USAMRIID Can’t Keep Track of Its Microbes

Now, what do you make of the fact that USAMRIID, the lab at which Bruce Ivins was alleged to have made the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks, is having problems cataloging and tracking their high-risk microbes and biomaterials (h/t Danger Room)?

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) has suspended research activities involving biological select agents and toxins. Army officials took the step on Friday after discovering apparent problems with the system of accounting for high-risk microbes and biomaterials at the Fort Detrick, Maryland, facility.

The lab has been under intense scrutiny since August, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) named former USAMRIID researcher Bruce Ivins as the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks. Although the case never went to trial because of Ivins’s suicide on 29 July 2008, FBI officials have claimed that the evidence against him is indisputable and that he carried out the mailings using anthrax stolen from a flask at USAMRIID.

Officials have begun a complete inventory of all select agents and toxins at the facility. All experiments using select agents will remain suspended until the accounting is finished, which could take several weeks. Several USAMRIID researchers have been grumbling about the decision, which seems to have caught them by surprise, according to a government official not connected to the lab.

The decision was announced by institute commander Col. John Skvorak in a 4 February memo to employees. The memo, which ScienceInsider has obtained, says the standard of accountability that USAMRIID had been applying to its select agents and toxins was not in line with the standard required by the Army and the Department of Defense. [my empahsis]

One key to the FBI case against Ivins, after all, is that he had complete control over the sole flask that contained the strain of anthrax used in the attack. But now we come to find out that, more than six months after his death, they still don’t have a sound inventory of what they have where?

I’d say that FBI case is looking weaker and weaker. 

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

26 replies
  1. wavpeac says:

    I just can’t imagine that? Can’t prove he did, and can’t prove he didn’t. Well basically this means you can’t prove much of anything. How perfect is that? Not inept. Just really good at accomplishing their own agenda, with relatively few consequences.

  2. WilliamOckham says:

    I think you missed the important part. Here’s what the memo says is the problem:

    USAMRIID officials believed that a satisfactory accounting involved finding all the items listed on its database; the Army and DOD wanted the converse—that is, all select agents and toxins needed to be matched to the database.

    [My emphasis]

    This is not some minor difference they’re talking about. The Army and DOD are doing something that would shut down off-the-books research. Are they worried about free-lancing scientists? Or ‘black ops’ programs?

    • emptywheel says:

      Right, but that’s precisely the point WRT Ivins, right?

      THey say they’ve accounted for his one vial of anthrax.

      But no one has gone through every office to find every vial to see if it was catalogued and if any of those non-catalogued ones was full of that same strain.

      Of course, Ivins himself had uncatalogued stuff, so they should have done this back in July. I wonder why they didn’t rush to do that…

      • WilliamOckham says:

        I’m not disagreeing with your post, just saying that I don’t this is really connected to the Anthrax attacks or Ivins. It seems unlikely to me that somebody just now noticed this discrepancy. The FBI is not that incompetent. The memo went out on Feb. 4. That suggests to me that the proximate cause was the new occupant of the White House.

        • Peterr says:

          The FBI is not that incompetent.

          Objection!

          Presumes facts not in evidence.

          I’d say that the dubious quality of the database is highly relevant. One of the early steps in the investigation had to have been the FBI coming in and asking, “OK, in your database of toxins, how many anthrax strains do you have in this lab? How many separate vials/storage units of each strain? Who has access to each strain?”

          If your database is a piece of garbage, it guarantees that the answer you give to the FBI is also garbage.

          • WilliamOckham says:

            I’ll argue that during the course of the investigation, long before they fingered Ivins, the FBI would have discovered the fact that the official database was useless. If I had time, I’d go dig out evidence from the statements, but I have to go answer your other question:

            If we were talking about a payroll database, and the accountant said “we discovered that everyone in our database got a paycheck last month,” I’d say “that’s great, but did everyone who should have gotten a paycheck get one?”

            [Seriously, my day job involves, among other things, making sure that 100,000+ people get the right W-2s.]

            • emptywheel says:

              But we know tey didn’t, because (at least according to public documents) they didn’t ask Ivins for all the samples in his office, and did not find out for years that he had multiple samples in his office.

              The flask in question is precisely the kind of thing that they would find if they worked backwards. They had to discover when they discovered the flask and tested it–no earlier than 2006 and probably later–that their database didn’t match up. But there is zero evidence that they went into other labs to see if they, too, were hiding other flasks. From what the available evidence says, they worked solely off the available database and access records recording movement of people (but not flasks) between offices.

              • WilliamOckham says:

                Ok, I’ll revise what I said and say that when they discovered that sample, they knew the database was a problem. The FBI and Army have known for quite a while that this was a problem.

              • WilliamOckham says:

                Well, I could, but that’d get me fired…

                And it wouldn’t really do any good because they wouldn’t match the IRS records….

