of madness boost anthrax suit
By JANE MUSGRAVE
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
As a citizen, Richard Schuler shuddered when he read about the paranoid delusions suffered by Bruce Ivins, a government scientist who worked with anthrax, one of the most deadly bacterium known to man.
As a lawyer, Schuler welcomed the news. Reports of Ivins' mental illness could shore up the $50 million lawsuit he filed against the federal government, accusing it of negligence in the 2001 anthrax death of Boca Raton tabloid photo editor Bob Stevens.
"To put a guy that mentally unstable in charge of these substances makes me shudder," Schuler said. "But it strengthens our case. It shows the security was bad."
The lawsuit, which has languished for nearly five years, will soon be amended to include information the FBI released earlier this month after it announced that Ivins was solely responsible for mailing anthrax-laced letters that claimed the lives of Stevens and four others.
Further, Schuler said, the case could provide an airing of the evidence the government has against Ivins, who killed himself on July 29 after agents told him he would be charged with murder.
Unless the lawsuit is settled or thrown out, a trial would force the government to detail its case against the researcher at the Fort Detrick biological weapons research center in Maryland, Schuler said.
Various legal pundits have been sharply critical of the largely circumstantial case the government has built against Ivins. Many have bemoaned that because of Ivins' death, the evidence would never be considered by a jury.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Stevens' widow, Maureen, and his three adult children, is a civil one, which means that a jury would only have to find that the government was negligent by a preponderance of evidence. Had Ivins lived, a jury would have been asked to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt - a much higher standard.
Still, Schuler said, the evidence against Ivins would be key to his case.
But it will be months, at best, before the suit against the government moves out of the holding pattern it has been in since 2005.
After U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley rejected the government's request to throw out the suit, he ruled that Florida law has never addressed whether the government or a private agency could be held responsible if dangerous toxins were released from its lab.
He asked the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to consider the matter. After two years, the Atlanta-based court in June 2007 decided that the question dealt with Florida law so should be answered by the Florida Supreme Court.
The high court heard arguments in May. It could rule this fall, before two justices retire.
Schuler said the question isn't complicated. "To me it's pretty straightforward that they have a duty to protect the public," he said. "Common sense should prevail."
While government attorneys declined comment, in legal briefs they argue that to be charged with negligence the government had to have a specific duty to protect Stevens. Since Stevens was not under government control, they argue it had no obligation to keep him safe.
Further, they said, if the killer turned out to be a government employee, federal law would excuse them from liability. The government would claim sovereign immunity - a legal principle from English common law rooted in the idea that the king can do no wrong.
Schuler called the government's arguments absurd and insisted that sovereign immunity wouldn't let the government get away with murder. "It's not a get out of jail free card," he said.
Though the government has refused to share key details with him for years, citing national security and claiming that releasing information would compromise its criminal investigation, Schuler said his original suit was on target. In it, he referred to Fort Detrick and the government's failure to secure the anthrax or monitor employees properly.
"I feel very good about the fact that we were right on the mark," he said. "I also feel confident we can prove every single one of those allegations."
break spurs memories of '01 scare
By Jose Lambiet
FBI agents investigating the 2001 anthrax letter attacks finally found a suspect, who then committed suicide before he could be arrested.
That brought a tsunami of memories.
I have the dubious honor of being the first to tell my then-bosses at Boca's celebrity-heavy Star magazine that a colleague had contracted anthrax - kicking off the strangest five days in this columnist's life.
For those days, the feds now say I have a maladjusted lab nerd named Bruce Ivins to thank.
Day 1: On the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 4, I was chasing down leads about newly single Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The phone rang.
"Hey," said a friend from The Miami Herald, "one of your guys' employees is in the hospital because of anthrax. What do you know?"
I hadn't heard a thing. But it quickly dawned on me that invisible spores could be floating in the office building, which also housed the National Enquirer, Globe and National Examiner.
I repeated my phone conversation to then-editor Tony Frost. Jaws dropped. Someone cracked: "I have a migraine. You suppose it's anthrax?"
An hour later, Frost distilled the official line: Bob Stevens, from the alien and Armageddon magazine The Sun, was gravely ill. He had caught anthrax on a nature hike in North Carolina, and there were no risks.
Day 2: As Stevens lay dying, the media frenzy outside heated up. Inside, everyone attempted to make it business as usual, except that reporters I hadn't talked to in a year were trying to interview me. Throughout the day, many walked to the library, the second floor, the third, and back and forth past Stevens' work station. Anthrax spores were found there two days later. By evening, word seeped out that mailroom employee Ernesto Blanco also had tested positive.
Still no authorities in the building! AMI management produced its own scientist. Only massive amounts of spores, he said, could be lethal. Risks were few.
We left for the weekend, speculating that maybe we were unwittingly spreading spores all over SoFla.
I know I showered extra long that night.
Day 3-4: Saturday and Sunday were spent networking with colleagues. There was no news. I received a phone call in the wee hours of Sunday: The building was quarantined. Work from home. Just a few days, tops.
Day 5: I drove to Boca, hoping to recover some things at my desk. Prized dictionaries, archives, family pictures, notes, secret phone numbers of sources. The last thing I needed was to have law enforcement going through my Rolodex. I saw men in spacesuits in the parking lot. I knew then that I'd never see my stuff again.
We were told by CEO David Pecker to head 2 miles north, to a branch of the Palm Beach County Health Department. There, 300 people stood in the parking lot, looking like refugees.
It was 90 degrees. Sun and rainstorms alternated. Because county staffers couldn't find a key, many were lined up in front of a locked door. No one would budge, even if heat and fear made some sick. They figured the sooner they'd get their hands on the lifesaving antibiotic Cipro, the better.
There was one condition to getting the meds: A nurse had to stick a swab up your nose for testing. The few positives never got sick.
A week later, Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents showed up at my house to ask the same things they asked everyone. Did I know anyone who works in a laboratory? Had I been visiting labs? Did I have enemies? Was I mad at any co-workers? Bosses?
From their inquiry, I told myself we'd never really know what happened.
I guess time proved me wrong. Or so they claim.
August 25, 2008
The Anthrax Files
The FBI claims to have caught the killer. But so much evidence has been
neglected or mishandled that many experts still have doubts.
By Christopher Ketcham
SEVEN YEARS AFTER the anthrax
attacks shut down Congress, sowed panic nationwide, killed five, sickened
17, and allowed neocon propagandists to variously blame al-Qaeda and Saddam
Hussein, the FBI claims to have gotten its man. But the official story
doesn’t fully accord with the facts. Any reasonable assessment of
the evidence suggests that the same powerful interests that might have
been served by prolonging the investigation would have had a stake in finally
bringing it to a tidy
The acknowledged certainty is
that the anthrax letters weren’t the work of Islamists or Iraqis. The attacks
were perpetrated by someone with highlevel access to U.S. government supplies
of the deadly bacteria. Ground zero of the investigation has long been
the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID)
The first week of August, the
popular press got back in the game, reporting the apparent suicide of USAMRIID
scientist Bruce E. Ivins, alleged to be the sole operator behind the anthrax
letters. The Associated Press reported that Ivins, who is said to
have killed himself on July 29 with an overdose of prescription Tylenol
mixed with codeine, was “one of the government’s leading scientists researching
vaccines and cures for anthrax exposure.” According to the AP, he was “brilliant
but troubled.” His lawyer, Paul Kemp, says that Ivins passed a pair of
polygraph tests and that the grand jury investigating the case was weeks
from returning an indictment. Yet within days of his death, the bureau
announced that it was beginning the shutdown of its “Amerithrax” investigation.
In April, it was reported that
the FBI had been focusing on as many as four suspects. Fox News identified
them as a “former deputy commander,” presumably in the U.S. Army, a “leading
anthrax scientist,” and “a microbiologist.” The fourth suspect was given
no description. Now the bureau is “confident that Dr. Ivins was the
only person responsible
The Ivins news came close on the heels of a far quieter announcement on June 27 that the FBI’s investigation of the previous top anthrax suspect, Steven Hatfill, also a USAMRIID bioresearcher, ended not with a trial and conviction but with a $5.8 million settlement effectively admitting that the bureau had the wrong guy. Hatfill had been hounded by investigators for three years, his career and reputation ruined.
Ivins was subjected to similar
treatment. According to the AP, he complained to friends that agents
had “stalked” him and his family. They offered his son $2.5 million and
Francis Boyle, a professor of
law at the University of Illinois who drafted the 1989 Biological Weapons
Anti-Terrorism Act signed by President George H.W. Bush, advised the FBI
in its initial investigation of the anthrax letters. Along with several
other American bioweapons experts—among them Jonathan King, professor of
Ivins, says Boyle, just doesn’t
fit the bill. “It does not appear that he had the technological sophistication
to manufacture this super weapons-grade anthrax, which would have included
aerosolization, silicon coating, and an electrostatic charge.” Jeffrey
Adamovicz, who directed the bacteriology division at Fort Detrick in 2003
and 2004, told
Following the release of the FBI’s
public case against Ivins, the New York Times editorialized that “there
is no direct evidence of his guilt” and decried the “lack of hard, incontrovertible
proof.” The Washington Post called the case “admittedly circumstantial.”
Investigators failed to place Ivins in New Jersey on the dates in September
and October 2001 when the letters were reportedly mailed from a Princeton
Moreover, his former colleagues
have repeatedly told the media that, as far as they are aware, Ivins didn’t
know how to weaponize anthrax. He was a vaccine specialist, not a weaponizer.
The assumption is that Ivins kept his weaponizing skills secret from his
coworkers. But how did he learn those skills? Perhaps colleagues at Ft.
Detrick provided the help in casual conversation. Yet there’s not the slightest
indication that during his
Nor is it clear why Ivins—a registered
Democrat—would single out Sens. Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle to receive
lethal letters. Interestingly, both had been critical impediments to passage
of the Patriot Act. The first wave of anthrax mail, sent Sept. 18, 2001,
targeted major media; the second round, posted Oct. 9, went to Congress.
“In the absence of the anthrax attacks, 9/11 could easily have been perceived as a single, isolated event,” Salon’s Glenn Greenwald writes. “It was really the anthrax letters that severely ratcheted up the fear levels and created the climate that would dominate in this country for the next several years … that created the impression that social order itself was genuinely threatened by Islamic radicalism.”
By Oct. 28, ABC was reporting,
“four well-placed and separate sources have told ABC News that initial
tests on the anthrax by the U.S. Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland, have detected
trace amounts of the chemical additives bentonite and silica”—bentonite
being a hallmark of the Iraqi weapons program. (In 2007, ABC admitted
that no bentonite
The administration’s acolytes did not disappoint. William Kristol and Robert Kagan complained, “What will it take for the FBI and the CIA to start connecting the dots here? A signed confession from Saddam?” “The leading supplier suspect has to be Iraq,” the Wall Street Journal opined, “The government has to do everything possible to destroy the anthrax threat at its state-sponsored source.” Added Laurie Mylroie in National Review, “Iraqi intelligence was intimately involved in the 9/11 attacks and [the] military grade anthrax sent to Senators Leahy and Daschle almost certainly came from an Iraqi lab.” As late as 2007, long after it became apparent that the anthrax was homegrown, outlets like Fox News continued to insist on a Middle Eastern link.
Those making the case for war
in Iraq and seeking to advance the administration’s
As early as November 2001, the New York Times was reporting that the bureau’s “missteps” were “hampering the inquiry.” Indeed, from the beginning, the FBI has been in possession of a key piece of evidence that it apparently ignored.
Among the first suspects to come
into the FBI’s sights was an Egyptian-born
Assaad was quickly exonerated
by FBI investigators, and the matter swiftly dropped — though the letter
may have provided the best piece of evidence in the case. It was sent prior
to the arrival of the anthrax letters, suggesting foreknowledge of the
attacks, and its language was similar to that of the deadly mail. Moreover,
it displayed an intimate
“The letter-writer clearly knew
my entire background, my training in both chemical and biological agents,
my security clearance, what floor I work on, that I have two sons, what
train I take to work, and where I live,” Assaad told reporter Laura Rozen.
Since he was
The FBI’s failures don’t end there.
The anthrax used in the terror attacks has been identified as similar to
strains held at laboratories in Ames, Iowa. The Ames database, maintained
and overseen by Iowa State University, was a comprehensive culture collection
of some 100 vials gathered since 1928. It listed all parties, agencies,
and labs that acquired its anthrax strains. When researchers, fearful of
terrorists breaching the lab, offered to destroy the anthrax cultures,
the FBI did not object. “This was an
Questions about the Ames database
point to a bigger concern: where was the weapons- grade anthrax in the
letters produced? If the FBI had an airtight case that the anthrax killer
worked at Ft. Detrick—thanks to new DNA techniques supposedly linking the
spores to that lab—surely the Assaad letter would be a key piece of evidence
in the case
Another possibility is that the
attacks didn’t originate at USAMRIID at all, and the FBI has once again
accused an innocent man. Ironically, it was Ivins who, among other investigators,
was initially tasked by the FBI with analyzing the anthrax in the letters.
Dr. Gerry Andrews, a professor of microbiology at the University of Wyoming
If the scientists at Fort Detrick
did not have the capacity to produce this kind of anthrax, who did? Boyle
suggests an answer in his book, Biowarfare and Terrorism. He alleges that
the evidence in the anthrax spores, if properly pursued, would have “led
Boyle suggests possible perps:
the Pentagon, the CIA, or perhaps private sector scientists acting under
covert contract with the government. According to a 2002 BBC report, the
CIA may indeed have been investigating “methods of sending anthrax through
the mail which went madly out of control.” “The shocking assertion,” offered
the BBC, “is that a key member of the covert operation may have removed,
But if such a program exists,
why would anyone associated with it risk exposure by sending crude anthrax
letters? Perhaps for the oldest motive in the world: money. In the
wake of the postal terror, biowarfare funding under the rubric of “biodefense”
Hillel W. Cohen, associate professor
of epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of
Medicine, offers a similar assessment. “Before 2001, some of us in
public health described bioterrorism as an exaggerated threat,” Cohen says.
“No one had ever died from bioterrorism, and we warned that the proliferation
Sen. Chuck Grassley is calling for a Congressional investigation, but we may never know the identity of the anthrax killer. Was it the uninvestigated Ft. Detrick letter-writer with compelling foreknowledge? The dead scientist the FBI initially asked to investigate the attacks then later turned against? Or some other individual or group, with access to highgrade strains, who stood to benefit from a bioterror scare? We know who didn’t put anthrax in the mail: Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. Beyond that, all we know is that the FBI’s conduct—whether by bureaucratic bungling or some kind of cover-up — makes it unlikely this case will ever be definitively closed.
Christopher Ketcham writes for Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s and many other magazines.
Anthrax Case: The Trail of the Spores
By Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
WASHINGTON, D.C.--Microbiology and genetics helped lead the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to U.S. Army researcher Bruce Ivins, but they didn't clinch the case of the anthrax letter attacks of September 2001, according to an FBI press briefing held here this morning. The briefing detailed the genomic analysis that was used to trace where the anthrax came from, and it also dispelled the myth that the spores had been combined with silicon to make them into a deadlier weapon. The final and exclusive link to Ivins, however, depended on low-tech detective work about which the agency is still keeping mum.
The briefing was led by Vahid Majidi, a chemist who heads FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, and D. Christian Hassell, director of the FBI Laboratory, along with six outside scientists who helped with the investigation. The officials said preliminary analysis of the mailed anthrax at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that it wasn't a uniform population of cells but included a handful of phenotypes of the same strain that varied slightly in texture, color, and size. That launched investigators on a hunt for a stock of anthrax where the spores had come from. In order to do that, researchers led by Paul Keim at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff extracted DNA from the various phenotypes and handed it over to scientists at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Rockville, Maryland, where 12 DNA samples were fully sequenced.
Of the many mutations discovered in the samples, FBI scientists decided to home in on four distinct mutations that were the most likely to be passed on from one generation of cells to the next (ScienceNOW, 12 August). "These were not random mutations that come and go" but are mutations that "remain stable over a long time frame," says Claire Fraser-Liggett, the former head of TIGR, who was present at today's press conference.
FBI scientists then worked with outside collaborators to develop assays to look for the four mutations in a repository of more than 1000 samples of the Ames strain collected from labs in the United States, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Only eight samples had all four mutations, and all were traced to RMR-1029--the flask of spores under Ivins's charge--and to a few labs outside of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. FBI investigations eventually ruled out everyone but Ivins, Majid said. He refused to give details of the investigative process that had led to this validation but said "the simple check of a lab notebook could be one way to do it; shipment records would be another way to do it."
Other scientific work done by materials researcher Joseph Michael at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, convinced the FBI that silicon had not been added to the anthrax in the letters. Although preliminary analysis done at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology had indicated the presence of silicon, transmission electron microscopy by Michael and his colleagues revealed that the silicon was contained inside the spores--a natural occurrence documented in previous research--rather than a coating intended to make the anthrax more easily dispersible.
elaborate on the case against Bruce Ivins
One revelation is that, contrary to what some officials had claimed, the mailed anthrax had not been 'weaponized.'
By David Willman, Los Angeles
Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON -- Scientists behind the case against Bruce E. Ivins, who federal officials allege was solely responsible for the deadly anthrax mailings of 2001, publicly described their work for the first time Monday and said the spores had originated from a flask linked by investigators to the deceased Army scientist.
In two briefings with reporters spanning nearly four hours, the scientists provided new and sometimes clarifying details about the extensive testing that led prosecutors to the brink of filing murder charges against Ivins, who died of a prescription-drug overdose July 29. The briefings were intended to more fully explain the evidence against Ivins and address concerns about the reliability of the government's assertion that Ivins was the culprit.
But Ivins' attorney remained unconvinced, and a top government scientist acknowledged that some skeptics would never be satisfied.
"I don't think we're ever going to put the suspicions to bed," said Vahid Majidi, a chemist and assistant director of the FBI's weapons of mass destruction unit. "There's always going to be a spore on a grassy knoll."
Among the new details Monday was that, contrary to statements made over the years by other government officials, the mailed anthrax had not been coated with additives to "weaponize" it, or make it more deadly. Silicon was detected within the spores, said several of the eight scientists who met with reporters, but it occurred naturally, not as a result of weaponizing.
The silicon did not make the anthrax more buoyant when exposed to air, said James Burans, associate laboratory director of the National Bioforensic Analysis Center.
"The silicon would not have contributed to the fluid-like qualities of the anthrax powders," he said. But loading the powder into envelopes, and their handling by the Postal Service, would have made it more electrostatically charged and difficult to contain, he said.
Burans also said that high-speed mail processing machinery could have crushed the powder more finely -- evidenced by plumes that rose 30 feet above the floor at a postal annex in Washington.
On the other hand, he and the other scientists did not offer an exact explanation of how Ivins was able to prepare the fluffy, dry, powdered anthrax. Ivins, they said, could have used a lab-issue drier called a lyophylizer, but not necessarily.
However it was done, said Majidi, "it would have been easy to make these samples at" Ft. Detrick, Md., home of the Army's infectious diseases research facility.
Over the past several years, the FBI searched worldwide to gather 1,070 samples of deadly Ames-strain anthrax -- the type used in the mailings. Only eight of those anthrax samples contained four distinct genetic mutations -- the same mutations found in the mailings. And each of those eight samples, officials allege, could be traced to parent material known as RMR 1029 that was maintained by Ivins in a one-liter flask he controlled in a Ft. Detrick lab.
In addition to the far-reaching scientific efforts, investigators used conventional police work to exclude as suspects about 100 others who may have had access to RMR 1029 at Ft. Detrick and elsewhere.
In his view, Majidi said, the government amassed "a body of powerful evidence that allows us to conclude that we have identified the origin and the perpetrator of the 2001 [anthrax] mailings."
Starting in 1980, Ivins worked as a microbiologist at the Army's Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, at Ft. Detrick. Both before and after the anthrax mailings in September and October of 2001, which killed five people and set off a wave of fear on the heels of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he prepared spores used in experiments on animals in an effort to develop or improve vaccines against anthrax.
The parent material for the anthrax mailings -- the one flask of RMR 1029 -- was derived from a mixture of various batches of spores, originally totaling 164 liters, said Chris Hassell, a chemist who since June has headed the FBI's laboratory. Hassell said that Ivins produced RMR 1029 from spores shipped from 22 "production runs" at Ft. Detrick and from 13 runs received there from the government's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
When the FBI sought scientific help in analyzing powder recovered from the mailings, it turned to USAMRIID -- and to Ivins. Officials who addressed the media Monday acknowledged for the first time that Ivins had helped the FBI compose the "protocol" for early subpoenas that sought anthrax samples from USAMRIID scientists, including Ivins.
In February 2002, even before his subpoena arrived, Ivins submitted a sample that violated the protocol, the officials said. And because FBI officials concluded that the protocol violation would make Ivins' sample inadmissible in court, the bureau destroyed it. In April 2002, Ivins gave the FBI a second sample, which did not match the RMR 1029 parent strain.
A break in the case came in 2006, when a microbiologist assisting in the probe, Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University, confirmed to investigators that he had received a duplicate of the February 2002 sample. Subsequent analysis of that duplicate sample matched it to the powder used in the 2001 letters.
Federal officials said they view with suspicion Ivins' deviation from the protocol with his first sample and his submission of the non-matching second sample. Ivins was the only USAMRIID scientist who did not follow the protocol, said a prosecutor who attended the briefing Monday.
Majidi said that, "looking at hindsight, obviously," the FBI should not have destroyed Ivins' first sample. But overall, he said, the methods and techniques used to build the case against Ivins had been "highly validated" in consultation with a range of experts. He and other officials said the underlying raw data would be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals; no timetable was provided.
A lawyer who had represented Ivins, Paul F. Kemp, said after the briefings that he remained unconvinced by the government's rollout of scientific information, which began Aug. 6.
"This is an ever-evolving script that they are writing," he said in an interview.
secretary orders review of Fort Detrick personnel procedures
Anthrax case raises concerns about highly secure programs
By GREGG CARLSTROM
Bruce Ivins, the biologist suspected
of sending anthrax-laced letters to politicians and journalists in 2001,
began showing signs of mental illness as far back as 2000 — but he was
allowed to access sensitive research facilities until as recently as last
Army Secretary Pete Geren has convened an investigative team to look at the lab where Ivins worked — the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Md.. Ivins continued working there for years after the attacks, even after the FBI began investigating him.
The Army’s investigation will examine Detrick’s security procedures, such as background checks, medical exams and behavioral screening. Collectively, they’re called the Personnel Reliability Program, an initiative started in 2003 at the behest of Congress.
Army spokesman Paul Boyce said the Army has a “proven track record” of protecting its biological facilities, but the service still has offered no explanation for how Ivins’ case failed to raise alarms. Ivins, who committed suicide last month, had been taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs since 2000. And the FBI has known since 2005 that the anthrax used in the attacks came from his lab. Yet he was allowed to work at the lab until November 2007.
Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is launching an investigation into security at Fort Detrick and other Level 3 and Level 4 biological facilities, which are those that conduct research on life-threatening biological agents that can easily be transmitted.
“Our nation is at serious risk if one of our government’s most prominent scientists could have a decadelong battle with mental illness without anyone noticing,” said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the committee chairman.
Dingell, along with fellow committee member Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., sent a letter to President Bush asking the executive branch to convene a similar investigation of personnel practices.
A one-time failure?
But federal officials appear to
be treating the lapses at Detrick as a one-time failure, and one specific
to the bioweapons community. A spokesman for the Defense Department said
the Pentagon had no plans to launch a broader review of security procedures
outside of biological research. The intelligence community is not planning
a review either.
“Managers and their agencies have options to deal with issues arising from employee performance,” said an OPM official. Options “depend on the particular situation,” and managers “have access to trained employee and labor relations specialists to help them deal with specific issues.”
Congressional committees also
are limiting their investigations. A staffer said the House Oversight and
Government Reform Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal work force
and government management issues, has no plans to investigate the anthrax
“Lots of people in the hard sciences and engineering are somewhat eccentric,” Aftergood said. “They tend to be introverted and solitary ... They’ll spend long hours on the weekend — not at a baseball game but by themselves in the lab.”
It would be easier to detect erratic behavior in federal employees who work in other fields, Aftergood said.
The Army is also viewing the Ivins
case more as a localized failure by his supervisors than as a larger problem.
Much of the responsibility for evaluating Fort Detrick employees falls
on their direct supervisors, who can restrict lab access on a short-term
basis. If an employee is under a lot of stress at home, for example, supervisors
might recommend a temporary suspension. They can also recommend longer-term
In Ivins’ case, this didn’t happen until November 2007 — well after he’d begun therapy and medication.
“It’s a tricky matter because you can increase security to a point that’s self-defeating,” Aftergood said. “If you tell employees that they could lose their job for consulting a psychotherapist … you discourage them from seeking the help they need.”
Ultimately, experts said, the best way to improve the safety of the nation’s biological research programs may be to reduce them. The government operates almost a dozen Level 3 and Level 4 laboratories, far more than any other country.
“One way to limit the risk is to limit the scale of our biodefense activities. … maybe we’ve expanded this to such a size that we are creating more hazards than we eliminate,” Aftergood said. “After all … it appears the first bioattack in this country was not from foreign enemies … but from one of our own labs.”
FBI reveals more details of anthrax investigation
By Rachel Ehrenberg
Web edition : Tuesday, August 19th, 2008
Genetic fingerprints of the bacteria were critical
WASHINGTON — The FBI on Monday offered reporters a detailed look at the science behind the investigation of the 2001 anthrax mailings, which resulted in five deaths. Genetic signatures of the bacteria were prominent clues that eventually led the investigators to two Erlenmeyer flasks at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Maryland.
An affidavit released by the FBI earlier this month described Army microbiologist Bruce Ivins as “sole custodian” of the batch of spores having the telltale DNA. But at Monday’s briefings officials conceded that about 100 people had access to the same anthrax batch, called RMR-1029. One other institution, which the FBI would not name, also had anthrax with the same genetic signature, investigators said.
The FBI had obtained an anthrax sample having DNA that linked Ivins to the mailings in early 2002, but the sample was later destroyed, said chemist Vahid Majidi, assistant director for the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, who led the briefing with Christian Hassell, director of the FBI Laboratory.
Four mutations lurked in the DNA of the anthrax culturing in the flasks, the same mutations that were found in samples of the anthrax mailed in the 2001 attacks, the panel reported. While mutations naturally arise in bacteria, especially over the course of several generations, the four mutations the scientists homed in on were stable, said Claire Fraser-Liggett, one of six researchers who discussed the science side of the investigation during two press briefings Monday.
“They are not random mutations that come and go,” said Fraser-Liggett, director of the newly created Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.
There was no evidence that anything was added to the spores of the rod-shaped bacteria to make them disperse more easily, Majidi said. Preliminary tests suggested that some of the mailed spores contained silica and oxygen, resulting in speculation that the spores were mixed with something that would make them extra buoyant and perhaps more dangerous. But transmission electron microscopy localized the silica signal to inside the spore coat, said Joseph Michael, a materials scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. The bacterium may naturally incorporate environmental silica into its spore coat as it develops, the researchers said.
