Why Didn’t DOJ Look More Closely at DTRA’s Role in 2001 Anthrax Attacks?

The 317,000 square foot DTRA headquarters opened in 2005 to bring together the agency's 2000 employees.

[Note: This post has been updated to correct an error regarding the location of the Project BACUS facility.  Erroneous material has not been deleted but has been put into strikethrough font.]

In following up on yesterday’s announcement that the family of Robert Stevens, the first victim in the 2001 anthrax attacks, has settled their wrongful death suit with the US Government for $2.5 million, Marcy came across a number of documents recently released through the case. One of those documents got my attention from its title: “Integrated Capabilities Assessment of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases” (USAMRIID Capabilities pdf). I had anticipated that the document would be a technical assessment that would be relevant to the question of whether the facilities and equipment available to Bruce Ivins would have been appropriate for production of the anthrax spores used in the 2001 attacks. However, it turns out that the document was a report on a 1996 security assessment of the USAMRIID facility where Ivins worked. I almost moved on to other documents, but then I saw the list of agencies that conducted the review:

The last entry on the list is what stands out. The Defense Special Weapons Agency was folded into the newly formed Defense Threat Reduction Agency, or DTRA, in late 1998. And DTRA was important to me because they were the agency that carried out Project BACUS, first reported by Judy Miller on September 4, 2001. Miller’s Times article described DTRA building a facility at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah Nevada Test Site with a 50 liter fermenter capable of producing bioweapons microbes. The project was an exercise to determine how difficult it would be for authorities to spot a bioweapons production facility built by terrorists. Later, I found that in her bioweapons book published in 2001, Miller disclosed that the BACUS facility also is capable of weaponizing bacterial spores.

With those bits of history in mind, some of the findings from the 1996 assessment stand out. From the introductory material, we find this summary:

It was noted that theft of biological agents from USAMRIID was a significant part of the threat to USAMRIID:

As if that warning didn’t anticipate 2001 enough, they go further and point out that theft of a biological agent most likely would be by insiders:

The report also makes a point about there being an inventory of biological agents at USAMRIID:

A second document describes an assessment by the Defense Special Weapons Agency acting alone this time in a vulnerability assessment of the Fort Detrick area as a whole. This assessment was conducted in early 1998 and USAMRIID was included among the facilities assessed. (USAMRIID Vulnerability 1998 pdf). This document is more heavily redacted than the 1996 document and appears to be more focused on the physical aspects of the facilities, but sabotage, criminal activity and terrorism were listed among the threats evaluated, so it seems likely that at least part of the 1998 work addressed the issues from 1996 listed above.

These new bits of information from the two documents reinforced my thinking about the possibility of the Project BACUS facility at Dugway the Nevada Test Site being the true source of the anthrax attack material.  In the post cited above where I discussed the weaponization capability of BACUS, I also provided this explanation from McClatchy Reporter Greg Gordon on how the FBI eliminated Dugway personnel as suspects:

At Dugway, which unlike USAMRIID did make anthrax powder, the FBI examined who was present at work and during what hours on the days before the anthrax was postmarked. The bureau concluded that none of Dugway’s researchers could have flown to New Jersey and back during their windows of opportunity.

So Dugway personnel were excluded as suspects because they could not have acted alone. If we instead allow for a small group within DTRA acting in concert, we can build the following hypothetical on how DTRA could have been involved in the attacks:

The BACUS facility was built by DTRA, and now we have DTRA personnel visiting USAMRIID in 1996 and 1998 to assess its security weaknesses. In 1996, they brought up the possibility of an internal theft of biological materials that could be grown into weapon material. They also noted that there is a central list with an inventory of material that could turn into threats. By the time they returned in 1998, Bruce Ivins’ RMR-1029 flask would have been on that list, as RMR-1029 was produced in 1997 (see this post for details).

In the case of DTRA, however, it likely was not necessary to steal material directly from RMR-1029 (even though it is possible that such an opportunity presented itself during visits for the 1998 assessment), because most of the material in RMR-1029 had been produced in a different fermenter at Dugway in the first place. It seems highly likely that at the time Project BACUS was getting underway at Dugway the Nevada Test Site materials from this work for Ivins still would have been present at Dugway from which the 2001 attack material could have been cultured. For example, old Petri dishes of cultures used to inoculate the production fermenter or reference samples retained when the spores were shipped to Ivins might have been present at Dugway and available to Project BACUS personnel. [Correction: the earlier version of this article mis-stated that the BACUS facility was at Dugway, when it in fact was constructed at the Nevada Test Site.  We now must account for Project BACUS personnel visiting Dugway to get inoculum, getting it directly from USAMRIID during the 1998 security assesment, or getting it in a less direct manner.]

So now we have Project BACUS personnel with the appropriate facility for producing and weaponizing the material used in the attacks and likely with access to inoculum that would result in the genetic signature seen in the actual attack material.

That takes care of means and opoortunity. How about motive? Take a look at the photo at the top of this post showing the huge facility that DTRA was able to build in 2005. Although the 9/11 attacks likely would be seen as the primary force behind this sort of investment in DTRA in this time period, the importance of the anthrax attacks for the ascendance of DTRA shouldn’t be overlooked.

