The Media & Iowa State University
Ed Lake

August 15, 2010

This is a work in progress. 

I plan to revise the comment I wrote on July 25, 2010 to show more clearly that the connection between Iowa State University and the Ames strain was entirely concocted by the media.  They misread and misintepreted information and went on a wild goose chase, while at the same time criticizing the FBI for not going on the wild goose chase with them.

We now know that, while the media was chasing phantom anthrax sources in Iowa, the FBI was actually tracking the attack anthrax back to its true source: Ft. Detrick. 

1.  We have testimony from the veterinarian in Texas to treated the cow that died from the anthrax strain now called "Ames."

2.  We have testimony from the Texas A&M scientist who sent the samples from the dead cow to Ft. Detrick.

3.  We have testimony from the scientist at Ft. Detrick who received the sample.

4.  We have the letter that was sent along with the sample.

5.  We have the mailing label that caused all the confusion.

6.  We have DNA information which verifies the source of the Ames strain.

The Ames strain never went anywhere near Ames, Iowa.  And, it appears that the only reason the media descended upon Iowa State University is because someone at NBC either misspoke or misheard something, and somehow the "The Department of Agriculture" in Ames got turned into "The Department of Energy" in Ames, which has a lab at Iowa State University.

It's another mistake by the media that will apparently be argued forever.

July 25, 2010 - On Tuesday, someone sent me an email to tell me how they were still "very disturbed" by the "sudden destruction of the anthrax stocks" at Iowa State University (ISU).   For me, it was an old, dead issue.  But, in writing my response to the email I realized that there were still several questions about the ISU story that remained unanswered.

The first question that came to mind was: How did ISU get involved?  Wasn't it originally believed at USAMRIID that the Ames strain came from the USDA in Ames, Iowa, not ISU?  I've never seen any news reports or other information that the federal investigators ever focused on ISU.
  What caused the media to focus on ISU?

That question brought to mind a second question: If federal investigators did check out ISU, how would they have handled the conflicting information?  It seems like it would be a very common investigative situation: an anonymous informant says X was involved, but X has absolutely no knowledge about the subject and has a perfect alibi.  What do you do?  Do you assume that the informant is right and X is lying?  Or do you assume that X is right and the informant is mistaken?  The right answer, of course, is to assume nothing, and to instead check out the facts and evidence.

We know that, on October 5, 2001, Dr. Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University determined that Bob Stevens had been killed by the Ames strain of anthrax.   And, Dr. Keim had evidently compared the bacteria taken from Bob Stevens to a sample obtained from USAMRIID.   According an article in The Arizona Republic dated December 16, 2007:

Keim and a couple of his key researchers worked through the night, isolating, processing and magnifying the DNA using machines and computers similar to ones found in crime labs. In the early morning [of October 5], they compared the results with their anthrax database. They found a match: a virulent type called the Ames strain. The U.S. Army developed the lab strain in the 1980s as a test for the anthrax vaccine.

Keim outlined his results the next morning in a conference call with the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The media knew nothing of Keim's analysis. Then a few days later, a Florida U.S. attorney held a news conference on the anthrax investigation and said the FBI had sent samples for analysis to NAU.

I can't find anything about what was actually said by that "Florida U.S. attorney" at that news conference.

Presumably, once it had been determined that the strain that killed Stevens was the Ames strain, the FBI and the Postal Inspectors would then start looking for all possible sources of the Ames strain.  There would be absolutely no reason to assume that the original source for the Ames bacteria was also the source for the attack powders.  That would be like assuming if someone is shot, the first place to investigate must be the Colt Firearms Company.

An article in The New York Times dated August 20, 2008 seems to confirm this:

Dr. Keim’s test could tell two strains of anthrax apart but it could not tell the bureau what it needed to know next, which of the many cultures of Ames anthrax around the world the attack anthrax might have come from.

Moreover, in May of 2002, Debora MacKenzie of New Scientist Magazine reported that Paul Keim had specifically pointed to USAMRIID as having an exact match to the Ames strain that killed Bob Stevens:

[Paul Keim said,] "We can distinguish among different Ames accessions. These are from collaborative laboratories and related to genetic work we have been performing over the years."