Spores of Bacillus anthracis easily drift through the air and take on charge, which makes them stick to everything, said James Burans, associate laboratory director at the National Bioforensic Analysis Center in Frederick, Md. That’s why labs typically work with anthrax only in liquid form. “People describe it as having a mind of its own,” Burans said.
All of the anthrax mailed in the attacks was identified as belonging to one strain, the Ames strain, which is used in several labs doing basic or vaccine-related research, said Paul Keim, a microbiologist at Northern Arizona University and director of the Pathogen Genomics Division at the Translational Genomics Research Institute. But a closer look at cultures grown from spores recovered from the mailings revealed phenotypic variation — differences in color, size and texture — that hinted at underlying genetic variation that could help researchers distinguish between batches of spores.
Led by Fraser-Liggett and Jacques Ravel, also of the Institute for Genome Sciences, researchers fully sequenced 12 samples of anthrax from the mailings, with the hope that DNA would lead back to the mother stock. Four mutations — specific insertions or deletions known as “indels” that appear in the genetic code of many organisms — were identified as significant. To determine which labs were using stock with these same four mutations, investigators obtained more than 1,000 samples of Ames strain anthrax from 16 labs in the United States and some in Canada and Sweden.
Ivins consulted with investigators in 2002 regarding the sampling protocol that should be outlined in the subpoena for collecting anthrax samples, the panel reported. But Ivins then submitted a sample without following the requested lab protocol. The FBI destroyed this sample, not because it was tainted, but because all samples needed to be collected in exactly the same way in order to hold up in court. New samples submitted by Ivins did not contain the four mutations.
Later, investigators realized that Keim, whose lab was keeping a backup of every sample collected, might have the backup of the original sample Ivins submitted. This sample did have the four mutations, investigators reported Monday. Other samples from Ivins’ lab confirmed this finding. The panel would not speculate why Ivins would have submitted two different samples.
Researchers were mum about many of the specifics, saying the results eventually will appear in peer-reviewed journals.
The investigation was seminal in establishing the field of microbial forensics, said microbiologist Rita Colwell, who was director of the National Science Foundation at the time of the attacks.
The panel refused to comment on the more gumshoe detective aspects of the case but said it was unprecedented that the FBI and Department of Justice hold a briefing on a case that has yet to go to trial. Scientists involved in the case wanted to set some of the scientific record straight, Majidi said.
“I don’t think we will ever put all suspicions to bed,” said Majidi. “There’s always going to be a spore on the grassy knoll.”
FBI to reveal anthrax data
Science of case will be submitted to peer-reviewed journals.
by Amber Dance
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) plans to publish in peer-reviewed journals much of the scientific evidence it used to pin the 2001 anthrax attacks on microbiologist Bruce Ivins.
Ivins's suicide on 29 July means that the government's case against him will never be heard in court. The trickle of circumstantial evidence released in an investigation that had previously fingered the wrong man has lawmakers, scientists and others clamouring for more information.
In response, the FBI invited scientists and journal editors to a briefing in Washington DC on 18 August to discuss the science of the case and investigators' conclusion that a single man carried out the multiple, deadly mailings of anthrax spores. But FBI officials admit that some mysteries of the case may never be resolved. "I don't think we're ever going to put the suspicions to bed," said Vahid Majidi, assistant director of the division of weapons of mass destruction at the FBI. "There's always going to be a spore on a grassy knoll."
In lieu of expert witnesses and cross-examinations, the FBI plans to offer the evidence for peer review and will keep much of the data quiet until they are published. FBI laboratory director Chris Hassell anticipates a dozen or so papers related to the case, in addition to those that have already been published. However, Hassell says, some details of the investigation will remain confidential, so that potential bioterrorists won't know exactly what they're up against. "It's just what we have to do for national security," he says.
"Given that Ivins cannot stand trial, putting the data through the rigorous process of scientific review may be the best available alternative," says Alan Pearson, director of the biological and chemical weapons control programme at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington DC.
However, the scientific data are only part of the puzzle. In court, prosecutors would have outlined all pertinent elements of the investigation, and defence lawyers would have attacked that evidence. "I'd like to see it peer-reviewed by a couple of lawyers," says Abigail Salyers, a microbiologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
DNA sequencing was the key to tracing the mailed spores to a particular mix of anthrax, if not to Ivins himself, FBI officials confirmed at the briefing. Several laboratories were involved in helping to trace the spores.
Paul Keim, a microbial geneticist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, identified the anthrax from the letters as being the Ames strain, one of dozens of known strains of Bacillus anthracis. Within the sample were different variants of the Ames strain that characterized a signature mixture, the FBI said. Scientists at the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland, sequenced a dozen genomes from the letters and identified mutations specific to the bacteria used in the attacks.
The FBI selected four insertions and deletions to serve as markers for the attack cocktail. They obtained more than 1,000 samples of Ames bacteria from labs across the world. Of those samples, eight were a match. Those mixtures, the FBI said, were all linked to RMR-1029 — a flask in Ivin's lab. This analysis was completed in early 2007, Hassell said. Narrowing the focus from all individuals with access to RMR-1029 to Ivins was, apparently, a matter of non-scientific techniques.
Scientists still looking for FBI to release anthrax data
Originally published August 20, 2008
By Justin M. Palk
The FBI's briefing on the science behind the anthrax investigation doesn't settle all the questions in the case. But scientists' plans to open their work to peer review is a step in the right direction, according to independent experts.
"Really, for the good of this investigation, certainly, and the good of future investigations ... it's in everyone's best interest (to) put that information out there as transparently as possible," said Brad Smith, a molecular biologist and senior associate with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Center for Biosecurity.
The FBI and scientists who assisted the Bureau in matching the spores used in the 2001 anthrax mailings with those under the control of Bruce Ivins, a Fort Detrick anthrax researcher, held a closed-door briefing for the press Monday to provide details of the science they employed in the case.
On Aug. 6, investigators identified Ivins as their sole suspect in the mailings, which killed five people and hospitalized an additional 17, though the investigators admit their case is purely circumstantial, and Ivins attorney has maintained his client's innocence. Ivins committed suicide July 29, days before media reports identified him as a suspect in the investigation.
The FBI said Monday that it expects scientists who did work related to the case will publish more than 10 papers based on their work in the next six months to two years.
That would be an impressive amount of work, and opening the data to peer review like that would be a good step for the FBI to take, said Michael Stebbins, a geneticist and head of the Federation of American Scientists' biosecurity project.
"That's very important for them because it's never been done before," he said. "A lot of the stuff they've done thus far had to be made up."
Smith agreed, saying that while he has no reason to disbelieve either the FBI or the scientists who worked with the bureau, until they publish their data, it won't be possible to see what other interpretations exists for the results they got.
While Monday's briefing and eventual publication of the data will help lay the case's scientific questions to rest, it won't necessarily resolve the case in the public's mind, Stebbins said.
"It explains a little more about what they did, but ... that doesn't resolve some of the more lingering questions that are nonscientific," he said.
In particular, the science doesn't show how the FBI tied the anthrax specifically to Ivins, he said.
The FBI said Monday that more than 100 people had access to the strain of anthrax used in the 2001 mailings, and that it used other investigative techniques to narrow the focus of its investigation. The agency did not offer additional details about how it did that.
says it easily replicated anthrax used in attacks
Robert Roos * News Editor
Aug 20, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – The FBI, seeking to counter scientific skepticism on its investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks, insisted this week that the anthrax powder could have been made by one person and contained no "intentional additives" to make it more dispersible.
At an Aug 18 news conference, the agency also acknowledged a specific error in the investigation and promised to release detailed information on the probe in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
At the same time, officials conceded that they probably will never be able to dispel all doubts about the case against Bruce E. Ivins, the anthrax researcher who died in an apparent suicide as the FBI was about to announce charges against him.
"I don't think we're ever going to put the suspicions to bed," said Vahid Majidi, assistant director of the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, as quoted in press accounts. "There's always going to be a spore on a grassy knoll."
The mailing of anthrax-laced letters to two US senators and several media offices in the fall of 2001, shortly after the Sep 11 terrorist attacks, killed five people and sickened 17 others. The FBI outlined its case against Ivins on Aug 6 of this year, just 9 days after he died of an overdose of painkillers. Ivins had worked for years at the US Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick in Maryland.
The FBI has said its experts and other scientists helping with the investigation developed a new DNA fingerprinting technique that enabled them to match the anthrax used in the attacks with a batch of anthrax that was in Ivins' custody, known as RMR-1029. The agency has not released a detailed scientific report on the DNA evidence. Aside from that claim, the case against Ivins is mostly circumstantial, and a number of scientists have voiced doubts about it.
Early in the investigation, the FBI indicated that the mailed anthrax was a weaponized product, treated or processed to make it spread more easily through the air and penetrate deep into the lungs. It was reported that the powder contained silicon and that Army experts had been unable to replicate the material. The implication was that one person working alone would not have been able to produce the powder.
But in a statement presented at this week's news conference, Majidi said, "There were no intentional additives combined with the Bacillus anthracis spores to make them any more dispersible."
According to a New York Times report on the press conference, FBI officials said investigators determined that the making of the powder was a relatively simple process of cleaning and drying anthrax spores. "FBI scientists easily reproduced it with gear that Ivins regularly used," the article stated.
However, silicon was found in the mailed anthrax (as reported previously), and FBI officials conceded that the duplicate powder they made did not match the letter anthrax in that respect, according to reports by the Times and the Washington Post. FBI scientists said they concluded that the high level of silicon occurred naturally in the anthrax used in the attacks, the Times reported.
The investigative error acknowledged by the FBI this week had to do with the handling of the first anthrax sample they obtained from Ivins. According to the Times, FBI officials revealed that they first obtained a sample of a unique strain of anthrax from him in 2002 and that it could have led them to the strain used in the attacks. However, the agency "destroyed the sample because Dr. Ivins did not follow protocol in the way it was submitted, making it more difficult to use in court," the story said.
But it turned out that an extra copy of Ivins' sample was kept by Paul Keim, a Northern Arizona University biologist who helped with the investigation, and he provided it to the FBI when the agency asked for it in 2006, according to the Post.
The FBI then realized the sample was the same strain used in the attacks, which helped confirm other evidence implicating Ivins, the Times reported. "Looking at it in hindsight, we would do things differently today," the newspaper quoted Majidi as saying.
In his Aug 18 written statement, Majidi listed several sophisticated techniques that were used in analyzing the mailed anthrax: scanning and transmission electron microscopy, energy dispersive x-ray analysis, carbon dating by accelerator mass spectrometry, and inductively coupled plasma-optical emission and mass spectrometry.
"Through a comprehensive analytical approach, the investigators were provided with validated scientific data which linked the material used in the 2001 anthrax attacks to material from USAMRIID identified as RMR-1029," Majidi said.
"It is important to emphasize that the science used in this case is highly validated and well accepted throughout the scientific community. The novelty is in the application of these techniques for forensic microbiology."
Further, Majidi said the information released this week was "the first step toward broader dissemination of the scientific information surrounding this case. Additional information will be available through peer-reviewed publications and I ask you to respect the integrity of this process."
In other information given at the news conference, officials said the Institute for Genomic Research had sequenced the full DNA of several anthrax strains by 2002, suggesting it might be possible to link the letter anthrax to its source by identifying specific mutations, according to the Times.
It took another year to identify the four distinctive mutations the FBI has reported, the story said. Meanwhile, the FBI collected more than 1,000 samples of the Ames strain of anthrax, the strain used in the attacks, and started using its genetic test on them.
The FBI found that 8 of the 1,000 samples carried the four mutations, as reported previously. According to the Times, 100 scientists had access to or were associated with those eight samples, and all of them were investigated. The body of evidence pointed to Ivins, the story said.
As expected, the FBI's new revelations did not eliminate skepticism about the case. Dr. Richard Spertzel, a retired microbiologist who led the United Nations' biological weapons inspections in Iraq, called the FBI's new presentation "a pretty tenuous argument," according to the Times. He specifically questioned the agency's claim that the letter anthrax was not "military grade."
In addition, Dr. C.J. Peters, a virologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, said it is puzzling that the FBI has not reported finding traces of the letter anthrax in places where Ivins lived and worked, given how widely the spores were dispersed in settings such as the Washington, DC, post office that processed the letters mailed to senators.
"I would contend that anywhere he made the powder or manipulated the powder was almost certainly contaminated," Peters told CIDRAP news by e-mail. "Think about the pos[itive] nasal swabs in the Hart office building or environmental swabs in the post office. Look at the spore counts on the protective gear when the Leahy letter was detected."
Nature 454, 917 (21 August 2008)
Case not closed
The FBI says it has evidence showing that Bruce Ivins was behind the 2001 anthrax attacks — but with his death, this will not be tested in court. A full enquiry into the case is needed if justice is to be done.
Was Bruce Ivins a scientist-gone-wrong who single-handedly orchestrated the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States? Or was the 62-year-old anthrax-vaccine researcher at Fort Detrick, Maryland, an emotionally unstable innocent whose profile made him a convenient fall guy for the FBI?
The jury is still out on those questions — or rather, it would be if one had ever had a chance to hear the evidence. Ivins's apparent suicide last month means there will not be a trial, which makes it all the more important that the government release the evidence it planned to use to accuse him. In full. Now.
On 6 August, the FBI's parent agency, the US Department of Justice, released what it described as hundreds of pages of evidence against Ivins, and declared it would close the case because it was satisfied it had its man. But Ivins's attorney, Paul Kemp, has described these documents as "heaps of innuendo and a staggering lack of real evidence". He has a point.
For example, many of the documents are just search warrants — a reminder that, despite extensive searches of Ivins's house and cars, the FBI failed to come up with any physical evidence directly implicating him in the attacks. Similarly, the bureau has no evidence to place Ivins at the postboxes in Princeton, New Jersey, from which the anthrax-laden letters were sent.
The core of the case against Ivins, as released so far, is contained in just a couple of dozen pages of affidavits — only four paragraphs of which discuss what the FBI says is the smoking gun: the genetic analysis of the anthrax powder from the letters. The FBI says it found four distinctive genetic mutations in the anthrax used in the attacks. It tested for these mutations in isolates of the Ames anthrax strain from 16 domestic, government and university laboratories, alongside ones from labs in Canada, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
In all, more than 1,000 samples were collected, only 8 of which had the 4 mutations, according to the affidavit. Each of these isolates, it says, was directly related to a strain batch named RMR-1029, which was created in 1997 and held in a flask at the US Army research facility in Fort Detrick. The affidavits describe Ivins as the "sole custodian" of that batch. Many other researchers had access to it, but the FBI claims to have eliminated them as suspects.
The genetic analysis itself seems quite solid. The FBI has collaborated with some of the best outside scientists on anthrax, and on 18 August convened many of them to answer journalists' questions about the science. The researchers on the panel explained that none of the analysis techniques used in this case is new; just the application to anthrax forensics. Several peer-reviewed papers on the forensic work have already been published, and another dozen or so are anticipated (see page 928).
Although this openness about the techniques is commendable, neither the conclusions drawn from the scientific analysis, nor such crucial legal elements as the veracity of the provenance and handling of samples, have been tested in court. So far only one side of the story has been heard: that of the prosecution.
Certainly Ivins's behaviour in the crucial autumn months of 2001 raises questions about his emotional stability, but mental illness does not necessarily a murderer make.
The FBI should explain why it thinks the scientific evidence implicates Ivins himself, and not just the flask. As Kemp aptly puts it: "In this country, we prosecute people, not beakers." The absence of such a full disclosure can only feed suspicions that the FBI has again targeted an innocent man in this case — as it did with former Fort Detrick researcher Steven Hatfill.
This case is too important to be brushed under the carpet. The anthrax attacks killed five people, infected several others, paralysed the United States with fear and shaped the nation's bioterrorism policy. Science and law share a conviction that conclusions require evidence, and that the evidence be debated openly. The FBI says it regrets that Ivins's untimely death has denied it the chance to have its day in court. So presumably the bureau would welcome a full congressional or independent enquiry into this case, as has been called for by Senator Chuck Grassley (Republican, Iowa) and several other lawmakers. It is essential that such an enquiry takes place.
online 21 August 2008
Too close for comfort
Nancy Haigwood, director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center, describes her encounters with anthrax suspect Bruce Ivins.
by Rex Dalton
In early 2002, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) asked the American Society for Microbiology to canvas its 43,000 members for information about the 2001 anthrax mail attacks that killed five people. Nancy Haigwood, now director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Hillsboro, suggested that agents should investigate microbiologist Bruce Ivins, who had been harassing her for more than 20 years. On 29 July, Ivins killed himself as authorities were close to indicting him for the anthrax attacks.
When did you first meet Ivins?
In 1976, he was a postdoc and I was a graduate student in the department of bacteriology and immunology at University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill. I may have gone out for a sandwich with Ivins and his wife together.
When did his behaviour first concern you?
In 1982, my house and first-husband's car were vandalized, marked with KKG [Ivins had an obsessive hatred of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, of which Haigwood was a member]. A letter was also ghost-written in my name to a newspaper. I knew it had to be Ivins. I confronted him on the telephone. He denied it. Later, I came to believe that he had stolen a lab book from my UNC locker in 1979. An anonymous note said I could find my missing book in a particular US Post Office Box. What now looks significant is the use of the postal box.
Why did you link Ivins to the anthrax attacks?
I had been getting regular e-mail updates from him. In November 2001, two months after the attacks, he sent out e-mails and photos of himself working with anthrax at the Fort Detrick lab.
Did the FBI ask you to meet with Ivins and wear a hidden recording device?
Yes. I came close to setting a meeting up. I was going to have lunch with him when visiting Washington DC. Ultimately, I couldn't do it. I was afraid. The FBI told me there might be guns involved. I would be surrounded by disguised agents. But the agents thought I would be too nervous to do it.
What are your thoughts about Ivins's death?
I was shocked. There was some relief. You never want someone you know to do something like the anthrax attacks. But he must have felt cornered — and he was.
Do you have any doubts that Ivins was behind the anthrax mailings?
I have not seen all the evidence. But I have read the October 2007 affidavit to search his house. It tied the mailed anthrax spores to Ivins's flask. I don't think he intended to kill people, but to scare them. Now I know he stood to gain from business from his work.
What is the most significant evidence?
The genetic evidence. And, he intentionally gave the FBI the wrong sample. He covered up an anthrax spill at his lab. He checked out a freeze drier late at night, exactly what you would need to make the mailed spores. All this piles up. But the mailings from a box near the KKG house in Princeton, New Jersey, that was the icing on the cake — a diabolical little twist that is so Ivins.
What should happen next?
I would like to see a scientific paper published on this. I have no reason to doubt the FBI; I met a half-dozen agents, I got to know two very well. But the scientific community needs to see all the data.*
Interview by Rex Dalton
scientist helped solve anthrax puzzle
August 21, 2008 - 11:47am
Neal Augenstein - WTOP Radio
WASHINGTON - It took seven long years, but the FBI says the anthrax mailed in the 2001 attacks came from a flask in Army scientist Bruce Ivins' Fort Detrick lab.
Now, the local scientist recruited to help break the case is speaking with WTOP Radio.
The FBI contacted Dr. Claire Fraser-Liggett, director of the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland, and asked her to quietly assemble a small team of researchers.
Fraser-Liggett says she knew it was related to the 2001 anthrax killings, but she was never told about possible suspects.
"We were clearly working on a need-to-know basis," she says. "We didn't need to know what everybody else was doing. We didn't need to know progress on all aspects of the investigation. We were only focused on the science."
She says it was important that research information not be leaked to the public because "it would allow the perpetrator to lead the FBI off course."
However, Fraser-Liggett and the FBI knew someone involved in the research might also be the person who mailed the anthrax.
"That was always a very serious consideration from the very earliest days of this investigation," Fraser-Liggett says.
Since anthrax is so dangerous, "it immediately reduces the number of potential individuals who can safely handle" the substance.
Fraser-Liggett says the anthrax investigation shed new light on microbial forensics, which could have the same power in criminal cases as DNA fingerprinting.
Unveils Science Of Anthrax Investigation
ScienceDaily (Aug. 21, 2008)
They have worked for almost seven years in secret.
Most people did not know that the work in Ray Goehner’s materials characterization department at Sandia National Laboratories was contributing important information to the FBI’s investigation of letters containing bacillus anthracis, the spores that cause the disease anthrax. The spores were mailed in the fall of 2001 to several news media offices and to two U.S. senators. Five people were killed.
Sandia’s work demonstrated to the FBI that the form of bacillus anthracis contained in those letters was not a weaponized form, a form of the bacteria prepared to disperse more readily. The possibility of a weaponized form was of great concern to investigators, says Joseph Michael, the principal investigator for the project. This information was crucial in ruling out state-sponsored terrorism.
In fall of 2001, the FBI considered how to best investigate the anthrax letters. The agency convened two blue ribbon exploratory panels, and Sandia’s name came up during both panels for its expertise in electron and ion microscopies and microanalysis over the range of length scales from millimeters down to nanometers. The first spore material from the letters arrived at Sandia in February of 2002.
Sandia faced some uncertainty in working on this type of investigation. Researchers signed nondisclosure agreements and agreed to make themselves available to government agencies on short notice when called to give information.
Joseph Michael, transmission electron microscopy (TEM) lab owner Paul Kotula, and a team of roughly a dozen others examined more than 200 samples in those six and a half years. They received samples from the letter delivered to the New York Post, to former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), and to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The samples looked different, in part because of how the samples were prepared, which made examination initially difficult.
When bacillus anthracis spores are weaponized, the spores are coated with silica nanoparticles that look almost like lint under the microscope. The “lint” makes the particles “bouncier” and less likely to clump and fall to the ground. That makes the spores more respirable and able to do more damage, says Michael. Weaponization of the spores would be an indicator of state sponsored terrorism.
“Initially, scanning electron microscopy [SEM] conducted at another laboratory, showed high silicon and oxygen signals that led them to conclude that the spores were a weaponized form, says Kotula. “The possible misinterpretation of the SEM results arose because microanalysis in the SEM is not a surface-sensitive tool,” says Kotula. “Because a spore body can be 1.5 to 2 microns wide by 1 micron long, a SEM cannot localize the elemental signal from whole spore bodies.”
Using more sensitive transmission electron microscopy (TEM), Kotula and Michael’s research indicated that the silica in the spore samples was not added artificially, but was incorporated as a natural part of the spore formation process. “The spores we examined,” Kotula says, “lacked that fuzzy outer coating that would indicate that they’d been weaponized.”
Sandia’s work was the first to actually link the spore material in the New York Post, the Daschle and the Leahy letters. The elemental signatures and the locations of these signatures, while not indicating intentional weaponization, did show that the spores were indistinguishable and therefore likely came from the same source. That conclusion was corroborated a few years later by the DNA studies.
The materials characterization lab serves as a materials analysis resource for a diverse collection of projects. The lab plays an important role in stockpile surveillance, supporting Sandia’s nuclear weapons mission.
Michael was recently released from his nondisclosure agreement and flown to Washington, D.C., to participate in press conferences at FBI Headquarters along with several members of research teams who’d been asked to examine other aspects of the anthrax case.
The FBI was pleased with Sandia’s work, says Michael.
Friday, August 22, 2008
Working in Secret
By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
When the FBI approached Sandia National Laboratories scientist Joseph Michael in February 2002, federal officials were worried.
Five people had died after someone mailed anthrax to five news organizations and two U.S. senators, and federal investigators needed to answer a pressing question: Could the anthrax have come from a terrorist group or a foreign state?
Within a month of getting their first anthrax samples, Michael and his colleagues were able to answer the question: The sample did not appear to be "weaponized" anthrax ? anthrax converted in a weapons research lab to enhance its lethality.
The finding contradicted earlier reports that it was weaponized, which had been repeated for years and fed the public's worry.
Since the attack, Michael and his Sandia colleagues have worked in secrecy, helping federal investigators crack the case.
The FBI believes anthrax researcher Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide July 29, was responsible for the 2001 attacks.
This week, amid a flurry of questions about the science behind their conclusion, the FBI finally gave Michael and the other scientists permission to talk.
The fear back in the winter of 2001-2002 was palpable.
The first wave of anthrax letters, sent to the New York Post, the headquarters of the National Enquirer and other news media, arrived a little more than a week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Two more, sent to U.S. senators, soon followed.
People were afraid to open their mail.
Preliminary testing on the anthrax spores suggested they might have come from an organized biological weapons program. News stories repeatedly raised the possibility that they came from Iraq.
Struggling to get a handle on the problem, the FBI convened a blue ribbon panel to assemble the scientific expertise to understand what we were up against.
Immediately, according to Michael, Sandia's name came up.
In a warren of labs behind Sandia's security fences, Sandia maintains specialized microscopes. They allow scientists to not only see things as tiny as an anthrax spore, but to determine their chemical makeup.
That question was key.
Anthrax is a potentially deadly bacteria, but turning it into a weapon requires coating the spores with a material that makes them easier to spread.
Initial testing of the anthrax from the mail attacks had shown signs of a coating. That led to repeated public references by the news media and government officials to the possibility that the anthrax had been stolen from a foreign weapons lab or, worse, that it was part of a foreign attack on the United States.
"When somebody said it was weaponized, that set off a panic," Michael recalled.
The FBI used radiation to ensure the spores were no longer dangerous, then sent a batch to Sandia to analyze.
Under Sandia's high-powered microscopes, Michael and Sandia colleague Paul Kotula quickly determined the initial reports were wrong. The earlier identification of a coating had been a mistake, they concluded.
"Early on we knew it wasn't weaponized," Michael said.
The finding was not made public, and Michael said he watched in the intervening years as the claim the anthrax was weaponized continued to linger in public discussion of the case.
Sandia's initial analysis also concluded the spores bore the same chemical fingerprints, suggesting they had come from the same place.
But that was only the beginning.
The FBI eventually sent about
200 anthrax samples to Sandia for analysis as they pursued new leads in
It is only in the last week, Michael said, that they learned of the sophisticated genetic analysis that the FBI says eventually led them to Ivins.
In fact, Michael said he now knows that at one point he and his colleagues were asked to analyze a sample from Ivins' lab. At the time, they did not know where it came from.
The FBI, he said, often would not tell the scientists the source of an anthrax sample to be tested in order to avoid biasing the results.
The Sandia researchers say the work illustrates one of the labs' great strengths: Though the laboratories they work in were built, staffed and equipped for nuclear weapons research, they are capable of tackling other important national security problems when the nation needs their help.
& Engineering News
August 25, 2008
Volume 86, Number 34, p. 6
FBI's Anthrax Analysis
Experts discuss experimental techniques used to identify suspect Ivins
by Rochelle Bohaty
FBI OFFICIALS and scientific experts revealed more information about the scientific experiments used to study anthrax spores disseminated in 2001 mailings at a briefing held on Aug 18. The briefing aimed to ease speculation about the bureau's conclusions.
