Published Date: 2010-03-05 14:00:02
Subject: PRO/AH> Anthrax, human, 2001 - USA (03)
Archive Number: 20100305.0727
ANTHRAX, HUMAN, 2001 - USA (03)
A ProMED-mail post
ProMED-mail is a program of the
International Society for Infectious Diseases
Date: 24 Feb 2010
Source: New York Times
Haste Leaves Anthrax Case Unconcluded
Probably not very many readers of this space are subscribers to the
scientific journal Aerosol Science and Technology. Neither am I. But
an article in that publication published in March 2008 has acquired
considerable significance in light of the announcement by the F.B.I.
last week that it would close its 9-year investigation of the 2001
anthrax attacks in the United States.
Aerosol Science and Technology reported on an attempt by a group of
scientists at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah to reproduce the dry,
powderized substance that was found in one of the anthrax-laden
envelopes mailed by the perpetrator of the attacks, in which 5 people
were killed, 17 were sickened and the country, reeling from the Sept.
11 attacks of just a few weeks before, was sent into high alert.
The title of the paper, "Development of an Aerosol System for
Uniformly Depositing Bacillus Anthrax Spore Particles on Surfaces,"
demonstrated that to create anthrax in a dry aerosol form of the sort
that can be dispersed through the air is a long and difficult process
involving a lot of highly specialized machinery.
The original culture has to be incubated; spore pellets are then
collected with a centrifuge; those spores are dried "by a proprietary
azeotropic method," before an "amorphous silica-based flow enhancer"
is added to turn the otherwise sticky anthrax spores into an aerosol,
after which the material has to be passed through a series of ever
finer mesh screens that are activated by a pneumatic vibrator.
The point, as one scientist specializing in fine particle chemistry
told me, blows a large hole through the 92-page summary of the
investigation released last week by the F.B.I. and the Justice
Department, the main conclusion of which is that Bruce E. Ivins, a
scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious
Diseases at Fort Detrick, in Maryland, was the anthrax mailer.
"Note that the proprietary azeotropic drying technique and the
pneumatic mill are both superspecialized pieces of equipment, neither
of which is at Detrick," the specialist in fine particles, Stuart
Jacobsen, said in an e-mail message.
But the F.B.I.'s entire case against Mr. Ivins is that he was able to
manufacture the anthrax used in the attacks at his Fort Detrick lab,
working late at night on the days before the actual anthrax mailings
so nobody would see what he was doing.
At 1st, reading the F.B.I. report is to be swept up in the conclusion
that the perpetrator of the deadly anthrax attacks was indeed Mr.
Ivins. After all, somebody did mail the envelopes containing deadly
anthrax bacilli. Mr. Ivins had worked for 27 years on anthrax, and,
indeed, he had created the very flask of anthrax bacillus that, using
cutting-edge scientific techniques, the F.B.I. determined to be the
sole source of the material used in the attacks.
Several hundred other scientists over the years have had access to
the material in that particular flask, but according to the F.B.I.,
all of them except for Mr. Ivins were exonerated. Mr. Ivins committed
suicide 2 years ago just as prosecutors were moving to indict him --
an act that seems, under the circumstances, to be highly incriminating.
And yet, when you look a bit closer at the F.B.I.'s report, doubts
persist, and they lend a good deal of credibility to the arguments of
those, including some of Mr. Ivins's former colleagues, that the
F.B.I.'s case, as Representative Rush D. Holt of New Jersey put it
last week, is "barely circumstantial."
The report, for example, makes much of the fact that Mr. Ivins worked
late at night in his lab in the days prior to the mailing of the
anthrax, something he had not usually done, and that he had no alibi
for what the F.B.I. report calls the "mailing windows," the stretches
of time when the perpetrator of the attacks deposited the
anthrax-laden envelopes into a post office box in Princeton, New
Jersey, a three-hour drive from Mr. Ivins's lab.
That information seems very damning at 1st glance, but according to
Jeffrey Adamovicz, Mr. Ivins's supervisor at Usamriid, as the Fort
Detrick facility is known, the F.B.I.'s claim that Mr. Ivins rarely
worked at night -- and only did so in the days before the anthrax was
mailed -- is simply untrue.
"Although I cannot directly dispute the hours the F.B.I. has shown
for access to B3/4" -- Mr. Ivins's anthrax lab -- "Bruce was well
known for working late and early," Mr. Adamovicz said in an e-mail
message this week. "He may not have been in B3/4 but instead in his
office or the BSL-2 labs. I think a broader examination of his access
to all areas of the lab would confirm this."
Beyond that, Mr. Adamovicz said, "the F.B.I. seems to be locked into
the concept that the spores had to be prepared in the week before
each of the mailings."
"I'm unclear as to why they believe this other than that period
matches to hours that Bruce was in suite B3/4 at night," he said.
"These spore preps could have been made anytime between 1997 and
2001, in my estimation."
But most important is the failure of the F.B.I. to demonstrate that
the anthrax used in the attack was actually produced in Mr. Ivins's
lab at Fort Detrick, or even that it could have been produced there.