[MacKenzie wrote:] The strains from the collaborative labs appear certain to be strains B, C and D. In that case, one was the reference Ames in Keim's collection that came from a freezer at Porton Down, which in turn had got it from USAMRIID. Another was a culture that came directly from USAMRIID, and the last was from the US Army's Dugway proving ground in Utah.

TIGR spokesmen and other sources have stated that Keim could find no differences between the attack strain and the reference Ames in his collection at any marker tested in his lab. The tests reported in Science are no better at doing this. So one of B and C is Keim's Porton Down/USAMRIID reference strain. The other is likely to be the culture directly from USAMRIID, as the reference strain originated there and had since languished in a freezer.

So strain D seems to have come from Dugway. The difference between D and the attack strain is not great - there are 36 adenines in a row, instead of 35 - but Keim's team made doubly sure by sequencing that part of the D strain's genome.

However, the new work does not prove irrefutably that the attacker got his anthrax directly from USAMRIID because it is possible that untested Ames cultures from other labs might also be identical. Those tests are now underway.

So, while the media was looking at ISU, the federal investigation was evidently already focusing on USAMRIID -- not necessarily as the source for the attacks, but as a lab which was known to have a sample of Ames which had DNA that exactly matched what killed Bob Stevens.  Investigators would also have been trying to figure out how and where USAMRIID obtained the Ames strain, when they obtained it, and where else they may have sent it. 

But, while all that was going on in the official Amerithrax investigation, the media was still doing what it does best - looking for sources who would give them printable quotes and interesting sound bytes - instead of looking for facts.

The news about the Ames strain was evidently made public on October 10,  five days after Dr. Keim's tests.  My files contain a Wednesday, October 10, 2001 article from the Florida Sun-Sentinel which begins with this:

CNN reported Wednesday morning that the anthrax virus that killed a Lantana man and was found in his Boca Raton office appears to be manmade and apparently produced in an American lab about 50 years ago.

The television network reported that the anthrax that was found in a newspaper office in Boca appears to have been made in a lab in Iowa, one of only two in the United States, that made the deadly disease for research purposes.

The report also said the anthrax used in south Palm Beach County was probably manufactured sometime in the 1950s.

and also has this

Also, CNN pointed out investigators will have to backtrack the path the anthrax sample found in Boca Raton took over the years before appearing here. CNN's sources did not identify the Iowa lab, and did not know if it was still in operation.

The February 1, 2002 issue of The Iowa State Daily (which is published by Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa), says that the Miami Herald and NBC broke the news on the 9th, claiming that the Ames strain was "harvested or manufactured in an ISU lab."  Officials at ISU reportedly did 140 audio interviews plus 9 television interviews on the 9th and 10th.  (I can't find any reports from the 9th, so I suspect someone just remembered the dates incorrectly.  It was probably the 10th and 11th.)

On a blog site, I found what appears to be the CNN report.  More may have been said in some CNN TV news program, but this appears to be the entire on-line article:

CNN October 10, 2001 Posted: 11:24 PM EDT (0324 GMT)

Law enforcement sources told CNN the anthrax found in Florida seems to have been identified as the Ames strain of anthrax. The Ames strain was discovered in the early 1950s by Ames, Iowa, researchers, who found it in the tissue of a dead animal. In the 50 years since then, the strain has been distributed to researchers all over the world, and used to make anthrax vaccines.

Okay, on the 10th, some law enforcement sources (possibly the "Florida U.S. attorney") told CNN that the strain that killed Bob Stevens was the Ames strain.  But, who provided the information about it being discovered in the early 1950's?  Was it the same source?  Or was it a guess by someone else?

That same link also contains this information from The Miami Herald dated October 11:

Published Thursday, October 11, 2001

Preliminary tests suggest the disease that killed South Florida tabloid photo editor Robert Stevens bears ``unique characteristics'' of a particular form of anthrax commonly known as the ``Ames strain,'' isolated at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, five decades ago.