"After nearly seven years of investigation, we have developed a body of powerful evidence that allows us to conclude that we have identified the origin and the perpetrator of the 2001 Bacillus anthracis mailings," said Vahid Majidi of the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate.
Last month, FBI officials identified Bruce E. Ivins, a longtime anthrax investigator at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), based in Fort Detrick, Md., as the primary suspect in the case. Ivins' death on July 29 from an apparent suicide spurred controversy and speculation about the FBI investigation. Although the FBI does not typically disclose evidence against suspects who have not been officially charged, the circumstances surrounding this case drove the bureau to do so.
At the briefing and in a subsequent interview with C&EN, FBI officials note that in addition to tests used to differentiate strains of anthrax, analytical techniques—such as scanning and transmission electron microscopy (SEM and TEM), energy dispersive X-ray analysis (EDX), and mass spectrometry—provided the bureau with a chemical and elemental profile of the spores used in the attacks.
FBI Laboratory Director Chris Hassell tells C&EN that the data used by the FBI to identify Ivins came from studies conducted by a large number of FBI and non-FBI scientists with varying expertise. This information led FBI officials to conclude that the anthrax in the letters was derived from the Ames strain RMR-1029 that came from one flask at USAMRIID of which Ivins was the sole custodian.
Joseph R. Michael, who works at Sandia National Laboratories and was part of the FBI's scientific briefing, tells C&EN that he analyzed FBI-provided spores from the anthrax-laced letters by SEM, TEM, EDX, and scanning transmission electron microscopy. He says his work uncovered similar characteristics between the anthrax from the laced letters and spores from a library of anthrax spores developed by the FBI.
According to Michael, his most significant finding was that the spores used in the attack had internalized SiOx rather than having been weaponized by coating with silica. This result gave investigators another characteristic signature of the lethal spores.
"The scientific evidence is compelling," says Rita R. Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation, which funded some of the research behind the investigation. It is impressive how all the different scientific aspects came together, she says.
As the FBI continues to lay out its scientific evidence, FBI officials have acknowledged several missteps they made during the investigation. They do not believe, however, that the slips compromised the case. For example, the FBI destroyed one of the two original anthrax samples Ivins provided during the initial stages of the investigation because of a problem with the sample preparation protocol. But the FBI later obtained a duplicate sample that had been submitted to an independent lab and analyzed it as part of the investigation.
Hassell says the experimental data need to be validated through a peer review process. He tells C&EN that the FBI has a publication plan, and the process is already under way. Speaking of the science, he adds, "We are hoping to get as much as we can into peer-reviewed journals."
FBI explains the science behind the anthrax investigation
August 24, 2008
It wasn't a Redskins game or a Capitol Hill soiree that was the place to be in Washington D.C. last week. It was "an informal, on-the-record roundtable discussion" held by the FBI to discuss the science behind the 2001 mailing of anthrax-containing envelopes that killed five people. The meeting was held to spill scientific, but not investigative, clues from the still-open case.
In late July, anthrax vaccine researcher Bruce Ivins, 62, of the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Frederick, Md., committed suicide. FBI investigators revealed that Ivins was a suspect in the anthrax mailings that sent bioterrorism fears nationwide after the toxin was sent to news organizations and the offices of Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.)
Earlier this month, the Justice Department released 2007 search warrants that had been issued for Ivins' home and workplace. The warrants linked four mutations in the attack anthrax — a sub-type of the "Ames" strain used in anthrax vaccine experiments — to a collection held in a flask controlled by Ivins from 1997 to 2004.
U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor has called Ivins' flask of anthrax "the murder weapon." Ivins' attorney Paul Kemp says his client was innocent, suggesting that many researchers had access to the flask. "I have nothing but questions," Kemp said via e-mail Monday. "The science, according to many, can only identify a strain of anthrax. If they can identify it, why didn't they act within the last three years to arrest Ivins?"
To address such questions, the FBI invited news organizations to the science roundtable that was held at 2 p.m. on August 18. Several organizations, including USA TODAY, sent a Justice Department and science reporter.
The J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, the bureau's headquarters, is a concrete colossus squatting along Pennsylvania Avenue between the U.S. Capitol and the White House. Participants in the roundtable discussion passed through a metal detector booth and walked down an interior driveway before turning into an outdoor hallway that led to a large briefing room, dimly-lit, just like in crime movies. A rectangle of tables waited, with place names for the scientists at the head table.
The scientists included Paul Keim of the University of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, one of the world's leading anthrax sub-type experts; Claire Fraser-Liggett of the University of Maryland in Baltimore, who led efforts to genetically analyze the attack anthrax; and Jacques Ravel of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who led the efforts to complete the genomes (the complete mapping of genes) of bacteria colony samples derived from the attack anthrax.
Vahid Majidi, the assistant director responsible for the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, and Chris Hassell, FBI Laboratory Director, spoke for their agency. And behind the scientists, a gallery of Justice Department investigators, researchers and prosecutors sat in chairs, providing a gallery of reactions, ranging from grimaces to grins, in response to reporter's questions over the next three hours. At certain points, Taylor also answered questions about the investigation, some of it news to the scientists, as well as the reporters.
"After nearly seven years of investigation we have developed a body of powerful evidence that allows us to conclude that we have identified the origin and the perpetrator of the 2001 bacillus anthracis mailings," Majidi said in a opening statement. He then took questions.
FBI STATEMENT: Science Briefing on the Anthrax Investigation
Reporters first asked the scientists to lead them through the studies that produced the four genetic mutations that served as markers to the attack anthrax, starting with a 2002 study in Science led by Fraser-Liggett. This research established that it might be possible to determine an exact genetic match to the attack anthrax, something never attempted before. By 2004, Majidi said that researchers had uncovered two genetic markers that tied the anthrax from the letters to anthrax originating in a collection called RMR-1029 held at USAMRIID. They collected Ivins' flask and took samples of the RMR-1029 it contained, finding a match to the attack anthrax.
RMR-1029, it turns out, was an unusual collection of spores, created in batches of growths from the original "wild type" Ames anthrax collected from a Texas calf that ate contaminated grass (anthrax is fond in the wild) and died in 1981. Researchers at the Army's Dugway Proving Grounds started the collection with 13 "production runs" of anthrax growth, followed by Ivins adding another 22 runs, to create 164 liters of spores in 1997. That collection, dubbed RMR-1029, was concentrated by Ivins down to two flasks by 2001, and to a one-liter flask by 2004.
Keim suggested that such a large number of growths, in which one colony might hold a trillion generations of anthrax spores, offered a larger-than-normal opportunity for mutations to crop up.
From 2002 onward, the FBI had requested samples of Ames anthrax held by 16 U.S. labs, and others in Canada, Sweden and the United Kingdom, to create a collection of 1,070 Ames "isolates." At the same time, the bureau sent Ravel's lab blind copies of anthrax samples to search for distinct genetic mutations that might set the attack anthrax apart from the wild type.
Most bacteria colonies just look like splotches of gunk grown on test-tube material. Some, less than 1% of attack anthrax colonies, had unusual rough edges, Majidi says. Sequencing the genomes of these aberrant colonies revealed a number of mutations, says Ravel, that were distinct to the attack anthrax.
"That's what took so long," Ravel says in a post-discussion interview. Sequencing the genomes of at least seven aberrant colonies took three months at least, longer for high-quality genomes. And they had to be done one at a time in the lab, to prevent cross-contamination that would hinder their use as evidence in court someday. "This was science at the very highest level, the most precision. We learned a great deal from the investigators," Ravel says. "We always knew that someone was looking over our shoulders and would want to see our lab notebooks someday."
A separate "red team" of scientist-consultants selected four "insertion and deletion" mutations, places where genes had been permanently removed from a genome, that were distinct to colonies from the attack anthrax. Those were used in a test that by late 2006 had assessed all 1,070 samples in the FBI repository. Deleted genes, thousands in some cases, wouldn't just reappear in a genome, Ravel says, giving scientists a great deal of confidence in their use as markers. Only eight isolates, either from USAMRIID or one other unnamed lab, had the four markers.
At the FBI discussion, many questions surrounded the presence of silicon, the chief ingredient in sand, in the attack anthrax spores. In the past, some news stories had taken reports of sand or other additives as a sign of complex weaponization of the anthrax spores. Instead, the silicon appears "natural," said Joseph Michael of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who led an electron microscope analysis of the spores. One of at least two batches of the attack spores apparently collected silica on their inner skins as they grew, which happens to bacteria sometimes.
Majidi said that Post Office sorting machines crushed the dried anthrax in mailing envelopes, making them very powdery. Another panel scientist, James Burans of the National BioForensic Analysis Center, added that the curious dispersion of the anthrax spores into the air partly resulted from them picking up an electric charge, static electricity, in their travels through the postal system, which made the dried spores repel one another as soon as their envelopes were opened.
The discussion wrapped up with a description of the original samples of RMR-1029 given to investigators by Ivins in 2002. After discussing with investigators the proper procedure for preparing samples — they had to be presented in slants, test tubes tilted to the side to grow evenly-spaced bacterial colonies and stopped appropriately — Ivins gave RMR-1029 samples that didn't meet the protocol, Majidi said. One of those samples was sent to Keim's lab and the FBI destroyed the other. Ivins later gave another sample under subpoena in April 2002, one investigators realized was bogus two years later. Majidi called this behavior "questionable." The FBI search warrants had labeled it deceptive.
In the end, Majidi and others acknowledged that the science results could only tell part of the story. The researchers hope to publish a collection of related studies in a journal in coming months, says Ravel. But that will still leave questions for prosecutors to answer. "I don't think we're ever going to put all the suspicions to rest," Majidi says. "There's always going to be a spore on a grassy knoll."
Contributing: Donna Leinwand
probe prompts concerns about military labs
Lisa Schnirring * Staff Writer
Aug 26, 2008 (CIDRAP News) –US Navy and Air Force officials recently reported a suspension of work in their biodefense laboratories to allow a thorough review of safety procedures, following the Army's announcement in early August that it would review security measures at the lab that housed the work of the late Bruce E. Ivins, whom federal officials believe played a role in the 2001 anthrax attacks.
The FBI's Aug 6 announcement of its conclusion that Ivins was responsible for the attacks came 9 days after he apparently committed suicide. Ivins had worked at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) for years, doing research that included work on anthrax vaccines. Shortly after the 2001 attacks he had also helped the FBI analyze anthrax samples, according to media reports.
The FBI's allegations about Ivins raised questions about how secure the USAMRIID facility was. Reports of Ivins' past mental health problems also prompted questions about how well lab employees are screened before they are cleared to work with bioterror agents.
Officials from the Navy and Air Force said they were temporarily stopping shipments of bioterror agents coming in and out of their research facilities, according to an Aug 22 report from the Associated Press (AP). The stoppage will allow the military branches to review safety rules, including how they are shipped through civilian delivery services such as Federal Express.
Navy and Air Force authorities also told the AP that they wouldn't allow their employees to work with "select agents" unless they enroll in a special program that allows them clearance or their work is supervised by another employee who is enrolled in the program.
Commander Jeff A. Davis, a Navy spokesman, told the AP that Navy Secretary Donald Winter had ordered the suspension and review to ensure safe handling of biologic material at its five labs, which are located in the United States, Peru, Egypt, and Indonesia.
Air Force spokesman Maj Richard Johnson said the Air Force was also reviewing its biodefense lab systems because of the same safety and security concerns, the AP reported.
Other military biodefense labs include six in the Army and two in the Air Force.
The Army also froze shipments in and out of its labs from Aug 8 to 14, which allowed it to review and strengthen some of its security protocols, according to the AP report.
A few days after the FBI released its conclusions about Ivins' involvement with the anthrax attacks, the Army appointed a team of medical and military experts to review security protocols at USAMRIID, according to an Aug 8 AP report. Army spokesman Paul Boyce said at least a dozen military and civilian officials have been asked by Army Secretary Pete Geren to analyze safety measures, quality controls, and other policies and practices.
The same day the Army assembled its review team, two lawmakers announced they were expanding their congressional investigation into risks associated with the nation's biodefense labs, according to an Aug 9 report from the Los Angeles Times. Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who heads the group's subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said they would investigate personnel security at USAMRIID.
The two congressmen also sent a letter to President Bush asking the administration to order its own inquiry concerning biodefense labs, according to the AP report.
According to the Times report, Dingell said in a statement, "I'm deeply troubled by allegations raised about security at one of our nation's premier labs handling some of the deadliest germs in the world. Our nation is at serious risk if one of our government's most prominent scientists could have a decade-long battle with mental illness without anyone noticing."
Meanwhile, W. Russell Byrne, a colleague of Ivins' who led USAMRIID's bacteriology division from late 1998 to early 2000, said he worried that the findings implicating Ivins have damaged USAMRIID and other government research labs, the AP reported on Aug 7. He said he was also concerned that the disclosures would hurt the Army's plan to replace its 38-year-old building with a larger laboratory that is to be part of the National Interagency Biodefense Campus at Fort Detrick, Md.
The interagency lab, which is under construction, will also house lab facilities for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Pat Fitch, lab director for the DHS lab, which is set to open next year, said officials hope to finalize safety rules by February and will ask the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to review them, the Frederick, Md., News Post reported yesterday.
Clifford Lane, director of NIAID's clinical research division, also said the agency was working on its safety and security rules for the new lab, according to the News Post report.
DHS and NIAID officials said some of the security measures under consideration include video surveillance and two-man rules that prohibit researchers from working in labs alone.
August 27, 2008
White Powder and 007
by Norman M. Covert
Frederick is the epicenter of those who would terrorize the nation with envelopes and little white powder, if one believes the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Count me among the naysayers, who number more than a roomful.
The government mobilized its team of Double-oh (uh-oh!) secret agents seven years ago to identify a villainous mad scientist, who, without genuine motive or opportunity, single handedly:
– Used a Bio-Containment Level Three lab suite at Fort Detrick’s U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), to develop a highly bred, weapons-grade strain of Bacillus anthracis (a scientific achievement not accomplished before, except perhaps in the biological warfare laboratories of the former Soviet Union).
– Manipulated this super bacillus with a silica coating and a slight electrical charge so that, when opened in the containment cabinet, each particle repelled others in a brilliant display.
– Ensured each particle was no more than five microns in size so that it would penetrate the fabric of a normal No. 10 paper envelope, a product sold by the U.S. Postal Service in the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, West Virginia and Central Maryland.
– Managed to remove the material from the laboratory with it already placed in at least one envelope, also likely encased in an impermeable container, which would be obscured from the security guard.
– Managed to avoid leaving any evidence on his clothing, his two automobiles and van, his house, garage, office and other personal items despite the extremely “dirty” potential of the dry agent.
– Managed, in a fashion unknown to the Department of Homeland Security and the “Double-Ohs,” to have the envelopes placed in a mailbox in Princeton, NJ, with a note in a handwriting that cannot be identified with any known person.
– Managed to obscure this cutting edge science from a host of colleagues for the entire development period – a major feat in itself!
– Simultaneously he managed to significantly improve an old anthrax vaccine to protect our troops during Operation Desert Storm; then was a key developer of the new recombinant DNA based anthrax vaccine that was undergoing efficacy trials at USAMRIID.
One would imagine that Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Ian Fleming’s ubiquitous villain, is the perpetrator of this almost perfect crime, not the latest unfortunate person postulated as the perpetrator of the “Amerithrax” attacks in October and November 2001.
Several “suspects” have been identified in the investigation and for each it has resulted in personal and professional ruin. Only Dr. Steven Hatfill has managed any compensation for the FBI’s bull-in-a-china-shop investigation – about $5.7 million of which his lawyers may realize the majority. Dr. Hatfill’s career is in ruins.
And now, the late Dr. Bruce Ivins, apparently dead of an overdose of medicine, is accused. The FBI says its “creative application” of science led it to identify the DNA of the culprit B. anthracis as being on a beaker in Dr. Ivins' lab. The evidence does not indicate what implicates Dr. Ivins, except that it was identified as “his” beaker in “his” lab.
Dr. Ivins and more than one hundred researchers, assistants, veterinarians and others have used the lab for its work on the vaccines. They dirtied the lab in analyzing the envelopes and contents, which had been mailed to the Florida editorial office of a weekly tabloid newspaper, NBC News in New York City and the office of Sen. Tom Daschle (D., SD) in Washington.
Scientists at Fort Detrick would love to get their hands on this scientific breakthrough. The FBI says it will ultimately publish peer reviewed papers on it. The bench work probably would constitute a boon to the team at Fort Detrick, which has labored since 1980 to develop an improved medical countermeasure against B. anthracis.
“Alas!” or, “Hark!” whatever the better exclamation, the arrival of envelopes containing “white powder” at Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign offices in Denver, CO, and Manchester, NH, last week sounded a familiar note.
The FBI’s hazardous materials team felt early on that the powder was not dangerous. No explanation was provided on how, when, or where the powder was analyzed. The Denver Post reported an inmate of the local jail was the culprit, saying he was a “regular threatening letter writer.”
It would seem certain that microbiologists at USAMRIID would be reluctant if asked to analyze either of these latest envelopes. “Perhaps” the envelopes came from the West Seventh Street Post Office in Frederick, and, too, consider the FBI has “creative application” of science.
Cinematic research verifies that just when James Bond is sure he’s liquidated Blofeld, the SPECTRE No. 1 pops up again.
Dr. Ivins is no fictional character and it’s certain that his death is probably another bad ending for flawed investigative work by the G-Men.
I’m sorry for Diane Ivins, the family and his colleagues.
If not Ivins ...
Originally published August 29, 2008
When Norm Covert, a conservative former Fort Detrick public affairs officer, and attorney Barry Kissin, liberal activist opposing Detrick's biolab expansion, agree that Bruce Ivins was not the anthrax killer, either the world's spinning off its axis, or the truth is staring us so hard in the face we'd have to be blind to miss it.
Covert's piece this week in thetentacle.com establishes what many in our community, including scientists and support staff at USAMRIID, past and present, know: Bruce Ivins had nothing to do with preparing or sending the anthrax letters. --
In a recent letter to the FNP editor, Amanda Lane speaks for many who knew him: "I want to shout from the mountain tops that Bruce was the kind of man we look up to ... He was a decorated scientist and the humblest of men who didn't use his title as a status symbol. He picked up a mop or emptied the trash without a moment's hesitation. If he thought you were having a bad day he would offer candy or a catchy tune to cheer you up. If someone had to stay late to accomplish a task, Bruce would work with you so that the task would get completed faster."
Covert echoes what is widely reported by reputable scientists. The anthrax in the mailings, he says, was "highly bred, weapons-grade ... with a silica coating and a slight electrical charge so that each particle repelled the other ... each particle no more than five microns." Ivins had neither the expertise nor the equipment to create such a sophisticated form of anthrax.
But if not Ivins, then who or what?
"It's the elephant in the room nobody's talking about," Kissin says.
Since Nixon terminated the offensive weapons program at Detrick in 1969, there has been only one corporation in our country that operates laboratories where anthrax is weaponized: Battelle Memorial Laboratories, the corporation that does the biolab work for the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Army at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
In December 2001, FBI Director Mueller announced that the Battelle-operated labs in West Jefferson, Ohio and at Dugway had been "searched," and that there were NO suspects in those labs.
The FBI has not mentioned Battelle since.
New York Times science writer William Broad covered the subject in his 2002 book "Germs, Biological Weapons and America's Secret War." According to Broad, Projects Jefferson and Clear Vision, begun in the late '90s were ongoing secret anthrax weaponization projects. Project Clear Vision was managed by the CIA at the Battelle labs in West Jefferson, Ohio. Project Jefferson was managed by the DIA at the Battelle-operated labs at Dugway.
Kissin and writer Sheila Casey thread this information together in a recently published article in the Rock Creek Free Press, http://www.rockcreekfreepress.com/CreekV2No9-Web.pdf, to conclude that the case against Ivins is nothing but a flimsy cover-up of the secret workings of these anthrax weaponization projects.
How do Americans even begin to confront the reality that the only bioattack in our history came from an American military/intelligence lab? An attack we were told made the massive expansion of biolabs at Detrick and across the country necessary.
And guess who's been hired for $750 million to manage and operate the first new biolab facilities at Detrick that are about to open?
Battelle Memorial Laboratories.
Posted on Mon, Sep. 1, 2008
the anthrax case
By Faye Flam
Within two months of the 2001 anthrax attacks, researchers helping the FBI were able to exclude Iraq and Russia as likely suspects.
They also identified the one of 89 known anthrax strains that infected the first victim before he died.
Progress on anthrax came fast early on, but then hit major snags. Ten million dollars would eventually be spent on the scientific investigation, and it took a lucky insight from an investigator to narrow down suspects in this seven-year-old medical mystery.
More details of the scientific anthrax probe keep surfacing after the prime suspect, Bruce Ivins, committed suicide on July 29. The FBI held a briefing on Aug. 18. And in the few last weeks, scientists have been freer to discuss their role in aiding the FBI.
Anthrax germs of the same strain offer almost no genetic variation - which made it seem impossible at one point to use DNA to narrow the hunt for whomever mailed the deadly spores in the tense weeks following 9/11.
The spore-bearing letters killed five people and sickened 17.
Paul Keim, a leading expert on anthrax, was the first outside scientist to get involved. As soon as tabloid photo editor Bob Stevens was diagnosed in Florida with inhalation anthrax in early October 2001, health officials sampled his spinal fluid and grew a culture of anthrax bacteria in a test tube.
"They shipped that to us in a CDC corporate jet," said Keim, a geneticist at Northern Arizona University, near the Grand Canyon. It might seem an unlikely place to start investigating, but in the 1990s Keim had invented the first tests capable of DNA-fingerprinting anthrax spores to distinguish among strains.
"The sample arrived here on a Thursday night," he said. "We worked all night long and by the start of business Friday we told them it was Ames," a deadly strain isolated in 1981 from a Texas outbreak and erroneously named for the Iowa city. It's now commonly used by many U.S. researchers.
In the months after Stevens' death, Keim and his colleagues pulled more all-nighters as dozens of samples of spores were flown in. "Every time there was an outbreak, a jet would take off and bring samples," he said.
Federal authorities also asked him to analyze spores obtained from the Russian and Iraqi stockpiles.
The Iraqi spores came from shells that had been weaponized, said Keim. They were picked up in the 1990s by United Nations weapons inspectors in the midst of dismantling Saddam Hussein's bioweapons program. Keim found none that came from the Ames strain.
"It's quite possible that would have been used as justification for the Iraqi war," he said.
But virtually ruling out Saddam Hussein took scientists only so far. Hundreds of U.S. researchers had access to Ames anthrax.
So investigators turned to The Institute for Genomics Research (TIGR) in Maryland, where scientists were trying to read the entire genetic codes of human pathogens.
Claire Fraser-Liggett founded TIGR along with her then-husband Craig Venter, and is its director. Venter had become famous for spearheading the privately run competitor to the federal $3 billion Human Genome Project - an effort to read every code character in human DNA.
In 2002, TIGR scientists began reading the genetic code characters of anthrax spores. The FBI also began collecting a sample of every known flask of Ames anthrax in the world. That came to 1,070 samples.
Someone just needed to find genetic mutations - distinguishing marks in the DNA - that would rule out some and connect others to the attack.
Since the anthrax from Stevens' spinal fluid may have developed mutations during the infection, Keim isolated DNA from spores recovered from envelopes used in the subsequent attacks. In spore form, the germs don't divide and so could not collect any new mutations.
Once isolated, the DNA was flown to Fraser-Liggett's lab in Maryland. There she, Jacques Ravel and David Rasko read out the DNA sequence and compared it to a sequence made from what they called original Ames spores.
By early 2003, Fraser-Liggett and her colleagues were stuck: Out of more than five million code characters in the DNA, the envelope anthrax looked identical to the original Ames strain. It had no distinguishing mutations.
But then a researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., made a key discovery that would turn suspicion on his own colleagues.
The insight, Fraser-Liggett said, came from observation. Spores from the attack envelopes had been cultured on special plates, revealing several sub-populations of bacteria that looked different to the naked eye - some more yellowish, others growing in rougher or smoother blobs.
Fraser-Liggett said she and other geneticists knew instantly that the different-looking colonies probably carried mutations they could use.
By early 2004, she and her colleagues turned up a handful of key mutations - four of which were turned into tests to screen the 1,070 samples.
Seven samples tested positive for all four mutations. Since the samples' history was recorded in lab notebooks that the FBI had collected, investigators could see that all seven had been derived from the same source - a set of two flasks labeled RMR-1029 in Ivins' lab at USAMRIID.
But the investigators got a negative result from the sample Ivins sent in, according to affidavits released Aug. 6. Since all other samples derived from RMR-1029 tested positive, Ivins' sample should have as well.
The affidavits say FBI agents raided Ivins' lab in 2004 and seized his flasks of RMR-1029. Those tested positive for all four mutations, as did an earlier sample Ivins had made from RMR-1029 that was stored in Keim's lab.
Did Ivins alter the official sample he submitted? Keim said the test was sensitive enough that it should have picked up the signature of the mutant spores had Ivins followed the FBI's directions for making the samples.
"Ivins may simply have failed to collect a representative sample," he said, adding that "the FBI is implying he did it on purpose."
Keim notes that a conviction of Ivins would have required more than just this genetic connection and would be dependent upon other investigative evidence.
Still, he said, much good will come from the money that poured into the investigation.
"Now we can reconstruct how outbreaks occur with a level of precision far beyond what we've had," he said.
"If you used this in the recent e-coli outbreak," he added, "you'd be able to track it back to the exact pig that pooped on the spinach."
Contact staff writer Faye Flam at 215-854-4977 or email@example.com.
Ask the Editor —
A marathon, not a sprint
Originally published September 06, 2008
By David Simon
I missed it. I completely missed it.
About a month ago, I was on a three-day cruise in the Caribbean and pretty much cut off from the Internet, newspapers, television and radio.
That was the same weekend news broke on the Bruce Ivins anthrax story.
The first I heard of it was when I got back and my buddy told me there was some news in Frederick.
He's known for his understatements.
Here I am, working as one of the editors of a mid-size newspaper in Maryland and one of the biggest national stories drops right in our hometown.
And I missed it.
While I was on vacation, my friends and family back home were laying down bets as to whether I would be ticked that I wasn't here for it, or glad to miss all the craziness.
Honestly, it's a little of both.
There's really nothing like the adrenaline rush that comes when a big story breaks and you get to mix it up with the metro newspapers.
On the other hand, when I returned and told my colleagues I was a little tired because of all the sun and a few too many pina coladas, they didn't offer much sympathy.
I guess they had a few long nights of their own.
As I began back-reading our coverage to get caught up, I was incredibly proud of everyone who worked on the stories. While we got beat on some things, we had our fair share of scoops, and from what I understand, it was a team effort.
One aspect of the coverage that we are particularly proud of is that we didn't use a single unnamed source, as many of the larger papers did.
The oft-quoted "sources close to the investigation" was a common sight.
This actually highlights one of the frustrations with our coverage. We don't have well-placed anonymous sources at the FBI or Department of Justice.
