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?


Maure said...

The entire research community of the United States is being betrayed on a matter of crucial importance. This is a violation of the most cherished American principles of democracy. The scientists and other citizens of the United States should voice a major objection to this outrage committed by the intelligence community and demand an accounting. We should demand full disclosure and an independent, scientific review of all evidence and data.

Dr. Nass, you are our leader. What can we do now? What are the most effective steps we can take?

Anonymous said...

Alibekov is now in the Ukraine. In 1998 he testified before a congressional committee about the Soviet Threat of Biowarfare and he was the Program Manager of The Battelle Projects referred to in William J Broad's 4 September 2001 article about "weaponized" Anthrax Spore studies performed by and for the intelligence community in Jefferson Ohio, This is where Bruce Ivins friend and former anthrax research colleague, Perry Mikesell, was an employee of Battelle. Bruce's RMR 1029 wet spore preps were sent there between 1997 and 2001. One of the last things I heard from Bruce on 10 July 2008 was that he was upset about what happened in Ohio and that Perry drank himself to death.

I very strongly echo those who feel that we (or congressional investigators) should be able to know whether the FBI scrutinized Alibek as rigorously as they did Hatfill and Ivins, especially with regard to fibers in the tape, and attempts to identify spores in home, car etc.

Anonymous said...

In 1998 Ken Alibek was interviewed by Richard Preston for an article titled "The Bioweaponeers" published in the New Yorker[]. In this interview Alibek disclosed details of a new advancement in Soviet dry powder anthrax technology. Preston wrote "The Alibekov anthrax became fully operational in 1989. It is an amber-gray powder, finer than bath talc, with smooth, creamy particles that tend to fly apart and vanish in the air, becoming invisible and drifting for miles. The Alibekov anthrax is four times more efficient than the standard product."

Alibek also disclosed to Preston that the Alibekov anthrax contained two additives. Preston wrote "The Alibekov anthrax is simple, and the formula is somewhat surprising, not quite what you'd expect. Two unrelated materials are mixed with pure powdered anthrax spores. It took a lot of research and testing to get the trick right, and Alibek must have driven his research group hard and skillfully to arrive at it."

Although Alibek revealed to Preston the identities of the two materials, Preston did not publish them. However, in the same year, Alibek was also interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for a documentary titled "Red Lies" []. This documentary outlined the Soviet's continued development of advanced anthrax dry powder technology even after the Sverdlovsk accident killed up to one hundred people. The "Red Lies" documentary did provide details of the additives, stating "In the years since the Sverdlovsk accident, Alibek and a research team had taken the Soviet military's anthrax and made it even more deadly. He developed a process to take ground up anthrax spores and coat each particle in plastic and resin. It kept the anthrax aloft four times longer, increasing its ability to infect people."

These details have to be compared to descriptions of the 2001 senate anthrax that were leaked to the media in the period 2002-2003. The first set of leaks were made to Newsweek [] , CNN [] and the Washigton Post[]in April 2002. Newsweek wrote "The Leahy anthrax -- mailed in an envelope that was recovered unopened from a Washington post office last November -- also was coated with a chemical compound unknown to experts who have worked in the field for years; the coating matches no known anthrax samples ever recovered from biological-weapons producers anywhere in the world, including Iraq and the former Soviet Union. The combination of the intense milling of the bacteria and the unusual coating produced an anthrax powder so fine and fluffy that individually coated anthrax spores were found in the Leahy envelope, something that U.S. bioweapons experts had never seen."

The second set of leaks were made to the Washington Post [] in November 2002 who wrote "Investigators and experts have said the spores in the Daschle and Leahy letters were uniformly between 1 and 3 microns in size, and were coated with fine particles of frothy silica glass." In November 2003 Science Magazine [] reported that in addition to silica the senate anthrax contained "polymerized glass" and its purpose was to chemically bind the silica to the surface of the spores. Some speculate that the similarities between the descriptions of the Alibekov anthrax and the senate anthrax demonstrate a link to technology secretly developed in the Soviet Union in the late 1980's.

Anonymous said...

