FBI’s Lone Wolf Case Against Ivins Continues to Crumble

Ivins' RMR-1029 flask, identified genetically as the likely source from which the attack material was cultured.

Back in May, McClatchy provided new information that added signficant doubt to the FBI’s accusation that Bruce Ivins worked alone in the 2001 anthrax attacks.  The key information McClatchy reported was that in addition to the already known abnormally high silicon content in the spores found in the attack material, high concentrations of tin were often found in association with the silicon.  They then went on to provide convincing evidence that this unique chemical fingerprint could have come about from a process in which a tin-catalyzed polymerization of silicon-containing precursor molecules was employed to confer on the spores their unique properties which allowed them suspend very easily in air.  The key point in this observation is that this highly sophisticated chemical treatment of the spores requires both expertise and equipment that Ivins did not have, making it impossible for him to have carried out the attacks alone if the spores were indeed treated with this process.

This morning, William Broad and Scott Shane continue this thread of argument in a New York Times article. Broad and Shane report that the scientists who first raised the tin-silicon combination issue now have a scientific article coming out in the Journal of Bioterrorism & Biodefense:

F.B.I. documents reviewed by The New York Times show that bureau scientists focused on tin early in their eight-year investigation, calling it an “element of interest” and a potentially critical clue to the criminal case. They later dropped their lengthy inquiry, never mentioned tin publicly and never offered any detailed account of how they thought the powder had been made.

The new paper raises the prospect — for the first time in a serious scientific forum — that the Army biodefense expert identified by the F.B.I. as the perpetrator, Bruce E. Ivins, had help in obtaining his germ weapons or conceivably was innocent of the crime.

Here is how I described the science behind the current question when the McClatchy article was published:

The FBI carried out a special form electron microscopy that could identify the location of the silicon in the spores from the attack material. They found that the silicon was in a structure called the the spore coat, which is inside the most outer covering of the spore called the exosporium. If silica nanoparticles had been used to disperse the spores, these would have been found on the outside of the exosporuim (see this diary for a discussion of this point and quotes from the scientific literature) because they are too large to penetrate it.  No silicon signature was seen on the outside edge of the exosporium.  What is significant about the type of silicon treatment suggested in the McClatchy piece is that both high silicon and high tin measurements were found in several samples and that there is an alternative silicon treatment that would involve a tin-catalyzed polymerization of silicon-containing precursor molecules. McClatchy interviewed scientists who work with this process and they confirmed that the ratio of silicon to tin found by the FBI is in the range one would expect if such a polymerization process had been used.

What McClatchy doesn’t mention in their report is that it would seem for a polymerization process of this sort, the silicon-containing precursor molecules would be small enough to penetrate the exosporium before being polymerized, or linked together into much larger molecules, once they reached the spore coat. This would mimic the location of silicon incorporated “naturally” into spores.

In today’s article, Broad and Shane report that both Alice Gast, who chaired the National Academy of Science panel that reviewed the FBI’s scientific work and Nancy Kingsbury, the head of an ongoing Government Accountability Office analysis, agree that the silicon-tin issue is worthy of further investigation.

In my ongoing analysis of the known scientific facts surrounding the anthrax attacks, I have been insistent that further attention needs to be paid to secret government laboratories as the potential real source of the attack material.  Broad and Shane appear to be headed in that same direction:

If Dr. Ivins did not make the powder, one conceivable source might be classified government research on anthrax, carried out for years by the military and the Central Intelligence Agency. Dr. Ivins had ties to several researchers who did such secret work.

Note that since Ivins “had ties” to several researchers within these classified facilities, that opens a direct route by which such a facility could have received a sample from Ivins’ RMR-1029 flask which has been identified genetically as the likely precursor from which the attack material was cultured.

We also learn this morning that on Tuesday evening, the PBS series Frontline will air an episode produced in cooperation with McClatchy and ProPublica.  This report will center on the tremendous pressure the FBI applied to Ivins and how such pressure “can shred an individual’s life”:

According to this hard-edged report done in partnership with McClatchy Newspapers and Propublica, the FBI did more than zero in. Under tremendous pressure to solve the case that started in 2001 with anthrax mailed to U.S. senators and network anchors, the agency squeezed Ivins hard — using every trick in the book to get a confession out of him even as he insisted on his innocence to the end.