Not that we would use them anyway. The Frederick News-Post has a strict policy to not use anonymous sources unless there's absolutely no other way to get at a story. And even then, our reporters need to get approval before doing so.
The idea behind not using anonymous sources is that we understand the media have a credibility problem with news consumers. That's why every measure is taken to have sources be accountable for the information they provide and, in turn, have us be accountable for who we get information from.
If we quoted anonymous sources as a habit, that would only diminish credibility. And we're trying to do the opposite.
Even in our recent seven-part series on domestic violence, in which finding people willing to talk about a sensitive subject was difficult, we didn't use a single anonymous source.
That's OK. There are other ways to skin a cat. We're using the Freedom of Information Act and pursuing other leads to get at this story.
We are not stopping.
Just because the story has subsided nationally in favor of veep nominees and tropical storms that may or may not turn out to be hurricanes, that doesn't mean our work on Ivins is done.
This story has too many questions, too many threads to pull on, and who knows where they lead.
There are already countless conspiracy theories about Ivins and more come each day. Some are far-fetched, but others are worth checking into.
For The Frederick News-Post, unraveling the Ivins mystery will be a marathon, not a sprint. And you'll know just where we obtained every bit of information.
Early anthrax suspect doubts guilt of Ivins
Originally published September 07, 2008
By Nicholas C. Stern
Ayaad Assaad was in Australia visiting relatives the day before his former colleague and friend, Bruce Ivins, died from an apparent suicide in Frederick in July.
Ivins, a Fort Detrick anthrax specialist, had become the sole focus of a seven-year FBI investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five and injured 17. The FBI has since released evidence it claims proves Ivins' guilt, but has admitted much of it is circumstantial.
Assaad, who worked in a U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease lab at Fort Detrick from 1989 to 1997 developing a vaccine for ricin, said in an interview Saturday he does not believe Ivins was guilty.
"He's a great man. He's honorable, sincere, honest and most important, he didn't kill five people and he didn't kill himself," Assaad said.
Assaad, an Egyptian-born toxicologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was called in for questioning by the FBI regarding accusations of biological terrorism shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"I know what Bruce went through, because I went through it too," he said.
On Oct. 1, 2001, about two weeks after the first anthrax letters were mailed, Assaad received a phone call from the FBI requesting his presence. The next day, he and his lawyer drove to the FBI's Washington field office.
The day Assaad was meeting with the FBI, Robert Stevens, a photo editor for the Florida-based tabloid Sun, was admitted to a hospital for complications from anthrax. He died soon after.
About a week later, in the second round of attacks, letters containing anthrax were sent from New Jersey to two U.S. senators.
Assaad said on top of his fears from not knowing why the FBI wanted to speak with him; many Arab-Americans were leery of ethnically motivated retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I was scared to death," he said. "I was about to have a heart attack."
Agents J. Gregory Lelyegian and Mark Buie brought Assaad and his lawyer, Rosemary McDermott, into what he described as a vault-like interrogation room with an electronically sealed metal door and a two-way mirror.
Laid out on a table before him were fingerprint sheets and papers that Assaad said gave him the impression they were planning to detain him.
Buie read to Assaad a letter received by the FBI in Quantico, Va., from an unidentified person who claimed Assaad was planning a biological terrorist attack on America.
The letter referenced Assaad's previous experience at USAMRIID and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.
Assaad said the letter claimed Assaad was a Muslim -- he's actually a Coptic Christian -- and informed the FBI of Assaad's security clearance, his current duties at the EPA, even the location of his office -- and the train line he would take to work (which was incorrect).
The letter also claimed Assaad had made arrangements with his two sons, classmates of Ivins' children in Frederick, to carry out the attacks should he die.
Assaad said he broke down in tears when Buie read the letter, professing his love for the United States, which provided him citizenship, scholarships and the freedom to practice his religion.
He said Saturday the FBI agents were polite and apologized, mentioning they receive thousands of hoax letters. The questioning lasted about 40 minutes and he was free to go.
When Assaad arrived at Fort Detrick in 1989 to work on the ricin vaccine, he tried to blend in at his new workplace.
He shrugged off slights for being an Arab-American from both military and civilian co-workers for a while.
"I tried to blend in and ignore so I could be accepted, but there was no way," he said.
He said what started as subtle discrimination turned into consistent harassment and intimidation. In 1991, he filed a complaint with his supervisor after discovering an eight-page poem in his mailbox filled with derogatory language.
After an investigation, Army officials at Fort Detrick reprimanded several researchers for harassing Assaad.
Assaad said his lawyer filed a Freedom of Information Act request as part of the investigation. Documents revealed the existence of the "Camel Club," a group of military and civilian scientists at Fort Detrick dedicated, in part, to mocking and humiliating Assaad. Aside from the poem, the "Camel Club" configured a stuffed camel with exaggerated genitals as its mascot.
The documents also revealed unauthorized anthrax research after hours, Assaad said.
"This anthrax issue is part of a much bigger issue," Assaad said. "The roots of corruption are so deep in (USAMRIID), and this is the thing that the people in Frederick don't understand."
One possible motive for the Quantico letter was revenge, Assaad said. After he was fired in 1997, he filed an age discrimination lawsuit against the Army. It was dismissed about two years ago.
For Assaad, questions about the letter's author and provenance remained unanswered.
When former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft described the anthrax letters as part of a concerted attack, Assaad said he immediately called the FBI, asking for further investigation into the author of the Quantico letter.
When the FBI refused to provide him with a copy, citing the ongoing investigation, he and his lawyer filed a Freedom of Information Act request, which was denied. He said the FBI did not believe the letter was related to the attacks.
Assaad said his career at the EPA has since been adversely affected. He has been passed up for promotions and has not been asked to join committees, such as the Hazard Identification Assessment Review Committee, of which he was a former member.
FBI: Anthrax suspect Ivins obsessed with Kappa
By Matt Westmoreland
Published: Monday, September 8th, 2008
Though investigators have named Bruce Ivins the sole actor in the 2001 anthrax attacks and declared the case solved on Aug. 6, Ivins’ lawyer emphasized that there is no evidence proving Ivins’ alleged obsession with the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority led him to Princeton, where anthrax-laced letters were mailed from a Nassau Street mailbox.
In an interview with The Daily Princetonian on Aug. 7, attorney Paul Kemp confirmed that Ivins had a fixation with the sorority but said that Ivins did not have anything to do with the deadly letters mailed from the Princeton mailbox at the corner of Bank St. and Nassau St., just feet from where the University’s Kappa chapter keeps its rush paraphernalia, initiation robes and other materials.
“The only thing that exists at 20 Nassau Street is a business office,” said Kemp, an attorney at Venable LLP. “They don’t have sorority offices. There is no sorority house. If the idea of this salacious report is that he went because there were girls ... there aren’t any girls at 20 [Nassau Street]. It’s bullshit.”
A recent Kappa alumna, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press, confirmed that the sorority was using the building space in 2001.
“I’m sure there was no contact,” Kemp said of any potential interaction between Ivins and Kappa members at the University. Kemp, who has represented Ivins for more than a year, added that it “doesn’t make any sense” for Ivins to have chosen Princeton because there are actual sorority houses at schools closer to his laboratory in Maryland.
“All I can say is: Where’s the evidence of a crime?” Kemp added. “There is evidence of eccentric behavior and psychological unbalance, but I don’t see a crime. I hope that doesn’t constitute evidence of a crime in this country.”
Kemp said that Ivins’ fixation dates back to his years at the University of Cincinnati, when he was rebuffed by a member of the Kappa chapter there. He also said Ivins had at times visited the chapter houses at the universities of West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland, but had no contact with any members of the sorority or their chapter houses since 1981.
Kemp also said that Ivins, whose father graduated from the University in 1928, had admitted his obsession to investigators two years ago. They were also aware of his unstable mental condition.
Ivins died July 29 from a codeine overdose. His death came shortly after he learned that federal prosecutors were preparing to indict him on capital murder charges.
Officials hoped the sorority link will help explain why the letters were mailed from Princeton, nearly 200 miles from the Fort Detrick lab in Frederick, Md., where Ivins worked and where officials believe the anthrax was stolen.
Kemp said that the federal prosecutors don’t have a case beyond the fact that Ivins had the access, opportunity and knowledge to commit the crime, which the defense has never disputed.
“Then what’s the next thing?” Kemp asked. “That he was troubled? Had psychological problems? What about the crime? People get charged with crimes, not with being psychologically disturbed.”
While they admit that there is no evidence to suggest that Ivins was focused on any one Kappa member or any University student, officials told The Associated Press that Ivins’ e-mails and other documents illustrate his longtime obsession with the organization.
Authorities had planned to argue that Ivins could have made the seven-hour round trip from Frederick to Princeton in the evening after work. One official told the AP that investigators were working off the assumption Ivins mailed the letters from near Kappa’s Princeton chapter to confuse authorities were he to emerge as a suspect.
Katherine Breckinridge, a Kappa alumna and adviser to the University’s chapter, told the AP on Aug. 4 that she had been interviewed by FBI investigators “over the last couple of years” regarding the case. She did not provide any details because she signed an FBI nondisclosure form but did say there was no indication any sorority members had anything to do with Ivins.
“Nothing odd went on,” she told the AP.
Police officials with Princeton Borough and Township told the AP Ivins’ name was not found in a search of incident reports and restraining orders. University spokeswoman Emily Aronson told the ‘Prince’ that Public Safety has no record of any incidents involving someone named Bruce Ivins. Aronson referred further questions about the investigation to the FBI.
The FBI’s media office and the Kappa press office did not respond to requests for comment.
Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), whose congressional district includes Princeton, said in a statement on Aug. 6 he was “pleased the FBI finally has begun to answer the questions that the families of the victims have had for nearly seven years.”
Closing the investigation
On Aug. 6, the Department of Justice released documents from its seven-year investigation into Ivins. The hundreds of pages were unsealed just before FBI Director Robert Mueller ’66 briefed relatives of the five people killed and the 17 others sickened by the anthrax attacks.
FBI officials declared that the case had been solved and that Ivins acted alone.
Given this, Kemp said at the time that there is not much more to be done. “I think there is a possibility, although slim, of a congressional hearing,” Kemp said, adding that a civil suit is possible as well.
On Sept. 5, leading Democrats in the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Mueller asking for more evidence, expressing doubt that the bureau had conclusively solved the case, The New York Times reported.
Though the case was slated to be formally closed soon after the unsealing of the documents, the Justice Department will now keep the case open for a few months as investigation continues, the Times article added.
The documents released by the Justice Department reveal that at the time of the attacks, Ivins had been the “sole custodian” of a “large flask of highly purified anthrax spores that possess certain genetic mutations identical to the anthrax used in the attacks” since its creation in 1997.
But Kemp said that more than 100 people on the base had access to the material.
“They make this statement that he was the sole custodian like the thing was locked up, which is not true,” Kemp said. “Anyone who wanted it could go in and get it and leave. There were no restrictions, no surveillance, no security guard. It’s sort of an amazing situation for a pathogen lab containing multiple kinds of stuff, all of which is totally toxic and poisonous.”
The documents allege that Ivins sought to mislead investigators, claiming the anthrax used in the attacks was different from the batch maintained in his laboratory and giving them false samples of anthrax from his laboratory. They also say Ivins had mental health issues and sent a suspicious e-mail a few days before the anthrax attacks with similar wording to the laced letters.
But Kemp said it is actually government officials who are making misleading statements and failing to mention that Ivins passed two polygraph tests in 2002.
“He submitted proper samples in February,” he said. “The government lost one, and the other was sent to a lab in New Mexico, and the government can trace it right back to his lab.”
The documents also show Ivins logged long evening shifts in mid-September 2001 and early October 2001. The anthrax letters were postmarked Sept. 18, 2001 and Oct. 9, 2001. The documents say Ivins was unable to provide investigators with an “adequate explanation for his late night laboratory work hours around the time.”
Investigators also determined the envelopes that held the letters were bought from a post office in Maryland or Virginia. Of the 16 laboratories in the country that had virulent anthrax strains like the ones in the mailings, Ivins’ lab was the only one located in either state.
Kemp countered that “millions of people” could have bought those envelopes all over Maryland and Virginia.
During a July search of Ivins’ home, Kemp said officials did not recover a “single thing” except for unmailed letters to members of Congress and a copy of the book “The Plague” by Albert Camus.
They also recovered some ammunition, but Kemp said they had also seen that ammunition during a November search of the home and decided to leave it. Kemp said they found no traces of anthrax and nothing incriminating on any of Ivins’ four computers.
Kemp emphasized the lack of physical evidence. “All they’ve found is unmailed letters and a book,” he said. “I really hope that’s not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Science behind the anthrax case
Originally published September 11, 2008
By Nicholas C. Stern
BALTIMORE -- A researcher who helped the FBI sequence the genome for the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks that left five dead and 17 injured said more scientific details will be released and submitted for publication within the next two months.
Claire Fraser-Liggett, who was speaking Wednesday at a University of Maryland Law School forum on the attacks, also said the work she performed while helping the FBI was based on sound scientific techniques.
"None of the science we used in this was new," she said. "It was applied in a new way and I think we moved the field of microbial forensics forward in a way that we had never expected."
In September and October 2001, Fraser-Liggett, the former president and director of The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, was finishing work on the sequencing and analysis of the first genome of a strain of Ames anthrax.
That was a descendant of the same strain used in the 2001 attacks.
"I was at the right place or the wrong place at the time, however you want to look at it," she said. "To bring our expertise to bear was obviously the right thing to do."
Fraser-Liggett, now director of the Institute of Genomic Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the grave implications for the workers became apparent almost immediately, as the FBI required researchers sign nondisclosure agreements that if violated, would result in jail time.
Because of the nature of the life of anthrax spores, which spend most of their time dormant, mutations are relatively infrequent, she said. More than 99 percent of the DNA of anthrax spores are identical. The Ames strain involved in the attacks, which was discovered in a cow in Texas in 1981, left little time for mutations to occur.
Scientists thought this would present an enormous challenge in trying to do any sort of forensics work.
"This would be the equivalent of trying to do DNA forensics on nearly identical twins," she said.
Fraser-Liggett and other researchers obtained their first anthrax sample from the spinal fluid of the first victim, Robert Stevens, a photo editor at a Florida tabloid.
Researchers then compared the sample to their genome for anthrax and discovered four mutations.
They then developed a rapid technique to screen samples with the goal of comparing them to the original Ames genome sequence.
The FBI provided about 120 coded samples, collected from labs in the United States and other countries that stored the Ames strain. Those samples were about 11 percent of the total tested.
According to the FBI, eight of the roughly 1,100 samples could be traced to a single source flask under the control of Bruce Ivins at United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, Fraser-Liggett said.
"I think that this is where the FBI is really hanging its hat on the validity of the science," she said.
In August, the Justice Department named Ivins as its sole suspect in the mailings. The scientist committed suicide on July 29, just before media reports revealed investigators were preparing to indict him for the mailings.
Ivins' attorney has maintained his client's innocence.
More than 100 people at two labs -- USAMRIID and a lab officials have refused to identify -- had access to the flask. Officials did not explain how they eliminated those other people from their investigation.
On Wednesday, Fraser-Liggett said she believes that since the Ames strain in the flask was composed of so many generations of spores, it had time to develop the four mutations, a question that had lingered until about a month ago.
She said she never believed the science alone would solve the anthrax investigation, and was sorry all of the information would not come to light in a court of law.
Press proves immune to FBI's anthrax corrective
By George Smith, Dick Destiny
Published Thursday 11th September 2008 13:12 GMT
Facts bounce off the conspiracy theories
The posting to the net of a transcript (http://docs.google.com/View?docid=dc3wqmd7_33d2tjs5ct) of the FBI's briefing to the press on the science behind the anthrax case is remarkable for two things: first, for its explanation of the development of microbial forensics and the team of scientists behind it; and second, for the determination of some members of the press to run off on a conspiracy theory hinging upon whether or not the anthrax was ever weaponized.
As to the second part, the FBI and its team of independent scientists unequivocally said it wasn't, after repeated badgering by one journalist - unnamed in the transcript - who insisted other scientists at Ft. Detrick and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology had determined the anthrax to be weaponized because silica was allegedly seen on the surface of the spores.
Dr Joseph Michael (http://www.sandia.gov/news/resources/releases/2008/anthrax.html), a materials scientist at Sandia National Laboratories who had, with others, analyzed the anthrax powders in depth, flatly denied this. "They are mistaken," the man replied to repeated questioning.
The explanation was that silicon had been detected in the attack samples (http://www.anthraxinvestigation.com/AnthraxPictures.html) but it was inside the spores - not on the surface. Scientists had determined that Bacillus species sequester silicon from the environment in protein and that the purpose of this was thought to be a natural process to "make the spore heartier." They had gone back in the literature to find a paper published in 1982 which discussed the matter and then, for comparative purposes, tracked down the original samples which the paper described.
Attack sample 'very different'
"We found no additives; no exogenous material on the outside of the spores," said Michael. "We did have the opportunity to look at weaponized material to compare it to the letter material and they were very different. And [in] the weaponized material the additives appear on the outside of the spore. Again, in the letter materials the silicon and oxygen were co-located on the spore coat [which is] within the spore. In fact, we found some vegetative cells that were going through the sporulation process and the spore within the mother cell had this same signature."
To grasp the importance of this it's necessary to understand where those obsessed with whether or not the anthrax was weaponized are coming from. After the initial mailings, weaponization was thought to be the trademark of a state-run biological weapons program. Different programs had different methods of production and the differences, it was alleged, constituted unique signatures. In the initial hysteria, this was said to point to Iraq.
More recently, the weaponization argument has been used to insist that Bruce Ivins could not have been the anthrax mailer because he had no experience in such methods. This was heard coming from Ft. Detrick personnel, who have an obvious professional interest in not being seen as the workplace of the anthraxer, and those who are still utterly convinced the FBI had the wrong man.
And weaponization with silica was what made the mailed anthrax so hazardous, the argument concludes.
This was not so, countered the scientists at the FBI's press briefing, reluctantly discussing a matter which many microbiologists know but which they wish not to be common knowledge: microbial powders are very fragile. The cells tend to generate fine dusts upon handling.
"In fact, many biological single-cell organisms when you dry them, like algae, they - they're very buoyant..." said Dr. Vahid Majidi of the FBI. "That is, you know, you open the contained, they do fly all over."
And sorting through mail machines pulverized the anthrax, too.
The FBI did not have "any answers for what process was used to grow additional spores or what methodology was used to dry them."
"I think that a lot of folks focus on the issue of [a] lyopholizer," said Majidi, describing a common biochem lab piece of hardware used to freeze-dry biological preparations. "You can ask any of the folks and the panel members, and they will tell you that you can dry biological samples in one of dozens of ways."
Was it unusual that the anthrax was so easily dispersible? No, said the FBI scientist.
"There is a misconception going around this room that very simple spore preparation, simply spores washed in water, when dried, are not dangerous and friable," added one unidentified official. "That is a misconception."
Majidi did not want to get "wrapped around the issue of how was a sample processed" - referring to the briefing's hijacking into a discussion of weaponization.
Whether or not the anthrax was weaponized was not a critical piece of evidence, the FBI man maintained.
"The important part of the evidence is that the materials of the letter with the genetic mutations could exclusively be related only to RMR-1029," said Majidi. RMR-1029 was the lot of anthrax spores in the care of Bruce Ivins, a very large reserve of spores - ten to the twelfth power - considered a high quality preparation which was the "gold standard" for anthrax research at Detrick.
And the incriminating genetic signature of RMR-1029 was worked out as the science of genomic microbial forensics advanced between 2002 and 2007.
RMR-1029 was an accumulation of over thirty production runs of anthrax - "over 164 liters of spore production, concentrated down to about a liter."
It was, the FBI said, an unusual preparation and not a single culture, atypical in its phenotypic variance from a standard overnight plating of anthrax. The variations of it, and hundreds of other samples, were slowly teased out by analysis and the science was validated by a team of scientists from government, academia and the private sector.
Paul Keim, a genomic scientist who identified the spore powders as the Ames strain of anthrax for the FBI explained the mutation variance with respect to Ivins' flask of RMR-1029.
There was "a very large number of generations" in the RMR-1029 spore flask, said Keim. "[And] so mutations... while they're rare... are observable when working with very large numbers, like a trillion ..." RMR-1029's variations were narrowed to a unique four, all of which were found in the attack letters.
Harder than it looks
One last point to consider is that the FBI's explanation of the Ivins case supports the idea that it's elementary to engineer a biological attack. If Ivins, a single individual with no training in weaponization could do it, couldn't anyone?
This writer thinks that's overly simplistic.
Bruce Ivins was the perfect example of someone uniquely trained to work with anthrax. And Ft. Detrick was the ideal place to engineer it. He (or, if you still don't believe it was Ivins, someone at Detrick) had easy access to a large, perfect and proven virulent reservoir of anthrax. And everyone in the facility was immunized against it, so risk in mishandling was not a significant obstacle. Any mistakes made in the making of the attack letters wouldn't sicken someone and expose the plot. Indeed, the existence of anthrax biodefense research at the facility provided ample cover for hiding one's work.
One can't just walk down the street to the micro-lab at the local city college and find the same thing. ®
George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny (http://www.dickdestiny.com/blog/dickdestiny.html), he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.
of Maryland, Baltimore
Center for Health and Homeland Security Hosts Forum to Discuss Anthrax Case
Posting Date: 09/11/2008
A plethora of questions still remains unanswered in the investigation of a U.S. Army scientist who the FBI believes was responsible for the anthrax attacks in late 2001. A forum held Sept. 10 at the University of Maryland School of Law shed light on the case from the perspectives of science and journalism.
The event, "Did the Researcher Do It? The FBI's Anthrax Case Against Dr. Ivins," was the eighth annual Sept. 11 commemoration presented by the Center for Health and Homeland Security (CHHS). Scott Shane, a reporter from The New York Times, and Claire Fraser-Liggett, PhD, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (SOM) and the director of the Institute of Genome Sciences at the SOM, served as panelists. Michael Greenberger, JD, a professor at the School of Law and director of CHHS, gave opening remarks and moderated the forum.
Shane, formerly a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, has followed and enterprised the anthrax story since 2001 when investigators first pointed the finger at a different suspect - Steven Hatfill - who has since been exonerated and awarded millions of dollars in damages from the government. And now, despite the FBI's assertion that the late Bruce Ivins was the anthrax killer, Shane continues to try to uncover as many details as he can about the government's would-be case.
For a Sept. 7 article, Shane interviewed two dozen bioterrorism experts, investigators, and members of Congress who "expressed doubts about the [FBI's] conclusions." A group of lawmakers have asked FBI Director Robert Mueller to address some of their concerns.
"[The investigators], at the end of last week, did tell me they did not have any single piece of evidence, any smoking gun … that absolutely linked Ivins to the letters," Shane told an audience of more than 100 students, faculty, and media representatives who attended today's forum.
But scientific evidence that led the FBI to the Ft. Detrick lab where Ivins worked came from research conducted by Fraser-Liggett. Through genomic tests that began in 2002, she was able to trace samples of anthrax from crime scenes back to a single-source flask that had been in the custody of Ivins. But co-workers of Ivins have asserted that hundreds of people had access to that flask, which is why Fraser-Liggett believes that scientific conclusions are the only sure thing right now.
"I have a great deal of confidence that the dried powders in the letters has likely been traced back to the source flask with a high degree of certainty, but like any forensic work this really is more a question of exclusion rather than an issue of making attribution in the absolute," Fraser-Liggett said.
"The case is very circumstantial," said Greenberger.
Ivins committed suicide in July, allegedly days before he was to be indicted for masterminding the anthrax attacks. The U.S. Department of Justice had said the case would be closed in August, but now the department says it could stay open into next year. Today's panel of experts is hardly surprised.
"I never felt that the science alone would ever solve this investigation," Fraser-Liggett concluded.
To view a video of the hour-long program, click here. Real Player is required.
Congress to take up anthrax investigation
Originally published September 13, 2008
By Justin M. Palk
Congress will soon get its first chance to question the FBI about its assertion that Fort Detrick researcher Bruce Ivins was responsible for the 2001 anthrax mailings, with FBI Director Robert Mueller III scheduled to appear before the House and Senate judiciary committees.
Tuesday, Mueller will appear before the House Judiciary Committee, and before the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was one of two senators who received an anthrax-laden letter in 2001.
Last week, the House committee's chairman, Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., sent Mueller a list of questions on topics including the anthrax investigation. He wanted answers to them by noon Monday.
Among other issues, Conyers asked Mueller to:
# address reports that the White House pressed investigators to tie the anthrax mailings to either a second wave of al-Qaida attacks, or to Iraq;
# explain why the FBI continued to focus its investigation on Steven Hatfill after the discovery of evidence pointing in other directions;
# explain why Bruce Ivins kept his security clearance at Fort Detrick for two years after he became a prime suspect in the investigation;
# clarify the circumstances surrounding Ivins' submission of anthrax samples to the FBI, which investigators have described as a "failure to cooperate" after he submitted one set of samples that didn't meet the standards investigators had set for anthrax samples, and then submitted a second sample investigators said did not match the anthrax being used in his lab.
U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-District 6, declined to be interviewed, but in an e-mailed statement, wrote that he doesn't believe the anthrax used in the attacks could have been produced by scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
The only results of the FBI's investigation, he wrote, were the government's multi-million dollar settlement with Hatfill, the former USAMRIID scientist who the FBI at one time identified as "a person of interest" in the case, Ivins' suicide and the undermining of the morale and effectiveness of Fort Detrick personnel.
In his statement, Bartlett wrote that the fineness of the anthrax spore powder used in the letter, that it was coated with silica, and that it was electrically charged, causing the spores to repel each other and fly apart, were all characteristics that couldn't have been replicated at USAMRIID.
In an August briefing on the science used in the anthrax investigation, the FBI attributed the fineness of the powder to the crushing action of mail sorting machines on the envelopes, said the spores were not coated with silica, but had incorporated it into their structure, as some types of bacteria have been found to do, and that the spores tended to pick up a static charge on their own, without any special treatment.
Bartlett doesn't sit on the House Judiciary Committee, but according to committee staff, representatives not on the committee can ask to sit in on hearings of particular interest to them.
Bartlett's staff did not say whether he intends to ask to attend Tuesday's hearing.
U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and, according to his staff, does plan to attend Wednesday's hearing.
Monday, Sep. 15, 2008
The Anthrax Case: Congress Must Demand an Independent Inquiry
JURIST Guest Columnist David Harris of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law says that in light of questions about the FBI's public identification of the late Dr. Bruce Ivins as “the only person responsible” for the 2001 anthrax attacks, Congress should demand an independent investigation to test the government’s evidence of its accusatory claim....
