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The Anthrax Attacks Were NOT the Work of a “Lone Nut”

Com­ment: the FBI has dis­proved its own the­o­ry about the 2001 anthrax attacks [1].

“The Anthrax Attacks Remain Unsolved” by Edward Jay Epstein; The Wall Street Jour­nal; 1/25/2010; p. A19. [2]

The inves­ti­ga­tion of the 2001 anthrax attacks end­ed as far as the pub­lic knew on July 29, 2008, with the death of Bruce Ivins, a senior biode­fense researcher at the U.S. Army Med­ical Research Insti­tute of Infec­tious Dis­eases (USAMRIID) in Fort Det­rick, Md. The cause of death was an over­dose of the painkiller Tylenol. No autop­sy was per­formed, and there was no sui­cide note.

Less than a week after his appar­ent sui­cide, the FBI declared Ivins to have been the sole per­pe­tra­tor of the 2001 Anthrax attacks, and the per­son who mailed dead­ly anthrax spores to NBC, the New York Post, and Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. These attacks killed five peo­ple, closed down a Sen­ate office build­ing, caused a nation­al pan­ic, and near­ly par­a­lyzed the postal sys­tem.

The FBI’s six-year inves­ti­ga­tion was the largest inquest in its his­to­ry, involv­ing 9,000 inter­views, 6,000 sub­poe­nas, and the exam­i­na­tion of tens of thou­sands of pho­to­copiers, type­writ­ers, com­put­ers and mail­box­es. Yet 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 anthrax used in the attack.

This flask had been in the cus­tody of Ivins, who had pub­lished no few­er than 44 sci­en­tif­ic papers over three decades as a micro­bi­ol­o­gist 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 in Colum­bus, Ohio, 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, Ivins, who was assist­ing the FBI with its inves­ti­ga­tion, as well as all the sci­en­tists who had access to the anthrax, became sus­pects in the inves­ti­ga­tion. They were intense­ly ques­tioned, giv­en poly­graph exam­i­na­tions, and played off against one anoth­er in vari­a­tions of the pris­on­er’s dilem­ma game. Their labs, com­put­ers, phones, homes and per­son­al effects were scru­ti­nized for pos­si­ble clues.

As the so-called Amerithrax inves­ti­ga­tion pro­ceed­ed, the FBI ran into frus­trat­ing dead ends, such as its relent­less five-year pur­suit of Steven Hat­fill, which end­ed with an apol­o­gy in 2007 and Mr. Hat­fill receiv­ing a $5.8 mil­lion set­tle­ment from the U.S. gov­ern­ment as com­pen­sa­tion. Anoth­er sci­en­tist, Per­ry Mike­sell, became so stressed by the FBI’s games that he began to drink heav­i­ly and died of a heart attack in Octo­ber 2002.

Even­tu­al­ly, the FBI zeroed in on 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, sug­gest­ed that he was a deeply dis­turbed indi­vid­ual.

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 Amer­i­can and British biowar­fare researchers in past years). Since Ivin­s’s odd behav­ior close­ly fit the FBI’s pro­file of the mad sci­en­tist it had been hunt­ing, his sui­cide pro­vid­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty to close the case. So it held a con­gres­sion­al brief­ing in which it all but pro­nounced 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 the sub­stance to pre­vent 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 U.S. Armed Forces Insti­tute of Pathol­o­gy. This sil­i­con explained why, when the let­ters to Sens. Leahy and Daschle were opened, the anthrax vapor­ized into an aerosol. If so, then some­how sil­i­con was added to the anthrax. But Ivins, no mat­ter how weird he may have been, had nei­ther the set of skills nor the means to attach sil­i­con to anthrax spores.

At a min­i­mum, such a process would require high­ly spe­cial­ized equip­ment that did not exist in Ivin­s’s lab—or, for that mat­ter, any­where at the Fort Det­rick facil­i­ty. As Richard Spertzel, a for­mer biode­fense sci­en­tist who worked with Ivins, explained in a pri­vate brief­ing on Jan. 7, 2009, 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 Ivin­s’s death pro­vid­ed a con­ve­nient fall guy, the sil­i­con con­tent still need­ed 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’s lab, nor, for that mat­ter, did any­one ever see 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 that acci­dent­ly con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed the anthrax.

Nat­ur­al con­t­a­m­i­na­tion was an ele­gant the­o­ry that ran into prob­lems after Con­gress­man Jer­ry Nadler pressed FBI Direc­tor Robert Mueller 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 on April 17, 2009. Accord­ing to the FBI lab, 1.4% of the pow­der in the Leahy let­ter was sil­i­con. “This is a shock­ing­ly high pro­por­tion,” explained 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. Even though they added increas­ing­ly high amounts of sil­i­con to the media, they nev­er even came close to the 1.4% in the attack anthrax. Most results were an order of mag­ni­tude low­er, with some as low as .001%.

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’s work at Fort Det­rick, wrote to me last month. He added that the sil­i­con in the attack anthrax could have been added via a large fermentor—which Bat­telle 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 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, Sen. Leahy had told Direc­tor Mueller, “I do not believe in any way, shape, or man­ner that [Ivins] is the only per­son involved in this attack on Con­gress.”

When I asked a FBI spokesman this month about the Liv­er­more find­ings, he said the FBI was not com­ment­ing on any specifics of the case, oth­er than those dis­cussed in the 2008 brief­ing (which was about a year before Liv­er­more dis­closed its results). He stat­ed: “The Jus­tice Depart­ment and the FBI con­tin­ue work­ing to con­clude the inves­ti­ga­tion into the 2001 anthrax attacks. We antic­i­pate clos­ing the case in the near future.”

So, even though the pub­lic may be under the impres­sion that the anthrax case had been closed in 2008, the FBI inves­ti­ga­tion is still open—and, unless it can refute the Liv­er­more find­ings on the sil­i­con, it is back to square one.