Monday, December 21, 2009

The Anthrax Case Falls Apart

The vast anthrax investigation, code-named Amerithrax, ended as far as the public knew on July 29 2008 with the death of Dr. Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist/wiki/Biodefense at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland, at the nearby Frederick Memorial Hospital. The proximate cause of death was an overdose of the pain-killer Tylenol. No autopsy was performed, and there was no suicide note. Less than a week after his apparent suicide, the FBI declared Dr. Ivins to have been the sole perpetrator of the 2001 Anthrax attacks, and the person who mailed deadly anthrax spores to the NBC, the New York Post, and Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy accompanied by a photo-copied warning. These attacks killed 5 people, closed down the Senate’s Office Building, caused a national panic, and nearly paralyzed the postal system. The FBI’s 6 year investigation of it was the largest inquest in its history, involving 9000 interviews by its agents, the issuance of 6000 subpoenas, and the examination of tens of thousands of photo-copiers, typewriters, computers, and mail-boxes.
But., as massive as it was, it failed to find a shred of evidence that identified the Anthrax killer– or even a witness to the mailings. With the help of a task force of scientists, it found a flask of anthrax that closely matched through its genetic markers the attack anthrax. This flask had been in the custody of Dr. Ivins, a senior biological warfare researcher, who had published no less than 44 scientific papers over three decades, and who was working on developing vaccines against anthrax. As custodian, he provided samples of it to other scientists at Fort Detrick, the Battelle Memorial Institute, and other facilities involved in Anthrax research. According to the FBI’s reckoning, over 100 scientists had been given access to it. Any of these scientists (or their co-workers) could have stolen a minute quantity of this anthrax and, by mixing it into a media of water and nutrients, used it to grow enough spores to launch the anthrax attacks. Consequently, Dr. Ivins, who was assisting the FBI with its investigation, as well as all the scientists who had access to it, became suspects in the investigation. In what approached an inquisition, they were intensely questioned, given polygraph examinations, and played off against one another in variations of the prisoner’s dilemma game. And their labs, computers, phones, homes, and personal effect were scrutinized for possible clues.
As the Amerithrax proceeded over more than a half a decade, the FBI ran into frustrating dead ends, such as its relentless 5 year pursuit of Steven Hatfill, that ended with his exoneration in 2007 and his receiving a $5.8 million settlement from the US government as compensation for the damage inflicted on him. Another scientist became so stressed by the FBI’s games that he began to drink heavily and died of a heart attack. Eventually, the FBI zeroed-in on Dr. Ivins. Not only did he have access to the anthrax, but FBI agents suspected he had subtly misled them into their Hatfill fiasco. A search of his email turned up pornography and bizarre emails which,, though unrelated to anthrax, suggesting that he was a deeply disturbed individual. As the FBI turned the pressure up on him, isolating him at work, and forcing him to spend what little money he had on lawyers to defend himself. He became increasingly stressed. His therapist reported that Ivins seemed obsessed with the notion of revenge and even homicide. Then came his suicide (which as Eric Nadler and Bob Coen show in their documentary The Anthrax War was one of four suicides among bio-warfare researcher.) Since Dr. Ivins odd behavior closely fit the FBI’s profile of the mad scientist it had been hunting, his suicide provided an opportunity to finally close the case. So it pronounced Dr. Ivins the anthrax killer.
But there was still a vexing problem– Silicon.
Silicon was used in the 1960s to weaponize anthrax. Through an elaborate process, anthrax spores were coated with silicon to preventing them from clinging together so as to create a lethal aerosol. But since weaponization was banned by international treaties, research anthrax no longer contains silicon, and the flask at Fort Detrick contained none. Yet, the anthrax grown from it had silicon, according to the US Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. This silicon explained why when the letters to Senators Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle were opened, the anthrax vaporized into an aerosol. If so, then somehow silicon was added to the anthrax. But Dr. Ivins, no matter how weird he may have been, had neither the set of skills nor the means to deliberately attach silicon to anthrax spores. At minimum, such a process would require highly-specialized equipment, such as a jet mill, that did not exist in Ivins’ lab– or, for that matter, anywhere at the Fort Detrick facility. As Richard O. Spertzel, a former bio-defense scientist who worked with Ivins, explained, the lab didn’t even deal with anthrax in powdered form, adding "I don't think there's anyone there who would have the foggiest idea how to do it." So while Dr. Ivins’ death provided a convenient fall guy, the silicon content still had somehow to be explained.
The FBI’s answer was that the anthrax contained only traces of silicon and those, it theorized, could have been accidently absorbed by the spores from the water and nutrient in which they were grown. No such nutrients were ever found in Ivins’ lab, nor, for that matter, did anyone ever see Dr. Ivins attempt to produce any unauthorized anthrax (a process which would have involved him using scores of flasks.) But since no one knew what nutrients had been used to grow the attack anthrax, it was at. least possible that they had traces of silicon in them which accidently contaminated the anthrax.
Natural contamination was an elegant theory that ran into problems after Congressman Jerry Nadler pressed FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III in September 2008 to provide the House Judiciary Committee with a missing piece of data: the precise percentage of silicon contained in the anthrax used in the attacks. The answer came seven months later. According to the FBI lab, 1.4% of the powder in the Leahy letter was Silicon. "This is a shockingly high proportion," explained Dr. Stuart Jacobson, an expert in small particle chemistry. "It is a number one would expect from the deliberate weaponization of anthrax, but not from any conceivable accidental contamination." Nevertheless, in an attempt to back up its theory, the FBI contracted scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Labs in California to conduct experiments in which anthrax is accidently absorbed from a media heavily-laced with silicon. When the results were revealed to the National Academy Of Science in September 2009, they effectively blew the FBI’s theory out of the water. The Livermore scientists had tried 56 times to replicate the high silicon content without any success whatsoever. Even though they added increasingly high amounts of silicon to the media, they never even came close to the 1.4 percent in the attack anthrax. Most results were indeed an order of magnitude lower, with some as low as .001 percent. What these tests inadvertently demonstrated is that the anthrax spores could not have been accidently contaminated by the nutrients in the media. " If there is that much silicon , it had to have been added, " Jeffrey Adamovicz, who supervised Ivins work at Fort Detrick, wrote to me. He added that the silicon signature in the attack anthrax could have been added via a large fermerntor– which Battellle and other labs use" but "we did not use a fermentor to grow anthrax at USAMRIID [and] We did not have the capability to add silicon compounds to anthrax spores."
If Dr. Ivins had neither the equipment or skills to weaponize anthrax with silicon, then some other party, with access to the anthrax, must have done it. Even before these startling results, Senator Leahy had told Mueller , "I do not believe in any way, shape, or manner that [Ivins] is the only person involved in this attack on Congress." So, even though the public believed that the Anthrax case had been closed more in 2008, the FBI investigation was back to square one in late 2009.