Since then, the germ has evolved in U.S. research facilities into a lab-grown hybrid of the original, very popular among researchers for its resilient characteristics. The strain has been central in U.S. military research of germ warfare.

I doubt that's the entire article, but when I did Google searches for those exact phrases, I couldn't find the phrases repeated anywhere else.  Okay, so it appears someone provided pure baloney about ISU to the Miami Herald.  But who?

If that's not confusing enough, according to the October 11, 2001 issue of  The New York Times:

The Miami Herald reported on Wednesday that investigators had linked the anthrax to a strain that was harvested from Iowa in the 1950's, and NBC News reported on Wednesday evening that the F.B.I. was beginning to conclude that the anthrax was stolen from a Department of Energy laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

A Department of Energy laboratory?  Really?  Does the Department of Energy even work with anthrax?  Where?  Why?  What does anthrax have to do with energy?  Could someone have simply misspoken, saying "Department of Energy" when they really meant "Department of Agriculture."  I can't be sure.  But, it's still a clue.  A check on the location of The Department Of Energy's lab in Ames, Iowa finds this:

Ames Laboratory is a government-owned, contractor-operated research facility of the U.S. Department of Energy that is run by Iowa State University.
Ames Laboratory shares a close working relationship with Iowa State University's Institute for Physical Research and Technology, or IPRT, a network of scientific research centers at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.

Aha!  That is very likely the source and the connection.  The source was NBC News.  The connection was the (apparently) bogus claim that "the FBI was beginning to conclude that the anthrax was stolen from a Department of Energy laboratory in Ames, Iowa."  Unfortunately, I can't find the contents of the actual NBC report anywhere on-line.  It may have only been on TV, on the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw program for the evening of October 10.  (This was still two days before the Brokaw anthrax letter was found on October 12.)

Could it be that simple?  Some anonymous source says the FBI is looking at the Department of Agriculture's lab in Ames, Iowa.  Someone else somehow misinterprets that to be the Department of Energy's lab, which is run by Iowa State University.  And "looking at" is transformed into a claim that it may have been stolen from the DOE lab.  

Of course, all of those reporters who had descended upon ISU as a result of the NBC story needed to report something of their own.  And they did.  They found what reporters seem to be able to find anywhere they look: they found seemingly responsible and respectable scientists and officials who believed what the media was telling them and were willing to make interpretations and assumptions and state those interpretations and assumptions as if they were solid fact.

That New York Times article from the 11th also says:

Kevin Teale, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Public Health, said today that the Ames strain was discovered in the 1950's at Iowa State University, in livestock that had died of anthrax. It has since been sent to laboratories across the world for research purposes.

But scientists familiar with the investigation said the DNA of the Florida germ was not an exact match to any of the strains, or subspecies, of anthrax samples kept in the most complete anthrax collections, including the Ames strain.

"The Florida isolate is similar to an isolate from Haiti, to one from Texas and to one from Iowa," said Dr. Martin E. Hugh-Jones of Louisiana State University, a leading anthrax expert who is advising scientists who are trying to identify the strain. "It doesn't match exactly any of those three, but those are the three nearest to it. It's not the Ames strain, far from it."

Dr. Hugh-Jones said that if the bacteria involved in the Florida case did turn out to be the Ames strain, "it could be from anywhere," because so many laboratories around the world have used the germ.

All told, American researchers have accumulated 1,200 samples, or isolates, of anthrax from around the world. But only 400 or so of those samples have undergone DNA analysis that reveals their genetic signatures. So the DNA library that allows quick identification of unknown anthrax strains is fairly small compared with what has been so far collected. Scientists believe many more anthrax strains exist in the wild.

They said that it might take another year for the remaining 800 strains to undergo DNA analysis, and that this process might ultimately link the Florida germ to a sample in the collection. Each of the 1,200 isolates is tied to specific places that have experienced disease outbreaks — usually among grazing animals like sheep, cows, goats, horses and bison, which pick up the deadly spores from the soil.

Scientists said knowing that the Florida strain resembled strains found in particular geographical or institutional locations would help focus the search for the source of the Florida germs, but would not necessarily prove their provenance.