The CBC documentary has Alibek stating that his Alibekov anthrax was individually coated in plastic and resin. Polyglass is a type of plastic. Could it be any clearer this has to be further investigated by a Congressional committee?

In the years since the Sverdlovsk accident, Alibek and a research team had taken the Soviet military's anthrax and made it even more deadly. He developed a process to take ground up anthrax spores and coat each particle in plastic and resin. It kept the anthrax aloft four times longer, increasing its ability to infect people.

Anonymous said...

Look who the guy was from the very early days pushing that the silica in the spores was "naturally occurring". Interestingly he had an American pushing this with him:\


Anthrax Under The Microscope

The Oct. 28 front-page article "FBI's Theory on Anthrax Is Doubted" reported that silica enabled anthrax spores sent through the mail last fall to become airborne. The article quoted unnamed sources as saying that the spores had been formulated with a product called fumed silica, which, under an electron microscope, "would look like cotton balls strung together into strands that branch out in every direction."

Both of us have examined electron micrographs of the material in the anthrax letter sent to Sen. Tom Daschle, but we saw no evidence of such balls or strands. In July 1980, the Journal of Bacteriology reported an "unexpectedly high concentration of silicon" to be naturally present in the outer spore coat of bacillus cereus, a close relative of bacillus anthracis. Is it possible that the unnamed sources misinterpreted silicon naturally concentrated in spore coats as something that was artificially added?

Until knowledgeable government investigators announce their results, statements attributed to anonymous sources or from persons who have not examined the actual evidence should be greeted with caution.


Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology

Harvard University

Cambridge, Mass.


Center for Biodefense

George Mason University


Anonymous said...

Even more interestingly the person Alibek co-wrote the "naturally occurring" silica narrative to the Washington Post (which the FBI embrace today as the truth) has a history of being totally wrong about the source of bioweapon attacks:

Excerpts from Mangold and Goldberg's book "Plague Wars":

CHAPTER NINE Incident at Sverdlovsk

Page 76:

The Soviets now went to extraordinary lengths to buttress their lies and make them supportable and credible worldwide. What had begun as a local cover-up in Sverdlovsk, now became an international fairy tale, a fiction of breathtaking audacity.

Page 77:

Throughout the rest of the 1980s, Matthew Meselson, a respected Harvard professor of microbiology and longtime arms control activist, unwittingly helped the Soviet caravan of deception and disinformation gain acceptance in the West.
Meselson emerged as the leading scientific expert to oppose his own government's interpretation of Sverdlovsk in favour of the Soviets' old tainted-meat cover-up. He defended the Soviets' case publicly and doubtless from the most honest of beliefs. President Reagan was now in the White House and, no matter how forcefully his administration complained about Sverdlovsk, Meselson remained utterly convinced that there had been an accident with bad meat and it had nothing to do with any secret biological weapons plant.
With his well-deserved and impressive academic/scientific credentials, his views were usually sought and carefully listened to. He also became an important figure for the US media to consult. His opinions about Sverdlovsk were widely quoted in the serious press, books, and prestigious scientific journals. The record shows that after 1980 his publicly stated views on Sverdlovsk broadly agreed with the explanations issued by the Soviets themselves.

Page 81:

