Saturday, September 6, 2008

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.


Washingtons Blog said...

Dr. Nass,

Great essay!

Here's some new information.

Anonymous said...

George Washington. Your analysis on the distribution is mistaken. It was 16 labs that had Ames (in virulent form) generally. But then the number that the closer match -- based on the new genetic inquiry possible -- was a much smaller number. USAMRIID. Battelle and UNM are two of the "other labs" according to one quote by Attorney Kemp I saw. If there is another, that would be consistent with an MSNBC report a long while back that the number had been narrowed to 4.

Certainly, I agree with you that the NYT article is very notable. And I agree with you Ivins is innocent but instead his flask is just the original source of the Ames.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely fantastic update- thank you so much for continuing to ask these questions, Dr. Nass!

Washingtons Blog said...

Anonymous, that is what the Baltimore Sun said.

Could the Sun have misreported what the FBI said?

Of course.

Anonymous said...

The 16 figure works for me with a hyperlink to the BS article. But the reality is that the figure was long ago narrowed by the new wave of genetics investigation. In the popular press, it was reflected by an MSNBC report. In the peer reviewed literature, the science was in papers by Paul Keim and his colleagues. But now that you point to this, I would just hyperlink this (you very possibly already do) and leave it alone. The transcript on the science says there were "other labs" to include at least one "quasi-governmental" lab." It would certainly be interesting for the US DOJ to disclose the labs isolates were found -- as well as the identity of the labs associated with all researchers known to have access. Although there were 8 known isolates, that is just 8 isolates that were sent in. There was self-reporting. Someone responsible for 5 murders -- either personally or through lax security -- might not have had an incentive to send in the correct sample. I wonder if the FBI considered that murder suspects don't usually voluntarily turn over the murder weapon.

We certainly owe a lot to Dr. Nass for being an early voice expressing doubts at a time when the FBI was in the driver's seat spinning stories of how upset Ivins was and how -- gasp! -- he engaged in ongoing efforts to edit wikipedia. "George Washington," he even used fake screen names on the internet!

Old Atlantic Lighthouse said...

I think its very important you have kept attention on the so-called hoax letters. They are really part of the plot. The following Freeper comment is difficult to improve on:

" It was the hoax letter mailed from St. Petersburg to Tom Brokaw at NBC. Postmarked on September 20, 2001, just two days after the real anthrax letter was mailed to Brokaw. Both letters were opened by the same assistant to Brokaw.

The date September 20 was way before any news reports on any of the anthrax cases, so this wasn't a copycat letter or a letter motivated by any anthrax case in the news.

There weren't very many hoax anthrax letters before the real letters became known and the copycats started doing their thing. The chance that Brokaw would coincidentally be sent 2 letters at almost the same time is remote.

Also the hoax letter didn't claim that its powder was anthrax; it correctly foretold the attack by saying "SAMPLE OF HOW IT WILL LOOK"... and included a bioterror threat.

So... it's a threat in the mail, with fake anthrax powder, before the anthrax letters were known. Before any anthrax cases were known. It was sent to a reporter before anyone knew that reporters would be targets... And not just any reporter, but Tom Brokaw, who was sent a real anthrax letter 2 days earlier, unknown to anyone not in on the plot.
21 posted on Sunday, January 21, 2007 3:38:38 PM by John Faust
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 19 | View Replies]

The Sep 20 St. Petersburg letters were 2 days from the Sep 18 postmark letters. But if put in the box on Sep 19, they were the day after.

In October, the Oct 5th letters were on a Friday from St. Petersburg. The anthrax letters might have been mailed Oct 6th in a box and picked up Oct 9th. So the two sets of letters may have been one day apart each time.

Its really a coordinated effort it appears. The first letters with real anthrax were not paid attention to as much as the St. Petersburg hoax letters were.

These NYT articles were before the second mailings hit. The St. Petersburg letters were the original main focus, as they were intended to. As the Freeper points out above, they were sent as a warning in the Sep 20 case.

Now some logic.

textbook logic

1. Florida and NJ letters linked.
2. FBI checked and Ivins was a loner with no one to do Florida mailings.
3. Therefore Ivins was not involved.

FBI logic.
1. Ivins did it alone.
2. FBI checked and Ivins was a loner with no one to do Florida mailings.
3. Therefore, the Florida and NJ letters were not linked.

The Florida and NJ letters are discussed here, as you know, but I include it here for completeness:

Following search in Google brings up most of the above links

anthrax "St Petersburg" Florida letter

Old Atlantic Lighthouse said...

