Were the anthrax spores coated with silica or not?
The logic of the coating arguments.

by Ed Lake
Dec. 7-8, 2003
(Last revised Jan. 17, 2013)

     It been over two years since the anthrax attacks killed 5 people and injured 17 others, and people are still arguing basic details!  It's been stated in many different ways that the anthrax spores in the attack letters were "simply made".  Every scientist who has actually seen the anthrax and spoken publicly has said the spores were not coated.
     Yet, on November 28, 2003, Science Magazine published an article by freelance journalist Gary Matsumoto in which he tries to make a case that the anthrax spores were coated.
     The very first words of the article are argumentative and questionable:

"Although the investigation seems focused on the idea that the Senate powder could have been 'homemade,' some experts say that's improbable."
     Such words attack an extreme point of view - that the Senate anthrax was "homemade", suggesting that it was made in someone's basement or in a garage lab.   In reality, "homemade" is just one possibility - and probably only a remote possibility because of the quantity made.  It's also very possible - and probably very likely - that the anthrax was made in one of the many sophisticated labs in Central New Jersey capable of producing such material.

     By attacking the extreme point of view, however, you put the other side on the defensive.  And that's what the debating game and politics are all about.  It's not about facts.  It's about defeating the other side.  Just keep hammering and ridiculing them over the garage lab idea until they get frustrated and walk away.  Then you can declare victory.

     The argument is basically political.  The people who believe the spores were coated believe either that the spores were created in Iraq (Richard Spertzel is the prime voice for this theory) or that the U.S. Government made the spores in some illegal bioweapons lab (Barbara Hatch Rosenberg has been the prime voice for this theory).  In the Science article, Gary Matsumoto - who, prior to the Iraq invasion believed that Iraq was the culprit - now seems to be hedging his bets and apparently considers some illegal U.S. Government program as a definite possibility.  And, like Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, when Matsumoto detects any inconsistency in statements or any reluctance by the FBI to make definitive statements, he considers that to be proof of some kind of "coverup".

     But the facts are really quite clear.  It's only when you start interpreting and misinterpreting things and speculating about what disagreements may mean that you get to where Matsumoto stands.  His article in Science is really a political document, not a scientific document.

     Here are the basic elements of the coating argument as I see them:

1.  Professor Matthew Meselson of Harvard and former bioweaponeer Ken Alibek have both seen large, clear electron micrographs of the Daschle anthrax.   They have reported that they saw NO coating on the spores.
2.  There is virtually no way an experienced scientist can make a mistake and not notice coatings of fumed silica or a silica coating or glass particles or anything like that on a micrograph - particularly if they were specifically looking for such things - which Meselson and Alibek almost certainly were.
3.  No one has ever said that they have seen coatings on the attack anthrax spores!
4.  The Matsumoto article is not based upon anyone seeing coatings.  It is based upon findings that the element silicon was found when the spores from the Daschle letter were examined with a spectragraph.  A spectragraph does not produce images.  It produces a graph that shows what basic elements are present in the substance.  Silicon was detected in the Senate anthrax.  No one argues that fact.
5.  Gary Matsumoto and his prime collaborator Stuart Jacobsen believe that the spores were coated, and they produced the Science Magazine report based primarily upon interpretations of the X-ray spectra from electron probe X-ray microanalysis - and assuming that the presence of silicon means the presence of a coating - while ignoring the reports by people who actually saw the spores and saw no coatings.
6.  They did not ask the key scientific question:  How can a spectragraph detect silicon if there is no silicon-based material visible in the micrograph images?  There are many possible explanations.  Here are just a few:
(a) Silicon could be present as a characteristic component of spores of the particular Bacillus.  In other words, there is natural silicon in the natural coating of some kinds of spores.  A 1980 scientific report on the coatings of Bacillus cereus showed the presence of silicon, calcium and other elements.  And Bacillus cereus is very similar to Bacillus anthracis, so the detected silicon could be from the same natural causes.  Or,

(b) The person who made the anthrax could have dried it using some primative technique involving silica which left traces which were absorbed into the natural coatings  of the spores.  In short, silica was there but it was inside the spores' natural coating and not visible.

(c) Silicon could be unintentionally present because of some aspect of the growth, preparation or subsequent handling of the spores.

(d) Silicon could be present because of deliberate addition of some silicon-based product but not in order to increase aerosol dispersion.
An example would be a silicon-based anti-foam used to prevent excessive
foaming during the aeration of the growing culture of the vegetative

(e) Silicon could be present, as Matsumoto believes, because of deliberate addition of a silicon-containing material in an attempt to aid aerosolization.

7.  The Matsumoto article simply ignores or discounts the alternative explanations and says that the spores were coated - without any true proof that they were coated.  He discounts the 1980 study as being "dated", as if in his scientific world facts are no longer facts after a certain period of time.  In reality, scientific findings are invalidated by new facts, not by any kind of expiration date.   In effect, Gary Matsumoto is saying that Meselson and Alibek are either deliberately lying or incapable of seeing the obvious.   And William Patrick III must be lying, too, since he also says that the spores showed no signs of any such "industrialized" processing.
8.  Why is this important?  Because, if the spores were coated, that would indicate a large state-sponsored manufacturing facility probably made them.   If the spores were not coated, then they could have been made in almost any microbiology lab.
9.  So, if your political agenda says that the spores must have been made by some illegal U.S. government program or by Iraq, then you want the spores to be coated.
10.  On the other hand, if you want the truth, you look at the evidence.
     Let's look at the evidence.

