USAMRID Lost Vials in 2003 AND 2009

Back in 2009, I noted that a report that USAMRID had lost track of its vials of anthrax sort of undermined the entire FBI case against Bruce Ivins.

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?

Well, as this important long Wired article on the FBI’s growing doubts about their case reveals, 2009 was not the first time USAMRID realized they didn’t have an adequate inventory of their anthrax. Discovering they had missed some samples is actually how they discovered the Ivins strain they claimed had been the source of the attack anthrax.

In December 2003, while conducting an inventory of one of USAMRIIDs biocontainment suites, investigators discovered 22 undocumented Ames anthrax samples. They began to fear that the repository they had spent nearly two years assembling might have gaping holes in it. So for the first time, the FBI decided to scour USAMRIID for any vials they had missed.

The institute staff fumed at the search—ongoing experiments would be disrupted, they shouted. Heine, Ivins’ coworker, decided to exact a bit of revenge on his FBI handler. While the agent was collecting samples in his lab—dressed in full protective gear—Heine handed her a vial and told her it was a deadly plague strain. The vial started shaking in the agent’s gloved hand. Heine cracked up. “They were entirely dependent on me to identify everything in every box,” he says. “I could’ve held up a critical piece of evidence, said it was something else, and put it aside. There’s no way they would’ve known.”

During the search, investigators took Ivins’ primary RMR-1029 store—not just a sample of the stuff, all of it. They skimmed a small amount into a vial, labeled it with an identification number, and sent it to Pat Worsham down the hall for analysis.

Now, it appears that investigators decided to focus on Ivins because 1) he had withheld the RMR-1029 in the past, and 2) he had concerning tendencies.

(And, probably, 3) their case against Hatfill was falling apart.)

But what Shachtman doesn’t explain is what happened to the other 22 vials they had missed … at USAMRID. Plus the ones (such as, at Dugway, which would be a more likely laboratory to have produced this anthrax) not declared elsewhere?

In other words, no matter how good the science was analyzing the specimens of anthrax they got, there’s abundant evidence that they didn’t do a comprehensive inventory in the early days of the investigation (at which point, legally, it was probably too late to apply this kind of analysis), and they can’t guarantee that the labs have an accurate inventory of their anthrax, much less that that anthrax all stayed in the official labs.

As one source for the story says,

“It would’ve been very easy to take the anthrax out, to steal some,” a former USAMRIID officer says. “Anybody could do that.”

So when they did analysis like this:

But of the 1,059 viable samples in the FBI’s Ames anthrax repository, eight regularly produced all of the mutants. One of those eight was Ivins’ RMR-1029 flask. The other seven were its subsamples. This ruled out Hatfill, who did not have access to RMR-1029 during his time at USAMRIID. (Later, the Justice Department agreed to pay Hatfill a $5.8 million settlement and issued an official letter exonerating him. Condè9 Nast also agreed to an undisclosed settlement. The New York Times case was dismissed.) And while dozens of other scientists did have access to the RMR-1029 subsamples, they were being slowly crossed off the list. As each alibi and exculpatory story checked out, the investigators gravitated closer to Ivins.

They weren’t necessarily starting from a valid initial list of suspects.

It’s a problem Wired’s article–and the scientists who did the analysis–admit.

But the National Research Council found that the FBI’s collection can’t be fully trusted: Too many of the samples were intermingled or descended from other labs’ anthracis to provide a truly representative cross-section of Ames anthrax. This may also be a reason why nearly one in 10 samples in the repository tested positive for at least one mutant.Paul Keim, who helped assemble the FBI’s Ames collection, still wonders how much to trust an anthrax repository that relied on scientists (and potential murder suspects) submitting their own samples. “We don’t know if people did it correctly, and there’s no real way to control for that,” Keim says.

Even if everyone was aboveboard, it’s unclear whether the FBI accounted for every last anthrax sample. Each time Ivins gave his colleague Hank Heine a batch of spores for an experiment, for example, Heine would save a milliliter or two, in case the experiment went wrong. “It’s just good scientific practice,” Heine says. “I had numerous samples of RMR-1029.” It’s hard to imagine he was the only scientist with such a collection. Because the subsamples were so small and largely undocumented, it took the FBI nearly three years to stock its repository—plenty of time for a researcher to dispose of an incriminating batch.

Which is why I think that–for all the value in this article–Wired is too creduluous.

But despite all these flaws, the circumstantial evidence remains compelling. It could just be a coincidence that the killer spores were ultimately traced back to a single parent flask and that this flask just happened to be overseen by a depressed scientist with occasional violent fantasies. It could just be a coincidence that this same scientist screwed up his anthrax submission to the FBI—even though he helped develop the submission protocols. It could just be a coincidence that his after-hours work spiked right before the mailings. But put all of those coincidences together and something stronger than happenstance emerges. For the Justice Department, it’s enough to prove Ivins was the anthrax mailer.