Ivins was a troubled guy with some distinctive kinks, the report acknowledges, but even FBI consultants in the case now admit that the agency overstated its evidence and never found a smoking gun to prove the researcher’s guilt. In fact, evidence was revealed last summer that shows Ivins did not have the equipment needed to make the powdery kind of anthrax sent through the mail. That didn’t stop the FBI then — or now — in acting like it found its man.

Even as both scientists and journalists poke gaping holes in their now-closed investigation, the FBI continues to stand firm in its position that Ivins acted alone in the anthrax attacks, and their spokesman reiterated this position to Broad and Shane.  Given the apparent momentum of the scientists and journalists, though, the FBI’s position begins to look more and more like something Saddam Hussein’s infamous “Baghdad Bob” would spout.


48 replies
  1. allan says:

    “a scientific article coming out in the Journal of Bioterrorism & Biodefense”

    Shorter Robert Mueller: Who are you going to believe, me or your peer-reviewed lying eyes?

  2. Jim White says:

    @allan: Yup, this journal is indeed peer-reviewed. It also is not subscription-based, so once the article is published (I can’t find it yet, even among their “in press” articles), it will be freely available to everyone on their website.

  3. Winston says:

    I believe that it’s only for political reasons that the investigation isn’t directed toward a foreign source for this anthrax. The question that should be asked is, “What nation state(s) would have most benefited from inciting further fear of middle eastern countries after 9/11 in order to promote major US military actions in that area?”

  4. phred says:

    Thanks for continuing to do such a great job following this story Jim. I was stunned when we learned that Ivins didn’t have the ability to make the powder. That should have been the end of that particular avenue of inquiry. Period. Full stop.

    The fact that the FBI to this day is sticking to their Ivins story suggests to me that not only did they know he was innocent, but that they know who is guilty and they are protecting the guilty party(ies).

  5. rugger9 says:

    The reason that the FBI is still pointing fingers at a dead man must have something to do with the real perps who still walk the streets with us. And let’s not forget that Ivins was Contestant #2 in this charade by the FBI, they had to pay out some pretty high $$$ to Hatfill, Contestant #1.

    It had to be someone so powerfully connected that the FBI wouldn’t dare to touch them. That makes for a short list. It had to be someone who could access the Ft Detrick operation to get what they wanted. That makes the list shorter. It had to be someone willing to kill innocents to get their way, in something like a “Pearl-Harbor” style of attack, in order to get policy changes [like the PATRIOT Act] that they wanted, in compliance to the PNAC vision. I note that the anthrax letters stopped after passage of PATRIOT. That makes the list even shorter, but does still include Cheney and his followers.

    Ivins doesn’t fit Points 1 or 3, and his lack of equipment for introducing tin means Point 2 is doubtful, especially without leaving any documentation trail, even for consumables.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that this was planned and in progress prior to the 9/11 attacks, and was continued once the perps figured out that the D Senate wasn’t going along with the PATRIOT hysteria.

  6. Katie Jensen says:

    Well, it really makes me cynical regarding what that man went through and how he died. It’s really scary to think of the pressure they were putting on him in the end, and what he must have gone through. Makes me sick.

  7. Jim White says:

    @rugger9: I find it hard to argue with much of anything in what you say.

    However, I’m personally still on the fence regarding just how much the FBI really knows. Keep in mind that prior to 9/11, there were restrictions on flow of info between the CIA and FBI. Many of those barriers were reduced with the PATRIOT Act and other legislative atrocities, but I still doubt that the FBI would have been read into a false-flag attack. On the other hand, it’s easy enough to see extreme institutional pressure for the FBI merely to close the case, no matter how weak. Even though I strongly suspect DoD/CIA sources for the attacks, I also doubt an active cover-up for FBI when their actions also can be explained through a simple desire to get themselves out of the spotlight on something that is far above their level of understanding.

  8. What Constitution says:

    Maybe, I dunno, BRIAN ROSS could now let us know the identity of the four “government officials” who falsely told him that there was bentonite in the anthrax, suggesting Iraqi origin.