So, the media was doing it's own research into the source for the Ames strain, filling in missing elements with guesswork and comments from sources.  And some scientists and officials who were not actually part of the investigation may have aided and abetted with their own guesswork and assumptions.  Situation normal ....

During this time, e
veryone at USAMRIID believed that the Ames strain came from the USDA in Iowa.  In 1996, Dr. Ivins had co-authored an article which said:

"The virulent Ames strain of B. anthracis was obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ames, Iowa." 

Like everyone else, they also believed it was a common strain used by laboratories all over the world.  Because they believed it was so common, many (evidently including Dr. Ivins) also believed it would be untraceable.

The San Francisco Chronicle provided this information on October 11, 2001:

While federal investigators remain silent about the strain of anthrax that killed a Florida man last week, the most likely culprit appears to be a virulent natural strain widely used in anthrax vaccine research.

Citing unnamed law enforcement sources, the Miami Herald reported yesterday that the strain that killed 63-year-old tabloid photo editor Robert Stevens matched a strain found in Iowa in the 1950s and since then commonly used by laboratory researchers.

But federal Centers for Disease Control spokeswoman Sharon Roskins called the press reports "very premature" and said that testing of the specimens from Florida was "still ongoing."

The Iowa strain, known to researchers as Bacillus anthracis Ames, is a naturally occurring bacterium isolated from a dead animal at Iowa State University in Ames. Because it was a particularly robust strain, it was sought by anthrax research laboratories around the globe and is still used in anthrax vaccine research.

Lab animals given anthrax vaccine are "challenged" by a dose of the Ames strain. If the animals survive, researchers know the vaccine worked.

"This is a standard laboratory strain worldwide," said Dr. Norm Cheville, dean of the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine. "Most labs working on anthrax would have it in their stocks."

Situation normal.  The media is reporting what their named and unnamed sources are saying, while the actual federal investigation is looking for facts and advising the public that the media reports contain "very premature" claims.

According to a source, on October 13, 2001:

Newsday (NY) reports that a team of microbiologists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory tested the Florida anthrax strain and found that, despite denials from health officials, it was the Ames strain that was developed in Iowa in the 1950s.

The media always seems to be able to find respected sources who do not believe the official reports.

Meanwhile, the federal investigation was finding that the attack anthrax had nothing to do with anything at any lab in Ames, Iowa. 
The DNA of the attack anthrax matched samples known to be stored at USAMRIID.  No one at any lab in Iowa had sent any anthrax samples to USAMRIID in 1980 or 1981.  No one at any lab in Iowa possessed any strain identified as "the Ames strain."  The media was on a wild goose chase resulting from mistakes, assumptions and bad guesswork. 

Eventually, it was learned that the Ames strain didn't have anything to do with any lab in Ames, Iowa, and had actually been shipped directly from a Texas A&M lab to USAMRIID.  In time, they found everything there is to know about the origin of "the Ames strain."  They got testimony from Michael L. Vickers, the Texas veterinarian who examined the dead cow.  They had testimony from the people at the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory who sent the sample to USAMRIID.  The have testimonry from the scientist at USAMRIID who asked for it.  They know why he wanted it.   They know why and when it was sent.  They know who received it.  And they even figured out why it was mistakenly called "the Ames strain."  They had the mailing label and the letter that was sent along with the samples.

But, because of the media reports and all the people poking around Iowa looking for any information they could find about anthrax, National Guardsmen had been assigned to protect every lab in Iowa that had samples of anthrax. 

While researching all this, I stumbled across a very interesting CNN transcript from October 15, 2001, which I don't recall seeing before.  It's from Greta van Susteren's interview show, and it took place on the day the Daschle anthrax letter was found.  The show includes a very interesting conversation with Mary Gilchrist, who was the head of the Iowa State Hygiene Lab and president of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. 

VAN SUSTEREN: Is your lab under guard right now?

GILCHRIST: Our lab is under guard -- the guard is there because there was an assumption made that there was an Iowa strain involved in the Florida case. That assumption has been completely negated now. We found that those data were not accurate. But we're still retaining that because there's some concerns about the fact that it was suggested that the strain was manmade in Iowa.