We have letters from Florida going to NBC along with the anthrax letters from Trenton to NBC. We also have an anthrax letter from Trenton going to Florida. So we have it in both directions with Florida. That makes coordination much more likely.

The St. Petersburg Fl letters warned NBC that anthrax would be coming. So they were intended as double warning letters in case NBC and/or the others threw away their anthrax letters w/o following the warning directions. As it happened, this is what happened. This also makes it more likely the Florida end knew this was to use real anthrax as part of the operation.

Anonymous said...

I hope I can still add a question to this thread.

Why did Battelle ask for and recieve some Ames stock from Ft. Detrick in May 2001

when CIA already had Ames?

Anonymous said...


It is a good question "where." The first "where" should be about the most recent statements, "Where and what is the name of the other laboratory that had the mutant strain?"

The history of the "Where's Ames" is complex. In the beginning, 2001 and onward-- we were assured, anonymously via government, and by name by public theorists, that Ames is "rare" and it could only be from Ft. Detrick. (This was before the mutant/variant of Ames was discovered per recent news.) This assertion was also necessary to figure Hatfill as the culprit.
Scientists below the radar said no, Ames was ubiquitous. Now, via pursuit of the mutant and building a case against Ivins, the FBI admits Ames was and is in labs around the world. They assert this to show how they later tested Ames for the mutant strain and precluded all these labs around the world from being the source.

Interesting coincidence? They said it was limted to Ft. Detrick and they were wrong. Now, years later, they admit Ames was widespread but any way, hey, it was Ft. Detrick after all.

Also, about the number of letters. Investigators commonly do not publicise everything they have, an investigative tool. So congressional questioners should inquire into non-genetic/Ivins matters too. Such as, what are the memories of the letters thrown away or not later found at the National Enquirer, ABC and CBS? Why are the Enquirer people not talking publicly now, are they still told not to? Indeed, is there another letter that was found, say to another official, but that you kept knowledge of in reserve for investigative purposes? Who was that letter sent to? (Unlikely, but you never know with this investigation.)

Also, what is there theory why National Enquirer was targeted? Why the New York Post? Isn't it an interesting coincidence that the New York Post is the most openly American flag-waving, pro-Israel paper, and the letter said "Death to America...Israel?"

Anonymous said...

Dr. Nass,

I take it you don't believe Ivins targeted ABC, CBS and Tom Brokaw to get back at Gary "Kiss My Ass" Matsumoto. And that Ivins targeted all three just to make sure since Matsumoto changed employers. Or something like that?

Ha. I agree, they were targeted because of big name. The CBS and ABC letters might have been addressed to Rather and Jennings (?), but they would rather not talk about it, their concern for the anthrax case being far outweighed, I suspect, by their fear the public will learn they regularly dump fan mail in the trash. I don't think it's they being in New York, I think the perpetrator aimed for the anchors whereever they would be broadcasting from.

On the sorority angle, if Ivins intended to frame the sorority by proximity to the Princeton office, why did the second letters have a return address in central New Jersey? Isn't it more likely the perp was in Princeton, knew post deposited there is stamped Trenton, and used a central NJ address he thought would be within the Trenton zone to mislead as to location of mailing?

Anonymous said...

It's nice the FBI has proven the attack anthrax came from RMR-1029 flask but unless I'm missing something that doesn't seem to solve the case. If material from RMR-1029 was sent to another lab, then some of it got stolen and the thieves grew more, wouldn't it also have the 4 mutations? Clearly such a clandestine lab would not be sending any samples to the repository with a backup copy to Dr. Keim.

Anonymous said...

Returning to Princeton, I guess the duh question is "Did Princeton University have the machinery to create such anthrax? Didja check? at what stage of the investigation?"

And whatever happened to the pre-stampped envelope story with the defect that limited it to around D.C.? If the distribution is further, how much so? Where? New Jersey?

Anonymous said...

For what it is worth, the preparation of the envelopes tends to confirm collaboration. I note the sample here, of the Brokaw and Daschle letters:

And the Florida hoax letter here:

Also all in capital letters.

In my opinion, there are two hands involved, but apparently an agreed upon strategy of using all capital letters. I would be interesting to see if this theory can be substantiated with comparison of all the handwriting forensics. The lack of a central internet repository making all these documents available for analysis is rather striking and again confirms that the FBI is not forthcoming, a circumstance most readily explained as a result of a horribly bungled (or worse investigation).

Dr. Nass, what a great website! Thank you for creating a venue for public discourse on this important matter.