With Dr. Bruce Ivins named as “the only person responsible” for the anthrax attacks, the FBI says it has solved the case. But not everyone agrees, and among the doubters are members of Congress poised to question FBI Director Robert Mueller at hearings this week. While some – maybe even most -- of the evidence does point to Ivins, the FBI should not publicly pin guilt on him. Instead, the Bureau should send all of its information to a neutral, detached investigator to conduct of a full, unbiased inquiry. In this country, we determine guilt by testing the evidence, not press conferences that pronounce the case solved.
With Ivins’ death, no trial will ever take place. And this represents a real loss. The trial of every criminal case serves as an opportunity to test the evidence, whether direct or circumstantial. The government prosecutors present their evidence to the jury in the best possible light; the defense then gets to challenge the evidence. This is done through cross-examination, during which defense lawyers question witnesses put forth and already questioned by the prosecutor. If the prosecutor’s questions serve to put forth the strongest view of the government’s evidence, cross-examination’s purpose is to show the jury where the weaknesses are – the biases of the witness, the failure of the witness to remember, or simply other interpretations of the evidence. The defense may also, if it wishes, put forth its own evidence, and its own witness, to challenge the prosecution’s case. This testing of the evidence through cross-examination and the presentation of opposing versions of the facts lies at the heart of the way we evaluate the facts in determining whether to find a person guilty of a crime.
As the FBI itself finally conceded after years of denial, its investigation went in the wrong direction for years, blaming another government scientist, Steven Hatfill. The Bureau and the Department of Justice were eventually forced to concede that they’d got it wrong, paying Hatfill millions of dollars in damages for the utter destruction of his professional and personal life. Thus when members of Congress and the public react skeptically to the FBI’s pronouncement that it has found the killer, their skepticism is entirely reasonable: resolution of the case without a trial is just a little too convenient for the FBI, which would like to emerge from the case without any more problems.
In our country, we do not accept accusations of criminal wrongdoing without examining them critically. Without the crucible of a trial in which the government and the defense put the evidence to the test in front of a jury, we simply cannot be sure that the government could ultimately prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Statements by Paul Kemp, Dr. Ivins’ attorney, give a strong sense that the government’s evidence would have faced a strong challenge at a trial. For example, of the flask of anthrax spores that the government presents as the murder weapon under Ivins’ sole control, Kemp says that more than a hundred other people also had access to the flask, and the same strain of anthrax was widely used in experiments by many other scientists. And reputable scientists around the country have uniformly reserved judgment about the Bureau’s efforts to link the anthrax recovered in the attacks to the type in Ivins’ lab, since no researcher unconnected with the FBI has had access to the Bureau’s data or methods. In science as in law, no opportunity to test means no way to know.
None of this, of course, proves that Dr. Ivins did not send anthrax through the mail in the fall of 2001. But at the very least, it does counsel caution. Sure, the evidence may seem to point to Dr. Ivins more than to anyone else. But we need to remember that any real conclusion requires more.
That’s why the only real solution – one that the FBI should support – is for a neutral party to take a close look at the evidence, and report to the Congress and the country about the strength of the case. Simple announcements of findings by the FBI – “trust us, we got the right guy this time” – just are not enough.
David A. Harris is Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches criminal law and procedure, evidence, and homeland security.
of the Legal Times
New Twist in Hatfill Case
September 15, 2008
Just when you thought the case of former anthrax suspect Steven Hatfill was over, it carries on. Lawyers for Hatfill returned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Sept. 11 seeking dismissal of journalist Toni Locy's appeal of the contempt citation slapped on her for refusing to reveal her sources for stories in USA Today relating to the Hatfill case. Hatfill's lawyer Christopher Wright of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis in D.C. notes in his motion that Hatfill's underlying dispute with the Justice Department over being unfairly implicated in the anthrax case was settled, with the government agreeing to pay Hatfill $5.8 million for the Privacy Act violation. As a result of the settlement, Wright asserts, Locy's appeal of the original contempt citation by District Judge Reggie Walton in February is now moot, and should be dismissed. A dismissal would return the case to Walton, and that appears to be Hatfill's main goal.
In Hatfill's motion, Wright says that once the district court regains jurisdiction over the Locy case, Hatfill will seek attorney fees from Locy. No amount was mentioned, but Locy told Legal Times she anticipates that the lawyer bills will be "far greater than the fines I faced under Judge Walton's contempt finding." She adds, "A multimillion dollar settlement with the government apparently is not enough for them." Locy also notes that Walton said the original fines for contempt had to be paid by Locy alone, without help from her employer or friends. Walton could impose the same requirement if he orders her to pay Hatfill's attorney fees, and that could impoverish her, she said. "This is beyond greed. It's beyond vindictive."Locy is now a journalism professor at Washington & Lee University.
Wright could not be reached for comment, but his partner Mark Grannis told Legal Times that the motion and the request for fees is "standard Rule 37 practice." He said lawyers who subpoena reporters for information "don't do this for sport," but do so because they need the information to pursue their cases. "In response to hysterical complaints about a constitutional crisis, I would just say that it is quite often the case that the party who goes to the extra trouble gets attorney fees." Grannis also said that unlike with the fines for contempt, "if other persons want to chip in" to help Locy pay for the attorney fees, "I can't imagine that we would oppose that."
Posted by Tony Mauro on September 15, 2008 at 02:03 PM in Other Courts
FOX News Exclusive: Anonymous Note Casts Doubt on Anthrax Probe
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
WASHINGTON — Congress is hearing from FBI Director Robert Mueller Tuesday and Wednesday as evidence appears to continue to unravel the FBI's anthrax investigation, which concluded an Army scientist who committed suicide in July was the sole and primary suspect.
Lawmakers in both the House and Senate are expected to grill Mueller this week as new information is revealed which raises more questions about the FBI's conclusions.
"My conclusion, at this point, is that it's very much an open matter," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Senate Judiciary Committee co-chairman wrote in a letter to Mueller less than two weeks ago.
Among the sources of questions is a mysterious letter, sent in the fall of 2001, warning of a bioterror attack. At the FBI, the mailing is known as the "Quantico letter" because it was sent to the police in the Virginia town that is home to several military and government agency facilities.
The letter was sent the same week anthrax was mailed to The New York Post and NBC. In the letter, first obtained by FOX News, an Army scientist at Ft. Detrick in Maryland is accused of plotting against the U.S. government:
"This guy is a potential terrorist," the letter reads. "This guy has access to many dangerous biological poisons. ... Please talk to him to make certain that he is not involved in further terrorist activity."
The anonymous letter accused Dr. Ayaad Assaad of also being a religious fanatic. Assaad was interviewed by the FBI and cleared of any role in the anthrax case. But the central question that remains is whether the Quantico letter was part of an effort to frame Assaad two weeks before anthrax killed the first of five Americans.
"It was deceptive in one way and the other way it would fit to accuse an Arab-American after the 9/11 attack of committing this crime," Assaad said.
Publicly, the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office insist that Ft. Detrick scientist Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide in July, was the sole suspect in the anthrax case. When asked by FOX News about the Quantico letter, officials called it irrelevant to the case.
"Not aware of any connection to my knowledge, there's no evidence linking the two," said Jeffrey Taylor, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
While FBI officials now say the Quantico letter has no connection to the anthrax case, in July of 2003, the bureau was telling a different story. In denying a Freedom of Information Act request, the FBI claimed the letter's release "could reasonably be expected to disclose the identities of confidential sources."
Assaad, who worked alongside Ivins for 18 years, said his late colleague is unlikely to be a source of the letter.
"Bruce Ivins is an honorable man. We're good friends. That is not the writing of Bruce Ivins," Assaad said.
After Ivins’ suicide, the FBI claimed he was the sole suspect in the case. They alleged that Ivins stole the anthrax powder from the base and mailed it to Capitol Hill and news organizations. But some scientists at Ft. Detrick, a major Army bioweapons research facility, still question whether Ivins could have been solely responsible for the attack.
FOX News has learned that an independent analysis done for the FBI shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks concluded that the most likely writer of the Quantico letter was a female scientist at Ft. Detrick.
The similarities between the typed Quantico letter and handwritten anthrax letters are also striking beyond the obvious connection to Ft. Detrick.
Both warn of biological attacks in fall of 2001. Both express hatred for Israel. Both begin with the word "This," which investigators say is a highly unusual stylistic quality.
The letters also contain prominent spelling mistakes. In the Quantico letter, the spelling of the Jewish state is "Isreal." In the anthrax letters, Penicillin is spelled "Penacilin."
One source says the spelling mistakes were an effort to obscure the writer's identity. But the addresses on the envelopes to both the Quantico letter as well as the anthrax letters do not have a comma between the city and state, another potential clue.
Mueller on The Hill
Originally published September 16, 2008
The FBI effectively said "Case closed" following the apparent suicide of Fort Detrick microbiologist Bruce Ivins on July 29. Today, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III will begin testimony before the House and Senate Judiciary committees where he will provide answers to a list of questions — about the "case" against Ivins — previously submitted to him by committee members.
The FBI has said it considers Ivins responsible for the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people and sickened many others shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Its evidence is almost wholly circumstantial in nature.
Many people, including some scientists in Ivins' esoteric field of anthrax research, are casting a skeptical eye on the FBI's accusations against him. That makes this congressional call for Mueller to appear on The Hill not only advisable, but imperative.
Significant differences of opinion exist about some key aspects of this case — including whether the mailed anthrax spores actually originated from Ivins' work section, and if so, whether he had the ability to have created them. Some have also wondered why the FBI singled out Ivins among the scores of Detrick employees who worked in anthrax research.
The unhappy saga of another Detrick anthrax investigator, Steven Hatfill, also has created skepticism about the FBI's accusations against Ivins. Hatfill was Ivins' predecessor as the FBI's prime suspect. Labeled a "person on interest," by the bureau, he was relentlessly dogged for years and the victim of damning innuendoes leaked to the press. His career and professional reputation in tatters, Hatfill finally prevailed, with the Justice Department agreeing to pay him a multi-million-dollar settlement to drop his lawsuit against the government.
Had Hatfill been unable to psychologically endure the FBI's long and tenacious investigation of him, he might well have ended up like Ivins. Had that happened, would the FBI have stamped in big, bold letters across the anthrax investigation folder "Case Closed," as it is now trying to do as a result of Ivins' tragic death?
Most everyone who knew and worked with Ivins remain incredulous about his ability to have committed these acts of murder. While it's possible they are wrong, their unwavering support of him is difficult to dismiss.
The FBI's assertion that it has no other viable suspects may mean that the anthrax investigation may never be resolved indisputably. If that is the case, Ivins' name will likely be forever linked in the public consciousness to this infamous crime.
It may be convenient for the FBI that its prime, and only, suspect is dead, but this case is not about to go away. The judiciary committees' decision to request Mueller appear before them may result in a new investigation into Ivins' guilt or innocence. We hope that is the case.
While such an investigation, no matter how rigorous, might fail to yield definitive answers, Bruce Ivins, his family, friends and co-workers, and the nation itself, deserve more consideration than simply closing the books on this case when so many questions remain unanswered.
Scientist concedes 'honest mistake' about weaponized anthrax
Peter B. Jahrling, who aided the federal probe of the 2001 mailings, says he erred when he told White House officials that material he examined probably had been altered to make it more deadly.
By David Willman
9:53 PM PDT, September 16, 2008
WASHINGTON — An acclaimed government scientist who assisted the federal investigation of the 2001 anthrax mailings said Tuesday that he erred seven years ago when he told top Bush administration officials that material he examined probably had been altered to make it more deadly.
The scientist, Peter B. Jahrling, had observed anthrax spores with the aid of an electron microscope at the government's biological warfare research facility at Ft. Detrick, Md.
On Oct. 24, 2001, Jahrling was summoned to the White House after reporting to his superiors what he believed to be signs that silicon had been added to anthrax recovered from a letter addressed to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
The presence of silicon was viewed with alarm because the material, if artificially added to the anthrax, would make it more buoyant in air and more capable of penetrating deeply into the lungs.
"I believe I made an honest mistake," Jahrling said in response to questions e-mailed to him for this article, adding that he had been "overly impressed" by what he thought he saw under the microscope.
"I should never have ventured into this area," said Jahrling, who is a virologist, referring to his analysis of the anthrax, which is a bacterium. Jahrling's initial analysis -- and his briefing of officials at the White House -- was first detailed in a 2002 book by bestselling author Richard Preston.
Although Jahrling was careful in 2001 not to implicate Iraq or any other regime in the mailings, others used his analysis to allege that the silicon perhaps linked the letters to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Inhaled anthrax can kill at a rate of 80% to 90% unless patients are treated quickly with an antibiotic.
Jahrling's comments Tuesday came soon after a congressional hearing at which FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III announced that he was arranging for an outside review of scientific findings that helped the bureau conclude that another scientist at Ft. Detrick, Bruce E. Ivins, perpetrated the deadly mailings. The review is to be overseen by the National Academy of Sciences, Mueller said.
FBI scientists and outside experts hired by the bureau to analyze the anthrax recovered from the mailings announced Aug. 18 that although they had found silicon, it occurred within the spores naturally and was not added.
In challenging those experts, one journalist reminded them that Jahrling, among other scientists, had concluded otherwise.
Some critics of the FBI investigation have asserted that Ivins lacked the skills to have "weaponized" the anthrax with any additive that enhanced its virulence.
At Tuesday's hearing, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), pressed Mueller anew about how the silicon got into the spores.
After being informed of the events at the hearing, Jahrling renounced his earlier analysis.
"In retrospect," Jahrling said, "I believe I was mistaken and defer to the experts."
Ivins, 62, a civilian bacteriologist for the Army, died July 29 after ingesting a massive dose of prescription Tylenol 3.
Attorneys Ivins had hired to defend him against criminal charges being prepared by the Justice Department have said that they would have won his acquittal if the case had gone to trial.
In 2001, Jahrling briefed a roomful of officials at the White House, including Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, Mueller and Tom Ridge, President Bush's secretary of Homeland Security.
The next day, the Washington Post published a front-page article headlined "Additive Made Spores Deadlier" that reported:
"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 Ft. Detrick.
The article said that the United States, the former Soviet Union and Iraq were "the only three nations known to have developed the kind of additives that enable anthrax spores to remain suspended in the air, making them more easily inhaled" and more deadly.
At the time, Jahrling was employed as the senior civilian scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, within Ft. Detrick.
Jahrling is a past winner of the Secretary of Defense Meritorious Civilian Service Award.
Michael P. Kortan, a spokesman for Mueller, said after the congressional hearing that the FBI was seeking the outside review while maintaining "full confidence in our scientific approach."
"Consideration of an outside review began before any public disclosure of the scientific aspects of the investigation," Kortan said.
Times researcher Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Independent scientists to review evidence against Ivins
Originally published September 17, 2008
By Justin M. Palk
WASHINGTON -- Observers hoping the House Judiciary Committee would grill FBI Director Robert Mueller III about the investigation into the 2001 anthrax mailings Tuesday left disappointed.
Tuesday was the first time Congress publicly questioned the FBI about its handling of the case since investigators' Aug. 6 announcement that Bruce Ivins, a Fort Detrick microbiologist who died July 29 after apparently committing suicide was the sole suspect in the case. Ivins' attorney has maintained that his client was innocent, and the U.S. Department of Justice has conceded its case against him was circumstantial, and that it had no hard evidence tying him to the mailings.
During his opening statement, Mueller announced that the FBI was asking the National Academy of Sciences to perform an independent review of the science it used to conclude that the anthrax used in the letters was descended from a flask under Ivins' control.
He gave no details about why the FBI was seeking the review, other than to note the importance of the science to the anthrax case. Spokespeople for the FBI did not immediately return phone calls seeking clarification of Mueller's remarks Tuesday afternoon.
No new information about the case came out after that, though, as Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., was the only member of the committee to question Mueller about the case, and Mueller deferred answering Nadler's questions.
Nadler was seeking information on whether the anthrax mailer had used silica as an additive to make the powder more dangerous, and details of how the FBI eliminated labs at the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah and Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio as possible sources of the anthrax used in the mailings.
Dena Briscoe, a representative of the postal workers who died as a result of the mailings, said she was disappointed in the lack of new information provided at the hearing.
"If they're not even going to answer these brief questions," she said, indicating a list of questions the committee chairman had sent Mueller on Sept. 5, "what's the point?"
Last week, the House committee's chairman, Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., sent Mueller a list of questions on topics including the anthrax investigation. He wanted answers to them by noon Monday.
Among other issues, Conyers asked Mueller to:
# address reports that the White House pressed investigators to tie the anthrax mailings to either a second wave of al-Qaida attacks, or to Iraq;Briscoe said that after Tuesday's hearing, she wasn't planning on attending a similar hearing scheduled for today in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Barry Kissin, a Frederick attorney who attended the hearing, said it didn't even rise to the level of a song and dance show.
"They didn't even make him dance," Kissin said.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-District 6, had asked to be allowed attend Tuesday's hearing, although he is not a member of the Judiciary Committee, said his spokeswoman, Lisa Wright.
The committee advised him, Wright said, that he should submit his questions regarding to what extent the anthrax in the letters and in samples collected from Fort Detrick were weaponized to Mueller in writing.
Tribune - editorial
Anthrax killer, dead or alive
September 17, 2008
In the weeks after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, another diabolical onslaught clawed at the frayed threads of our psyches. The second saga began with the mailing of envelopes from Trenton, N.J., to NBC News in New York and to the New York Post. A woman who came in contact with one mailing noticed a blister on her finger—and tested positive for anthrax, a potentially lethal hemorrhagic disease. A maintenance worker at the Trenton regional postal facility in Hamlin, N.J., also visited a physician; what he wondered, were these lesions on his arm? A West Trenton postal carrier soon developed an arm lesion. Next stricken, an assistant to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw.
Panic swept America. By including a deadly bioagent in something we welcome into our homes and workplaces every day—the mundane U.S. mail—someone (or several someones) evoked the same sorts of fears provoked two decades earlier by the Tylenol poisonings in Chicago.
Anthrax mailings eventually killed five people and sickened 17 others.
Thus commenced a federal investigation that in one stretch wrongly focused for about five years on military bioresearcher Steven Hatfill—a man prosecutors now have formally cleared of any involvement in the killings. The feds instead are convinced that the culprit was Bruce Ivins, an Army scientist who killed himself in July after learning from the FBI that charges likely would be brought against him.
So: Was Bruce Ivins the one and only anthrax killer? Or is he a convenient scapegoat for embarrassed investigators who, having wrongly suspected Hatfill, don't deserve the public's confidence that they got this right?
Democratic leaders on the House Judiciary Committee recently told FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III that they don't think his agency has proved its case against Ivins. The Democrats wrote to Mueller that ". . . questions remain that are crucial for you to address, especially since there will never be a trial to examine the facts of the case."
Mueller told the committee Tuesday that the FBI will ask the National Academy of Sciences to organize an independent review of the evidence. He'll likely face more scrutiny Wednesday from a Senate committee.
The FBI really has no choice but to accept the challenge to publicly produce more of its evidence: There appears to be no fingerprint or other unquestionable link between Ivins and the mailings. The agency does, though, contend that the tremendous weight of its evidence points exclusively to Ivins. These are the suggestions we've all been reading for weeks: Ivins kept peculiar night hours, he apparently had access to the anthrax strain used in the killings, and—for reasons not yet innocently explained—he sometimes left his Maryland home to send mailings from faraway post offices. And so forth.
Over the next few months, the FBI intends to complete analyzing, and divulge, more of its details and conclusions. In the end, perhaps we'll all be convinced that Ivins is the killer, although even that wouldn't necessarily give us a motive: to murder innocents, to awaken lackadaisical Americans to the horrific dangers of biological weapons, to attract more federal funding for the assailant's research on bioagents—or some other reason entirely. This case is extraordinary: The FBI is devoting significant resources to investigating a dead man as if it had to convince a federal grand jury to indict him—and then to help prosecutors prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Agents are continuing with interviews, plumbing computers to which Ivins had access, and will evaluate boxes of papers that he bequeathed to his attorney.
This is the sort of posthumous investigation that focused on the murdered Lee Harvey Oswald to establish his guilt in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In this case such an elaborate effort is more than justified, though. It's necessary. Many of Ivins' former colleagues think he didn't send the mailings; in this view, he was an innocent hounded into the grave.
Maybe so, but we'd rather be convinced of that than leap to any conspiratorial conclusion. No one, not even Ivins' friends, denies that the feds' evidence points to him as a suspect. Was he an innocent hounded, then—or a criminal who ran for the exit? "It appears Ivins felt the noose tightening and committed suicide," says Northwestern University law professor Ronald Allen. "But people under investigation normally don't choose death over trial. Dr. Ivins did. Why?"
Closing this case may cause collateral damage: Those of us who follow it risk being buried alive in scientific minutiae. The core question: Did someone else—someone still alive—have the capability and the opportunity to make anthrax-by-mail the most feared substance in America.
The FBI's goal has to be convincingly closing a case that, as the House Democrats noted, can't be adjudicated in a court of law.
No, the true venue in FBI vs. Ivins is the court of public opinion.
Senators question anthrax probe
By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Senate leaders on Wednesday expressed serious doubts about the FBI's assertion that Army scientist Bruce Ivins was the lone attacker in the 2001 anthrax assaults that killed five people and injured 17 others.
A day after FBI Director Robert Mueller said he was confident in its case, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., one of the two senators targeted in the attacks, said he believes that there are "others who could be charged with murder."
"I do not believe in any way, shape or manner that he was the only one involved," Leahy told Mueller at a committee hearing.
Ivins, an anthrax scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., committed suicide in July as federal investigators built their case against him.
The FBI's inquiry into the attacks has been steeped in controversy, having initially focused suspicion on Ivins' colleague, Steven Hatfill.
In June, the Justice Department paid $5.8 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Hatfill who charged that the government invaded his privacy by naming him as a "person of interest" in the case.
Sen. Arlen Specter, the committee's ranking Republican from Pennsylvania, said he also had "grave doubts" about Ivins' guilt and suggested that the Congress launch its own review of the government's evidence.
The hearing comes one day after Mueller appeared before a House panel and defended the long federal inquiry into the 2001 anthrax attacks.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., publicly rebuked Mueller on Tuesday for what Conyers called a belated response to the committee's requests for additional information about the case and about the government's plans to expand the FBI's authority in national security investigations.
"When are we going to get some straight answers?" Conyers asked Mueller. "These are serious and important questions."
Mueller told the House panel that investigators had made a "clear identification," tracing the deadly anthrax contained in a series of letters to the substance found in a vial controlled by Ivins. The FBI director said investigators "eliminated every other person" who might have had the skills to produce the material.
Senator doubts anthrax suspect acted alone
Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Hearst Newspapers
Thursday, September 18, 2008
(09-18) 04:00 PDT Washington --
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., one of the targets of the mailed anthrax attacks that killed five people in 2001, said Wednesday he is convinced that the FBI's sole suspect - dead microbiologist Bruce Ivins - did not act alone.
"If he is the one who sent the letter, I do not believe in any way, shape or manner that he is the only person involved in this attack on Congress and the American people," said Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I believe there are others involved, either as accessories before or accessories after the fact. I believe there are others who can be charged with murder."
Leahy's comments, made as FBI Director Robert Mueller testified before the Judiciary Committee, came as skepticism builds on Capitol Hill about the government's case against Ivins and the handling of the seven-year anthrax investigation.
Ivins, a researcher at a U.S. Army biological laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., committed suicide in July as federal investigators prepared to indict him.
After his death, the FBI announced that they had solved the case and blamed Ivins for the attacks that, in addition to killing five people, sickened more than 20 others. Bureau officials described the scientific sleuthing that led to that conclusion, including a genetic match between the anthrax in the mailings and the toxin found in a flask in Ivins' laboratory.
Ivins' attorney has said his client was innocent.
The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said Wednesday he had "grave doubts" that the FBI's evidence constitutes "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" of Ivins' guilt.
Several lawmakers - including Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa - are calling for an independent review of the FBI's investigation.
Grassley on Wednesday criticized a decision by Mueller to ask the National Academy of Sciences to review the science underpinning the FBI's investigation.
"The National Academy would not be reviewing FBI interview summaries, grand jury testimony, internal investigative memos (or) other investigative documents," Grassley said. "The academy would only be reviewing the science, not the detective work, and, of course, I believe we need an independent review of both."
Grassley, who has been an outspoken critic of what he has characterized as the FBI's bungling of the anthrax investigation, added that "Congress and the American people deserve a complete accounting of the FBI's evidence" because "there are many unanswered questions the FBI must address before the public can have confidence in the outcome of the case."
In a wide-ranging and occasionally tense hearing Wednesday, senators pressed Mueller to answer a host of questions about the anthrax investigation, but the director deferred answers to most of the inquiries and said he would answer some others behind closed doors because they involved classified information.
For instance, Mueller said he would get back to the panel with a response to a Specter query about why the FBI did not seek a DNA test sample - a mouth swab - from Ivins until July, even though agents were zeroing in on the researcher in October.
The DNA sample was checked against hairs found at a Princeton, N.J., mailbox used to post the anthrax-filled letters, but there was no match with Ivins.
Leahy asked Mueller how many facilities were capable of producing the strain of anthrax used in the attacks, other than the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah and the Columbus, Ohio, laboratory of Battelle Corp., a CIA contractor.
"I do believe there are others," Mueller said, noting that as many as 15 U.S. laboratories and three overseas "had this particular virulent strain of Ames anthrax" that was placed in the envelopes mailed to Capitol Hill and media companies in Florida and New York in 2001. "My expectation is that there are others who do the research in these facilities and do have that capability."
Grassley pressed Mueller to explain why the FBI continued to scrutinize one of its early suspects in the case, bioweapons expert Steven Hatfill, even after obtaining records showing Ivins had accessed his anthrax-processing lab at unusual times.
The Department of Justice labeled Hatfill a person of interest in 2002 - prompting the researcher to sue the department for causing irrevocable damage to his reputation and career. The Justice Department reached a $5.8 million settlement with Hatfill earlier this year.
Mueller defended the FBI's investigation, saying "the steps that were taken in the course of the investigation" were "appropriate ... given the information that we had at that particular time."
And Mueller said the lawsuit and resulting settlement were driven by inappropriate leaks about the researcher made to reporters - rather than the FBI's investigation of Hatfill.
This article appeared on page A - 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle
September 18, 2008
A few months before the start of the 1996 Olympics, Randall Murch and his colleagues established the Hazardous Materials Response Unit in the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Laboratory. The concept behind the unit was to give the agency the capability to respond to situations involving nuclear, biological, or chemical materials—and to expand forensic science into new arenas. But not everyone was a fan of the idea, and some questioned the usefulness and applicability of such a unit, Murch says.
But then came the 2001 anthrax attacks.
Spore-laden letters intended for two U.S. senators, Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, turned up in their Washington, D.C., offices. On the night the Daschle letter was opened in the Hart Senate Office Building, Murch arrived at home to see television coverage showing responders in biohazard gear crawling all over Capitol Hill. “I go into the TV room in our house, and my wife looks at me, and she looks at the TV, and she looks back at me and says, ‘I guess it was a pretty good idea . . . after all, wasn’t it?’”