  9. orionATL says:

    i follow your work on the ivan’s case with great interest.

    the crunch revealed by this new reporting seems to be between the genetic analysis of anthrax in a flak in ivan’s lab


    a chemical analysis revealing a silicon and tin constituency that ivans could not have “added” in his lab.

    did he have the knowledge to do so even if he lacked the equipment?

    my impression is “no”.

    for future reference re the wider science and national security issue,

    NATURE, sept 8, 2011

    has two short articles:

    “the price of protection” by erika check hayden


    “homeland insecurity” by peter d. zimmerman

    short excerpt: we’ve spent $60 billion on biodefense since 2011

  10. William Ockham says:

    @Jim White: We should never underestimate the power of bureaucratic inertia at this point. The FBI and DOJ put their full weight behind the notion that Ivins was the lone wolf perp. Moving them off that position will be next to impossible.

    The other thing we should remember is that the producer of the spores isn’t necessarily the anthrax mailer. I think the current state of knowledge (based on the sources you’ve gathered) suggests that the producer of the spores was part of a sophisticated germ warfare operation. The mailer, on the other hand, seems clever, but rather less sophisticated. I would posit a scenario which involves the theft of the spores from a secret U.S. agency by an individual with some sort of ax to grind. Because we don’t admit to having an active germ warfare capacity, the agency involved will never, ever admit what happened.

  11. Mary says:

    “the tremendous pressure the FBI applied to Ivins and how such pressure ‘can shred an individual’s life'”

    No link, but I’m pretty sure I saw something recently about the fact that of the convctions that have been overturned on DNA evidence, there were “confessions” in around 25% People don’t realize how much the interrogator and hteir expectations/goals/techniques set up the response.

  12. BoxTurtle says:

    @phred: Don’t assme they’re protecting the guilty parties. I think they’re protecting the location where the guilty party worked and the work the guilty party was doing. My bet is that the guilty party in not walking the street, but is either stowed in a black site somewhere or had an unfortunate accident trying to escape.

    Boxturtle (And Obama supports the coverup because he doesn’t want the job or location public, either)

  13. Jay Marla says:

    Wow! I’ll just bet Frontline gets right to the bottom of this!! Do you think they’ll even bother to mention that anthrax was the casus belli for the Iraq Invasion? Or that Cheney and staff began taking Cipro the evening if 9/11, days before the first anthrax was mailed?

    As if ProPubica, replete with its own CIA-sponsored journalists and founding editor (hey, it’s a living), could get to the bottom of anything here. But hey, as the old Company saying goes, ‘there are heroes in the woodwork”!! Too bad the ship of state is rotten.

  14. phred says:

    @BoxTurtle: I respectfully disagree. I would bet a great deal that the guilty party is out and about, living happily ever after. However, I do agree that protecting the source (as in the lab and project) of the powdered anthrax is just as important, if not more so, than the individual(s) who popped it in the mail.

    It strikes me as extraordinarily unlikely that a disgruntled employee would just happen to pick that particular time and those particular targets coincidentally to 9/11 and the USA-PATRIOT Act. It just doesn’t pass the smell test. That suggests the sudden appearance of weapons-grade anthrax from what is almost undoubtedly a United States federally funded lab had someone’s blessing.

    I would expect that the culprit(s) is as likely to be investigated and prosecuted as Raymond Davis.

  15. radii says:

    war is a racket and the 9/11-Anthrax attacks created the climate of fear, the “new Pearl Harbor” that the war machine wanted to fund its campaign of looting the US Treasury and “re-shaping the map” … hopefully the truth will come out, but I doubt it, about which state actors were really pushing for the success of 9/11-Anthrax (I can think of two easily)

  16. earlofhuntingdon says:

    For fallible soldiers of the state, it’s always a lone gunman’s fault. They seemed to have decided since at least the Kennedy era that such an explanation works best, even or especially when they identify the wrong gunman. There can never be more than one perp, never a conspiracy, let alone an unsolved one. Nor can crimes involve rogue elements in the government itself, which might include laughable lapses in routine physical and virtual security, such as “friendly” exchanges of biochemical samples among scientists already cleared at far above top secret, or military computer systems reliant on removable media, which make them absurdly vulnerable to attack.