Once we get into the concept of a Defense agency being involved, we then see the logic of the targeting. Tom Daschle and Pat Leahy were outspoken critics of the Patriot Act and their mailings went out just after publication of their criticism. Robert Stevens becomes an interesting early target because he was involved in publication of an unflattering photo of Jenna Bush in the National Enquirer.

The location of DTRA in suburban Washington places a large number of DTRA personnel within the same distance of the critical Princeton mailbox as Bruce Ivins. At least some DTRA personnel in the DC area have enough knowledge of anthrax that this 2008 conference (pdf) on the impact of an anthrax “event” had five DTRA attendees. It is not difficult to envision how the attack letters could have been prepared at the Project BACUS site at Dugway the Nevada Test Site and then sealed into a non-permeable pouches for transport to Princeton, where the pouches could have been slit with the letters sliding into the mailbox.

Of course, all of this “evidence” against DTRA is merely circumstantial.  But to me, it is a circumstantial case that is far stronger than the FBI’s circumstantial case against Bruce Ivins.

 

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
25 replies
  1. William Ockham says:

    Why Didn’t DOJ Look More Closely at DTRA’s Role in 2001 Anthrax Attacks?

    Um, because they didn’t want to find the answer there.

  2. emptywheel says:

    You know, even more than your comparison of DTRA v. Ivins, the comparison of their claimed case against Hatfill and DTRA would be telling, since they said Hatfill was a suspect bc he raised these concerns in the past.

  3. rugger9 says:

    I think that you are on to something here, because the feds’ case against Hatfill and Ivins was so weak that one was paid off and the other has too many holes. The point about the genetics is going to be the one that finishes the Ivins theory, in that he was fingered because the material must have come from his flask and only his flask. However, that central list probably also has other flasks made from the same batch at Dugway, and therefore the same fingerprint.

    As far as weaponizing, we know Ivins didn’t have the means nor the skill, but DTRA does. And I’m sure more than a few PNAC wannabes work there.

  4. Jim White says:

    @emptywheel: I hadn’t thought about that. So now we have DTRA Dugway personnel wrongly eliminated as suspects because DOJ couldn’t bear to think about more than one person acting together or with collaborators in DC and a failure to include them as an agency on the same basis on which Hatfill was originally included.

    As WO suggests, it sure looks like they just didn’t want to find the answer at DTRA.

  5. Jim White says:

    @rugger9: Not necessarily wannabes. I’ve always operated under the assumption that both Rumsfeld and Cheney scattered healthy doses of those types of folks through many agencies within DoD during their tenures as SecDef. This is exactly the type of project they would develop.

  6. rugger9 says:

    @Jim White: #5
    I agree, and these are the kinds of strings that create patsies. Hatfill fought back, and Ivins had the wrong skill set, but they cannot blame any other patsy without admitting they lied twice already.

    This is like a Sherlock Holmes story, eliminate the impossible and what’s left is the truth. Then we have to deal with the situation of government types deliberately murdering Americans for political gain. No wonder the 9-11 conspiracy theorists have traction, because we know Cheney.

  7. Skilly says:

    Jim,

    I am totally liking your version. How hard would it be to determine who@ Dugway had access to devices that could modify by the Ivins strain to the final version?

    Your book on this topic appears to be coming along nicely.

    Skilly

  8. Jim White says:

    @Skilly: I think that would be pretty hard. The party line in Judy Miller’s story about the previously secret BACUS facility is that it was built and then used only to produce a small amount of non-lethal bacteria as a demonstration project. I would imagine that most of the actions (and the membership roster) of this group are classified. Furthermore, they’ve had over ten years to cover their tracks. It’s not even clear if the facility still exists, as I’ve seen no other references to it after Miller’s article. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn it was bulldozed several years ago.

  9. Jim White says:

    @Phil Perspective: It’s somewhere at Dugway Proving Grounds. Here’s how Judy Miller opened her story on it:

    CAMP 12, NEVADA TEST SITE, Nevada— In a nondescript mustard-colored building that was once a military recreation hall and barbershop, the Pentagon has built a germ factory that could make enough lethal microbes to wipe out entire cities.

    And the title of the piece is “Next to Old Rec Hall, a ‘Germ-Making Plant'”.

    Not sure if that’s enough to go on, but if you find something please share it with us.

    Edit: Aw crap. I’ve always said it was at Dugway and now I see Miller’s byline says Nevada. Time for me to go back for more reading…

  10. rugger9 says:

    Why not Area 51? Good luck getting anything useful off of Google Earth.

    I’m not convinced it’s been taken out. Remember JudyJudyJudy is a stenographer for Scooter, who just happened to work for Darth. There are lots of things we do not know, but as discussed in the post the Senators and the journo who were attacked had clear ties to things desired politically [PATRIOT] or personally [Jenna photos] in relation to someone known to have a very mean streak.

    It fits very well indeed, but if that BACUS setup was the size claimed, then it literally could be anywhere.