                The point is, of course, that we do a better job getting payroll taxes right than those guys were doing with tracking their biowarfare samples. I was just going ballistic on somebody this morning because they did something that makes it harder to track what happened with one person for whom we will have to issue a corrected form (only the name is wrong on the W-2, but on Friday it looked like we might have credited the wrong SSN with the wages). In our systems (which I think could be significantly improved), it took mistakes by 4 different people to create the possibility of this problem. In Ft. Detrick’s system, there was essentially no control. It’d be laughable if it weren’t so scary.

                • selise says:

                  LOL.

                  i just think it’s a lot, A LOT, harder to keep track of biological samples that can be cultured from a tiny amount – such a tiny amount i don’t see how it would be possible to know it was missing. imo it’s much much harder than, for example, keeping track of radioactive material. stuff that reproduces from microscopic amounts is another matter entirely.

                  if safety is the concern, then imo the first thing we ought to be doing something about is the explosion of building since 911 for bsl-4 labs (iirc ivins only worked in a bsl-3 lab) all over the country including in major metropolitan areas. insane.

            • whitewidow says:

              Late with this comment, but I’ll add it for the archives.

              And there’s one more question:

              Was everyone who was issued a paycheck an actual person?

              From an auditing standpoint, when you trace from the actual vials, etc. forward to the database, then you are testing for completeness. In other words, are all of the assets that exist recorded on the books? Auditors will always do samples both ways. From the records to actual inventory, and from inventory to records. When you go from the books to the inventory, then you are testing for existence. Do all the assets recorded on the books actually exist in the warehouse?

              It is beyond disturbing that so little care was taken in keeping track of this stuff.

        • emptywheel says:

          Help me understand.

          I agree that they may end up finding black ops programs–and that Cheney likely didn’t want anyone to know about those things (although note, this is the one part of the administration that hasn’t changed, DOD, entirely, though I’m not sure who this would fall under and whether this person is new).

          But is it possible that someone was making the anthrax as part of a black op, after having gotten the strain from Ivins’ test tube?

    • Peterr says:

      Or they simply realize that the database exists to monitor/track the actual agents/toxins, and not the other way around.

      I don’t care what kind of database you are in charge of — finding all the items listed on your database tells you NOTHING about what you actually have. It just means that whoever did the data entry did an unknown part of their job correctly. If your database lists ten toxins, and among the 100 bottles on the lab bench, you find ten bottles with the right labels, that does not speak well for the quality of your database. Indeed, it might encourage someone to ask “What the hell have you been doing around here?!?”

      If we were talking about a payroll database, and the accountant said “we discovered that everyone in our database got a paycheck last month,” I’d say “that’s great, but did everyone who should have gotten a paycheck get one?”

      Two very different questions.

  3. BoxTurtle says:

    That “chain of custody” was the key piece of evidence against Irvins. I would NOT want to have to prosecute Irvins, based on the publicly available evidence.

    Boxturtle (VERY convenient suicide, eh?)

  4. wavpeac says:

    yah, it fits a government theory as long as no one asks any more questions.

    Its makes their certainty that it was Ivins all the more suspicious. They can’t possibly no it for a fact and they have to know they don’t know it.

    Ugh.

  5. wavpeac says:

    “no it for a fact”…omg. Spell check wouldn’t fix that one. Can you tell I was a champion speller and winner of the state spelling bee in the middle ages? ugh. But I did mispell the word jeep in a big spelling contest at my school…jeep…G e e p. Yep I did that. I gnu better.

    • acquarius74 says:

      I remember reading a news blip shortly after W was inaugurated that Cheney (or Rumsfeld?) had made an inspection trip to Ft Detrick…he just wanted to see what’s down there since it was in his jurisdiction.

      hmmmm, must have been Rumsfeld.

      My search skills are primitive. If this seems relevant, would one of you experts see what you can find?

  6. ezdidit says:

    I was wondering what Angler was doing still loitering about in D.C. Thanks for clearing that up, Marcy. The next false flag op in the terrorizing opus of Republicans: bioterror.

    Naked Credit Default Swaps weren’t good enough to prove Repugs abject failure.

  7. emptywheel says:

    Incidentally, I was reading this morning that they used a bioterrer law to get the records from the salmonella peanut butter company, which they otherwise couldn’t force the company to turn over.

    So Shooter’s obsessions actually had useful application.

  8. emptywheel says:

    No, could well be Cheney. He (and more specifically, his sidekick Scooter “Germ” Libby were in charge of biodefense. That’s why they actually fit most of the motives ascribed to Ivins better than Ivins does.

  9. ColleenaDailyLurker says:

    With bacteria you don’t need to remove a vial to take a tiny amount and grow up more. Labs do every day. Trying to go through the database and line up vials is laughable. I do research for a living. I am sure there are protocols that should be followed, but in the real world not so much.

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