Statements by Jahrling, Meselson, Alibek & Patrick

     According to Richard Preston's book "The Demon in the Freezer", page 185, on October 24, 2001, Peter Jahrling, the senior scientist at USAMRIID was summoned to the Roosevelt Room of the White House to talk with John Ashcroft, Cabinet officials, CIA, FBI and national security people about the Daschle anthrax he had been examining.  At that meeting, Peter Jahrling told the others:

 "This anthrax could have come from a hospital lab or from any reasonably equipped college microbiology lab."
     In the June 1, 2002, issue of The National Journal, author Jonathan Rauch wrote about Meselson and Alibek being shown the Daschle anthrax:
"The material, in fact, is of mediocre quality, [Ken Alibek] told me, and was not produced industrially. It definitely had not been milled, nor did it appear to have any sort of coating to reduce static or otherwise enhance its deadliness. Silica supposedly found in the material, Alibek thinks, may simply be a residue from an unsophisticated drying process. Meselson concurs that the anthrax evinces no sign of special coating or processing. 'There is no evidence that I know of,' he told me, 'that it was treated in any special way.'"
     This paragraph from the National Journal article makes the point clearly that a large government facility was not needed to make the anthrax:
If the U.S. anthrax was very pure but not specially weaponized, could it have been made by amateurs? In small quantities, yes, according to both Alibek and Meselson.  It could be done, Alibek says, with "a very simple, nonindustrial process -- a very primitive process -- that could let you get a trillion spores in one gram. You can't make hundreds of kilos, but you could make hundreds of grams at this concentration."
     And America's foremost bioweapons expert William Patrick III confirms that evaluation with statements of his own from the Associated Press:
Patrick, who holds patents for techniques used to make weapons-grade anthrax, said that the type of spores mailed to the offices of Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., could have been processed in a crude laboratory “as long as you are dealing with small quantities of material.”
     Gary Matsumoto and Professor Matthew Meselson have been at odds about the anthrax case for some time.   On October 28, 2002, Gary Matsumoto and Guy Gugliotta wrote an article for the Washington Post titled "FBI's Theory On Anthrax Is Doubted", and Professor Meselson and Ken Alibek responded a few days later with a reply titled "Anthrax Under The Microscope" in which they discuss the electron micrographs they had viewed, questioning certain aspects of the Matsomoto and Gugliotta article.

     I asked Professor Meselson to clarify matters related to the electron micrographs he'd seen and the circumstances under which he'd seen them.  He responded that he had seen several large "glossy electron micrographs of high quality" which he believes were 8 1/2 by 11-inches in size.  He was told that the photographs were of the Daschle material.

    "The photographs showed a multitude of spores, some individual and some in clumps, including large clumps."  He did not know if the clumps were present in the initial material or formed in subsequent operations.  He added, "The material was very pure: very uniform spores with little or no evident debris."

     He also said that, as far as he knew, the reason he was shown the photos was in order to be of possible help in suggesting further work or interpretation of work already done.  As a molecular biologist and former physical chemist with a longstanding interest in biological and chemical weapons and agents, it seemed reasonable that he, like others of his colleagues, would be consulted.  He made some suggestions about further work that may or may not have been original, and he was "favorably impressed" by the scientists he met at the FBI.

    He concluded, "I do not know the circumstances under which Ken Alibek examined EM
photos.  I believe that his observations coincide with mine."

     So, there is no doubt about what Professor Meselson said, nor is there really any doubt about what Ken Alibek and William Patrick III said, since they have said the same things many times.

Coated and Uncoated Spores

     There are many pictures of anthrax spores on the Internet, but, as far as I know, there are no pictures of coated anthrax spores.  However, I found one picture of coated Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) spores which might help illustrate the situation.  Here it is:

    Bt is very similar to anthrax in size, shape and even DNA to Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), so it is often used as a simulant for anthrax.  Bt is best known for its uses as an insecticide.  Mixtures containing Bt spores are commonly sprayed on plants where they are eaten by caterpillars and other insects. One source describes the Bt insect killing process this way:

The insecticidal agents of Bt consist of bacterial spores and crystals. When eaten the crystal dissolves and paralyzes the insect gut,causing it to stop feeding, and death may occur during the next few days. The insect gut lining begins to break apart and may permit spore germination and growth of the bacterial spores in the body cavity. This causes a general infection which leads to death.
     Here is an electron micrograph of a Bt spore still inside the dead mother germ along with the lethal crystals:

     Because the ultra-violet rays in sunlight will kill the spores in a short period of time, Bt spores are frequently coated with starch or other materials to protect them from the UV light until the insects can get to them.  Compare the endospore in the above image to the coated spores in the prior image to see if you notice a difference.

     I haven't yet found any pictures of collections of Bt spores, but they look very much like anthrax spores.  This image directly below shows an anthrax spore still inside its dead mother germ and is the best comparison I have to the Bt spore in the illustration above.  The anthrax spore (B) is clearly visible.  (A) illustrates how the germs divide.