  17. Roman Berry says:

    I’m not sure how a comment like this well be taken here, but what the heck…

    The sloppy investigation of the anthrax attacks, the push to place guilt — Yeah, this guy…he did it. OK, he didn’t. But this guy did. Trust us. We’re never wrong. Besides, he isn’t around to say otherwise — and the way officialdom more or less acts as though the anthrax attacks never happened and aren’t worth mentioning always leaves me wondering if finding the real perpetrators might be inconvenient and scandalously embarrassing. I don’t necessarily believe we know the truth, and I don’t necessarily believe that those at the highest levels (then or now) mean for us to.

  18. bmaz says:

    @Roman Berry: Well Roman, first off, welcome; hope you stick around on other topics as well. That said, your thought is not only welcome here, but what we have been saying, in detail, for years.

  19. BoxTurtle says:

    @phred: *sputter* Disagree?!? With me?!?! Why, if I had a drone I’d show you!

    Your theory is as valid as mine. I kinda like the idea of putting the fellow in witness protection in return for silence. It’s just the sort of deal Obama would make.

    Boxturtle (Knowing we’re both speculating, a true SOB would have demanded you prove him wrong)

  20. BoxTurtle says:

    @Roman Berry: Welcome! Check the archives here and at FDL and you’ll find a lot of interesting data from various people that support your theory. The Wheelhouse will eventually bust this one open.

    Boxturtle (Would Obama secretly pardon such a person?)

  21. al75 says:

    I posted the other day about David Willman’s book “Mirage Man” changing my pov to support Ivins’ guilt.

    This new story – particularly the National Academy of Sciences report – forces me to again reconsider my view.

    In my experience, the National Academy is the last stop on the train in terms of politics-free science. My career as a health professional doesnt’ leave me with the expertise to assess the technical aspects of this probelem – but the Nat’l Academy has the expertise.

    So…I don’t know what to think. Ivins just doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to have conspired with other people. There are many aspects of his behavior that are unusual and very weird – not least his access to anthrax and the long stints he put in in the “hot suites” just before both attacks + plus the use of “greenacre” on the anthrax envelopes – code for Ivins anti-abortion politics.

    The role of right-wing, crazed politics in Ivins’ life is one part of his story that seems to have been completely suppressed.

    But the NA now raises doubt in my mind about his actual guilt.

    But what is the role of the CIA? Willman’s book makes no mention of CIA bio-weapons labs or capability. If others know more about this, I’d appreciate a lead.

  22. P J Evans says:

    Speaking as someone who’s seen very young, very small box turtles – it’s nearly impossible to find them for the first year or two. After that, they’re enough bigger that they’re locatable, more or less: even adults have good camouflage, and a serious habit of hiding in the undergrowth 9or in holes).

  23. Bustednuckles says:

    I have been so busy the last few months, I can’t hardly hit my ass with either hand. 1500 miles a month trying bto work, got married in the mean time and have been trying to consolidate three households eighty miles apart.

    The purpose of my whining is to say I do try and swing by here when I can because I absolutely adore Marcy and Bmaz is the shit but Lo and Behold, I find Mr. White here.

    Holy. Fucking. Shit..

    I still adore Marcy, but this is an unexpected surprize.

    Good on ya dude.

    I will be back when I can.

    Bustednuckles, AKA, Phil

  24. bmaz says:

    @Bustednuckles: Hey Busted! Good to see you, been wondering where you were off to.

    Congratulations on the getting married thing, that’s cool. We are always here when you have a few minutes.

  25. pdaly says:


    I think phred’s theory brings up a separate issue: If the false flag was to be successful, then wouldn’t you want the FBI to think or say that the anthrax source was foreign? Supposedly the FBI at an early stage of the investigation announced (?) that the anthrax was from a “domestic source” instead of from Iraq.

    BushCo, presumably aware of the FBI’s quick realization that the source was domestic, were nevertheless still quick to blame Hussein and rush us through the Patriot Act and into Iraq. If a false flag operation was compromised by the FBI doing its job, then perhaps there is evidence of some FBI people being replaced early on in the anthrax investigation?

  26. lefty665 says:

    @al75: “There are many aspects of his behavior that are unusual and very weird – not least his access to anthrax… ”

    You want weird, go to an American Society for Microbiology (and Asperger’s) conference. Point being that weird, and “murdering sociopath using high tech biological weapons to create terror” are not synonyms. However, the latter and cheney may be.

    Ivins was awarded the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service.

