Hey FBI?!? Who Put the Tin in Your Anthrax?

Last we heard from the FBI’s not-so-smoking gun in the anthrax case, USAMRIID admitted that they had no idea what kind of flasks of anthrax and other microbes its scientists had hidden around their labs, basically shredding the FBI’s claim that the anthrax used in the attacks on Congress and the Press could only have come from Bruce Ivins’ flask.

Now, we learn that the supposedly exact match between Ivins’ anthrax and that used in the attacks was not so close. (h/t fatster)

At a biodefence meeting on 24 February, Joseph Michael, a materials scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, presented analyses of three letters sent to the New York Post and to the offices of Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. Spores from two of those show a distinct chemical signature that includes silicon, oxygen, iron, and tin; the third letter had silicon, oxygen, iron and possibly also tin, says Michael. Bacteria from Ivins’ RMR-1029 flask did not contain any of those four elements.

Two cultures of the same anthrax strain grown using similar processes — one from Ivins’ lab, the other from a US Army facility in Utah — showed the silicon-oxygen signature but did not contain tin or iron. Michael presented the analyses at the American Society for Microbiology’s Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland.

The chemical mismatch doesn’t necessarily mean that deadly spores used in the attacks did not originate from Ivins’ RMR-1029 flask, says Jason Bannan, a microbiologist and forensic examiner at the FBI’s Chemical Biological Sciences Unit in Quantico, Virginia. The RMR-1029 culture was created in 1997, and the mailed spores could have been taken out of that flask and grown under different conditions, resulting in varying chemical contents. "It doesn’t surprise me that it would be different," he says.

The data suggest that spores for the three letters were grown using the same process, says Michael. It is not clear how tin and iron made their way into the culture, he says. Bannan suggests that the growth medium may have contained iron and tin may have come from a water source.

There are a couple of reasons why this damages the FBI operative story implicating Ivins. 

First, their chronology completely depends on Ivins’ late night work in his own lab at Ft. Detrick and assumes he was working from the "smoking gun" flask directly. Yet if the anthrax shows traces of being taken out of the flask, then it makes the FBI claim of a direct connection between Ivins’ flask and the anthrax used in the attack even more indirect. And clearly, if Ivins was working late in his lab the night before the anthrax was mailed, then he wasn’t taking the anthrax out of the lab to process somewhere with tin in its water. Furthermore, in all the searches of Ivins’ house and car, the FBI has never found any trace of anthrax spores–which is one of the reasons they posited that he worked on the anthrax in his lab.

And here’s one more weird thing. The FBI claims to have narrowed which labs with Ames strain anthrax might have been the source of the anthrax by tying the anthrax to something in Eastern Seaboard water. Yet now, to explain how tin may have ended up in anthrax purportedly tied to Ivins, scientists are pointing to water–presumably elsewhere–as the source.

Well, I suppose we could just wait for the National Academy of Science to recreate the FBI’s anthrax work to figure this all out, right? Apparently, though, they can’t even get the contract right to start work.

The academy is still in the process of drawing up a contract with the FBI that lays out an agreement to perform the study, says NAS spokeswoman Christine Stencel. 

I can’t help but wonder whether the contracting process here resembles the one used when the NAS cooked up a paper supporting Cheney’s killing of millions of fish in the Klamath basin (as reported by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker in the WaPo).

The thing to do, Cheney told Smith, was to get science on the side of the farmers. And the way to do that was to ask the National Academy of Sciences to scrutinize the work of the federal biologists who wanted to protect the fish.

Smith said he told Cheney that he thought that was a roll of the dice. Academy panels are independently appointed, receive no payment and must reach a conclusion that can withstand peer review.

"It worried me that these are individuals who are unreachable," Smith said of the academy members. But Cheney was firm, expressing no such concerns about the result. "He felt we had to match the science."

Smith also wasn’t sure that the Klamath case — "a small place in a small corner of the country" — would meet the science academy’s rigorous internal process for deciding what to study. Cheney took care of that. "He called them and said, ‘Please look at this, it’s important,’" Smith said. "Everyone just went flying at it."

William Kearney, a spokesman for the National Academies, said he was unaware of any direct contact from Cheney on the matter. The official request came from the Interior Department, he said.

It was Norton who announced the review, and it was Bush and his political adviser Karl Rove who traveled to Oregon in February 2002 to assure farmers that they had the administration’s support. A month later, Cheney got what he wanted when the science academy delivered a preliminary report finding "no substantial scientific foundation" to justify withholding water from the farmers.

There was not enough clear evidence that proposed higher lake levels would benefit suckerfish, the report found. And it hypothesized that the practice of releasing warm lake water into the river during spawning season might do more harm than good to the coho, which thrive in lower temperatures. [Read the report.]