Below is a photo of a batch of spores which is supposedly representative of what was in the Senate letters.  I believe it was scanned from Richard Preston's book.   The caption says they are "similar in character to the "weapons-grade" attack anthrax.  But looking at these pictures it seems clear that they are stuck together with the residue of some sort of liquid used in the refining process or in the process of preparing the specimens for use in a scanning electron microscope.   Whether or not the attack spores were stuck together in a similar way is unknown.  But it is clear that they are not stuck together by van der Waal's forces.

Here is an image of a batch of Ames anthrax spores:

     Here are three more images of groups of anthrax spores obtained from a CDC web site:

     Coatings should be clearly visible on these images if there are any coatings.  Some spores in these images seem to still be wet from the preparation process, which might qualify as a coating.  But a coating of silica should make them look like a chicken or ostrich egg covered with sand.  Plus, since the silica particles would not all stick to the spores, the "eggs" should appear to be lying in sand.

    The best illustration of particles covered with finer particles that I can find is from the web site HERE and shows particles of lactose covered with nano-particles (of some unknown material).  Here is the image:

     The process which was used to coat the lactose particles would almost certainly cause spores to pop like popcorn when returned to room temperature after their emersion in liquid nitrogen, and so all the spores would be dead and harmless.  But those who believe the attack anthrax spores were coated insist that some technique similar to this must have been used.

     Another illustration of a particle covered with finer particles consists of images of PMMA particles (which have a diameter two hundred times that of anthrax spores) covered by alumina guest particles (which are about 7 tenths the size of a spore).  Here they are:

     So, although these images may not be ideal for what I'm trying to illustrate, they should show that it would be difficult to fail to notice silica particles or a silica coating on electron micrograph images of the Daschle anthrax spores.  Plus, it seems unlikely that all the silica particles would stick to the spores.  Most of it could be part of the powder.

Matsumoto's Logic

     A large part of Masumoto's logic is based not upon facts but upon interpretations of facts in the media and other people's reports of the interpretations.  For example, on the very first page of the article he writes about how a JAMA report dated May 1, 2002, which was written by 16 scientists who described the Senate anthrax powder as "weapons-grade" and exceptional: "high spore concentration, uniform particle size, low electrostatic charge, treated for clumping".   But they were not describing something they actually saw, only what they heard or read about the spores.  And when Matsumoto quotes it, he's really quoting opinion as if it were fact.  The JAMA report is, in reality, merely a conscensus of opinions.  That is not the same as a fact.

     The same with Matsumoto's comments about the EPA and Homeland Security verifying his suspicions.  He wrote:

"the Department of Homeland Security confirmed to the EPA that the perpetrators did, in fact, use silica to weaponize the Senate anthrax spores.
     A month before the Science article came out, I heard about what the EPA scientist was going to say in his abstract, and I contacted him via e-mail, telling him that I didn't think there was any real evidence that the attack spores were coated with silica.  He replied:
"Apparently my understanding of the popular press records of the anthrax episode and the attendant details is much, much different that yours.  From what I have read and learned from television (including comments by Ken Alibeck) is that silica had been added to the spore preparations.  This fact has been confirmed in conversations with members of our staff who work in Homeland Security."
     So, this EPA scientist had gotten his information from the "popular press records" and it was "confirmed" by conversations he had with EPA people who worked in Homeland Security.  To Matsumoto this was apparently "official" confirmation of his beliefs.  The EPA scientist also explained to me:
"As you might guess, those of us who work for the Federal Govt. are always concerned that anything we might write or say inadvertently becomes interpreted as 'official govt. policy'.  Nothing could be further from the truth; to some measure we are able to express our interpretation of our scientific findings but that is many steps removed from 'official govt. policy'."
     Is it reasonable to believe that EPA scientists working in Homeland Security would know such details about the attack anthrax?  The FBI is not part of Homeland Security.  And the FBI has the anthrax case locked down so tight to prevent leaks that it appears that most FBI agents, including Field Office Chiefs, have no clue as to what is actually going on with the case.  Why would it be common gossip at Homeland Security to the point where people from the EPA also know the details?

     It seems to me that Gary Matsumoto is falling into the trap that most conspiracy theorists so firmly believe - that the United States Goverment is a gigantic Borg Collective where everyone automatically knows what everyone else knows.  That's simply not true.  There is absolutely no reason to believe that the people at Homeland Security got their impressions about silica coatings from anyplace else than where the EPA scientist got his impressions:  "popular press records".

Opinions Reported as Facts

     There was a lot of speculation and misinformation about the anthrax during the early days of immediately after the anthrax attacks, and when speculation fits your political notion of "the truth", people tend to remember it and forget any subsequent statements that say something different.  One key source about coatings was the Oct. 24, 2001, article in The Washington Post titled "Additive Made Spores Deadlier".  Here are the key paragraphs:

