Project BACUS Facility at Dugway Has Both Fermentation and Weaponization Capabilities

A fermenter about twice the size of the one at the BACUS facility. (Novartis AG photo under Creative Commons license)

CNN informs us this morning that a report card issued by the bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center, headed by former Senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent, has issued failing grades to the US in its Bio-Response Report Card (pdf).  The primary news from the report card, according to CNN, is that “The United States remains largely unprepared for a large-scale bioterrorism attack or deadly disease outbreak”.  The grades:

The report card gave 15 F’s,15 D’s and no A’s in its assessment of current bio-defense capabilities in the United States.

As I was reading the report, however, one short passage jumped out at me since I have been concentrating recently on the anthrax attacks of 2001.  As noted in this diary, I was aware of Judy Miller’s reporting from September 4, 2001 on Project BACUS, which involved the construction and operation of a small facility capable of producing bioweapons:

In a nondescript mustard-colored building that was once a military recreation hall and barbershop, the Pentagon has built a germ factory that could make enough lethal microbes to wipe out entire cities.

Adjacent to the pool tables, the shuffleboard and the bar stands a gleaming stainless steel cylinder, the 50-liter (53-quart) fermenter in which germs can be cultivated.

The apparatus, which includes a latticework of pipes and other equipment, was made entirely with commercially available components bought from hardware stores and other suppliers for about $1 million — a pittance for a weapon that could deliver death on such a large scale.

Miller goes on to claim in this article that this facility “never made anthrax or any other lethal pathogen”.  Instead, she cites two production runs of biopesticides in 1999 and 2000.

The BACUS facility turns up in the WMD Terrorism Research Center’s Report Card.  In this case, the source cited is not the New York Times article I cite above, but Miller’s 2001 book, Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War:

The first piece of hard evidence regarding the capability of non-state actors to produce sophisticated biological weapons came in 1999 from a Defense Threat Reduction Agency study called Biotechnology Activity Characterization by Unconventional Signature (BACUS). The initial purpose of the study was to determine if a small-scale bioweapons production facility would produce an observable “intelligence signature.”

The answer was no. The study concluded that even when using “national technical means,” it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the intelligence community to detect a clandestine production facility. This conclusion was somewhat expected. The surprise, however, came from an experiment conducted as part of the study. Individuals, with no background in the development and production of bioweapons and no access to the classified information from the former U.S. bioweapons program, were able to produce a significant quantity of high-quality weaponized Bacillus globigii—a close cousin to the well-known threat, Anthrax.

From the New York Times article, I had viewed the BACUS site as solely a fermentation site. This disclosure that the facility also is equipped to weaponize the material produced makes it even more likely that this site, or one very similar to it, could have served as the real source of the material used in the 2001 anthrax attacks.

The second important disclosure in this short passage from the report is that it was possible for people “with no background in the development and production of bioweapons” or access to US bioweapons technology could use this facility to produce “a significant quantity of high-quality weaponized” anthrax simulant.

So, now that we know that the BACUS facility was fully operational at the time of the anthrax attacks, that it could produce and weaponize spores and that it could be successfully operated by individuals without bioweapons expertise, how is it that the entire staff of the Dugway site, where the BACUS facility is located, was eliminated in the Amerithrax investigation? McClatchy reporter Greg Gordon shed some light on that topic yesterday in a live chat put on in coordination with the recent McClatchy/ProPublica/Frontline documentary on the Amerithrax investigation:

At Dugway, which unlike USAMRIID did make anthrax powder, the FBI examined who was present at work and during what hours on the days before the anthrax was postmarked. The bureau concluded that none of Dugway’s researchers could have flown to New Jersey and back during their windows of opportunity

It is clear from this description that the FBI prejudiced the investigation of Dugway personnel by looking only for “lone wolf” actors rather than allowing for the possibility of multiple personnel acting in concert to perpetrate the attacks. Even for a facility as small as BACUS, such an assumption becomes almost ludicrous on its face. I have experience with fermentation equipment such as the 50 liter fermenter installed at BACUS, and it is quite a stretch of the imagination that a single person could prepare the starter culture, prepare and sterilize the fermentation medium, monitor the 18-24 hour fermentation run, harvest and process the spores and then dry and weaponize them without help from another person. In this regard, note that the Report Card quote above implies that it was a team, rather than a single person, who carried out the demonstration run described. The team would not need to be huge, but at least two to three people working together would be my estimate of what it would take to successfully carry out the steps outlined above.

Did the FBI examine records of fermenter use at Dugway in the months preceding the attacks? Did they investigate whether the BACUS facility had been in use? Did they look for evidence of material being shipped from Dugway to a recipient on the East Coast who could have dropped the letters in the Princeton mailbox?