But the guilty involvement reached even higher. Next, it emerged that Boris Yelstin himself also must have known about the cover-up. In May 1992, Yeltsin's new Russian government formally acknowledged what was now well known, but still had no official imprimatur. The man who had been the powerful communist party chief of the Sverdlovsk region in 1979 was none other than President Boris Yeltsin. He now admitted that the outbreak had been caused by an accident at the biological weapons facility, and not by natural causes. This presumably correct version became the official position of the Russian government, and remains so to this day.
Meselson, however, remained unfazed. In the face of Yeltsin's admission and the Russian and US press disclosures, the professor assembled a team of expert American scientists and went with them to Sverdlovsk in June 1992 to see for himself. They interviewed two outstanding Sverdlovsk doctors Faina Abramova and Lev Grinberg who participated in the 1979 autopsies at Hospital 40. For thirteen years, these brave pathologists had secretly hidden incontrovertible medial evidence from the KGB including preserved tissue samples, slides, and autopsy reports which proved that the victims had died from breathing in the anthrax.
Meselson later claimed that he and his team had made the discovery of the new truth from these important witnesses, but again, the facts were against him. The two Russian doctors had previously spoken to Soviet reporters and the Wall Street Journal, so Meselson was simply taking credit for being the final arbiter who had authenticated the evidence.
After making a second trip to Sverdlovsk, Mesleson finally published his results in 1994 in the journal Science; the article accepted that the tainted-meat story was bogus. But, perversely, he still would not admit that the US government had been right for fifteen years, or that he had been wrong. Rather, he trumpeted the fact that he anf his team had finally uncovered the "definitive proof" that the true cause of the outbreak was pulmonary anthrax.
"This should end the argument about where the outbreak came from," Meselson somewhat pompously told the New York Times "Right up until now, people have still been debating the matter."
Yet, to the bitter end, Meselson still clung to a benign interpretation of Soviet motives. He noted that the cause of the accident was still not determined, which implied that it may have involved only a Soviet research centre, one for finding an antidote to an anthrax attack, and not a military production centre for biological weapons. By clinging to this position, he could still argue that the Soviets were not violating the BWC, but were conducting permissible research under the treaty.

Anonymous said...

As I commented 8/14, the most glaring omission in this case is Ivins' ability - or lack thereof - to turn what is assumed to be liquid anthrax into such a specialized weapon. The above comment, if true, would appear to solve much of this mystery.

Anonymous said...

Spertzel's comments are strictly political. He has no interest in the truth.

Washingtons Blog said...

House Judiciary Wants Answers From FBI Chief on Anthrax:

Old Atlantic Lighthouse said...

If Russia authorized the strike, then it was decided and planned well in advance and approved by Putin. Russia's motive would have been to get the US enmeshed in a war in Afghanistan and with Islam to do to us what Russia's invasion of Afghanistan did to them. That would tie us down and keep us from expanding our influence in Eastern Europe. Russia had warned the US before 9/11 of a possible terrorist strike, so they could have prepared an anthrax strike to magnify the event, not expecting it to be as big as 9/11 was by itself. Obviously, this is just a speculative scenario.

If Russia did it, it would be quite conceivable for the US government
to cover that up. McCain wants Russia out of the G-8. He might suspect something or have been briefed.

Russia also has extensive hooks and contacts in US universities in many academic disciplines. They know quite a bit about the universities, and government departments and industry.

The USAO Mass investigated Harvard from 1997 to 2005 and settled with Harvard and Harvard econ prof Andrei Shleifer for 26 million in August 2005. David Warsh Economic Principals has extensive coverage in his archives.

Also see

Russia defaulted in August 1998 and the US refused to give it more loans to avoid the default. Members of Congress said there was insider trading by people connected with the Russian government.

Try following search on that:

Russia default 1998

Old Atlantic Lighthouse said...

If someone is an important prof or has published important work or has important government or industry contacts, then profs in Russia are assigned to study all published information about the person and prepare files on him and his links and relationships with other profs. This is a thorough study of his entire published work, his mentors, etc. Profs in Russia do this over a period of decades. Profs in the US come to know which profs likely handle their files in Russia and also guess what is in them.

There is a good chance that Alibek had a copy of the Meselson file in Russia. Its also possible that Meselson may have suspected that and they may have joked about it as well when they met in person. The relationship between profs in these cases can be intense depending on the information.

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone here is claiming that Russia was responsible for the anthrax attacks. Rather, I think what people are saying is that closer scrutiny should be given to the fact that Russian technology, transferred to the US after Alibek's defection, could have been employed here. Just how much silicon was actually present in the spores? That's the big question that I hope gets asked and answered at hearings.
Here's another interesting coincidence. Last year David Willman of the LA Times wrote an expose on Ken Alibek and his questionable activities at George Mason University.

Within days Alibek resigned his position and within months was back in the motherland.
It was the same David Willman who appeared to know in advance what no other journalist knew - the fact that Ivins was apparently a suspect - Willman was first to break the Ivins suicide story:,0,3772533.story

Old Atlantic Lighthouse said...

The FBI accused many people of wanting to profit from anthrax and the terror. But of those accused, none profited, and of those who profited, none were accused.