In August 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI announced that they had narrowed their anthrax investigation down to a single suspect, Bruce Ivins, who died before charges were brought against him. Court documents released on August 6 revealed some of the scientific and investigative evidence against Ivins, a researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID).
During the course of the anthrax
investigation, a new branch of science—microbial forensics—would arise
from the cooperation among genomics, microbiology, and forensics researchers
(1). Although news reports alluded to new research techniques created during
this case, a spokesperson for the FBI said that the scientific investigation
involved the application of well-accepted, validated methods to microbial
forensic samples. The results of this scientific investigation are now
gradually coming to light.
The story began on September 18, 2001, when the first of two batches of letters containing anthrax spores was postmarked in Trenton, N.J. The first batch comprised five letters sent to media outlets in New York (ABC, CBS, NBC, and the New York Post) and Florida (American Media, Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer). Sixteen days later, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially confirmed the first U.S. case of inhalation anthrax in 25 years; the first victim died in Florida on October 5.
Two more anthrax letters were postmarked on October 9. Then, 3 days after officials confirmed the first cutaneous anthrax cases in New York, an aide opened the Daschle letter on Capitol Hill. Two Washington, D.C., fatalities from inhalation anthrax were linked to the letter.
On November 16, hazardous-materials personnel found the Leahy letter in bags of unopened mail. The final inhalation anthrax victim died in Connecticut on November 21.
In total, 5 of the 22 people who contracted anthrax died, and another 31 individuals tested positive for spore exposure. For two of the inhalation anthrax fatalities and one of the cutaneous anthrax victims, investigators could not determine a likely source of exposure to the spores. (The CDC documented its public-health investigation in publications such as the “Bioterrorism-Related Anthrax” special issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases  and the webcast “Clinical Diagnosis and Management of Anthrax—Lessons Learned” .)
Clearly, the automated sorting of the spore-containing letters caused widespread contamination—and not just in the postal facilities that processed the letters. Trace amounts of the anthrax spores were found on mail that had passed through the contaminated U.S. State Department mail annex and was subsequently sent in diplomatic pouches to several U.S. embassies, including those in Lithuania, Peru, and Russia.
So in October 2001, the FBI began a high-security, covert investigation to uncover what really happened.
Virulent organisms such as Bacillus anthracis can be studied only in laboratories certified as biosafety-level-3 (BSL-3) facilities. At the time of the anthrax attacks, the FBI Laboratory did not have any BSL-3 facilities in which they could analyze the evidence, so researchers at the Bureau collaborated with other government laboratories such as USAMRIID and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.
In the late fall of 2001, FBI scientists were concerned about the limited amount of sample available for analysis and were seeking validation on the analytical approach, so they asked officials at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to bring in outside experts for advice. The group met at the FBI’s Washington, D.C., field office to discuss how to analyze the samples.
Douglas Raber, who was then at NAS and is now at GreenPoint Science, recalls a workshop that was organized by officials at NAS and NSF to bring in six prominent researchers to meet with FBI agents and scientists from the FBI and other government laboratories. “This group certainly gave [the FBI] guidance for doing a very powerful sequence of tests using . . . a very small sample and, by doing the sequence right, getting appropriate kinds of information,” Raber says. “At the end of the day, they presented the FBI with . . . a recommended flow sheet.” (Figure 1 shows an analytical flowchart similar to the one produced at the workshop.) The FBI also consulted other advisory groups, such as the Scientific Working Group on Microbial Genetics and Forensics (SWGMGF), to discuss overarching issues in microbial forensics and periodically review the scientific evidence.
Overall, thousands of samples were processed by academic, government, and private BSL-3 labs across the country. FBI coordinators made sure that the methods were validated and the results vetted by selected experts so that any scientific results contributing to the investigation would stand up in court.
Under their nondisclosure agreements with the FBI, the scientists directly involved in the analysis of the evidence could not reveal any information about their participation or results, so the media turned to other knowledgeable experts who could go on the record.
But in 2001, few active researchers had firsthand experience with weaponized spores, because the offensive development of biological weapons in the U.S. was discontinued in 1969. Early in the anthrax investigation, some media sources reported that the spores had been weaponized, but others said that the spores did not contain any additives that would make them more infectious. The conflicting media reports created confusion, says James Burans of the National Bioforensic Analysis Center (NBFAC). “I think, in essence, there were a host of declarations made by laboratories who were involved in initial aspects of the analysis that were, perhaps, not necessarily founded upon experience.”
The scientific analyses
In light of Ivins’s death and the FBI’s subsequent identification of him as the perpetrator of the attacks, the scientific community has expressed curiosity about the process used to analyze the spore powders and the conclusions that the FBI drew from the results (Table 1). Six of the many outside experts involved in the investigation were recently released from their nondisclosure agreements by the FBI when the Bureau held a science briefing on the anthrax investigation (4). The FBI officially revealed some of the scientific analyses used to help determine the type(s) of bacteria in the powders, when the powders were made, whether any postprocessing additives were present, and where the spores originated.
Before becoming the subject of a criminal investigation, the anthrax infections were a public-health crisis and were initially handled by the CDC. First, researchers at laboratories in the CDC’s Laboratory Response Network used standard microbiological techniques to determine the species of the bacterial spores. Initial tests included staining and observing the properties of a culture grown from the sample. Then, methods such as lysis by ?-phage, direct and time-resolved fluorescence assays, antimicrobial susceptibility testing, and PCR were performed to confirm the identity of the bacteria as B. anthracis (5). The tests also confirmed that the powder in the first batch of letters contained B. subtilis contamination, according to a search warrant affidavit—one of the court documents the FBI recently made public (6).
To identify the particular strain of B. anthracis, researchers performed multiple-locus variable-number tandem repeat analysis (MLVA) and determined that the spores were from the Ames strain (7). At the time of the mailings, scientists at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) were almost finished compiling the first reference sequence for the genome of B. anthracis Ames, so they quickly submitted a proposal to NSF that allowed them to sequence the spores from the letters in collaboration with Paul Keim’s group at Northern Arizona University. A comparison of the two genomes revealed 60 new lineage-specific markers such as single-nucleotide polymorphisms, insertions, deletions, and tandem repeats (8).
Researchers also wanted to carbon-date the bacteria. Detecting 14C signatures with accelerator MS can help investigators determine the relative age (± 2 years) of bacteria and whether or not bacterial samples are from the same culture (9). Burans says that the carbon dating showed that the spores were produced within a “contemporary time frame.” Theoretically, spores shown to be from the distant past might have led investigators to believe that the spores originated in another country’s bioweapons program, he says.
One point of confusion was the “reengineering” of the powders. Although FBI researchers tried to replicate the spore preparation, they were unable to make an equivalent powder. Several experts have pointed out that two significantly different batches of spores were recovered in the investigation—even the perpetrator did not reproduce the same powder.
The potential weaponization of the spores was another ambiguity. Spores that are weaponized have been made more lethal via antibiotic resistance and/or additives such as silicon dioxide that reduce clumping and increase volatility. Although some people originally stated that the spores were weaponized with silicon dioxide (10–13), the FBI has reiterated that this was not the case. Vahid Majidi of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate says that “no intentional additives [were] combined with the Bacillus anthracis spores to make them any more dispersible.” Burans witnessed the Leahy letter being opened. “It just had the consistency of a fine powder—nothing unique or distinguishing,” he says.
In his 2006 Applied and Environmental Microbiology paper, Douglas Beecher of the FBI Laboratory attempted to clear up what had become a “widely circulated misconception” that the samples were weaponized with additives (14). “Individuals familiar with the compositions of the powders in the letters have indicated that they were comprised simply of spores purified to different extents,” he wrote, and he cited a news article in Science (15). Some researchers questioned why he cited a news story rather than scientific results to back up his assertion (16).
Beecher recently explained why he wrote the statement the way that he did. “While I knew the actual characteristics of the powders, I obviously could not cite any publications, because there were none,” says Beecher. “I also felt that I could not simply cite ‘unpublished data’ since the data were not mine, and the use of ‘personal communication’ was out because of nondisclosure agreements.” He says he was hoping to steer readers to comments made in 2002 by then-director of the FBI Laboratory Dwight Adams about the presence of silicon in the spore coat being a natural occurrence. Although the search warrant affidavit stated that the silicon signature seen in the powders from all four letters had never been observed in B. anthracis, silicon had been detected in other types of Bacillus bacteria (17–19).
At the FBI’s recent science briefing, the agency revealed that materials scientist Joseph Michael of Sandia National Laboratories and his colleagues had conclusively localized the silicon within the spores and not on the surface. The group used hyperspectral imaging in combination with SEM, transmission electron microscopy (TEM), scanning TEM (STEM), and energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX) to analyze the spores.
“It wasn’t until we actually got ultramicrotome sections in the transmission electron microscope and the scanning transmission electron microscope [that] we could localize the silicon and the oxygen signal to the spore coat, not the exosporium,” says Michael. “So it was on the inside of the spore, not the outside of the spore.” These results confirmed the natural incorporation of silicon during spore formation rather than weaponization with a silicon dioxide additive. (Figure 2 shows the relative locations of the coats and exosporium of B. anthracis.) After presenting their techniques and results at a conference in 2005, the members of the Sandia group recently published details of their SEM-EDX, STEM-EDX, and TOF-secondary ion MS (SIMS) analyses of B. thuringiensis israelensis, a surrogate for B. anthracis (20).
Fortuitously, researchers also noticed that some of the bacterial colonies grown from the spores looked different. “It was noteworthy that the anthrax powders that were in the letters had discernible numbers of phenotypic variants, and this was unusual for anthrax, and, in particular, unusual for Ames,” says Christian Hassell of the FBI Laboratory.
Researchers at institutions including TIGR and Northern Arizona University sequenced several of these phenotypic variants. After developing PCR-based assays to detect four significant insertion or deletion mutations, the team tested the 1070 samples of B. anthracis Ames that had been collected from laboratories around the world. According to the FBI, some of the samples had one or two of the characteristic mutations, but only 8 out of the 1070 samples were positive for all four mutations. And all eight of them could be traced via forensic, investigative, or intelligence information back to a stock of bacteria at USAMRIID called RMR-1029.
RMR-1029 is a collection of multiple production runs of B. anthracis Ames from USAMRIID as well as the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground; it was created because researchers at USAMRIID needed a large pool of spores with which to conduct their experiments on the anthrax vaccine. “It’s important to build a large enough spore stock so that you don’t have to go back and reproduce it, because when you do it, you might end up with different substrains and, hence, not be able to compare the results of your experiments,” explains Keim. “So I think the presence of such a stock is not a surprise.”
The FBI says that some of the analyses have already resulted in peer-reviewed publications (included in Table 2), and more are forthcoming. But in the end, the scientific analyses could directly identify only the source of the spores, not the perpetrator. Although the name of the sole suspect has been released, the case has not yet been closed.
Whither microbial forensics?
“Very rarely does science alone provide sufficient evidence for a successful prosecution,” says Murch. But that does not mean that microbial forensics is not effective. A lot of consideration and planning have gone into the creation of the new field to make sure that the most appropriate analytical methods are used to provide investigators with useful, well-validated information (21, 22). As a result of the anthrax investigation, new entities such as SWGMGF, NBFAC, and the FBI’s Chemical Biological Sciences Unit have been formed. Burans stresses that the nation’s expanded capacity for microbial forensics includes dedicated labs, staff, procedures, and equipment that have received ISO 17025 accreditation, the most rigorous international standard of testing and calibration by which a laboratory can be assessed. “That’s a huge difference from where we were in 2001 to where we are now,” he says.
Undoubtedly, the investigation of the anthrax mailings put the field of microbial forensics on the map. “Today, all these years later, law enforcement and public health work reasonably well together in this arena,” says Murch. “But it all started with just an idea that probably came along about the right time—maybe a little bit ahead of its time.” —CHRISTINE PIGGEE
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September 19, 2008
Seven Years Later: Electrons Unlocked Post-9/11 Anthrax Mail Mystery
A key part of the FBI's early investigation was finding whether the germ that killed five people in late 2001 was weaponized. Although they found the answer, scientists had to keep mum until the agency completed its inquiry
By Larry Greenemeier
When materials scientist Joseph Michael and his team at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., trained their high-powered electron microscope on anthrax spore samples the FBI had sent them in February 2002, they made two crucial discoveries: The first confirmed previous findings that the Bacillus anthracis spores mailed to U.S. Senate offices and various media outlets (shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks) contained silicon, a substance used to turn anthrax-causing spores into a biological weapon.
But it was Sandia's next discovery that marked a critical turning point in the feds's probe of the mysterious mailings, which killed five people, injured 17 and prompted thousands more who were potentially exposed to the deadly spores to take potent antibiotics—in particular, Ciprofloxacin (known to irritate the gastrointestinal tract and cause joint swelling). Using highly sensitive transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM), the researchers came to a startling realization: The silicon had grown organically inside the Bacillus anthracis samples, nothing had been added to weaponize the spores. "The silicon was not on the outside of the spore," says Michael, who headed up Sandia's investigation, "but rather incorporated on the inside."
It was this key information that helped the FBI to rule out the likelihood that a terrorist organization was behind the anthrax mailings and prompted the agency to turn its attention to U.S. government labs as the possible source of the anthrax. This move eventually led the agency to conclude that Bruce Ivins, a scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), a federal biodefense research laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., who initially assisted with the investigation, was the culprit. Ivins, 62, two months ago committed suicide as prosecutors prepared to charge him in connection with the mailings.
FBI Director Robert Mueller, III, this week told a House panel that he plans to commission the National Academy of Sciences to review evidence compiled by the agency's Amerithrax Task Force to erase any remaining doubts that the mailed anthrax came from Ivins's lab—and close a case that began seven years ago when a batch of letters containing Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes the disease anthrax, were sent to several news outlets, including the New York Post and NBC News. Although only the letters to the Post and NBC were discovered, the FBI concluded that contaminated letters were also responsible for anthrax infections at ABC News, CBS News and for the October 5, 2001, death of Robert Stevens, a photo editor for the National Enquirer publisher American Media, Inc., based in Boca Raton, Fla.
Anthrax infection begins within a week of exposure with a few days of fever, chills, chest heaviness, malaise and cough as the spores are absorbed by the lungs. Ultimately the bacteria produce toxins that damage the lungs and poison the blood, potentially sending the victim into septic shock that leads to organ failure and, in many cases, death.
By mid-October, spore-filled envelopes had also been discovered in the offices of former Sens. Tom Daschle (D–S.D.) and Patrick Leahy (D–Vt.), along with ominous messages, including: "You can not [sic] stop us. We have this anthrax" and "Are you afraid?" Buildings throughout Washington, D.C., including the Hart Senate Office Building, the main postal distribution facility and several offices of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration were shut down out of fear they had been contaminated. The feds tested 36 postal facilities in the D.C. area (including one where two postal workers died), finding spores at 15 of them. The Hart Building did not reopen until January 2002.
Investigating the Investigators
Congress has called for an investigation of the FBI's work on the anthrax case. One major misstep was revealed Tuesday, when the Los Angeles Times reported that Peter Jahrling, a former senior civilian scientist at the Fort Detrick facility, admitted that he had made an "honest mistake" seven years ago when he told top FBI brass that he believed anthrax spores he examined had been altered to make them more deadly.
Worried that a terrorist organization or a country sympathetic to al Qaeda might be involved, the U.S. Department of Justice in late 2001 commissioned a series of tests to determine whether the spores had been coated with a substance that would prevent them from clumping together, enabling them to hang in the air longer than they would normally, thereby increasing the chance of inhalation.
Early in the investigation, the FBI appeared to endorse the view that only a sophisticated lab could have produced the material used in the Senate attack, investigative journalist Gary Matsumoto wrote in the November 2003 issue of Science. In fact, in May 2002 16 scientists and physicians working for the government published a paper in JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association, describing the Senate anthrax powder as "weapons-grade" and exceptional: "high spore concentration, uniform particle size, low electrostatic charge, treated to reduce clumping."
In addition, the August/October 2002 newsletter from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), a research organization that the government often turns to for help analyzing potentially pathological substances, reported that a mass spectrometry analysis found silica—a staple in professionally engineered germ warfare powders for decades—in the powder sent to Sen. Daschle. The silica was believed to be there to prevent the anthrax spores from aggregating and make it easier for them to disperse into the air, according to Matsumoto, who added that any such weaponized form of anthrax is "more than 500 times more lethal than untreated spores."
Finding the Right Technology
By the time the Sandia researchers began their work in February 2002, "we had heard just like everyone else that the spores had been weaponized," says Michael, who had proposed a study of the elemental composition of any materials found growing outside the spores.
The first step was to find the silicon. Michael was aware that FBI researchers had analyzed the samples with both scanning electron microscopy (SEM), which scans surfaces with a high-energy beam of electrons, and with energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDS), which analyzes x-rays emitted by a substance after it is hit with charged electrons. But at that point, no one had studied them with a scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM), which transmits a focused beam of electrons through a small part of a specimen to form an image and could provide compositional information by examining the spores a few nanometers (one nanometer is 40 millionths of an inch) at a time, a higher resolution than SEM could provide, Michael says.
This enabled Sandia researchers to not only detect the presence of a foreign substance such as silica, but also to determine its location on or inside the spore. "In the FBI's mind, it was important not only that trace amount of elements were present, but also…[to determine]…where those elements were located in the sample through microanalysis," says Paul Kotula, a Sandia material scientist who studied the samples with Michael.
The researchers could find no way that the silica could be placed inside the spore without leaving a residue on the spore's outermost layer. (They found none.) Instead, the researchers determined that the silica formed inside the spore naturally. After only a month examining the anthrax samples in March 2002, Michael and his team were convinced, contrary to other reports, that the anthrax used in the attacks had not been weaponized.
Some of the samples they worked with came from the USAMRIID, which employed both Ivins and Steve Hatfill, another government scientist the FBI pursued but who ultimately turned out to be a dead end. (He was vindicated in June when he won a $5.8 million settlement in June against the Justice Department.) According to Michael, neither he nor other Sandia researchers ever worked directly with any of the USAMRIID researchers, instead obtaining all of the samples they tested through the FBI. Nor did Sandia work with live anthrax; all of the samples they received were first inactivated or irradiated by the FBI.
Michael says he was surprised to hear that the feds were closing in on a scientist at USAMRIID (Ivins, who died of a prescription-drug overdose), but that he was "not surprised the person who did this had knowledge of microbiology."
In the end, it was at Sandia where scientists cracked the mystery behind the mailings. The problem was, says Michael, that he had to keep mum on his findings—which might have calmed a jittery nation still reeling from the 9/11 terror attack—until the FBI wrapped up its investigation. "That's been one of the really frustrating things for Paul and me," Michael says. "We knew the answers but couldn't tell anyone"
Committee for Freedom of the Press
Washington, D.C. · September 19, 2008 · Reporter's privilege
Responding to Hatfill, Locy presses court to decide her case
Former USA Today reporter Toni Locy urged the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington on Thursday not to throw out her case seeking a reporter’s privilege to keep her sources confidential.
Locy became embroiled in the legal battle after reporting about Steven Hatfill, the former Army scientist who was investigated in the 2001 anthrax attacks but whose name has since been cleared. When Locy refused to give up her confidential sources in Hatfill's ensuing Privacy Act suit against the government, the U.S. District Court in D.C. held her in contempt. She appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals.
Though Hatfill settled his underlying case with the government this summer for $5.8 million, Locy’s appeal of the contempt order has still been pending.
Last week, Hatfill filed a motion to dismiss Locy’s appeal, arguing that there’s no need to decide her case now because he has settled his case and Locy’s sources are no longer sought. Locy responded Thursday, asking the judges to keep her case on the docket.
In the court papers, Locy’s attorneys argued that even with Hatfill's settlement, Locy’s dispute over whether she has a privilege to keep her sources confidential still needs to be decided.
Hatfill told the court in his filing last week that once the case was dismissed he would seek attorney's fees from Locy. That Hatfill will continue to pursue Locy in litigation over fees is one reason Locy’s case is still alive and should be decided, her attorneys argued.
“A significant financial dispute persists between Hatfill and Locy, despite Hatfill’s settlement with the government,” the attorneys wrote in Locy’s motion. “The propriety of Locy’s assertion of privilege should be determined by this court on appeal.”
Locy’s attorneys also responded to Hatfill’s argument that Locy has not been harmed by the contempt order because she hasn’t yet had to pay any of the daily contempt fines the district judge slapped her with.
“The sanction by the District Court can easily be perceived as a condemnation of Locy by a federal court, which carries with it the potential adversely to affect Locy’s life and career,” the attorneys wrote in her court papers.
Lastly, Locy argued that if the Court of Appeals does dismiss her case, it must vacate the contempt order.
— Samantha Fredrickson, 1:15 pm
doubts FBI in anthrax case; scientist admits error
Robert Roos * News Editor
Sep 19, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a target of the 2001 anthrax attacks, said this week that he disbelieves the FBI's conclusion that Dr. Bruce E. Ivins was the sole perpetrator of the attacks, according to news services.
Meanwhile, Peter B. Jahrling, a leading government biodefense scientist, told the Los Angeles Times this week that he had erred in 2001 when he told Bush administration officials that the anthrax used in the mail attacks probably had been modified to make it more lethal.
Senator doubts FBI chief
Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, was one of two senators, in addition to several media offices, that received envelopes containing anthrax powder in the fall of 2001. The attacks killed 5 people and sickened 17 others.
Ivins, a microbiologist who worked at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Frederick, Md., died of an apparent suicide on Jul 29 as the FBI was preparing to charge him in the case. On Aug 6 the FBI announced its conclusion that Ivins was the sole perpetrator and released a number of documents, mostly search warrant affidavits.
Leahy said at the hearing, "If he is the one who sent the letter, I do not believe in any way, shape, or manner that he is the only person involved in this attack on Congress and the American people," the AP reported.
"I believe there are others who could be charged with murder," Leahy added. "I just want you to know how I feel about it as someone who was aimed at in the attack."
Mueller replied, "I understand that concern," but he defended the FBI's view that Ivins was the only culprit, the AP reported.
"We have looked at every lead and followed every lead to determine whether anybody else was involved, and we will continue to do so," Mueller said.
'An honest mistake'
A Sep 17 Los Angeles Times report said Jahrling, the senior civilian scientist at USAMRIID in 2001, had studied the anthrax used in the attacks, work that was detailed in a 2002 book by Richard Preston. Using an electron microscope, Jahrling detected what he believed to be signs that silicon had been added to the material, the story said.
Jahrling reported this to his superiors and was subsequently summoned to the White House to brief top administration officials, the Times reported.
But in response to e-mailed questions from the newspaper, Jahrling said this week that he had been wrong.
"I believe I made an honest mistake," he told the Times, adding that he had been "overly impressed" by what he saw under the miscroscope.
A virologist, Jahrling also said, "I never should have ventured into this area," referring to the study of anthrax, a type of bacteria, the story said.
He was careful at the time not to implicate Iraq or any other government in the attacks, but others used his analysis to allege that the silicon suggested possible involvement by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the Times reported.
As reported previously, FBI scientists and outside experts hired by the FBI to analyze the anthrax used in the mailings announced Aug 18 that they had found silicon, but they believed it occurred naturally and was not added to the material.
Lawmakers want role in review
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing a day earlier, Mueller had said he would ask the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to review the FBI's work on the case. In view of skepticism about the FBI findings, a number of scientists and biodefense experts have called for a review by independent experts.
The AP report said the NAS review will be handled by private scientists who were not involved in the FBI investigation and that it could take up to 18 months. Mueller told the Senate committee he would consider allowing it to suggest scientists, but cautioned that the NAS and the Justice Department would probably have to go along.
An NAS spokesman confirmed this to the AP. The spokesman, Wlliam Kearney, said the organization "would welcome input on potential committee members" from Congress, federal agencies, the scientific community, and the public. But all the nominees would have to be approved by the NAS president, he said.
Another senator at the hearing, Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said a congressional investigation of the FBI's anthrax probe will probably be necessary, according to a Sep 17 report by Congress Daily.
Grassley said the NAS review panel probably will not be allowed to review classified evidence in the case, creating a need for a congressional investigation, the report said.
Overcoming anthrax doubts
Panel that will review government investigation of attacks must be independent
Sat, Sep 20, 2008 (2:10 a.m.)
The FBI, the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., and postal inspectors did not convince everyone last month when they laid out their case against the late Army microbiologist Dr. Bruce Ivins.
Ivins, they said with surety, committed the anthrax attacks that took place in September and October 2001. The attacks killed five people, injured 17 and spread fear that terrorists responsible for 9/11 were branching out into biological warfare.
But not everyone was sold on the federal officials’ presentation, which followed Ivins’ apparent suicide July 29 as federal agents were finalizing their largely circumstantial case against him.
Skeptics include members of Congress, who are still expressing concern that the case, which for years focused on another Army microbiologist, has not been fully solved.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told FBI Director Robert Mueller at a hearing Wednesday that he believes the anthrax attacks involved more than one person.
One of the anthrax letters was addressed to Leahy. That letter, which never reached the senator, was the likely source of an anthrax infection contracted by a government mail worker.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee who today is its ranking Republican, also expressed doubts. He was rebuffed when he demanded that some of the scientists who will do an independent review of the Ivins investigation be selected by the Judiciary Committee.
Mueller had announced Tuesday that, partly owing to pressure from members of Congress, he will ask the National Academy of Sciences to conduct the review.
Responding to Specter, Mueller said he would consider his request, but the academy and the Justice Department would likely have to agree to it.
Specter responded: “What’s there to consider, Director Mueller? We’d like ... to name some people there to be sure of its objectivity. We’re not interlopers. This is an oversight matter.”
Specter is right. To help prevent doubt from lingering forever, the public — and Congress — must be assured the review panel is indeed independent.
Ivins lost lab access in March after anthrax spill
Originally published September 24, 2008
By Justin M. Palk
Fort Detrick microbiologist Bruce Ivins was placed on administrative duty in March after he spilled a small amount of anthrax on himself, then walked home to wash and dry his clothes before telling his supervisors about the spill.
Details of the spill are contained in a potential hazard exposure incident report The Frederick News-Post obtained from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases under the Freedom of Information Act.
The report shows that on March 17, Ivins spilled several milliliters of a veterinary vaccine strain of anthrax on his pants while preparing samples of the spores in a biological safety cabinet in a biosecurity level-2 lab.
According to the report, Ivins cleaned up the spill, walked to his Military Road home across the street from Fort Detrick, washed his pants with hot water and bleach then dried them before returning to work and informing his supervisor of the spill.
The anthrax strain Ivins spilled was the Sterne strain, a live strain used in vaccinating animals, not the Ames strain, which was used in the 2001 anthrax mailings.
Ivins died on July 29, after apparently committing suicide.
In August, the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation named Ivins as their sole suspect in the anthrax mailings, though they have said they have no hard evidence linking him to the crime.
Ivins' attorney has maintained his innocence, and several members of Congress have questioned the Justice Department's assertion that Ivins committed the crime.