[snip]

The science academy panel, in its final report, acknowledged that its draft report was "controversial," but it stood by its conclusions. Instead of focusing on the irrigation spigot, it recommended broad and expensive changes to improve fish habitat. [Read the final report]

"The farmers were grateful for our decision, but we made the decision based on the scientific outcome," said the panel chairman, William Lewis, a biologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "It just so happened the outcome favored the farmers."

But J.B. Ruhl, another member of the panel and a Florida State University law professor who specializes in endangered species cases, said the Bureau of Reclamation went "too far," making judgments that were not backed up by the academy’s draft report. "The approach they took was inviting criticism," Ruhl said, "and I didn’t think it was supported by our recommendations." [my emphasis]

 I wonder. Which of Cheney’s minions is negotiating with the NAS to do this anthrax study. And will that person convince the NAS to ignore the tin in the anthrax?

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15 replies
  1. JimWhite says:

    These reports are incredibly frustrating to anyone trying to follow the science. Without providing us with the full details of what really took place in the analyses, providing the data for us to see and comparing the results with samples prepared under known conditions, it’s really impossible to determine what the “results” mean. It just leaves us with piles of questions.

    For example, how much actual material is in RMR 1029? Is it dry or in liquid suspension? If in suspension, what is present besides water? Were the samples processed before the analysis was carried out; that is, were the spores “washed” to remove any other material before the elemental analysis was carried out?

    We know from previous results that the Daschle and Leahy samples are highly purified and the Post material is not so pure. The most likely result here, then, is that the Post sample is the one that doesn’t match the other two in its analysis, but the story doesn’t tell us that.

    The finding that is most revealing to me is that the B. subtilis contaminant does not match material from Ivins’ lab. Note that Batelle was working with B. subtilis and B. anthracis in parallel depending on whether they wanted pathogens in their work. All along, I’ve felt that the early, dilute material was a mixture of the “dummy” material with highly purified, weaponized material which was not diluted for the Daschle and Leahy mailings. These results are entirely consistent with such an explanation. They need to compare the DNA sequence information from the B. subtilis contaminant with strains developed at Batelle and other DOD facilities.

  2. 4jkb4ia says:

    I am sure EW is being sarcastic, but I also thought of that NAS study in Angler and Gellman concluded that the NAS was one bureaucratic step to create doubt. If they didn’t create doubt, Cheney would have done something else. The contract may be slow because there is no powerful bureaucratic figure pushing to get it done.

  3. FrankProbst says:

    We know from previous results that the Daschle and Leahy samples are highly purified and the Post material is not so pure. The most likely result here, then, is that the Post sample is the one that doesn’t match the other two in its analysis, but the story doesn’t tell us that.

    That was my initial impression from the reporting at the time, but then there were implications that those first two samples weren’t as pure as we’d been lead to believe, and I haven’t really seen anything definitive about it since then. Frankly, I’m not sure which scenario is worse. Either someone out there is really good at making weapons-grade anthrax (the initial impression), or even poorly-prepared anthrax–sent in a few envelopes that boldly announce its identity–can kill several people.

  4. FrankProbst says:

    I’m wondering whether the contract is slow bc the NAS is not buying off on the scope of the study.

    That certainly does seem odd to me. This would be a dream project for most forensic scientists. But I wouldn’t touch this unless I had (a) unfettered access to the FBIs files and samples, (b) similar access to USAMRIID, and (c) no confidentiality agreements, so I could publish whatever I found. I can’t imagine the government agreeing to any of those things.

  5. maeme says:

    For the sake of humanity, let’s hope that Obama has replaced the folks at NAS? Has he? What about the FBI; it appears as though they have been politized-corrupted as has every branch and department of our goverment and is still doing so? What about Mueller is he going to be replaced and/or is Holder in charge of them? Does anyone know?

  6. JohnLopresti says:

    The typical NAS approach of paywalling the final report is a classic fit for Cheney Rove science. I continue to be interested in the effects of the Klamath incident and the geopolitics which fostered it. That disaster has yet to be documented fully. I wonder if NatSecArchiv someday will see some of the emails that configured the Klamath protest which CheneyRove fomented. Veritably French agrarian politics that was.

    However, I give credit to NAS for permitting online read-only access to the final report, and its having configured the other (20pp interim report) for one-time-only free download.

  7. freepatriot says:

    so the FBI claim about Ivins is FALSE

    back in the day,the FBI said the spores could only have come from Ivins” flask

    now the FBI says “You can’t PROVE this didn’t come from Ivins’ flask”

    yeah …

    and the FBI can’t prove what it said was true, last month

    if the spores ain’t an exact match to Ivins’ spores, there is NO FUCKING TIE BETWEEN IVINS’ FLASK AND THIS CASE

    jebus, this ain’t rocket surgery, guys

    if I can figure this out, how dumb do you have to be to work for the FBI ???

  8. eCAHNomics says:

    I’d have taken the bet that it wasn’t Ivins. This has all the signs of an inside job, convered up.

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