The presence of the high-grade additive was confirmed for the first time yesterday by a government source familiar with the ongoing studies, which are being conducted by scientists at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick. Four other experts in anthrax weapons said they had no doubt that such an additive was present based on the high dispersal rate from the letter to Daschle (D-S.D.).
"The evidence is patent on its face," said Alan Zelicoff, a senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories' Center for National Security and Arms Control. "The amount of energy needed to disperse the spores [by merely opening an envelope] was trivial, which is virtually diagnostic of achieving the appropriate coating."
David Franz, formerly of USAMRIID and now at the Southern Research Institute in Birmingham, said, "In order for a formulation to do what the one in Daschle's office appears to have done -- be easily airborne -- it would require special treatment."
     But none of these "experts" are actually saying they saw coatings on the spores.  They are only deducing that because of the apparently high dispersal rate that the spores must have been coated with something.  They are stating opinions which are being reported as facts.  Days later, the media was also saying that the coating was bentonite - the "signature ingredient" used in Iraq's anthrax weaponization programs.  ABC put this on their web site on Nov. 1, 2001:
ABCNEWS reported last week that initial tests on the Daschle letter discovered the presence of one of those important additives, bentonite, an anti-clumping agent that makes the spores float through the air and into the lungs more easily, and which United Nations weapons inspectors have associated with Iraq.
This issue is critical.  Making anthrax deadlier by mixing it with such additives is a trademark of sophisticated, well-funded, government programs, which could point to state-sponsorship of the mail attacks. Finding bentonite or silica, a similar additive, is one of the few solid leads investigators would have on the possible source of the contaminated letters that have been showing up in mailrooms from Florida to New York City.
But there is dispute over what the additives are. The White House and the head of the Army's biological laboratories in Ft. Detrick, Md., have denied bentonite was present, and said even if it was, it would not necessarily point to Iraq as the culprit.
They said investigators have not ruled out domestic or foreign sources, and, experts in the field note, the equipment used to treat anthrax with bentonite is available on the open market, which could lead investigators to a suspect in the United States.
     But the attack anthrax did not contain bentonite.   ABC was wrong.  They were reporting speculation as if it were fact.  Bentonite contains the element aluminum, and there was no aluminum detected in the anthrax.  On November 29, 2001, the Washington Post reported:
A battery of biological assays followed. Tests for antibiotic sensitivity indicated the bugs were not resistant to standard antibiotics. DNA tests confirmed they belonged to the Ames strain, as have all of the terrorism-related specimens. And electron microscope studies of the powder in paraffin showed that the particles were remarkably small -- just 1.5 to 3 microns in diameter -- and consisted almost entirely of purified spores, a perfect recipe for inhalational anthrax.
But there was something else in there, too, and it would require analysis by others to say what. That job fell to a laboratory on the campus of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology [AFIP] in Northwest Washington. An aging building there is home to a device called an energy dispersive X-ray spectroscope, which can detect the presence of extremely tiny quantities of chemicals.
That device found that silica, but not aluminum, was mixed with the Daschle spores -- an important finding that differentiated the sample from known Iraqi specimens in which spores were combined with bentonite, a mixture of silica and aluminum.
The spectroscope found traces of other elements, too, but there was virtually no specimen left for follow-up studies. One goal of the Leahy letter analysis, Parker said, is to conduct further physical and chemical analyses that may offer clues about the powder's provenance.
     For the people who believed that Iraq was behind the mailings, if the anthrax contained silica instead of bentonite, then Iraq must have also occasionally used silica when making their anthrax.  They began looking for signs that Iraq knew how to make anthrax using silica.

     But there were also a lot of people whose political agenda made them want to believe that some illegal U.S. government bioweapons program was involved.  If Iraq didn't do it, then it must have been connected to some illegal U.S. program.  That idea was given credence by a Dec. 3, 2001, article in The New York Times which began with these two paragraphs:

The dry powder used in the anthrax attacks is virtually indistinguishable in critical technical respects from that produced by the United States military before it shut down its biowarfare program, according to federal scientists and a report prepared for a military contractor.
The preliminary analysis of the powder shows that it has the same extraordinarily high concentration of deadly spores as the anthrax produced in the American weapons program. While it is still possible that the anthrax could have a foreign source, the concentration is higher than any stock publicly known to be produced by other governments.
     In reality, the concentration of spores was much greater in the attack anthrax than in any U.S. bioweapons program.  A trillion spores per gram was virtually unheard of in bioweapons manufacturing.  But to True Believers that just meant it was from a new program - probably an illegal bioweapons program.   And on December 13, 2001, that was apparently confirmed by The New York Times which was also beginning to listen to Barbara Hatch Rosenberg's theories about illegal government programs.
Government officials have acknowledged that Army scientists in recent years have made anthrax in a powdered form that could be used as a weapon.
     At about the same time, on December 9, 2001, the FBI released it's profile of the anthrax killer.  According to an article in the Knight-Ridder newspapers,
FBI officials said yesterday that they believe the person who mailed several anthrax-filled letters is probably a U.S.-based male loner with a scientific bent, possibly like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, whose letter bombs mystified law enforcement for nearly two decades.
     But did the "loner" steal the anthrax from a government lab?  Did he make it?  Did he coat it?  That aspect wasn't mentioned in the FBI's profile.

     When The Washington Post confirmed on December 16, 2001, that the "Capitol Hill Anthrax Matches Army's Stocks", was anyone really paying attention to the fact that they were talking only about the anthrax strain and not about coatings?

