrax letters was, as referred to in the New York Times this week, "classified government research on anthrax, carried out for years by the military and the Central Intelligence Agency." (It is perfectly clear that Bruce Ivins had no knowledge of the secret weaponizing technology that features a tin-catalyzed silicon coating on the anthrax spores.) My hope is that this window on the terrible workings of our military-industrial-intelligence complex will contribute toward achieving the desperately needed systemic change now being demanded in occupations and protests across the country.

Anonymous said...

why limit the speculation to US labs? what other country with an advanced bioweapons program benefited from the anthrax attacks?

Seattle Reader said...

One reason to limit the speculation to US labs might be that the attack anthrax came from RMR-1029 anthrax. Was that anthrax ever sent to non-US labs?

Seattle Reader said...

Having watched the Frontline special, I now stand corrected on why we would limit our investigation to US labs. It's not RMR-1029 (which may or may not be the source of the spores) but the Ames strain, that identifies the attack anthrax as US in origin. Ames has not been sent out of the US by any legitimate means as far as anyone knows. So, if it was a foreign attack, the question of how the attackers got hold of Ames strain must be answered.

Anonymous said...
In response to the DOJ statement, Hugh-Jones said in an email to The Daily Princetonian that he challenged the government to test his team’s hypothesis in a lab in order to take the discussion “out of the realm of lawyer talk of you said/we say nonsense.”
“The DOJ forgets that we are scientists and all ‘speculation’ are hypotheses which are subject to testing to see if they have any basis in hard fact,” he said. “I hope [the findings] will add to the pressure that the investigation be actively reopened.”

Ed Lake said...

Roberto wrote: "It seems that there is currently some bone fide questioning of the mere possibility of Ivins' ability to produce the anthrax..."

Not really. The people who are questioning Ivins' ability to make the spores are people who do not know how to make pure anthrax spores.

People who know how to make pure anthrax spores say it's not that difficult, and Ivins had all the necessary equipment to do it.

Ivins himself pointed at his two subordinates, Mara Linscott and Patricia Fellows, as being fully capable of creating the anthrax spores in the letters. So, it was the teacher saying his pupils could have done it.

He also pointed to five others at USAMRIID who he felt the FBI should investigate because they could have been the anthrax mailer.


barrykissin said...

To anonymous:
The anthrax attacks began as a "false flag" operation designed to implicate Muslim extremists. This operation figured heavily in the run-up to the Iraq War and generally garnered mindless support for the war against terror, with numerous official and media references to potential Iraqi and/or al Qaeda involvement.Ultimately, the evidence too clearly established inside job, evidence like Ames strain, connection to RMR-1029(or Dugway anthrax), the nature of the advanced weaponizing processing, etc. This is no time to revert back to reviving the initial fraud. And there certainly is no country with an "advanced bioweapons program" (as you put it)that benefits from the huge expansion of the American program whose pretext is the anthrax letters.

Ed Lake said...

Seattle Reader asked: "Was that anthrax ever sent to non-US labs?"

Samples of the Ames strain were sent to 18 different labs, three were outside of the United States. They were labs in Canada, England and Sweden.

However, none of the non-US labs received samples from flask RMR-1029. Their samples evidently came from the original material taken from the dead cow in 1981.


Ed Lake said...

Babsin wrote: "The open question I'd have - why wouldn't a serious scientist conclude science would catch up with them?"

The facts say that Bruce Ivins truly believed that the anthrax he used in the letters was totally untraceable - and would never be traceable.

1. He believed (as everyone did at the time) that the Ames strain was a common strain distributed by the USDA to countless labs all over the world, and thus could never be traced back to him.

2. He believed (as nearly everyone did at the time) that Bacillus anthracis was an extremely stable organism that would mutate very very slowly - maybe once in a billion generations. Thus, there could be no DNA differences between batches.

But, he (and most others) didn't fully realize what a "generation" was for Bacillus anthracis when discussing mutations.

Almost everyone seemed to think that "generations" were counted by the time it takes to grow and reproduce: 20 minutes of growth equals one generation. Therefore, it would take years to get a mutation.

In reality, when a single Bacillus anthracis bacteria divides in two after 20 minutes, you already have TWO generations. Either one of the "daughter" bacteria could be a mutation. (The mother bacteria ceased to exist.) And a thousand bacteria could have divided in two during those same 20 minutes.

When discussing mutations, "generations" for Bacillus bacteria are now counted by counting the number of bacteria and subtracting 1 (the original mother germ.) So, if you have a billion + 1 bacteria, you have a billion generations and the probability of one mutation.

And it took just 10 hours and 20 minutes to get that mutation.

And, the mutation could have occurred in the 1st dividing or in the billionth dividing.

None of this was known to Ivins when he prepared the anthrax letters, and there was no reason for him to foresee any of it.