In a recent opinion article in The Wall Street Journal that poked
holes in the F.B.I.'s case, an investigative reporter, Edward Jay
Epstein, cites a letter written by the F.B.I. director, Robert S.
Mueller III, in which Mr. Mueller says that the mailed anthrax
contained 1.4 percent silicon -- without which the anthrax would be a
clumpy, sticky mess, according to Dr. Jacobsen, the fine-particles specialist.
Mr. Adamovicz said in his e-mail message: "This is very strong
evidence that a process more sophisticated than Bruce Ivins or
Usamriid possessed was used in making the spore preparations. I and
others have calculated that it would take several weeks to months to
grow the 5-10 grams of spores required for the letters using common
lab protocols and laboratory capabilities present in Usamriid for
growing spores." He added, "The F.B.I. to date has provided no
information on how this could be done."
The point is not that Mr. Ivins wasn't the anthrax mailer. Perhaps he
was. But some of the F.B.I.'s arguments seem like conclusions in
search of arguments, while other aspects of the report -- notably its
failure to deal with the silicon question -- are conspicuously incomplete.
[Byline: Richard Bernstein]
Date: 3 Mar 2010
Source: Senator Holt News Release [edited]
Following the recent decision by the FBI to close its investigation
into the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, Rep. Rush Holt (NJ-12) called
for new Congressional investigations into the government's handling
of the attacks. The attacks evidently originated from a postal box in
Holt's Central New Jersey congressional district, killing 5 and
disrupting the lives and livelihoods of many of his constituents. The
attacks greatly contributed to the national fear of terrorism and
affected the response of our nation to these attacks. Holt has
consistently raised questions about the federal investigation into
the attacks. Last week, he succeeded in including language in the
2010 Intelligence Authorization Bill that would require the Inspector
General of the Intelligence Community to examine the possibility of a
foreign connection to the 2001 anthrax attacks.
"The American people need credible answers to all of these and many
other questions. Only a comprehensive investigation, either by the
Congress or through the independent commission I've proposed in the
Anthrax Attacks Investigation Act (H.R. 1248), can give us those
answers," Holt said in a letter to the Chairmen of the House
Committees on Homeland Security, Judiciary, Intelligence, and
Oversight and Government Reform.
A copy of his letter is below:
Dear Chairmen Thompson, Conyers, Reyes, and Towns, I am writing to
ask that your committees, either individually or jointly, conduct a
probing investigation of our government's handling of what has been
known as the "Amerithrax" investigation.
As you are aware, last week the Federal Bureau of Investigation
announced it was formally closing its investigation into the 2001
anthrax letter attacks, commonly known as the "Amerithrax"
investigation. The Bureau has maintained since his suicide in 2008
that the late Dr. Bruce Ivins was their principal suspect in the
attacks, a conclusion reaffirmed by the FBI when it closed the case
last week, despite the fact that the FBI's entire case against Ivins
is circumstantial, and that the science used in the case is still
being independently evaluated.
To date, there has been no comprehensive examination of the FBI's
conduct in this investigation, and a number of important questions
remain unanswered. We don't know why the FBI jumped so quickly to the
conclusion that the source of the material used in the attacks could
only have come from a domestic lab, in this case, Ft. Dietrick. We
don't know why they focused for so long, so intently, and so
mistakenly on Dr. Hatfill. We don't know whether the FBI's assertions
about Dr. Ivins' activities and behavior are accurate. We don't know
if the FBI's explanation for the presence of silica in the anthrax
spores is truly scientifically valid. We don't know whether
scientists at other government and private labs who assisted the FBI
in the investigation actually concur with the FBI's investigative
findings and conclusions. We don't know whether the FBI, the
Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human
Services, and the U.S. Postal Service have learned the right lessons
from these attacks and have implemented measures to prevent or
mitigate in the future such bioterror attacks.
The American people need credible answers to all of these and many
other questions. Only a comprehensive investigation, either by the
Congress, or through the independent commission I've proposed in the
Anthrax Attacks Investigation Act (H.R. 1248), can give us those answers.
As you may know, my interest in this matter is both professional and
personal. The attacks originated from a postal box in my Central New
Jersey congressional district, and they disrupted the lives and
livelihood of my constituents. For months, Central New Jersey
residents lived in fear of a future attack and the possibility of
receiving cross-contaminated mail. Mail service was delayed, and
businesses in my district lost millions. Further, my own
Congressional office in Washington, D.C. was shut down after it was
found to be contaminated with anthrax.
Given its track record in this investigation, I believe it is
essential that the Congress not simply accept the FBI's assertions
about Dr. Ivins' alleged guilt. Accordingly, I ask that your
committees investigate our government's handling of the attacks, the
subsequent investigation, and any lessons learned and changes in
policies and procedures implemented in the wake of the attacks.
Rush Hold, Member of Congress
[Other newspaper reports on this are:
The Baltimore Sun, 26 Feb 2010 "Bill for more investigation of '01
anthrax cases passes House"
New York Times Editorial "The F.B.I.'s Anthrax Case" New York Times,
Sat 27 Feb 2010 <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/opinion/28sun2.html>.
Associated Press, 3 Mar 2010 "NJ Congressman calls for probe into FBI