     Would they pay any attention to an article in NewsDay on December 27, 2001, which gave a totally different impression of how the anthrax was made:

Chemical analysis might hint at the process by which the spores were filtered and whether they were treated with chemicals to remove electrostatic charges and prevent clumping, experts said.  That could provide clues to whether the spores originated in a government lab or were prepared by someone using government-taught methods.
Little is known publicly about the chemical analysis so far, and some experts said if the finely powdered spores were prepared in an ad hoc way by a knowledgeable loner using off-the-shelf materials, the spores might be difficult to trace chemically.
Even as investigators search for ways to narrow the probe, science is providing information that challenges some assumptions about how lethal anthrax spores behave. Recent studies suggest that even spores prepared without anti-clumping chemicals - if small enough - may be able to spread more efficiently in a closed space than had previously been thought possible. Further, scientists said, the fine-grained, readily inhaled character of the Daschle anthrax sample need not require production in a state-sponsored lab.
For now, without more information on the analysis being done on the available spore samples, experts said it is too soon to narrow the search for suspects only to government laboratories and their contractors.
The notion "that only the U.S. Army can build biological weapons is not based on fact," Dr. Tara O'Toole of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense said last week in a speech in Manhattan to the United Hospital Fund.
"They are obscuring the facts," said Dr. Cecil Fox, a microbiologist who heads Molecular Histology, a private company in Gaithersburg, Md., that conducts for the National Institutes of Health the sorts of studies the FBI, presumably, has performed on the anthrax samples. "And I don't see how anybody can shed light on this. And there may be people out there in the public who would have valuable information if they knew what they were supposed to look for. So far the FBI has painted a picture of a Unabomber-type guy in a starched white lab coat skulking around government labs, which doesn't tell us anything."
Correcting Misconceptions

     Conspiracy theorists tend to see wrongdoings in any correction to earlier statements.  If officials speculated one thing before they had all the facts and then said something else after they had all the facts, it's proof of incompentence for being initially mistaken and proof of a coverup if the correction says something other that what the conspiracy theorist has come to believe.   Matsumoto seems to take that course.  Any change in what the FBI says is proof of something sinister going on - even if the FBI didn't really say what he thinks they said.

     There was never anything official from the U.S. Government that the spores were definitely coated with silica.  It was all just interpretations and speculation based upon past experiences and knowledge of the way things had been done in the past.

     A big part of Matsumoto's argument that the Daschle spores were coated with silica is the result of an article from AFIP.  That article is HERE.

     But that article says nothing about coatings.  It just says that silica was present.  It showed up on a chart of elements.  To True Believers, the presence of silica must mean a silica coating.

     But people who actually saw the spores or electron micrographs of the spores saw no coatings.

     Here's how Matsumoto explained the discrepancy between what he concludes and what Prof. Meselson reported seeing in a message he posted on December 3 to the FAS CBW forum:

Dr. Matthew Meselson of Harvard has previously stated that he did not see silica nanoparticles on the Daschle spores as I described them in an October 2002 Washington Post article co-wrotten with Guy Gugliotta.  This hairsplitting distinction may offer one possible explanation for the discrepancy between the Geisbert/Jahrling accounts, and those of Meselson/Alibek.  In the Post article, Guy and I described an individual particle of CAB-O-SIL (a fumed silica) at a magnification of 350,000x, which is several hundred thousand times greater than the magnification employed to view, and photograph, a cluster of spores.  As it is the molecular structure of a silica nanoparticle that make it an ideal dispersing agent, Guy and I deemed it necessary to provide, in words, a close-up view.  At 350,000x, one can discern the ultrastructure of a single silica nanoparticle, but the surface of a spore would be completely obscured--the scanning distance would be too close.  So, unless Meselson/Alibek were viewing electronmicrographs at this extreme magnification, they would not see what I described;

Individual silica nanoparticles can look different from CAB-O-SIL; it depends on how they were processed.  Individual silica nanoparticles can be as small as 5 nanometers in diameter (smaller than a polio virus); agglomerates can appear as Preston describes them, like the "splatty goop or gunk" of a fried egg white

     So, he's apparently saying that the coating is there, but it can't be seen by experts.  Yet a coating can look like "'splatty goop or gunk' of a fried egg white" if viewed by someone who has never seen dried anthrax spores before.  Or, to put it another way, Matsumoto is saying that experts can't see the silica coating, but if anyone sees anything unusual it's almost certainly silica.

     According to Gary Matsumoto himself, in an Oct. 28, 2002, Washington Post article he wrote with Guy Gugliotta:

Under an electron microscope, fumed silica would look like cotton balls strung together into strands that branch out in every direction.
     And Matsomoto's numbers are also misleading.  He and Guy Gugliotta say that in the Post article they "described an individual particle of CAB-O-SIL (a fumed silica) at a magnification of 350,000x, which is several hundred thousand times greater than the magnification employed to view, and photograph, a cluster of spores."  But it doesn't really matter what magnification they used, what really matters is the size difference between spores and silica nanoparticles.  In the second CDC photo of anthrax spores above, the scale is shown.  On my computer screen, 1 micron in the photo is roughly an inch on my screen.  Here are electron micrographs of silica nanoparticles (the entire .pdf file is HERE):

     Note that the individual silica particles range from 7 to 70 nanometers and clusters are 200 to 300 nanometers in size.  Since a nanometer is 1000th of a micron, that means a cluster of nanoparticles would be roughly a quarter the size of a spore.  That would hardly be the invisible size that Matsumoto suggests.  And even if somehow every single nanoparticle was perfectly created at 7 nanometers (which is extremely improbable) it would still look like I described above: sand on a chicken egg.