In fact, the strain was not manmade in Iowa. It was a strain that was isolated in Iowa about 50 years ago. That strain shared with researchers around the United States and around the world. And they studied the toxins, for example, to try to develop a way to combat anthrax. And now, it could be obtained from any one of several hundred, probably, sources. So even if the strain had confirmed to match the Iowa strain, it would be irrelevant and really wouldn't be from Iowa. But we're still dealing with some of the concerns that people have.

So, it's like the analogy about guns.  They still didn't know where the Ames strain actually came from, but, even if the Ames strain had come from some source in Iowa 50 years prior to the attacks, that fact had nothing to do with the attacks.  Investigators needed to know who owned "the gun" at the time of the attacks, they didn't need to know who invented "the gun" fifty years earlier.  Knowing who first discovered the Ames strain was irrelevant to the initial investigation.   It was still irrelevant when it was learned that "the Ames strain" was actually first discovered in Texas in 1981, not in Iowa in the 1950s.  The media had somehow assumed that the original source for the Ames strain would be relevant to the case.
  In a real investigation, relevance needs to be proven, it can't be assumed. 

There was no evidence of any kind that the ISU anthrax stocks any connection to the attacks.

VAN SUSTEREN: Mary, when this strain was divided up and sent around to different places so people could examine it, was it kept track of what went where? Is there a good record so at least we know where the Iowa strain went?

GILCHRIST: Absolutely not. This was a time period when everybody believed that all their peers and colleagues were doing the right thing. There was no concern whatsoever. And uniquely, with bacteria, you can't inventory them because you can take just a micro, minuscule amount and walk away with it and have enough to infect a number of other people within a few hours of growth of that organism. So it's a very difficult thing to try to inventory and keep track of.
So, the labs in Ames had no records of where anything had been sent.  But USAMRIID had records of where they had sent the Ames strain.  And the DNA showed that the samples at USAMRIID were an exact match to the attack anthrax.   For federal investigators, USAMRIID was the place to start the investigation, not Iowa.

According to a article dated October 20, 2001:

AMES, Iowa - The Iowa State University said Thursday it had destroyed its stores of anthrax in response to concerns over the recent cases that have turned up in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The College of Veterinary Medicine said some of the destroyed bacteria specimens dated to 1928.

"After contacting appropriate authorities, these specimens were sterilized and incinerated," the university said in a statement posted on its website.

The university said the samples had been maintained for their historical interest and no research was under way on any of them.

Jim Roth, assistant dean and professor of microbiology, said the collection consisted of multiple vials of four or five strains of anthrax. There was no overall inventory, so there is no way to determine if any of the vials was missing.

"We decided they were more of a security risk now than we wanted to tolerate," Roth said. "We didn't need them that badly and decided to destroy them. We checked with the FBI and CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to see if it was OK to destroy them. They didn't want them and didn't need them for their investigation."

Roth said the vials were kept in a locked laboratory, and there was no evidence any was missing.

The anthrax samples that were destroyed were of historical interest, but of no interest to the anthrax investigation.  It's shame they were destroyed instead of being sent to Paul Keim or to some other lab which was doing historical research, but that's what happened, and it cannot be undone.

So, that's how I spent the last five days: I spent it researching something I knew was a dead issue, but I researched it anyway in order to be able to explain exactly why it was a dead issue and why the destruction of the anthrax samples at Iowa State University had nothing to do with the anthrax attacks of 2001.

It turned out to be another example of the media misinterpreting or distorting the facts about the anthrax attacks of 2001.  It's also another example of respected sources assuming that the media is reporting facts, and thus the sources elaborate upon the bad information from the media with their own interpretations of what is really total nonsense.  (In the computer business it's called; "garbage in, garbage out.")  There's an old saying that fits here:

A lie will travel all the way around the world before the truth can get its shoes on. 

And many people will only remember the lie because it was told when everyone was paying attention.

It's getting close to nine full years since I first began my research into the anthrax attacks.  All the important and critical facts seem very clear, but I'm still learning interesting details I never knew before.

© 2010 by Ed Lake
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