Put it this way. There’s one question–who made the anthrax. And the NAS has said only that it is likely tied to Ivins’ flask, but that it is at least one generation removed from that, and that they don’t know that the suspicious days would have provided nearly enough time to make the anthrax (not to mention the fact that my impression is that the FBI only showed that Ivins was spending a lot of time at the lab in their proposed production nights, not that his time there had spiked over time).

But that is entirely independent of the question of who stuck it in an envelope and mailed it to some explicitly political targets and some well-chosen media types (plus Judy Miller and her fake stash).

There is an entirely plausible scenario in which Ivins realized, because he was cooperating so closely with the FBI and because he was telling them to do the right thing, that his anthrax was a likely strain (though, as the NAS points out, that’s only one of the strains used in the attack–it doesn’t account for the journalists’ attacks). But Ivins’ behavior–particularly for a weird socially maladjusted science type–is as easily explained by a panic because he had no explanation for what happened. Or, alternately, he could have been covering for people who ordered him to give them a sample.

There are a whole lot of possibilities. But one thing’s clear. The FBI used faulty investigative work to equate biological evidence developed under evidentiarily inadequate conditions with guilt for the crime itself. And that’s really not what we’re paying the FBI to do.

  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Like the truth in the X-Files, the Anthrax mailer is still out there.

    There’s also that little coinkydink that the well-publicized stories of anthrax attacks – and the deaths and fear the mailings in fact generated – were pivotal events in persuading the public, primed by 9/11 – to support an Iraq invasion and a long war built on lies.

  2. JTMinIA says:

    I know you all think I’m an idiot to believe in a wild double-bluff theory, but why do *you* think Hatfill ended up working to help the Bush Admin make phony bio-weapons-truck stories if he hated them so much for ruining his life?

    ps. to anyone vacuuming this up, I would have made you such a truck for a lot less than $5.8M

  3. BoxTurtle says:

    The FBI is SOOOOO lucky that Irvins isn’t around to contest his guilt.

    Boxturtle (It IS luck, right?)

    • emptywheel says:

      Sort of “forced” luck, I think.

      I’m not a lawyer, but IMO there is NO WAY they would have gotten a conviction of him. Everything on this depends on the genetic work on the anthrax. And even if that hadn’t been shown to be flawed by the NAS, and even if their claims that he could have made the anthrax on the nights they placed him in the hot lab, a decent lawyer would be able to introduce a whole lot of doubt about their claim that they had eliminated other potential sources.

      And from that they’d have to place Ivins sending the anthrax, which they have absolutely zero evidence of.

      And as Shachtman’s article makes clear, they never asked him about accomplices. Instead, they just used to really stupid KKG story (which he himself identified for them as an obsession) to fill in a giant investigative hole.

      • Jeff Kaye says:

        As to Ivins identifying him self as someone with “obsessions”, I can tell you as a long-time psychotherapist, one takes with a grain of salt patients self-diagnoses, which are usually far too self-punitive and negative.

        As for his means to do the crime, the story also makes clear that Ivins worked with wet spores, not dry spores, as used in the crime. He had no known facility to create the dry, aerolized (sp?) spores, nor the expertise. Indeed, one of the fascinating moments in the article is Ivins’ amazement, as witnessed by others, when he first saw the spores from the envelopes.

        From a psychological standpoint, Ivins mental status continued to deteriorate as he came under suspicion. He always maintained his innocence, even as his ego functions came apart. One cannot believe the kind of pressure brought to bear when the federal government comes down hard on you, and makes you out to be a terrorist or mass murderer. Despite the very real problems with the identification of the anthrax, the FBI proceeded to delve into Ivins personal life, and use that material to shame him and implicate him. And when he killed himself, they crowned themselves with laurels over his grave.

        • lefty665 says:

          One cannot believe the kind of pressure brought to bear when the federal government comes down hard on you, and makes you out to be a terrorist or mass murderer.

          There’s no mention of things like offering Ivins’ son millions of dollars and a sports car to rat him out, or showing his daughter pictures of anthrax victims and telling her that her dad did it, or, or, or… Looks like Wired has mostly helped the FBI get its story out yet again.

          Remember, there were two waves of letters. The first went to media and contained anthrax described as “coarse brown granular material looking like Purina Dog Chow”. The second wave, about three weeks later, went out on Oct 9 to the senators. It contained the “highly refined dry powder consisting of nearly pure spores”.

          Different material, different technology, different targets, different time. Could there have been different perps? Nah, even the fbi could have figured that out.

          • orionATL says:

            so, maybe two sets of perpetrators with two very different objectives?

            there are so many relevant details i’d forgotten until this post of ew’s and ensuing comments.

            busy mainstream journalists or delibrately evasive federal police can pick and chose their facts ten yrs ex post facto.

            i suppose we’ll have the whole picture put together in somebody’s book some day.

  4. BoxTurtle says:

    They would never have got to the question of guilt or innocence, IMO. I think a fair amount of their evidence would not be admissable and everything else could be challenged. A prosecutor might take the case if ORDERED to do so, but I doubt he’d do it if given a choice.