     In another e-mail posted to the FAS CBW forum on December 11, 2003, he made it very clear that he has a complete misconception of the relative sizes of spores and silica nanoparticles.  He wrote:

"The diameter of an anthrax spore is just under one micrometer, which is a millionth of a meter.   A colloidal silica nanoparticle can be as small as four nanometers or four billionths of a meter in diameter.  This is several orders of magnitude smaller than a polio virus or immunoglobulin and almost a billion times smaller than an anthrax spore."
In my response to his e-mail, I created a graphic that shows the relative sizes of anthrax spores, various viruses and nanoparticles of silica:

     So, it is abundantly clear that Gary Matsumoto has a wildly inaccurate belief in the relative size of spores versus silica nanoparticles.  That clearly explains a lot of what he writes.  But in his e-mail of Dec. 11, he also showed just how complete his misconceptions are.  He provided explanations that totally shot down his own theory!

     For example, his description of what fumed silica would look like now says that they would look like "denuded grape stems" at the resolution of the spore below, which is exactly like what is seen under and beside the spore.  And he also says that it would look like the "fried egg gunk" which appears to be "oozing" from the spore.  As it happens, that description exactly matches what is scattered all around the anthrax spore and bacteria in the images FA5679 and FA5682 on this web site HERE, and those images are from a private source, not from a government lab.

     Is this the type of "fried egg gunk" they are talking about?  If not, what is it?  I contacted a photographer who is an expert on taking scanning electron microscope (SEM) pictures of bacteria and anthrax spores.  The "fried egg gunk" appears in his pictures, too, even though he never used any fumed silica during his processing of the material.  He doesn't know what it is, but the material oozing from the spores could be almost anything - and the oozing is almost certainly the result of the vacuum inside the SEM.

     Furthermore, silica is commonly used to clean SEM parts, particularly older models.  And anyone familiar with government work knows that they commonly have older models.  Because the money has to come from taxpayers, and because everything has to be justfied in triplicate, Government labs tend to be the last labs to get updated equipment.

     But regardless of what the "fried egg gunk" is in the photos HERE, the "gunk" doesn't look anything like a coating - particularly like the coating which Gary describes (individual particles acting as "spacers" to keep spores apart).

     Why wouldn't Meselson and Alibek see this "gunk"?  That also seems to be explained in my response to Gary's letter of Dec. 11.  Because it could be from some spray drying process or from the preparation of the specimens for use in a SEM, and it could be inside the coating of the spore.  In the vacuum inside the electron microscope, tiny bits of the absorbed material could be forced out.  But, depending upon the resolution and other factors, it would look like "debris".  It does NOT look like a coating.  And it would look like "pure or almost pure spores" under ordinary circumstances.

     On March 31, 2003, Ken Alibek specfically addressed the "incorrect info published in the media" during an on-line discussion on The Washington Post's web site.  His first comment was:

Ken Alibek: We need to understand that there is no specific technological procedure to remove electric charges. All discussions about to remove or not remove are absolutely senseless. Yes, electric charges could decrease it, but there's not specific.
These anthrax mailings create electric charge and this went through mail machines and had friction, so to say they didn't have an electric charge is not right.
To talk about silica, when I've looked at micrographs, I haven't seen any silica in the samples. We shouldn't forget that silica could be contained in an outer shell of an anthrax spore.  Based on this information its hard to see if it is foreign or domestic. What you can see is that there was a lot of incorrect info published in the media. This anthrax wasn't sophisticated, didn't have coatings, had electric charge and many other things.
We can form an expert opinion on what kind of anthrax it was, but based on this data, we can't say what the source was.
Later, in an answer to a question that appears to be from Stuart Jacobsen, he said:
Ken Alibek: We paid to much attention to the silicon oxide on the surface of the spores. I haven't seen any silicon presence on micrographs of this anthrax.  We shouldn't forget that silica would be a natural component. In this case, in my opinion, silica was a natural presence in these spores. There was no special need to add silica to this anthrax.
Ken Alibek: Presence or absence of silica says nothing about whether it was state sponsored. It's very hard from technical characteristics to make conclusions about possible source.
Then in response to another question:
Ken Alibek: Again, I said before that silica could be naturally present in spores. In this case, we shouldn't over focus on silica. There are many other parameters and issues we need to pay attention to.
Then he talks about mistakes in the media in response to another question about using equipment for making powdered milk to make anthrax:
Ken Alibek: Let me answer it this way -- yes, actually, it would be the same technique to make a powderized anthrax, but at the same time we shouldn't overestimate the complexity of making it.  My opinion is this -- in order to make this powder there is no need to have sophisticated equipment. Such a small amount, keep in mind that the people who did it could have very simple equipment and very simple procedures.  There is no need for industrial equipment.  It would be enough to have small equipment. But at the same time, when people talk about it being "weaponized" -- I can't say it was that sophisticated.  I saw the particles -- they were the size of 40 microns. We can't say anything about the quality of this powder because we saw it after it had gone through mail sorting machines which create very powerful pressure.  There was no coating. What I saw on micrograph was no coating.  It was natural spores and for some people they mistakenly thought it wasn't. Some experts said there was more charge because it was fluffy and made a cloud when put on scale.  This is another mistake.  It did have charge. It went through the sorting machine and it's a matter of friction. In this case, it meant that this powder had the same electric charge -- this is normal. In this case, I would say it's a long story, but there have been so many mistakes made in the conclusions, but I hope these mistakes were just in the media, but not the case with the FBI and do know more information.
     So there should be no confusion over where bioweapons expert Ken Alibek stands.  The spores were not coated, it didn't take sophisticated equipment to make it, and the media is responsible for erroneously telling people that there was a coating.