    “He (Ivins) also solved problems associated with the production, purification, storage and use of the anthrax spores needed for challenge in the potency assay.” (That would be RMR 1029. It was the “gold standard” strain of anthrax used for testing vaccines, and who knows what else.)

    “All three USAMRIID team members said they were surprised to receive an award for, as they called it, “just doing our job.”

    Ivins summed it all up by saying, ‘Awards are nice. But the real satisfaction is knowing the vaccine is back on-line.'” http://ww2.dcmilitary.com/dcmilitary_archives/stories/031903/22098-1.shtml

    What weirdos.

    Working with anthrax is not an everyday vocation, but how else would you suggest testing the efficacy of an anthrax vaccine​? Would maple syrup or cheap scotch work as well (Ach laddie, give me the vaccine, I’m about to be exposed to Inver House)? Maybe not.

    Instead of innuendo, how about a posthumous “Thank you” to Ivins for doing an arcane and dangerous job in service to his country that took his life.

  27. thatvisionthing says:

    @What Constitution: Yeah! What about the bentonite?

    From Jim White’s earlier diary, FBI Ignored, Hid Data Potentially Excluding Bruce Ivins as Anthrax Killer:

    Early in the investigation, Brian Ross published “leaked” information that the spores had been weaponized through addition of bentonite and that Iraq had a weaponization program that used bentonite. This report turned out to be false, as no evidence for bentonite has been found.

    It snagged me before, bentonite… Cheney…: http://emptywheel.firedoglake.com/2010/06/02/dick-cheneys-wyomings-face-at-mms/#comment-240149

    And remember Scooter Libby’s nickname, “Germ Boy“?

    If only there was some way to get them to tell us everything they know…

  28. Jim White says:

    @Bustednuckles: Good to see you and I’ll add my congratulations to those from bmaz. Keep the shiny side up out there and we’ll see you next time you have a moment.

    [And Holy. Fucking. Shit. was kind of my response too when I got the invite to start posting here.]

  29. al75 says:

    @Jim White:

    Very interesting links.

    without expertise in the field, I find it hard to assess how air-tight the case that Ivins could not have produced the spores is.

    It seems clear, however, that one critical step in the investigation would have been to replicate Ivin’s alleged actions, i.e. grow the same quantity of spores with, the same equipment, with the same time parameters that Ivins faced (we know the hours he worked in the “hot suite” to the minute.

    I have not seen any mention that the FBI did this, or attempted to do this. Or…was this attempted and then abandoned, as has recently emerged with regard to the tin in the anthrax specimens.

    Also – within all the ambiguity of conspiracy theories, we should not obscure the essential fact: the investigation was crippled at the outset because the pressure from the WH was focused on linking the attacks to Iraq.

    I’m not aware of any pressure to actually solve the case prior to the collapse of the “WMD” theory in late 2003. I assume that this was one of the reasons why Nancy Haigwood’s call to the FBI (she was stalked by Ivis for years due to her ties to the sorority he was criminally obssessed with) was ignored until much, much later.

  30. al75 says:

    @Jim White:

    One more thing, Jim: you note that the secret Dugway project had a budget of under $1m, and used commercially-available equipment.

    This seems possible IF the bugs being cultured were non-pathogenic. If one is growing killer microbes, as I’m sure you know, one needs much more equipment, safety precautions, and cash – just look what happened to the Russians in the 60’s when they got sloppy.

    If another secret biowar lab exists, it can’t have been run on a shoestring, and would require budget lines, equipment purchases, and personnel.

    I’m not saying it’s impossible – do you know of any evidence such a facility exists?

  31. Jim White says:

    @al75: I don’t know that any other such facility exists.

    As for your other point, if the personnel around the facility have been vaccinated and there is a thorough clean-up afterwards, the need for expensive containment equipment goes down a lot. The Russian operation was several orders of magnitude larger than we are talking here. This is just one small fermenter; they presumably had many very large fermenters in action.

  32. al75 says:

    thanks for your information Jim. again, I lack enough expertise to assess this. BUT – if I understand the “tin issue” it refers to evidence of a high level of sophistication in producing a lethal, rapidly-aerosolized preparation that would seem to me to require both special expertise, and likely be dangerous unless handled carefully.

    Putting on my tin-foil hat – just suppose the following: what if there was a more-substantial secret bio-war operation conducted in defiance of US treaty positions?