In the section of the report reserved for suggestions on avoiding similar hazards, Ivins wrote "Don't clean up technicians' messes in BSC."
The supervisor's accident analysis reads, in part: "Although the sample was a vaccine strain of B. anthracis, it is our opinion that Dr. Ivins should have reported this spill, although minor, immediately to the suite supervisor and his supervisor."
In response to the spill, Ivins' was to be counseled regarding safety issues, and his duties were to be curtailed.
"Dr. Ivins will be assigned to administrative duties immediately and for the indefinite future. His badge access has been deactivated for laboratory areas of USAMRIID," the report states.
Ivins had already been barred from the high-containment labs where select agents were handled, said Caree Vander Linden, USAMRIID's spokeswoman. Following this incident, Ivins lost access to the rest of USAMRIID's labs.
September 24, 2008
‘New York Times’ Editors Are No Crime-Solvers
Gregory D. Lee
A recent New York Times editorial criticizing the Federal Bureau of Investigation about its seven-year probe into the mailing of anthrax-laden letters to members of Congress, prominent media figures and others is a direct attempt to plant doubt in the minds of its diminishing readership.
The editorial read, “None of the investigators’ major assertions, however, have been tested in cross-examination . . .” Sorry, that test is moot when the suspect kills himself. Dr. Bruce Ivins, a mentally unbalanced scientist at the U.S. Army’s laboratories at Fort Detrick, Maryland, killed himself once he was informed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office that he was the subject of a federal grand jury inquiry.
The Times editorial also stated that “. . . there is no direct evidence of his guilt. No witnesses saw him pouring powdered anthrax into envelopes. No Anthrax spores in his house or cars. No confession to a colleague or in a suicide note. No physical evidence tying him to the site in Princeton, New Jersey from which the letters are believed to have been mailed.” I guess if CNN wasn’t there to film the event, then it didn’t happen.
Why would a criminal allow someone to witness his criminal act? Would you bring dangerous anthrax spores inside your house or car if you had safe access to them at work? How much physical evidence can there be if you wore gloves to drop an envelope into a mail box within a day’s driving distance of your home? I think the paper’s editorial staff has been watching too many episodes of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Watching such TV shows gives you just enough knowledge to be dangerous. “Hey, FBI, where’s his DNA, huh?”
One of the first things you learn as a criminal investigator is to not make a mystery out of something that isn’t. The evidence speaks for itself, and one piece of evidence is rarely enough to convince anyone, especially investigators, that a particular person committed a crime. It’s always the totality of the evidence that will prove guilt. FBI agents looked for a suspect who had the three main ingredients necessary to commit the crime – opportunity, knowledge and motive. Without the first two, it is impossible to have committed the crime. Motive can enhance the evidence, but it is not necessary to prove in a court of law. A businessman who has a great motive to murder his business partner for ruining the business cannot be a suspect if he was in jail for drunk driving when his partner was killed.
Another factor the Times discounts is that, unlike a conspiracy, in which two or more people act in concert to reach their goal, no one but the culprit knows who committed the crime. When co-conspirators or accomplices do not exist, the investigation becomes all the more difficult to crack because one suspect cannot be played against the other, and there are fewer people to make a mistake.
The FBI solved this case by utilizing good old (and new) fashioned police work. Agents looked for someone who had the opportunity to commit the crime, and the knowledge to pull it off. When a killer uses a highly toxic biological agent as a weapon, he must know what he is doing to avoid accidentally killing himself in the process – thus the focus on the Fort Detrick laboratory. The FBI showed that Dr. Ivins had acquired the equipment necessary to turn wet anthrax into dry spores for mailing. That’s what we call in the business a “clue.” And the FBI laboratory scientifically proved that a telltale genetic mutation in the anthrax that was mailed had the same mutations present in a flask maintained by him at his workplace. That’s called direct physical evidence, which connects Dr. Ivins to the murder weapon that the Times said didn’t exist.
Sounds like pretty good police work to me. I guess without a videotape of the late Dr. Ivins pouring the anthrax spores into an envelope, and a written confession using an FBI agent’s blood as ink, the Times will never be satisfied that he committed the crime. But you must consider the source of the criticism. The Times wouldn’t support his death penalty either if he was convicted.
The FBI did a phenomenally thorough job. The individual agents and criminalists involved should be commended by Congress, not probed by it for the adequacy of the investigation, as the Times editorial has called for.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Gregory D. Lee is a retired DEA Supervisory SpecialAgent. In 2001, as an army reserve officer, he served at the Pentagon's Army Operation's Center'sAnti-Terrorism Operations Intelligence Cell. He writes a weeklysyndicated columnforNorth Star Writers Groupand can be reached through his website:www.gregorydlee.com.
claimed he knew who sent anthrax
Unsealed documents indicate that the suspect was consumed with the criminal case closing in on him.
By David Willman
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
11:49 PM PDT, September 24, 2008
WASHINGTON — On Sept. 7, 2007, as investigators were building the case against him for the deadly anthrax mailings, Army scientist Bruce E. Ivins sent himself an excited e-mail titled, "Finally! I know Who mailed the anthrax!"
The e-mail -- along with other correspondence showing that Ivins more recently mused about how to blind or kill a reality TV participant -- was among previously confidential investigative documents unsealed on Wednesday by a federal judge.
Ivins, 62, a microbiologist who specialized in handling anthrax at the Army's biological warfare research facility at Ft. Detrick, Md., died July 29 in a suicide. Justice Department prosecutors were preparing to charge him in connection with the anthrax mailings, which in 2001 killed five people and sickened or injured 17 others.
The unsealed documents had originally been submitted by investigators last month to win the judge's permission to search seven e-mail accounts that Ivins had maintained. Federal officials declined to comment on the newly unsealed e-mails, which had remained under wraps while investigators combed through Ivins' correspondence.
At face value, the new e-mails reinforce the view that Ivins was consumed with the criminal case closing in on him and, in the final months of his life, behaved in a way that suggested madness.
By early September 2007, the FBI had determined with the help of outside experts that the anthrax used in the mailings originated in a flask of material maintained by Ivins at Ft. Detrick.
But the bureau had not yet done all of the investigative work necessary to exclude as suspects colleagues of Ivins at Ft. Detrick and scientists elsewhere who also had worked with or had access to the material, labeled RMR 1029.
It was against that backdrop that Ivins, at 5:49 p.m. EDT on Sept. 7, sent the e-mail to himself, proclaiming that he had solved the case. Sent from one of the addresses he had registered, KingBadger7@aol .com, Ivins wrote:
"Yes! Yes! Yes!!!!!!! I finally know who mailed the anthrax letters in the fall of 2001. I've pieced it together! Now we can finally get all of this over and done with. I have to check a couple of things to make sure ... absolutely sure . . . and then I can turn over the info. I'll probably turn it over to my lawyer, and then he'll turn info over to the authorities."
Ivins added -- in an apparent reference to his colleagues at Ft. Detrick:
"I'm not looking forward to everybody getting dragged through the mud, but at least it will all be over. Finally! I should have it TOTALLY nailed down within the month. I should have been a private eye!!!!"
Paul F. Kemp, a lawyer whom Ivins had hired to represent him, said that the e-mail "was a note with himself to discuss with me certain information that he wanted to pass on to the FBI. He did, and I passed it on. It was an attempt to say who might have had access to the beaker" containing the RMR 1029 anthrax.
Officials from the FBI and the Justice Department have said that their investigation determined that Ivins, alone, perpetrated the anthrax mailings. Kemp has said that he would have won Ivins' acquittal had the case gone to trial.
Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) introduced legislation Wednesday calling for a "9/11-style" commission to investigate the anthrax mailings.
Holt does not have any co-sponsors for his bill, an aide said.
As for the e-mails in which Ivins discussed the TV participant, federal officials said they brought these to the attention of the judge because they wanted to search for any evidence that Ivins had targeted witnesses in the anthrax case, according to the court documents. In the e-mails, Ivins focused on Kathryn Price, who appeared in 2001 in episodes of "The Mole," an ABC-TV reality series.
The FBI, after searching Ivins' trash outside his home, found mentions of addresses that enabled investigators to trace to him this e-mail, discussing how another participant in the "The Mole" could have detected Price's arranged role as the show's spoiler from within.
"He should have taken the hatchet and brought it down hard and sharply across her neck, severing her carotid artery and jugular vein," Ivins wrote in early July. "Then when she hits the ground, he completes the task on the other side of the neck, severing her trachea. . . . I personally would have paid big money to have do[n]e it myself."
Ivins also wrote, "The least someone could do would be to take a sharp ballpoint pin or letter opener and put her eyes out, to complete the task of making her a true mole!"
Times researcher Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
did not analyze anthrax from biodefense lab
By Dan Vergano and Steve Sternberg
September 24, 2008
The FBI never examined anthrax samples from the 2001 contamination of a biodefense lab that was covered up by their lead suspect in the anthrax mailings — a decision that one of the FBI's leading anthrax experts calls "weird."
Researcher Bruce Ivins in 2002 confessed to cleaning up the office contamination without telling anyone during an Army investigation at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. Ivins became a suspect in 2005 in the mailings that killed five and sickened 17.
FBI investigators have not yet analyzed the genetic fingerprints of 25 anthrax samples supplied from the lab contamination investigation, says Vahid Majidi of the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate.
"They're still in my lab," says Paul Keim, a microbiologist at Northern Arizona University. Keim called the FBI's decision not to examine the contamination samples "weird" given the intensity of investigators' focus on biodefense researchers, which included polygraphs of Army institute researchers.
Keim, until June, retained duplicates of the FBI's repository of 1,070 anthrax samples collected from researchers worldwide after the mailbox attacks. Genetic fingerprints of those repository samples eliminated suspects other than Ivins by 2007, says FBI lab director Chris Hassell.
The investigation into the 2001 anthrax mailings has drawn harsh reviews from critics in recent Senate and House hearings, such as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who questioned whether one person could have carried out the attacks. The Justice Department publicly named Ivins, 62, as their lead suspect in the attacks in August, days after his suicide.
Ivins' attorney, Paul Kemp, says his client was innocent and suggested many researchers had access to the anthrax identified by genetic fingerprints.
Before landing on the FBI's radar, Ivins emerged as the central figure in the separate investigation of anthrax contamination at Fort Detrick, where he confessed to cleaning up spilled anthrax in his office without telling superiors. "I had no desire to cry wolf," Ivins told an Army investigator at the time. The Army's investigation found samples of the type of anthrax used in the letter attacks on Ivins' desk and elsewhere in his office, according to a report May 9, 2002.
"Why didn't (the FBI) analyze it? One presumes this was pretty relevant evidence," says biodefense analyst Michael Stebbins of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., who was not part of the investigation. "It raises questions about systematic errors in the FBI investigation."
Majidi, an FBI scientist involved in the investigation, says the bureau viewed the 2002 contamination investigation as an Army matter. As a result, he says, the FBI never submitted samples from Ivins' office for the detailed genetic analysis that later tied a flask in his laboratory to the anthrax used in the attacks.
"I don't know" why the FBI never analyzed the 2002 anthrax in Ivins' office, says Debbie Weierman of the FBI's Washington Field Office. "Suspicion on him was immense, if you look at this in hindsight."
For Keim, the revelation in August that the FBI had shifted its focus to Ivins cast the omission in a new light. In 2002, he says, "I got the samples and thought, 'What a sloppy place.' But I'm starting to think Bruce was taking anthrax out of his lab and then covering his tracks."
online 29 September 2008
Silicon highlights remaining questions over anthrax investigation
Did Bruce Ivins weaponize deadly spores?
by Amber Dance
Nearly two months after the suicide of scientist Bruce Ivins — whom the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) claims was solely responsible for mailing a series of letters laced with anthrax in 2001 — questions still remain over whether he was actually able to produce those anthrax spores.
Scientists initially believed that the spores had been weaponized – modified to make them disperse more easily and penetrate tissue more deeply.
But one of the scientists who
first drew that conclusion has now changed his mind. Nature finds out why
he thinks he got it wrong; why it matters for those trying to tie up the
Ivins case; and what it means for the chances of a similar attack happening
in the future.
The powder was described as being 'weightless' and 'smoke-like'. One of the first scientists to work on it was Peter Jahrling, then a virologist at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Maryland. He recalls that he couldn't even weigh out a fraction of it: "It literally jumped off the spatula and was repelled by the weighing paper; it was like nothing I had ever seen before." Under an electron microscope, Jahrling and a colleague observed black dots that they speculated might be particles of silicon dioxide, or silica. Materials analysis by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington DC confirmed that the sample contained both silicon and oxygen, and many assumed that the elements were combined as silica.
Why would a silicon compound increase the spores' virulence?
Spores are sticky, and tend to clump together. One method of weaponizing the spores is to coat them with something that interrupts the weak van der Waals interactions between each particle. Tiny particles of silica would do the trick, allowing the spores to float individually through the air. Silicon and oxygen can also form polymers called siloxanes, and such compounds are used to make inhaled medicines more dispersible.
Why have Jahrling and others changed their minds?
In 2002, as part of the FBI investigation, scientists at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, used electron microscopy to analyse the composition of the spores. The results were finally made public last month. They found silicon and oxygen in the spore coat, but not on the most external layer, the exosporium. The location of the silicon, the FBI says, suggests that it was incorporated naturally into the structures during growth, not added as a final coating to weaponize them.
But other experts disagree with the conclusion. "I don't think the guys at Sandia understand that the exosporium is not some kind of brick wall," says Stuart Jacobsen, a research chemist based in Dallas, Texas, who is an expert on the preparation and properties of fine-grained powders and has followed the case closely. "It's more like a chain-link fence." Decades ago, a study found that the exosporium is porous to various small molecules1.
How might silicon get into the spores naturally?
The FBI points to experiments from 1990, in which scientists found some silicon in naturally grown spores2. Another hypothesis, suggested by Serguei Popov, an anthrax researcher at George Mason University, Manassas, Virginia, is that the bacteria picked up a bit of silicon from anti-foaming agents while they were being grown. To produce the large number of spores in the contaminated envelope analysed - one trillion spores per gram — Popov infers that the perpetrator must have had to grow a large-scale bacterial culture in a fermenter, where silicon-containing anti-foaming agents are commonly used.
But this would add a relatively low concentration of silicon to the spores. Deliberate weaponization would probably leave much higher amounts. At a House of Representatives Judiciary Committee hearing on 16 September, Representative Jerrold Nadler (Dem.) quizzed FBI director Robert Mueller about the quantity of silicon present in the spores. Mueller did not answer the question.
Why does this matter to the investigation?
Many scientists involved in the investigation still wonder: could Bruce Ivins, in a few late-night lab sessions and in secret, have engineered the powder in the letters? An answer to this would help to determine whether Ivins was guilty, and if so, whether he needed assistance from other parties. It would also help defence experts to assess how easy it would be for others to mount a similar attack in the future.
"I don't think it would be horrendously difficult to make stuff that was moderate quality," Peter Setlow, a microbiologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, told Nature in August. But Jacobsen and others say the fact that the FBI has apparently failed to produce a powder to match the attack material suggests it must be very difficult to make. That might put it beyond Ivins's reach.
If the spores could not be made by a single scientist in a few evenings, that would suggest the spores came from elsewhere – possibly from a state-organized programme.
What happens next?
"The truth will come out when all the data are revealed," Jahrling says. But there is no indication from the FBI that more data are forthcoming anytime soon. Until they are provided, there will continue to be suspicions and speculations about the silicon in the spores.
on Tuesday, September 30, 2008
FBI won't release details on anthrax suspect
By Marisa Taylor
WASHINGTON — The FBI is declining to release at least 15,000 pages of documents related to the now deceased prime suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks despite lingering suspicions that the bureau has accused the wrong man.
In August, the FBI and Justice Department identified Bruce Ivins, a former microbiologist at the U.S. Army's biological weapons research center at Fort Detrick, Md., as the "only person involved" in the attacks that killed five people and terrorized the nation.
But David M. Hardy, the section chief of the FBI's records management division, notified McClatchy that his office could not immediately release the records because there were "investigative leads still open" and the FBI needed to withhold the documents in order to protect confidential sources, privacy, law enforcement techniques and a suspect's right to a fair trial.
McClatchy had filed a request for the documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act, which generally permits the release of records of a dead person.
Ivins committed suicide in July.
In a letter received by McClatchy Tuesday, Hardy said the FBI has identified a "significant number" of documents related to Ivins that have not yet been released and is still searching for other relevant records.
The investigation, known as Amerithrax, is not officially closed. But when it is, Hardy said, the FBI will release documents on a "rolling basis as soon as practicable." So far, the FBI has received eight requests for records related to Ivins.
"Although the FBI cannot predict with absolute certainty when the Amerithrax investigation will be formally closed, we can assure you that the FBI has already begun to make initial preparations," he said.
Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said she was not surprised by the decision because open records exemptions give the FBI broad latitude to cite the need to protect law enforcement efforts.
"There's virtually no chance of getting FBI records in this case until they decide to close it," she said. "This is a situation where it's probably going to be years before we figure out what they've got."
David A. Schulz, an attorney who's represented media in open records lawsuits, agreed the bureau had that prerogative under the law, but said it seemed "a bit of a stretch" for them to be invoking that exemption because they have publicly stated they have solved the crime.
The Justice Department has released hundreds of pages of court records and detailed a trail of circumstantial evidence against Ivins, including his access to anthrax with genetic mutations that matched the DNA of the spores that were mailed in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The government identified Ivins as the sole culprit a week after his suicide and a month after the government paid another former Fort Detrick scientist almost $6 million for wrongly implicating him for years.
However, some experts have continued to question the bureau's evidence and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, whose office received some of the anthrax-laced letters, recently said he did not believe Ivins acted alone.
In an attempt to bolster confidence in the bureau's handling of the case, FBI Director Robert Mueller announced recently that a panel of independent scientists would review the FBI's DNA analysis of the anthrax spores.
Given widespread skepticism, open records advocates said the FBI should move more quickly to release additional records.
"The FBI is asking us to trust them that they got the person responsible, but they're not releasing all the evidence that would reassure us that this is the case," said Jane Kirtley, an open records expert at the University of Minnesota. "I would argue that as a matter of policy they should be releasing much more to make their case."
FBI outlines scope of anthrax study
Originally published October 02, 2008
Doctor, scientist and blogger Meryl Nass has obtained a copy of the FBI's Sept. 15 letter to the National Academy of Sciences, outlining the proposed scope of an independent study of scientific questions related to the anthrax investigation.
Several of the 15 questions focus on the science investigators used to genetically link the anthrax in the 2001 mailings with a flask at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, including whether the techniques were valid, and what the odds are that those techniques could have incorrectly linked the anthrax in the mailings with that in the flask.
The FBI also asks the NAS to examine other issues, such as whether the powder in the mailings was weaponized, and whether anthrax powders produced by a "rudimentary methodology" pose an inhalation threat.
The letter asks the NAS to select panel members not associated with the FBI or its investigation, but notes that might be difficult given the number of scientists the FBI worked with on this case. The letter also suggests that it would be useful if some members of the panel have security clearances, as some of the research used in the investigation is classified as top secret.
Nass' anthrax investigation blog is at anthraxvaccine.blogspot.com. The FBI's letter to the NAS is available at merylnass.googlepages.com/FBINASrequestltrSep08.pdf.
The Times of Trenton
Pursue anthrax probe
Monday, October 06, 2008
To listen to the FBI, it solved the infamous case of the 2001 anthrax letters that left five people dead and sickened 17 others and terrorized a nation still reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The FBI tagged Bruce Ivins, a former microbiologist at the U.S. Army's biological weapons research center at Fort Detrick, Md., as the "only person involved" in sending out anthrax-laced letters, some of which were dropped off at a mailbox on Nassau Street in Princeton Borough and processed through the large postal facility on Route 130 in Hamilton.
Except for tying up some loose ends, the FBI is ready to close the books on the case it has dubbed "Amerithrax."
Not so fast, caution critics of the FBI's long and often bungled probe. There are still lots of nagging questions that need to be answered before anyone can stamp "CASE CLOSED" on this investigation.
That's why Rep. Rush Holt, D-Hopewell Township, is calling for a national commission to scrutinize the 2001 anthrax attacks. It would be modeled after the bipartisan 9/11 commission created in 2002 to investigate all aspects of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist strikes.
We wholeheartedly support Rep. Holt's initiative. Not only do we need to know who was responsible for the anthrax at tacks, but we need to have safeguards in place to prevent similar attacks in the future. All these areas would be explored by the anthrax commission.
Doubts linger over the thoroughness of the FBI investigation and whether other people were involved. For years, the FBI had the wrong man, bioweapons expert Steven Hatfill, as their primary suspect. An embarrassed government had to pay him $5.8 million in June to settle a lawsuit that accused the government of leaking information about him to the news media.
The FBI also has been criticized for the piecemeal release of information in its anthrax probe that has left significant gaps in the trail that led to Mr. Ivins and failed to explain how investigators ruled out at least 100 other people who, the bureau acknowledged, had access to the same anthrax strain that Mr. Ivins developed.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, one of the targets of the anthrax letters, is not convinced that Mr. Ivins acted alone. The Vermont Democrat bluntly told FBI Director Robert Muller in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month that, "I believe there are others involved, either as accessories before or accessories after the fact. I believe that there are others out there, I believe there are others who could be charged with murder."
With so much doubt and so many questions unanswered, we owe it to the American people to get to the bottom of this mess. And Rep. Holt's Anthrax Attacks Investigation Act of 2008 is a good way to accomplish that.
October 6, 2008
FBI call on NAS to study anthrax case
Science: The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has provided the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) with a list of 15 questions that it wants the academy to consider in its review of the scientific evidence in the FBI's case against Bruce Ivins, the Army microbiologist implicated in the anthrax letter attacks of 2001. Besides asking whether the genomic analysis carried out to trace the source of the anthrax was valid, the questions address aspects such as the source of silicon found in the spores and whether the attacker needed specialized equipment to grind the spores into an easily dispersible powder.
But even before the academy frames the scope of the study and seeks approval from its governing board, members of Congress and bioterrorism experts are voicing concerns that a purely scientific review won't counter skepticism that Ivins, working solo, was the perpetrator of the attacks. One expert calls the FBI's request "a nice little jujitsu move" to deflect attention from nonscientific questions about the investigation, such as how the FBI ruled out all the other individuals who had access to RMR-1029, the flask of anthrax under Ivins's control. Last week, those concerns prompted Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) to introduce legislation proposing a commission-- similar to the one that investigated the 11 September 2001 terrorist strikes--that would review all the evidence in the case.
White powder scares cost law enforcement time, money
By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY
Firefighters and federal agents have responded to more than 30,000 incidents involving suspicious powders, liquids or chemicals since 2001 in what authorities say is the terrifying legacy of the anthrax attacks after 9/11.
Postal service and law enforcement officials say thousands of the incidents are hoaxes involving white powder sent through the mail and thousands more are emergency calls to report powder found on countertops, in mailrooms and elsewhere.
"A single incident can warrant a huge response," says Billy Hayes of Washington, D.C.'s fire department. "It gets very expensive, not to mention the inconvenience."
There is no official count of the number of white powder calls in the seven years since letters poisoned with anthrax killed five people. But in just the past year, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service has responded to 2,893 incidents, many of which involved white powder, spokesman Douglas Bem says.
The FBI, which is called when a threatening note is found or when it otherwise appears a crime may have been committed, looked into more than 900 biological incidents from January 2007 to August 2008, "the majority of those incidents being white powder letters," spokesman Richard Kolko says.
So far this year, he says, "several dozen people" have been convicted under federal hoax and domestic terrorism laws. Among them: former nuclear engineer Michael Lee Braun, who was sentenced to more than four years in prison and ordered to pay more than $54,000 in fines and reimbursement for decontamination efforts, after sending dozens of threatening letters to government officials, journalists and businesses. Most of the letters contained white powder that he claimed was poison. It turned out to be baking soda.
"This is no joke and making these threats by mailing even harmless white powder can result in serious jail time for the offender," Kolko says.
None of the incidents since 2001 has involved anthrax or any substance nearly that dangerous.
But just in the past few weeks, white powder incidents have caused chaos in dozens of cities, including:
• In Providence, where a secretary in the state attorney general's office opened a piece of mail that contained white powder and a threatening note. The woman was taken to the hospital for decontamination, hazmat units and fire trucks responded and downtown traffic was tied up for nearly two hours, says Mike Healey, spokesman for Attorney General Patrick Lynch.
The State Police are investigating the letter, which authorities believe came from a prisoner at the state's Adult Correctional Institutions, Healey said. "We don't take it lightly."
• In Daytona Beach, Fla., where state Sen. Evelyn Lynn's office was closed for more than four hours after a worker opened a letter containing white powder.
The scare followed four similar incidents at the central Florida offices of U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney, a Republican. They're under investigation.
"This is a terrible thing for people to have to go through," said Lynn.
The response cost "easily thousands and thousands of dollars," she said. "It's very unfair to people, not only the money spent but … there is trauma afterwards."
• In West Jordan, Utah, near Salt Lake City, where workers at a Sportsmen's Warehouse were quarantined after being exposed to white powder while unloading a truck of goods from China.
The substance turned out to be a silicon powder used in shipping, but the response involved 25 members of the West Jordan Fire Department and an eight-person hazmat team.
"This was not only a huge cost but it took away from our (regular) service," says Assistant Chief Marc McElreath. "We were on the scene about five hours."
Authorities say they get calls that end up being everything from powdered milk spilled in an office kitchen to sand in an invitation to a beach wedding.
But a significant number of the incidents involve powder sent to terrorize someone — whether from an angry spouse, disgruntled employee or someone who feels he's been wronged in court or by a government agency.
"It's a great ploy for someone to try to bring attention to something," says Edward Moffitt of the Postal Inspection Service. But "it's very disruptive. There's a definite cost every time they respond."
Online Exclusive » Media groups will renew their push for a federal shield law when the new Congress convenes.
By Lindsay Kalter
A coalition of about 50 media organizations will renew lobbying efforts next year for a federal shield law for journalists, which died in the current Congress.
The bill, which would allow the government to subpoena journalists for information about their confidential sources only as a last resort, died in the Senate July 30 when supporters could not round up the necessary 60 votes to cut off discussion and bring it to a vote. The tally was 51-43 in favor of the measure. The House approved a similar bill last October.
Society of Professional Journalists President David Aeikens, who lobbied for the bill in Washington in July with about 10 fellow SPJ members, says when the campaign to enact the law resumes before the next Congress, "it's likely that we'll be back to square one."
Proponents of the bill say it is essential to protect journalists in the wake of a flurry of high-profile cases in recent years involving confidential sources. In 2005, then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal a confidential government source who leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Former USA Today reporter Toni Locy was ordered by a federal judge to pay up to $5,000 a day in fines until she revealed her anonymous sources in the case of former Army scientist Steven J. Hatfill, named as a "person of interest" but never charged in the 2001 anthrax attacks. The U.S. Court of Appeals granted Locy a stay on the fines on March 11. On June 27, the Justice Department agreed to pay Hatfill $5.8 million to settle the case.