The combination of the full functionality of the BACUS facility, coupled with the description of the weak criteria on which Dugway personnel were eliminated as suspects in the Amerithrax investigation demands further attention from the FBI. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

22 replies
  1. emptywheel says:

    I’m trying to get my mind around the Judy Squared logic here, not least because it’s safe to assume everything she was doing at this time was propaganda, possibly intended to set up the Iraq war. Is there any reason we should trust either of these reports?

    And FWIW, I would bet that if plotters were at Dugway, they would have driven the spores to their buddies in Princeton, as that’s harder to trace. That’s assuming that the spores would have been finished at Dugway.

    I was thinking this morning–about that Dugway “clearance” process. It came 50 years after the last time a Lone Gunman coverup was designed to hide the intel or ex-intel involvement in a domestic plot.

    Also note, their lone gunman was equally a problem w/Ivins, in that even if you believed he made the anthrax, every aspect of their “how he mailed it” was rife with problems, beginning with the absence of any evidence in his car, the time it would have taken, and the stupid KKG theory. The prosecutor admitted in the Frontline piece that they affirmatively looked FOR some time between Ivins and the mailbox, rather than studying other means it might have gotten there.

    Which suggests they were pretty intent on making this a lone gunman theory from the start.

  2. Jim White says:

    @emptywheel: Yeah, the Judy info does come with a dose of scepticism. I especially think her “no anthrax was ever produced at BACUS” is to be questioned. And I’m on the fence as to whether the “people without expertise can do this” is meant to deflect attention from the highly skilled research folks at places like Dugway and Batelle. The problem is that that particular claim has some validity, but it is just SO convenient for Judy’s role in all of this, which is to deflect attention from government actors.

  3. orionATL says:

    “…At Dugway, which unlike USAMRIID did make anthrax powder, the FBI examined who was present at work and during what hours on the days before the anthrax was postmarked. The bureau concluded that none of Dugway’s researchers could have flown to New Jersey and back during their windows of opportunity…”

    wait a minute.

    couldn’t one make this stuff and store it?

    did it have to be fresh-made like coffee?

    could it have been made earlier, say, 1999?

  4. al75 says:

    I remember Miller was the subject of a fake anthrax attack

    Anthrax hoax victim

    On October 12, 2001, Miller opened an anthrax hoax letter mailed to her New York Times office. The 2001 anthrax attacks had begun occurring in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, with anthrax-laced letters sent to ABC News, CBS News, NBC News and the New York Post, all in New York City, as well as the National Enquirer in Boca Raton, Florida. Two additional letters (with a higher grade of anthrax) were sent on October 9, 2001 to Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy in Washington. Twenty-two people were infected; five died. In 2008, as the government’s investigation of these mailings focused on Bruce Ivins, who later committed suicide. The official view is that Ivins acted alone.[8]

    Miller was the only major U.S. media reporter, and the New York Times the only major U.S. media organization, to be victimized by a fake anthrax letter in the fall of 2001. Miller had reported extensively on the subject of biological threats and had co-authored, with Stephen Engelberg and William Broad, a book on bio-terrorism, Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War which was published on October 2, 2001.

    Miller co-authored an article on Pentagon plans to develop a more potent version of weaponized anthrax, “U.S. Germ Warfare Research Pushes Treaty Limits”, published in the New York Times on September 4, 2001, weeks before the first anthrax mailings.[9] Miller also participated in a senior-level bio-terror attack simulation on Oklahoma City conducted on June 22 and June 23, 2001 called “Operation Dark Winter”; her role was media reporter/observer.

    I need more time to study this whole, fascinating post Jim.

  5. Jim White says:

    @orionATL: There was an analysis for age done with C-14. The results were right on the edge of what can be done with this technology, but they indicated that the material was no older than a couple of years, so yes, you are correct the material could have been made in 1999 and stored.

  6. Jim White says:

    @al75: As a long-time “monitor” of Miller, Marcy has long been troubled by the fact that she stands out as the only high profile figure to get fake, rather than real, anthrax mailed at this time. It sure would be nice to know just what this “fake” material was and where it came from.

  7. orionATL says:

    it’s not as if they never lose material at dugway.

    more importantly, this paragraph implies they are now hypersensitive to loss of custody.

    as useful question might be: when did this extreme sensitivity (very commendable, by the way) become the routine at dugway?

    via miss wiki:

    “…On January 26, 2011 Dugway Proving Ground was placed on lockdown. Al Vogel, a public affairs specialist for the installation, would only say that the lockdown began at 5:24 p.m. Employees were not allowed to leave, and those coming to work were not allowed in. Vogel said there were no injuries, no damage and no threats reported at the proving ground. There were about 1,200 to 1,400 people at Dugway when the lockdown occurred. It was later announced that the lockdown was in response to the temporary loss of a vial containing VX nerve agent. The lockdown was lifted on January 27 following recovery of the material.[7]…”

  8. DWBartoo says:

    @Jim White:

    “Convenient” is quite a “useful” and descriptive word, of late, Jim.