    I still feel the FBI (well, the government) has solved the case, but they need to cover it up because it points to an undeclared bioweapon location. Or perhaps ghost is right for once and this really was a false flag operation.

    Boxturtle (Would like to see the case re-investigated independently)

  5. orionATL says:

    the most expensve investigation in fbi history.

    a huge numbers of interviews.

    an emotionally unstable individual chosen by the fbi as it’s designated “perpetrator”, read “its designated victim”

    (is there any chance at all that the fbi did not know beforehand that ivins was a candidate for suicide- a perpetrator candidate whose likely death would allow them to shut down this dangerous case?)

    is there ANY major national security investigation the fbi has not fucked up?

    my steady conspiracy theory from the time hatfill was absolved:

    the anthrax was spread with the encourage of rumsfeld and his pnac pals at the dept of defense.

    the super-security associated with biological weapons would make it very difficult for any subsequent investigation to succeed, let alone an fbi investigation.

    i seem to recall that the fbi conducted two versions of the anthrax case.

    the first lasted say six years and resulted in nothing.

    those folks were kicked out and a new team of fbi brought it.

    this crack team succeeded in getting ivins to committ suicide and get the case closed in a mere two years.

    always keep the wide focus:

    the bush admin was trying to stampede the nation into war aginst a country not involved in the sept,2001 attack on nyc.

    ask yourself:

    how much do you believe in extraordinary luck – luck involving lucky timing and lucky substance (an honest-to-god WMD right here on american soil)?????

    • Gitcheegumee says:

      A notable occurrence in 2003 was the death of British germ warfare and weapons inspector,David Kelley.(Kelley did not agree that Iraq had WMD,btw.)

      His death was officially ruled a suicide,and the results of his postmortem are to be kept secret for 70 years.

      Global has a series of articles authored by Tom Burghardt that are some of the best I have yet read on the subject of Kelley and the bio warfare weapons.

      • Gitcheegumee says:

        Dick Cheney’s “Executive Assassination Ring”.Jul 17, 2009 … Dick Cheney’s “Executive Assassination Ring”. Was British Weapons Expert Dr. David Kelly a Target ? by Tom Burghardt … – Cached –

        Hersh: “Executive Assassination Ring” Answered to Cheney …Mar 12, 2009 … It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on … See more stories tagged with: cia, dick cheney, robert gates, ……/seymour_hersh:_%22executive_assassination_ring%22_ answered_to_cheney,_had_no_congressional_oversight/ – Cached – Similar

        NOTE: The first link is especially germane to the topic of this thread.Very informative and worth while,imho.

        • Gitcheegumee says:

          Also of significance,circa 2003:

          Operation Rockingham – Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaOperation Rockingham was the codeword for UK involvement in inspections in Iraq … – Cached

          -Rockingham – sourcewatchAug 11, 2008 … According to reporter Neil Mackay of the Sunday Herald, Operation Rockingham was “a covert ‘dirty tricks’ operation” set up by the British …

  6. Jeff Kaye says:

    Steven Hatfill, Richard Jewell, Wen Ho Lee (who was kept 278 days in solitary confinement, fyi), Brandon Mayfield… I’d say we have a serial abuser here.

    While we’re at it, why is FBI agent Robert Fuller still on the force, you know, the one who ran an informant so poorly he set himself on fire outside the White House; the agent who forced Omar Khadr to finger the totally innocent Maher Arar, who was directly rendered to torture?

    Under cross-examination at a pre-military commission hearing, FBI agent Robert Fuller provides a version of an interrogation of detainee Omar Khadr different to the one he gave a day earlier under direct examination (see January 19, 2009). Fuller had previously described an interrogation of Khadr at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan where Khadr linked a terror suspect named Maher Arar to al-Qaeda (see October 7-22, 2002) through a photograph identification. However, a lawyer for Khadr pulls out Fuller’s contemporary report of the interrogation and shows that the identification did not happen immediately, as Fuller initially claimed, but that it took several minutes. Lawyers for Khadr will also argue that their client made false statements to interrogators to avoid abuse, and that Arar was in the US and Canada at the time Khadr said he saw him in Afghanistan. [CBC News, 1/20/2009; Canwest News Service, 1/20/2009]

    Who was punished for the crimes of Cointelpro? Or for the systematic widespread abuse of “exigent letters” by the FBI, as found in a DOJ IG report last year? Or for refusing to intervene to stop torture at Guantanamo, in fact, being ordered to turn away from it, even as FBI agents used interrogation tactics that one of them, Ali Soufan, admitted under oath wouldn’t pass Geneva Common Article 3 standards?

    Oh, nobody.

    What credibility does the FBI have — and this with the admission that there are many honest and hard-working agents — given their track record?

    Answer: None.

  7. orionATL says:


    i’m glad i thought to check back here.

    these are a bunch of good cites.


    • Gitcheegumee says:

      YVW, and just for the timeline record:

      “Mission to Niger” column by Robert Novak revealing identity of CIA operative and Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame was published July,14,2003.

      David Kelley was found dead in the English woods on July 17,2003..just three days later.