  11. Jeff Kaye says:

    Of course, all of this “evidence” against DTRA is merely circumstantial. But to me, it is a circumstantial case that is far stronger than the FBI’s circumstantial case against Bruce Ivins.

    You aren’t kidding!

    Great work, Jim!

  12. Jim White says:

    @Jim White: Okay, the post is now corrected to reflect the proper location of the Project BACUS facility. Nothing has been deleted, but incorrect information is in strikethrough and Nevada Test Site has been inserted where appropriate.

  13. William Ockham says:

    @Jim White: According to GlobalSecurity.org

    Established in 1950, The Nevada Test Site (NTS) is a remote site that is buffered for public access by vast, federally-owned land masses that serve as a military gunnery range and a protected wildlife refuge . A unique national resource, the NTS is an outdoor laboratory and national experimental center occupying approximately 1,375 square miles (3,500 square kilometers or 864,000 acres), make this one of the largest secured areas in the United States. The Nevada Test Site (NTS) is located in Nye County in southern Nevada; the southernmost point of the NTS is about 65 miles (105 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas

    Also, see their write-up of the BACHUS site:

    http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/facility/nts-camp-12.htm

  14. propensity says:

    Thanks, Jim. I am so happy that someone is still on the trail.

    For me the most compelling evidence of a conspiracy is how quickly the FBI ruled it out. By late November 2001, “officials close to the investigation” were telling reporters that they were looking for a right wing rogue scientist. Sure enough, the investigation never deviated from that path. My assumption has always been that they arrived at that conclusion because of the targets. So for me, the motive behind selecting the targets was to reinforce/affirm the rogue conclusion.

  15. propensity says:

    One more item regarding the FBI.

    At the same time that the FBI began telling reporters the investigation was focused on a rogue scientist, Thomas Pickard retired and Dale Watson was elevated to Deputy Director. Once the investigation was safely in pursuit of it’s lone gunman, Mr. Watson retired in August 2002 to help Booz Allen coordinate “public/private partnerships in support of national security.”

  16. rugger9 says:

    @propensity: #15
    As noted above in comment #1, they needed to find a patsy to deflect attention away from the increasingly obvious realization that a traitor in the government [yes, I use the word to describe someone who outed a CIA asset in time of war, working on WMDs in the region] purposely engaged in domestic terrorism for his own currently heartless ends.

    And nothing will be done about him or his helpers.

  17. 3waygeek says:

    Thom Hartmann was talking about the anthrax case on his show earlier this week (Monday or Tuesday, I can’t recall which), and he specifically mentioned the Leahy/Daschle connection.

    That fact alone strongly suggests that the attacks were conducted by someone in the executive branch, and it sounds like the kind of thing Cheney would be behind. Cheney had to fuck Leahy, since Leahy wouldn’t fuck himself, as Cheney had previously requested.

  18. Skilly says:

    @Jim White:
    Jim,

    One would think that there could be records of who participated in the BACUS programs? Further, that there might be records of what they brewed and the sources for the products they made? I agree, 10 years is time to clean up, but what if they made an exercise of demonstrating how to weaponize anthrax, and then one of those participants decided to hold on to the “Sample” for some reason for use at a later date? They might not have the ability to purge the records or names? What do you think; too remote?

  19. ack says:

    Wow, great in depth post. But I thought that it wasn’t just the strain, but the layering of the spores and the, what was it, silicone?, used in the weaponization process that was one major sticking point in identifying the source of the anthrax, which eliminated the usamriid facility back east? Whether it was in or on the spore coat.

    Am I mistaken?

  20. Jim White says:

    @ack: Yes, the tin-catalyzed silicon polymerization process that may have been used to weaponize the spores certainly seems to rule out Ivins. I wrote about that here. And DTRA would have been able to get classified information on processing of this sort.

  21. Dan says:

    Jim,

    One possible trail I see is following up on who (individuals specifically)was involved in the inspections in ’96 & ’98 or operations at BACUS. As Propensity @16 mentions; two individuals who made moves up or out from this group, what about personnel who’s careers (or lives) went the other way (i.e. low level co-conspirators who were eliminated)? Any deaths of personnel involved in the inspections or BACUS operations?

    After all, if they were willing to kill Senators with this stuff a low level captain, major or civilian scientist would be no big deal.

  22. geoschmidt says:

    hey sweet heart… I may not be very good, but I am berry good. (hya hya hya… ) I am looking into these things, I am not a kook, although it may seem so. I am working it from my angle, I am working it… I am here to work it, and no I will keep doing my stuff, I will out bastards and mfr’s we need to keep the pressure up on em, we will put them away.

  23. chuckinduck says:

    If, the anthrax was sent for political reasons — the National Enquirer tie-in would be one odd reason. Did Ivins hate sorority girls in general but love Jenna Bush? I do not think he did.

    The reasons for the Stevens settlement – Ivins, lax security, to close the case?

    About the nuclear warhead that was flown down to Lousiana, I seem to remember some officers being fired. Were they crazy, incompentent, or doing it for political reasons.

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