    There should also be no confusion over where Professor Meselson stands.  Back in October of 2002, when Gary Matusmoto was researching the original Washington Post article he wrote with Guy Gugliotta about experts being doubted, Professor Meselson sent me an e-mail to point out some of Matsumotos's basic misconceptions.  Among them he pointed out an error in Matsumoto's thinking that wasn't mentioned in that article but which is the key premise to the Science article.  Professor Meselson wrote:

... the B. globigii spore perparation used by the DRES in Canada and provided by the US Army lab at Dugway was both impure and, in the EM photos I saw, clumpy.  I understand that it was not treated with anything. Yet, if the data in the report are accurate, opening even the envelope with only 0.1 gram of spore preparation would have delivered large doses to unmasked individuals in the room during the ten minutes after the letter was opened.  Even impure apparently clumpy spore preparations can put large numbers of spores into the air under the conditions of the Canadian experiments.  From their data, one may estimate that the amount that became airborne was a few percent of what was in the envelopes.
    The whole Science article is based upon the false premise that some incredibly complex process was used to coat the anthrax spores, and that the same process was used to make the B. globigii simulant used by the Canadian military in their "Risk Assessment of Anthrax Threat Letters".  But with the above statement we see that the simulant was simply made and far far from being something which only a massive government project could produce.  We also see that this "simple product: worked just the way the spores did in the Senate letters.

A Simple Process

     There are many articles around which state that the anthrax was made via a very simple process that is routine in many or all microbiology labs.  Here's what Scott Shane wrote in a Baltimore Sun article dated Nov. 3, 2002:

The powder in the letters addressed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy was made of virtually pure anthrax spores, the tough, dormant form of the Bacillus anthracis bacteria, scientists say. The powder contained about 1 trillion spores per gram, close to the theoretical limit of purity.
But one of the scientists who described the powder to The Sun said that such purity can be achieved using relatively simple methods, such as repeatedly spinning the anthrax mixture in a centrifuge and washing out non-spore materials.
While anthrax produced by Army weapons makers in the old U.S. offensive biological warfare program had a lower purity, that was because of techniques they used for efficient, large-scale production, the scientist said. The bioweapons makers of the 1950s and '60s could have made trillion-spore-per-gram anthrax easily on a smaller, laboratory scale, the scientist said.
     In other words, it is actually easier to get a trillion spores per gram via small laboratory methods than via a large scale industrial program.

     That would seem to be very much the opposite of what Gary Matsumoto's article suggests.  And it's not just the opinion of a single scientist.  According to experts with whom I've discussed this question, virtually every competent microbiologist should know how to refine spores to get a pure concentration using standard lab equipment.  A concentration of pure spores is by definition a concentration of a trillion spores per gram, since each spore weighs a trillionth of a gram.  That's the way nature makes them.  Period.

     Matsumoto describes exactly how spores can be refined and two of the many ways they can be dried:  "Dugway washed and centrifuged the material four times to create a pure spore preparation, then dried it by solvent extraction and azeotropic distillation".  This "produced a coarse powder.  The spores - some dried under an infrared lanp and others air dried - stuck together in little cakes, according to military sources, and then were sieved through 'a fine steel mesh.'"   But this method did not produce a powder with the same properties as in the anthrax letters.  Primarily, the spores did not "float freely".  The Dugway spores just "fell to the bottom of the test tube and stayed there".

     "'That tells you that the particles were too big,' says Spertzel.  'It confirms what I've been saying all along: To make a good powder, you need an additive'."

     But were the tests by Dugway "failures" or "evidence"?

Evidence in a Circumstantial Case

    What were the Dugway experts actually doing when they tried to use some "garage lab" technique to make powdered anthrax?  Drying a wet powder of fine particles by leaving it set in open air or by applying an infrared lamp is almost guaranteed to create a near-solid "cake" that must be broken up.  They probably knew that before they did it.  They should have figured on it.  So, what did they accomplish with such tests?

     While reading over Matsumoto's Science article for a third time, something occurred to me.

     His article says that the Dugway test spores were dried in two ways: by setting them under an infrared lamp and by just letting them air dry.  Both ways produced a "cake" of stuck-together spores that - even when sifted through a fine steel mesh - still contained spores stuck together as a result of the way they were dried.

     It seems to me that what this test showed is not that Dugway doesn't know how to make anthrax cheaply (as Matsumoto suggests), but that that particular method is not the same method used by the anthrax refiner/mailer.  It means that the anthrax refiner/mailer may have used some form of spray drier.  Or some other method of drying.  (The use of a spray drier goes a long way toward eliminating the caking problem.  Individual spores are sprayed into a stream of hot air where they are dried as individual spores floating in air.)

     It also seems to me that when the DOJ takes the refiner/mailer into court, they are going to have to PROVE that he and only he made the anthrax and that it could NOT have been made by some unknown amateur in a garage using an infrared lamp or by letting the spores dry in the air.

     So, every test that "doesn't work" may actually be "evidence" that ONLY the method the anthrax refiner/mailer used would give the right results.

