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Wall Street Journal: Ivins Not the Anthrax Killer

I noted in August 2008:

According to the FBI, Ivins made the killer anthrax in his lab at Fort Detrick all by himself in something like 12 hours (pages 8-9).

Is that plausible?

Well, one of the handful of people who actually can produce the kind of high-tech weaponized anthrax used in the attacks said:

“In my opinion, there are maybe four or five people in the whole country who might be able to make this stuff, and I’m one of them,” said Richard O. Spertzel, chief biological inspector for the U.N. Special Commission from 1994 to 1998. “And even with a good lab and staff to help run it, it might take me a year to come up with a product as good.”

In addition, scientists at Ft. Detrick say that no one there had the equipment or knowledge to make weaponized anthrax of the type used in the letters (more on this in a later esasy).

If it would take one of the handful of people who have the know-how and a good lab with staff a year, and if no one at Ivins’ lab knew how to do it, how could Ivins have made it all by himself in 12 hours without the proper equipment?

I wrote a couple of days later:

The chief biological inspector for the U.N. Special Commission from 1994 to 1998 – who describes himself as one of the “four or five people in the whole country” who could make the type of anthrax used in the 2001 attacks – noted in testimony to Congress:

“I have maintained from the first descriptions of the material contained in the Daschle letter that the quality appeared to be such that it could be produced only by some group that was involved with a current or former state program in recent years. The level of knowledge, expertise, and experience required and the types of special equipment required to make such quality product takes time and experimentation to develop. Further, the nature of the finished dried product is such that safety equipment and facilities must be used to protect the individuals involved and to shield their clandestine activity from discovery.”

Similarly, a manufacturer of specialized anthrax equipment said:

“You would need [a] chemist who is familiar with colloidal [fumed] silica, and a material science person to put it all together, and then some mechanical engineers to make this work . . . probably some containment people, if you don’t want to kill anybody. You need half a dozen, I think, really smart people.”

The U.N. biologist mentioned above also said that the equipment to make such high-tech anthrax does not exist at Fort Detrick, where Ivins worked. People who work at Fort Detrick have confirmed this. In other words, a lone scientist couldn’t have done it without the support of a whole government laboratory. And Fort Detrick was not one such potential laboratory.

The FBI now indirectly admits what I wrote.

Specifically, as Edward Epstein writes in a must-read article in the Wall Street Journal:

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”…

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.

View the original article at Washingtons Blog

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Posted in Finance & Economics, Government, Washingtons Blog Articles.


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