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.
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.]
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?