    What would the pressure be like on the FBI to drop leads – like the “tin issue” that pointed towards a more-sophisticated operation, and crucify whatever Ivins or Hatfill who could be carved up as a scapegoat?

    I’m not saying that this is the case – but it would allow some of the contradictory data to fit together. Personally, i still have an open mind about Ivins guilt.

    Thanks for your careful work on this.


  33. rugger9 says:

    @William Ockham:
    According to the FBI, the producer and the mailer had to be the same person. The timeline doesn’t fit Ivins, even if one decoupled manufacture from delivery.

    al75: a thorough investigation would indeed replicate the process, accidents are re-enacted all of the time for figuring out what the evidence told them. But, as noted above, the PTB don’t want the truth to come out, so “no [investigative] soup for you!”.

  34. emptywheel says:

    @rugger9: Yeah, but the FBI has concluded that not because they have proof, but because they don’t want to look further.

    Even before their evidence about Ivins’ time in the lab collapsed, even before it became clear they had ignored other samples Ivins supplied which were this flask (that is, even before the only two compelling pieces of evidence tying Ivins to this collapsed), they never had any evidence that he had mailed the anthrax. In fact, there was no evidence in his car, which would be remarkable, given that the envelopes left marks of their presence in all the other places they had been (like the mailing facilities). So either you need to place Ivins in another car or find someone else who did the mailing. And the “evidence” tying him to Princeton is pure bunk.

  35. al75 says:

    Just to make my position clear: i don’t reject the idea of a “conspiracy” behind the amerithrax attack. we know there was a broad conspiracy to push the Iraq invasion, obviously, and all else that followed.

    But a conspiracy to release anthrax – particuarly “weaponized” anthrax – would require a high level of techinical competence and organizational capacity.

    My inexpert understanding is the community of scientists with real expertise in this area was very small.

    David Willman, in his book “Mirage Man” disputes that the antrhax was “weaponized”. He notes that the false claims of Cheney et. al. to the contrary received heavy press coverage; whereas subsequent contradictory evidence from Sandia labs (i.e. that the silica in the specimen was not used as a dispersant) received almost no coverage.

    My (limited) understanding is that the Nat’l Academy now is questioning the “non-weaponized” nature of the anthrax, particularly due to the presence of tin in the specimen. Ironically, this would support the original “Cheney” position (though obviously not Cheney’s actual false claims) about the nature of the threat.

    If the opinion of the Nat’l Academy is to be taken seriously – and they are not amateurs – this raises the question of a very serious, sophisticated plot.

    I’m still not sure that this charge holds water – and the Nat’l Academy + IG report I believe are stating that the “tin” angle was inappropriately dropped, not that a “smoking gun” was found. I still respect the power of institutional incompetence + early political pressure to support the Iraq myth as explanatory factors in the FBI’s incompetence.

    If evidence of a “conspiracy” can be found, then this is an utterly explosive issue. Would that somebody other than Eric Holder held the ultimate responsibility for pursuing it.

  36. matt carmody says:

    @earlofhuntingdon: Which is one of the reasons, I will believe until I die, that John Lennon was killed. People within the Bush crime family were trying to see whether or not the American people were still stupid enough to go for the “Lone Nut” scenario of assassination. They had plans for making Bush pere de facto president by staging an assassination attempt on Reagan.

  37. barrykissin says:

    From the NY Times article: “If Dr. Ivins did not make the powder, one conceivable source might be classified government research on anthrax, carried out for years by the military and the Central Intelligence Agency.”

    This theme is developed further in the paper by the three scientists that is the focus of the Times article: “[T]he most likely sites of production of the letter anthrax are laboratories that work with dry spores: Battelle, Dugway, and DRES. Battelle, for example, is well-known for its aerosol study capabilities … There is no evidence that relevant samples were ever collected at Dugway, Battelle or other potentially suspect sites.”

    The cover-up of military-industrial-intelligence involvement is not only the work of the Bush Administration. The national security complex now dictates to the Obama administration. Witness that on March 15, 2011, the Obama administration announced it would oppose any reopening of Amerithrax because a reopening would “unfairly cast doubt on [the FBI’s] conclusions”!

    For an outline of the contours of the cover-up, see memo at

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