    How very “convenient” to the political and ruling classes … noting, of course, that “the media” is part of the political class.

    Especially “convenient” is the “lone wolf” meme … “conspiracy” is, always, so very IN-convenient and troublesome to the “racket” (with all due appreciation to Smedley) in which so many governmental “agencies” are, apparently, involved.

    Thank you, once again, Jim, for continuing to sift the evidence from the oh so very “convenient” … chaff.


  9. Jim White says:

    While we are feeling all conspiracy-like, keep in mind that the first lesson from BACUS was that such a facility would be virtually impossible to detect by government agents looking for it. At only $1 million each, how many of these were secretly constructed?

  10. orionATL says:

    a million dollars is still a lot of money ( unless you are a gov’t :) ).

    further, one might assume this equipment would be on “suspicion lists”, as are, e.g., acetone and hydrogen peroxide.

    though possibly only from 2001 forward.

  11. rugger9 says:

    @Jim White:
    That would also tend to exonerate Ivins, since I am not aware of any connection to JudyJudyJudy that would prompt Ivins to spare her while waxing others. A very interesting observation about the time and skills [that element has to be in the cover story because Ivins didn’t have the skills as we know], and I would add the detection aspect. One would have to believe that the local DEA/PD types would be very interested in fermenters and the power drawn from them.

  12. DWBartoo says:

    @Jim White:

    Ah, do you mean “secretly” constructed by the gummint?

    Or secretly constructed by … whomever … say perhaps, the “… individuals with no background …”? (Almost said, “backbone”, I confess.)

    Mega death on the very cheap. Now, just suppose ya stuck the “stuff” on a model airplane and …?

    Somebody’s “joy-sticks” are tingling, you betcha.

    Thank you, Jim, for mentioning “possibilities” that fly under the “lonely wolf” radar blitzes … this one sure does “fitses”!


  13. lefty665 says:

    @Jim White: @Jim White:

    The seemingly profound differences in the two batches of mailed anthrax are puzzling. It appears the second batch that targeted legislators used a more sophisticated process.

    Why is a common source assumed? Is that part of the “lone wolf” frame? How about an opportunistic “copycat” to “help” legislators focus their attention?

    Edgewood is a lot closer to Princeton than either Detrick or Dugway, and a straight shot up I95. It has a long and checkered history with bio/chem. Anybody look at what was going on there?


  14. Jim White says:

    @lefty665: There are several possible theories on the differing batches. I tend to favor the view that the later, more dangerous material sent to the Senators was a “ratcheting up” of pressure. It’s also possible the post-fermentation processing improved on a second production run. One other possibility I’ve been tossing around is that the “messy” material somehow got wet in transit through the postal system. The weaponized spore powder very likely would be subject to clumping if it got wet. Furthermore, the B. subtilis found in this messy material could have been a by-product of the letters getting wet and exposed warm, moist conditions prior to delivery.

    A common source is assumed because the genetic markers from RMR-1029 are found in all of the attack material that was tested.

    And yes, Edgewood deserves some attention, too.

  15. DWBartoo says:

    @Jim White:

    The “Black Death” … by Black Ops.

    Has a ring to it the political class and the Masters undoubtedly find great cheer in … mayhap, the lack of moral “backbone” is progressed rather far along in that “no-crowding!” crowd?

    (Although, Jim, it does suggest the possibility of conspiracy at the highest of levels. If the Constitution could speak, then what might it have to say about such things … knowing that the Prez, any Prez, will say, “It’s all perfectly legal …”?)


  16. BoxTurtle says:

    @lefty665: Their 17 year old Rum cask is one of the best single malts I’ve ever had. And I’ve had a LOT.

    But if you’re a smokehead, look elsewhere. Almost no peat at all, but the flavor of the rum cask shines.

    Boxturtle (If anybody is looking for an Xmas gift fo me….)

  17. rugger9 says:

    I might need it later, depending on which Bears team shows up tonight. We Old Blues tend to spend a lot of time yelling at them, kind of like Red Sox fans.

  18. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Competent preventive measures and responses are expensive, time-consuming to put in place and keep at high efficiency, but we’ve had plenty of time and seemingly all the money in the world to put them in place. What’s missing is that they are not photogenic and not readily outsourced, in part because political accountability for their effectiveness could not be outsourced. There’s a Bushian sense of if I can’t politicize or campaign on it, why bother. It goes hand-up-backside with both parties running the country as if their only constituents were those listed on the NY stock exchange.

  19. lefty665 says:


    You’re right, no smoke in the Laddie’s, but fine whisky.

    Peatheads are us. Get those phenols way up! Older Laphroaig’s, several of the Lagavulins and Ardbegs, Those three distilleries all whitewashed and lined up a mile or two apart along the shore were delightful, as all of Islay and Jura.

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