Stories based on anonymous sources are often criticized by politicians and members of the public, who say they lack credibility. But many journalists and their supporters argue that some vitally important stories would not come to light without them.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says supporters of the bill came closer to success during the current Congress than ever before. "We had overwhelming support in the House and solid support in the Senate," she says. "We will reconfigure, reassemble our coalition and try to get it reintroduced as soon as possible."
The coalition includes the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Newspaper Association of America, the Associated Press and other news organizations and media companies.
The measure approved by the House differs from the one that failed in the Senate. The Senate version protects journalists from being forced to share the identity of confidential and information obtained from them. The House bill offers broader protection to all information gathered during the reporting process, confidential or not. Both versions would allow the courts to require testimony about confidential sources if national security or human life is at stake.
Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) have led the charge for the bill in the Senate. Dalglish says Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who adamantly opposes the bill, required that it undergo a full 30 hours of debate, which was not feasible given the focus last July on energy legislation.
"They have some procedures in the Senate, and any one individual senator can hold something up," Dalglish says. "Sen. Kyl repeatedly did that to this bill. With Congress being so distracted, we were just not able to get it on the floor."
Kyl's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Laurie Babinski, SPJ's Washington counsel, says there is a growing recognition of the bill's importance. Although it died this year, she says it has made "tremendous progress."
The bill was introduced nearly four years ago after Jim Taricani, a reporter for WJAR-TV in Providence, was sentenced to six months of home confinement for refusing to reveal the name of the source who gave him an FBI surveillance tape of a Providence city official taking a bribe. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) then introduced a bill to protect journalists from being forced to divulge the identity of anonymous sources.
"When this started I thought it would take four to six years to pull it off," Dalglish says. "So we're on schedule."
Babinski says that although there are certain circumstances in which reporters should be called on to testify in court, such as when there is a national security risk or a threat to human life, all other sources of information should be tapped first, as the bill provides. Thirty states have shield laws, and others offer limited protection as a result of court decisions.
A federal shield law would allow journalists to report information "without fear of retribution," SPJ's Aeikens says. "This is our legislative priority. We will work very hard to make the shield bill a shield law. We don't think journalists should be put in jail for doing their jobs."
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Asking Hard Questions About Anthrax
Representative Rush Holt (NJ-12), chair of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, recently sent a letter to two National Academy of Science (NAS) directors regarding a prospective review, requested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, of the scientific methods used by the Bureau during its investigation of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks.
In his October 16 letter to Board on Life Sciences Director Fran Sharples, and Science, Technology and Law Policy and Global Affairs Division Director Anne-Marie Mazza, Mr. Holt expressed concern that the questions posed in the September 15 letter to the NAS from Vahid Majidi, assistant director of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate at the FBI, “are narrowly focused and do not truly test the FBI’s conclusions in the case.” Mr. Holt went on to say that he hoped the NAS panel would “look at the full range of scientific evidence and the methods the FBI used to reach its scientific conclusions,” in order to “give the public the greatest possible confidence in the conclusions.”
Saying that he was writing in his capacity as chairman of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel of the House Committee on Appropriations, and as a Representative whose constituents were directly affected by the anthrax attacks, Mr. Holt posed several of his own specific questions for the Academy’s consideration, should it choose to undertake the independent review. He wondered, for example, whether any of the FBI’s scientific findings are inconsistent with the Bureau’s conclusions, whether other scientific tests not carried out by the FBI might refute its conclusions, and whether the FBI followed “all accepted evidence-gathering, chain of possession, and scientific analytical methods.”
Referring to suspect Bruce L. Ivins, who recently committed suicide, Mr. Holt asked whether it was possible to exclude “multiple actors or accessories” as the FBI did in its scenario, and wondered about the ruling out of “the possibility that there are other stocks (including daughters of Dr. Ivins’ flask) that share the RMR-1029’s mutation combination for which the FBI has not accounted.”
In a phone conversation yesterday, News and Public Information Executive Director Bill Kearney said that Mr. Majidi’s letter was being used by NAS as the basis of a “statement of task,” and that Mr. Holt’s letter would be “taken into consideration” in writing up an “appropriate charge.” Once the charge receives approval from NAS’s governing board, Mr. Kearney said, they would enter into a formal contract with the FBI, and begin nominating a “provisional committee” that would handle the investigation. In response to a question about the identity of committee members, he noted that they “won’t be scientists who have been working on this for the FBI,” but would be “experts from a variety of disciplines.”
Detrick releases Ivins' personnel file
Originally published October 29, 2008
By Justin M. Palk
Army officials certified Bruce Ivins as suitable to work with dangerous pathogens on Nov. 19, 2007, 18 days after the FBI searched his lab and he lost his access to Fort Detrick's biocontainment labs.
Ivins, a microbiologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, did not, however, regain his access to the biosecurity labs, and four months later he lost his access to the remaining lower-security labs as well.
Although Ivins was certified into the Biological Personnel Reliability Program, he did not have access to select agents, said Caree Vander Linden, USAMRIID's spokeswoman. This was an administrative procedure the Army continued so that, had the Army restored Ivins' lab access, he would have already been enrolled in the BPRP.
The FBI announced in August that Ivins was the sole suspect in its investigation into the anthrax mailings of 2001, which killed five and left 17 hospitalized.
Investigators have conceded that their case against Ivins is circumstantial, and that it has no physical evidence tying him to the mailings.
Ivins died July 29 after apparently committing suicide, and his attorney has maintained his client's innocence in the face of the government's assertions.
Tuesday, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Army released copies of Ivins' personnel file.
Army officials redacted the bodies of Ivins' performance reviews, citing a FOIA exemption protecting against the release of intra-agency memos and letters.
Army regulations require individuals whose duties include working with select agents, such as anthrax or Ebola, to be certified as reliable under the Biological Personnel Reliability Program. This includes a review of the individual's personnel file, medical records, the results of a background check and drug testing.
On Ivins personnel screening and evaluation form, officials certified that they found no information that would preclude Ivins from working with select agents.
The section of the form for recording the results of a drug test is blank, except for a note
reading "Waived By Sec Army," and dated Oct. 30, 2007.
Thursday, 30 October 2008
Drum maker is treated for anthrax
An east London man is seriously ill in hospital after inhaling anthrax spores contained in animal hides.
The man came into contact with the hides at his drum making workshop in Hackney, health officials said.
Seven other people who may have been in contact with the hides are being treated with antibiotics as a precautionary measure.
The Health Protection Agency (HPA) said it is attempting to trace where the infected skins originated.
Professor Nigel Lightfoot, the HPA's chief adviser, stressed that the man's neighbours in his flat and near his workshop - both of which are in Hackney - are not at risk of exposure to the potentially fatal bacteria.
"There is no risk to the inhabitants of this block of flats, or the wider residents in the area," he said. "The patient's property is currently secured and there is no one living there."
The seven people currently taking antibiotics were potentially in close contact with the animal skins. The victim has not been identified.
Mr Lightfoot said the risk was limited to drum makers and others who work with animal hides, which can contain spores of the bacteria that survive the tanning process.
"It is important to stress that it is the making of animal skin drums that is the risk for coming into contact with anthrax rather than playing or handling drums."
There have only been a handful of recorded cases in the UK in the past decade.
In 2006 Christopher Norris, 50, a craftsman from Stobs, near Hawick in Scotland, died of anthrax.
Mr Norris made artworks and musical instruments, including drums.
Anthrax, which occurs naturally, has also been developed for use as a biological weapon.
A series of anthrax attacks sent via the post in America in the weeks after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks killed five people.
Bioterrorism’s Deadly Math
By Judith Miller
The White House wanted to know: How much safer are Americans today than they were on October 4, 2001? That was the day when a photo editor in Florida became the first reported case of inhalation anthrax in America in decades. In what became biology’s 9/11, five letters containing less than a quarter-ounce of anthrax total—the equivalent of two pats of butter—killed five people, infected 17, put more than 20,000 on antibiotics, and traumatized thousands more. Decontamination alone, including at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, took over three years and cost some $200 million.
With these disturbing facts in mind, and keenly aware that al-Qaida and other terrorist groups have sought germ weapons, the White House in 2006 quietly directed the Department of Homeland Security to commission studies from teams of researchers on what Americans had received for the billions of dollars spent on preparing for a bioterrorist attack since 2001. Taken together, the papers—whose contents remain secret and whose authors have been asked by the DHS not to discuss them—constitute what officials call the first “net assessment” to focus exclusively on the issue. Though many of the papers were delivered to the DHS months ago, the net assessment remains unfinished and is likely to be handed over to the next administration, officials say. Still, its thrust is that while the estimated $50 billion spent since 2001 on countering bioterrorism has left us far better prepared for a bioterrorist attack, we remain vulnerable and, in some ways, may even be losing ground.
President Bush himself is said to have privately expressed frustration with the pace of biosecurity progress. At a meeting with cabinet members and other senior biodefense officials in the White House situation room on June 30, the president was briefed on yet another internal review of the administration’s biodefense effort. After hearing that his agencies were unlikely to complete most of their 56 assigned tasks by the end of his term in office, says one official who was told about the meeting, Bush echoed the old Nike ad, in a display of irritated determination: “Just do it!”
Officials and independent analysts agree that much has been done to prepare for an attack and mitigate its consequences. One of the most important advances is the least quantifiable. “We understand the problem far better than we did before the anthrax mailings,” says Kenneth Bernard, a former White House biodefense advisor in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. “We now see the risks and our vulnerabilities far more clearly and have spent billions addressing them.” Scientists know much more today than they did seven years ago about the importance of timely detection in any suspicious outbreak of disease, for example, and about the difficulty of delivering drugs and vaccines quickly and cheaply to affected populations.
They also know more about the genomic structure of pathogens. Federally funded research has vastly improved scientific understanding of many entries in the government’s list of some 70 “select agents,” the world’s most contagious or lethal bacteria and viruses. Between 2001 and 2008, research funding by the National Institutes of Health on bioweapons agents increased from $53 million to $1.6 billion. At the same time, the Pentagon more than doubled its investment in biodefense research, to over $1 billion.
Bioforensics, too, has seen great advances. Using techniques that hadn’t even been invented when the anthrax letters arrived in 2001, for instance, scientists working with the FBI’s “Amerithrax” investigation broke ground in microbial forensics, decoding the anthrax genome to trace the powder used in the letters to a flask labeled RMR-1029 that was stored at the Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases, the military’s main biodefense lab, in Fort Detrick, Maryland.
Another source of pride is the Strategic National Stockpile, a repository of drugs and antibiotics stored at sites throughout the country that can be sent to any city within 12 hours. Launched nearly a decade ago under the Clinton administration, the stockpile now contains enough antibiotics to treat more than 40 million Americans who might be exposed to anthrax, as well as other vaccines and drugs to combat a wide range of illnesses.
One of these, smallpox, used to be a major concern. The World Health Organization had declared the disease eradicated in 1980, but scientists have long suspected that countries or labs might be hiding samples of the deadly virus that could fall into terrorist hands. But the Strategic National Stockpile has virtually removed the disease from the list of America’s bioterrorism concerns, according to James W. LeDuc, associate director of the University of Texas’s Galveston National Laboratory. The number of smallpox-vaccine doses in the stockpile has increased from 90,000 before 9/11 to 300 million today. “In the event of a smallpox outbreak today, we would have access to enough vaccine for every American,” LeDuc says. “It cost close to $1 billion, but it is a tremendous insurance policy.”
Yet another advance is the crown jewel of the Department of Homeland Security’s biodefense effort: a vast research complex at Fort Detrick, an hour’s drive from the capital, centered on the new National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center. The NBACC already operates in temporary offices; its state-of-the-art, $150 million, 160,000-square-foot headquarters is scheduled to be completed by March 2009. It will contain a large Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory, authorized to work on the world’s most dangerous germs, such as Ebola and Marburg, for which neither vaccines nor cures yet exist. Its 150 scientists will characterize existing biological threats—the bulk of its research—identify future sources of potential vulnerability, and conduct the kind of bioforensic research that was used in Amerithrax in the event of future bioterrorist attacks.
The agency’s original plan was to operate the NBACC mostly in secret by classifying the entire center as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF, pronounced “skiff”)—a place where top-secret information and materials could be stored and discussed. But the NBACC’s new director, J. Patrick Fitch, says that he intends to operate the lab with the greatest possible transparency. “Eighty percent of our projects and their results will be unclassified, and we will encourage our scientists to publish,” he says. While his facility would be “SCIFable” in an emergency, he intends to encourage as much interaction as possible between NBACC scientists and their American and foreign counterparts. “In such a fast-moving area,” he explains, “it’s self-defeating to isolate yourself.”
Fitch also denies reports that the lab plans to invent new superbugs just to see if it can be done. “Our research must be grounded in indications of a real threat and in science,” he says. And in another course correction, Fitch has appointed a panel of seven independent scientists to review the lab’s work three times a year to ensure that its research is not only safe, but in compliance with the 1972 international treaty banning the acquisition, production, and development of germ weapons for anything other than defensive purposes. The panel has allayed some of the concerns of Tara O’Toole, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Biosecurity, formerly a forceful critic of the lab and now a panel member. Fitch has made “earnest efforts to be responsible and transparent and must continue on this path,” says O’Toole.
Taken together, all these achievements have dramatically altered the biodefense landscape since the anthrax letter attacks, many analysts agree. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that we are safer today than we were seven years ago,” said Michael Chertoff, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, at a forum on September 10, though he also warned Americans against complacency. “Getting the ship of state to move 10 degrees to port is a big deal,” says Bernard. “You can always show how it might have been done better. But this has been tantamount to putting a man on the moon”—an exercise in “imperfect incrementalism,” as one administration official calls it. “I really don’t think we went down any major wrong roads,” Bernard ventures. “The perfect is inevitably the enemy of the good.”
But many experts believe that the government has taken detours from the highway to better biosecurity. Some even question what had looked like unqualified successes. Consider the Amerithrax investigation. The impressive scientific achievement that enabled the FBI to trace the anthrax in the letters back to the RMR-1029 flask has been largely overshadowed by allegations that the bureau once again rushed to judgment in blaming Bruce E. Ivins, one of more than 100 researchers at the Army’s biodefense lab who had access to the flask. Ivins committed suicide before he could be indicted.
According to several analysts who attended the bureau’s classified briefings on its investigation, the case is based largely on the kind of circumstantial information that led the FBI to finger Steven J. Hatfill as the likely culprit five years ago, and would have been unlikely to hold up in court. Hatfill, who doggedly fought his designation as a “person of interest” in the press and the courts for five years, was recently vindicated when the FBI paid him $5.8 million for the damage done to his reputation and career.
Moreover, while there is no doubt that Ivins had psychological problems that ultimately prompted his suicide, his attorney and family say that being subjected to such intense federal scrutiny was also partly to blame. And those who worked most closely with the eccentric scientist at Fort Detrick have openly challenged the bureau’s claim that Ivins was the perpetrator. Critics have called for more congressional hearings and even an independent commission to examine the entire Amerithrax investigation. In any event, the controversy over the case highlights the continuing difficulty of “attribution”—identifying the source of an attack so that its sponsors can be punished and future strikes deterred—even in an age of sophisticated bioforensics.
Some scientists—though they’re in the minority—view the proliferation of high-containment, top-security labs as a liability. Government officials like Anthony S. Fauci, the National Institutes of Health official who heads biodefense research, maintain that there was a critical shortage of such labs in 2001 and that the expansion will eventually result in better diagnostics and next-generation drugs. But Elisa D. Harris, a biosecurity expert at the University of Maryland, warned in the New York Times that the increase of high-containment labs and undertrained personnel was creating the very threat that it was intended to thwart. “The correct response to the anthrax letter attacks,” agrees Richard H. Ebright, a biochemist at Rutgers, “should have been to curtail the number of people and institutions with access to the deadliest agents and to dramatically increase security surrounding such research.”
Keith Rhodes, chief technologist at the Government Accountability Office, also warned Congress last October that the nation was at “greater risk” because of the increase of BSL-4 labs from five before 2001 to 15 today. His agency estimated that at least 15,000 technicians were working with dangerous pathogens in BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs—the vast majority of them for the first time—and that, though no one knew exactly how many public and private BSL-3 labs were in operation, the number was “surely in the thousands.” Moreover, he added, articulating a more widely shared concern, though 12 federal agencies were involved in some aspect of biological research, no single agency was responsible for monitoring the labs and managing the risks. While most of the scientists in the field welcome the additional lab capacity, they do worry about the lack of direct federal oversight and insufficient safety and security standards at these new labs. “We have not wildly expanded over what we need,” O’Toole says. “But we do need better training and to ensure that the labs and people in them conform to rigorous standards.”
As for the Strategic National Stockpile, its drugs will help combat bioterrorist attacks only if they can be delivered and distributed rapidly enough—and at present, the government doubts that they can be. “When we began in 2001, we could get antibiotics to people in 2.5 weeks,” says a senior official. “Today it takes four days, but that’s still not good enough. We need to do it in two days. We’ve moved mountains, but not enough of them.”
Among the recommendations that President Bush endorsed in the June meeting was a proposal to support additional testing of drug and vaccine delivery by mail and other methods. For example, instead of using mainly public buildings as PODs (points of distribution), as New York and other cities currently plan, government might also use large commercial enterprises like Wal-Mart. But even then, who would administer the drugs after an attack? A federal scheme in 2003 to inoculate half a million health-care workers against smallpox foundered after Washington failed to provide guarantees that workers who fell ill because of the vaccine would be compensated; only 40,000 workers volunteered to be vaccinated, 8 percent of the target.
Supplying the Strategic National Stockpile is another challenge. BioShield is a multibillion-dollar fund to encourage the development of vaccines and other drugs for the stockpile. But major pharmaceutical companies have proved reluctant to develop drugs whose main customer would be the government, fearing that the market for such drugs is likely to be limited, absent an attack, and that research costs wouldn’t be recouped. As for smaller firms, the government was forced in 2006 to cancel its contract with VaxGen, a biotech start-up that had never produced a vaccine before. VaxGen was to help supply 75 million more doses of a safer, second-generation anthrax vaccine, but repeatedly missed its deadlines.
Even if drugs can be manufactured sufficiently and delivered promptly, they depend on our ability to detect an attack in the first place. In a project called “BioWatch,” Washington has deployed equipment in more than 30 cities to sniff out deadly germs in the air—but because the sniffers’ filters must be checked manually and transported to labs for diagnosis, detecting the germs can take up to 36 hours. New York City has been testing six automated sensors that detect the existence of an unwelcome pathogen more quickly—the only such units yet deployed in the nation. “We want to know when something happens as soon as it happens,” says Dani-Margot Zavasky, an infectious-disease specialist who advises the NYPD on WMD-related medical issues.
But the Department of Homeland Security has rejected the city’s appeal for more units, which last September led police commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, for whom counterterrorism is a religion, to berate BioWatch’s “anemic budget” and the “low priority” that the federal government places on biosurveillance. (Amy Kudwa, a DHS spokesperson, counters that the department’s investment of almost $400 million in BioWatch proves its commitment to the detection effort.)
Then there are the federal government’s bureaucratic mistakes. Numerous officials, advisors, and independent analysts criticize what they say is the government’s lack of emphasis on the personnel needed to staff labs, produce drugs, and create and operate detectors and other expensive technology. “It is our passion for things, for quick technical fixes, gadgets and more labs, better detectors, that obscures our real needs and vulnerabilities,” says Colonel David R. Franz, a former commander of the defense lab at Fort Detrick. Federal budgetary decisions have reflected this bias, health officials complain, with cuts almost invariably targeting not equipment but nurses, lab technicians, and other “first responders” critical in the immediate aftermath of an attack.
Complaints about the government’s episodic focus on biosecurity are also common. While Washington threw money at biosecurity soon after the anthrax letter attacks, it took the White House almost three years to produce a “blueprint” for the nation’s future biodefense program—and that blueprint mandated that the net assessment be completed in four more years. Further, the White House didn’t lay out a strategy for public health and medical preparedness for catastrophes until last October, O’Toole says. “Although we’re in better shape than we were before the anthrax attacks, biosecurity no longer seems to have national priority,” says Richard Falkenrath, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, who previously coordinated biodefense in the Bush White House.
A lack of coordination among federal agencies in biodefense preparations is another problem, critics say. The federal government has no single, central oversight to ensure that its departments’ many grants are financing research likely to result in useful drugs, vaccines, and equipment. It has, in sum, no obvious way to determine if the billions allocated to biodefense are being spent wisely. “There is clearly a need to rethink how we would respond to a major terrorist event,” says Penrose “Parney” Albright, a former senior defense official and national security expert, “and for a biodefense management system that sets requirements and oversees agency programs to ensure they are responsive to those needs.”
Stories about federal turf battles abound, too—in particular, the dysfunctional split between the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and that younger, bureaucracy-bound behemoth, the Department of Homeland Security. At a conference in Baltimore last August, scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a notoriously independent fiefdom within DHHS, disclosed that they no longer had confidence that the BioWatch monitors would detect the presence of germs other than anthrax and plague—a concern that they had not previously shared with Homeland Security, which is responsible for the monitors.
And two key papers in the net assessment—one by Robert P. Kadlec, a physician who is now the White House’s senior director for biological defense policy, and another by Albright—say that America remains vulnerable partly because its early plans rested on unrealistic assumptions about the federal government’s role in responding to bioterrorism. “After the anthrax mailings, we initially thought that because all crises are local, our states and high-value-target cities would be able to manage a serious or sustained attack if they received enough federal dollars to help them prepare,” says an official privy to the ongoing debate in Washington. “We now know, as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, that the federal government would have to take the lead in a true bioterror emergency.”
But the feds aren’t yet prepared for taking that lead. While they are ready to deliver an emergency supply of vaccine from the stockpile to a state, say, they still have no plans in place to deploy the army or order governors to send the National Guard to help with distribution of the vaccine. DHS officials say that they have “plans and guidelines in place” to help cities respond to bioterrorism, but city officials call these plans vague and “nonoperational.”
Two of the papers written for the “net assessment” discuss New York City in particular, and their conclusions are apparently grim. One, a 50-page study of New York’s response plans and its “decision sequence” in the event of an attack, was written by Edward Hamilton, a former New York deputy mayor, and Terrance Leighton, a scientist at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California. According to experts who described the study, it found that despite New York’s extensive plans and preparations, the city would be severely challenged by a major anthrax attack and would have difficulty recovering.
Officials who had read the papers said that neither New York nor any other American city had plans that could manage a true catastrophe. The city would struggle to distribute drugs and transport public health emergency workers, since contamination would probably close its subways. The city has no decontamination plans; decontaminating skyscrapers would be a forbidding challenge; and there are no federal standards on how clean an area must be before it can be reoccupied. “No locality can set such standards,” one expert says. “This is yet another federal function that has not been done, and it is not trivial.”
The Hamilton-Leighton study builds on earlier work by Lawrence Wein, a Stanford University business school professor. In 2003, he calculated that a large aerosolized anthrax attack in New York might result in 100,000 deaths, even if early cases were successfully diagnosed and drugs quickly delivered and taken. Two years later, he calculated that decontaminating New York by traditional methods could cost well over $20 billion and take 314 years. Wein has also argued that current plans for distribution of antibiotics from PODs could result in delays costing up to 10,000 lives a day.
In a new study for the net assessment, experts say, Wein urges the government to consider distributing antibiotics before an attack, or after one, through a variety of alternative methods—including by mail to people’s homes, the approach he endorsed in his earlier work. The government could encourage postal workers to come to work—a recent DHHS study predicts absentee rates of some 40 percent during a severe pandemic—by guaranteeing them and their families early doses of antidotes. New York officials, however, doubt that drugs could be delivered by the postal system; they fear that postal workers would stay home regardless, and that New York would be unable to provide sufficient security for those who did show up.
One bright spot is that New York has bolstered the federal BioWatch initiative by investing heavily in its own biological surveillance programs. The city electronically monitors everything from over-the-counter drug sales to hospital entries to emergency-clinic visits, says Isaac B. Weisfuse, New York’s deputy commissioner of public health, and the city’s 6,000-person health department is widely regarded as among the nation’s best. But technologically speaking, most public health networks lag a decade behind New York’s and can afford neither the technology nor the personnel in which the city has invested.
The challenge grows larger each day as the biotech revolution spreads skills and knowledge around the globe. Margaret Hamburg, a physician who served in senior health posts in the federal government and in New York City, calls the explosion of biotechnology “frightening.” In a speech last September, she speculated on a variety of weapons, some already existent and others still being researched, that foes might deploy one day: aerosol technology to deliver infectious agents more efficiently into the lungs; gene therapy vectors that could cause a permanent change in an infected person’s genetic makeup; “stealth” viruses that could lie dormant in victims until triggered; and biological agents intentionally engineered to be resistant to available antibiotics or evade immune response.
Those who regard such weapons as permanently beyond terrorists’ capability should bear in mind that techniques that were theoretical just a decade ago can now be performed by high school chemistry students. Recent research by former Navy secretary and now Barack Obama advisor Richard J. Danzig drives the point home. While it was known that Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese group that released nerve gas into the Tokyo subway in 1995, had experimented with botulism and anthrax and had sought to obtain Ebola, scientists once believed that the group’s efforts to weaponize anthrax had failed because it had relied on a harmless vaccine strain. But Danzig’s recent interviews with cult members in Japan suggest that over a decade ago, Aum nearly succeeded in making a benign strain lethal through genetic modification. “No one should take comfort in Aum’s failure,” said Hamburg. “The tools of biotechnology have jumped light-years since then.”
Hamburg’s observation underscores the ongoing need for intelligence about America’s rivals and enemies—in fighting bioterrorism, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure, and our first line of defense against a devastating biological attack is still the intelligence community, whose knowledge of what is being cooked up in foreign laboratories remains inadequate. “In bioterrorism,” warns Franz, “intentions are more important than capabilities.”
Should an attack occur, there is no question that our capacity to respond, while improved, would still fall short. “What we’ve been trying to prepare for is obviously unprecedented,” says one senior official. “Pandemics are tough enough, and for those there are precedents—the 1918 flu and even seasonal outbreaks. It’s so much harder to prepare for something you’ve never experienced. You’re obviously going to make some mistakes.”
Judith Miller, a contributing editor of City Journal, is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who writes about national security issues. She has written or coauthored four books, including Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War.
Man dies in hospital from anthrax inhalation
Published: 03 November 2008 11:31
A drum-maker who inhaled anthrax spores from imported animal skins has died in hospital.
Fernando Gomez, 35, died in Homerton University Hospital after spending a week in intensive care in a critical condition.
However on Saturday night, his condition began to deteriorate further and Mr Gomez died on Sunday afternoon.
Mr Gomez had been on a ventilator and was being treated with a series of antibiotics, and the hospital had taken advice from experts in the United States who dealt with anthrax mail attacks in October 2001.
The Health Protection Agency has sealed off Mr Gomez's flat and workshop in Hackney, East London, for examination.