     The U.S. Government's Prosecuting Attorney needs to be able to say: "This is how the culprit did it, and it cannot be done in any other known way.  And we have proof that the culprit knows how to do it the way it must have been done; and we have proof that he had access to the right equipment at the right time for commission of the crimes."

     In other words, the FBI could be gathering evidence to fight off "reasonable doubt" arguments that a defense attorney might attempt to use to get his client off in a legal case that would be almost entirely circumstantial.

     It seems to me that they would almost have to do that.  They can't take any chance that the culprit would be tried and proven "not guilty" because of a jury's "reasonable doubt" that the FBI got the wrong guy.

     There are many ways of making anthrax.  And the fact that some amateurish method doesn't give the same results as was found in the attack anthrax means nothing - except that that specific method is not the method used to create the attack anthrax.

Van der Waals Forces

     Gary's e-mail of December 11, really trashes his own theory - and the whole basis of the Science article - when he explains about van der Waals forces.  He wrote:

"If you can create a particle from scratch (which you can't do with B. anthracis spores), you might not need an additive.  For instance, the Nektar Corporation in California makes inhalable medicinal powders without a flow agent.  This is because Nektar engineers created small particles of dried medicines like albuterol sulfate (an asmtha drug) that are cratered and pitted like tiny meteorites.  The irregular surfaces on these particles do the same job as the fumed silica does when coating the surface of particles like B. anthracis spores—they create an uneven surface to thwart surface adhesion forces."
     So, you do not need silica nanoparticles if spores are irregular in shape, i.e, "cratered and pitted like tiny meteorites".  Here is how Army scientists described the Daschle anthrax in Richard Preston's book "The Demon In The Freezer":
"The spores were stuck together into chunks that looked like moon rocks.  They remined him [Tom Geisbert] of grinning jack-o-lanterns, skeletons, hip sockets, and Halloween goblin faces. The anthrax particles had an eroded, pitted look, like meteorites fallen to earth.  Most chunks were very tiny, sometimes just one or two spores, but there were also boulders.  One boulder looked to him like a human skull, with eye sockets and a jaw hanging open and screaming.  It was an anthrax skull."
     So, Gary Matsumoto says that you do not need silica to keep spores from aggregating if the spores are pitted like meteorites, and that is exactly how they are described by the miltary scientists who examined the spores.  And that is the way all anthrax spores are when seen in extreme closeup.

     Matsumoto's entire article is based upon the need to have silica nanoparticles between spores in order to keep van der Waals forces from binding the spores together, but by his own words that is total nonsense since spores are irregular in shape and therefore would not be significantly influenced by van der Waals forces.  And when combined with his total misunderstanding of the relative sizes of spores versus nanoparticles, it becomes clear that Gary's theory in Science Magazine is total bunk.

Summing Up

     When I read Gary Matsumoto's article on the day it came out, I was struck by two things: (1) his sources are people who have never seen the anthrax, (2) his key sources seem to be Richard Spertzel (who still believes that Iraq sent the anthrax) and Stuart Jacobsen who seems to always respond to questions about his logic and facts with personal insults.  Admittedly, having been personally insulted by Jacobsen countless times in the past year in various Internet forums because I believed that Professor Meselson and Ken Alibek saw no coatings on the anthrax and no signs of milling, and having watched Jacobsen attack Professor Meselson in the same way, I was highly suspicious of anything Jacobsen was associated with.

     And here is what Gary Matsumoto wrote about Richard Spertzel's knowledge of the attack anthrax in a Washington Post article:

"In my opinion, there are maybe four or five people in the whole country who might be able to make this stuff, and I'm one of them," said Richard O. Spertzel, chief biological inspector for the U.N. Special Commission from 1994 to 1998. "And even with a good lab and staff to help run it, it might take me a year to come up with a product as good."
     In other words, Richard Spertzel not only hasn't seen the anthrax and doesn't know how to purify anthrax, it would take him a year to figure out how to make such a thing with the help of a staff.

     But reading over the Matsumoto article in Science again and again, I can find nothing in it that says that people who have actually seen the anthrax say it was coated.  Matsumoto only uses "experts" who were either just speculating or who apparently got their "information" from reading inaccurate reports in the media early in the case, plus a total misconception of the effect of van der Waal's forces and the need for "coupling agents".  At the same time, scientists who have actually seen the anthrax are sluffed off as being just people with a contrary opinion not worthy of discussion.

     And after receiving detailed e-mails from Gary about the Science article on three separate occasions, December 3, December 5, and December 11, and researching and responding to those e-mails (which helped me figure out exactly what Gary's thought processes were while writing the article),  it is abundantly clear that the Science article is based upon his misconceptions.

     Or to put it another way, the Matsumoto article is a political article, not a scientific article - definitely not a science article, since the science proves that his article is nonsense.

     Any scientific analysis of the facts that are available would have to conclude that the anthrax was not coated with silica and the powder was probably made in a standard microbiology laboratory with standard equipment by someone with expertise in refining spores of various kinds - possibly using silica nanoparticles in some refining process, but definitely not as a coating.  And my own analysis says that that laboratory is most likely located somewhere in Central New Jersey.

Ed Lake

First Draft: December 7, 2003
Second Draft: December 8, 2003
Third Draft: December 13, 2003
Last revised: August 17, 2004
Fixed Washington Post links: Jan. 17, 2013

(c) 2003 - 2004 by Ed Lake
All Right Reserved