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 Read more

Boy, That Anthrax Attack Sure Led to an Expansion of Our Anthrax Program, Huh

From Scott Shane’s article on USAMRIID’s little cataloging problem:

The anthrax case has underscored the threat of biological attack by biodefense insiders like Dr. Ivins, who have access to pathogens and the expertise to work with them.

The number of such researchers has grown rapidly since 2001, when the anthrax letters set off a spending boom on biodefense that led to a rapid addition of laboratories working on potential bioweapons, notably anthrax.

Before 2001, only a few dozen such facilities worked with anthrax. Today, the Centers for Disease Control has registered 219 laboratories to do so, said a C.D.C. spokesman, Von Roebuck. He said 10,474 people had been cleared to work with dangerous pathogens and toxins nationwide after background checks by the Justice Department. [my emphasis]

So we’ve learned two things in the last day. USAMRIID has not had a way of tracking what all its scientists have been working on (and therefore, any claim that Ivins could have been the only one who had access to the anthrax used in the attack is based on faulty evidence). And, as a result of the anthrax attacks, the number of labs working on anthrax expanded almost ten-fold, from roughly 24 to 219.

I guess they found a really effective way to quiet concerns that our work on anthrax violated treaty bans, huh?

USAMRIID Can’t Keep Track of Its Microbes

Now, what do you make of the fact that USAMRIID, the lab at which Bruce Ivins was alleged to have made the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks, is having problems cataloging and tracking their high-risk microbes and biomaterials (h/t Danger Room)?

The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) has suspended research activities involving biological select agents and toxins. Army officials took the step on Friday after discovering apparent problems with the system of accounting for high-risk microbes and biomaterials at the Fort Detrick, Maryland, facility.

The lab has been under intense scrutiny since August, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) named former USAMRIID researcher Bruce Ivins as the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks. Although the case never went to trial because of Ivins’s suicide on 29 July 2008, FBI officials have claimed that the evidence against him is indisputable and that he carried out the mailings using anthrax stolen from a flask at USAMRIID.

Officials have begun a complete inventory of all select agents and toxins at the facility. All experiments using select agents will remain suspended until the accounting is finished, which could take several weeks. Several USAMRIID researchers have been grumbling about the decision, which seems to have caught them by surprise, according to a government official not connected to the lab.

The decision was announced by institute commander Col. John Skvorak in a 4 February memo to employees. The memo, which ScienceInsider has obtained, says the standard of accountability that USAMRIID had been applying to its select agents and toxins was not in line with the standard required by the Army and the Department of Defense. [my empahsis]

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?

I’d say that FBI case is looking weaker and weaker. 

The Hatfill Search

Aside from the fact that Steven Hatfill’s girlfriend kept her own bottle of Cipro hidden inside a Mason Jar full of coffee, the most interesting part of the searches conducted on Steven Hatfill in 2002 is his Florida storage locker. It appears to be a collection of Hatfill’s toys left over from his days in Zimbabwe and elsewhere.

  • Soldier of Fortune magazine
  • Flight computer
  • A confidentially marked document titled "Presentation Exercise Urban Guerilla Warfare" 
  • Infantry training manual
  • Military manuals and patches
  • Zimbabwe phone book
  • Blank diplomas
  • Passport
  • One foreign beret
  • Document labeled "Proposals for the Use of Biological Weapons and Unconventional Warfare Operations"
  • University of Zimbabwe letter
  • Subversive warfare manual
  • Jacket bearing Ames Research Center patch
  • Helicopter manual

In short, the storage locker contained a lot of evidence that fleshed out the story of the FBI’s confidential witness (whose name is redacted from the affidavit). Hatfill was a mercenary in the Rhodesian military in the late 70s, at a time when the Rhodesian government was using chemical warfare and anthrax attacks against rebels. He had complained that the US was not taking the threat of a biological attack seriously–and said that it would take a "Pearl Harbor" attack to get them to take it seriously. He had  been engaged with–and thought about–biological warfare for two decades.

In addition to those toys and that past experience with biological weapons, the affidavit in support of the warrants explains, Hatfill had admitted that he kept some anthrax simulant in his apartment, and the FBI had found that he had Cipro prescriptions from January, July, September, October, and November 2001.

He might not be the kind of guy I’d invite to a dinner party (then again, he might have some really fascinating stories), but he’s also not someone who had been tied to the anthrax letters. He had the capability, maybe even a motive (in the same way Scooter Libby did). But no apparent ties to the deed (note, seven bullet points following the "Scope of the Search" are redacted entirely).

And interestingly, the reference to the mock mobile-bioweapons lab (purportedly a mock-up of what Saddam turned out not to have) he constructed is mostly redacted. And the affidavit is careful to always refer to the US’ "former offensive bio-program." Is it possible that FBI agents investigating the anthrax attack were unaware that a recipient of a dummy attack had written an article just weeks before the attacks describing, Read more

We Get to See the Hatfill Warrant

Judge Lamberth has just ruled that the government has to unseal the materials it submitted to get search warrants related to Stephen Hatfill (h/t scribe).

This should be fun.

After all, it’s telling enough that the government doesn’t want us to see the search warrant application. And one of the reasons the government didn’t want to release the materials is because it wants to keep the identity of a confidential informant secret; I do hope we’ll be able to tell whether they had something more than people who had analyzed the writing on the envelopes to point to Hatfill. 

But given how flimsy the government’s case against Ivins remains, I look forward to seeing what they were thinking back earlier in this process.

FBI: Yes We Still Have Our Anthrax Shiny Object

I agree with all the comments littering bmaz’ trash talk thread: the new anthrax story still does nothing to prove that Ivins was the lone gunman. First and foremost, that’s because the FBI is still doing what it has been doing from the start–boasting of their fancy new technology to prove that the anthax came from a flask in Ivins’ office, without making an affirmative case Ivins was the one who used the material in the flask, and certainly without providing any evidence that Ivins was the one who mailed it. Even if Ivins prepared the anthrax, after all, that’s a far cry from driving to Princeton to mail it. 

But even within their shiny object story about the flask, there are reasons to doubt. For example, when the story dismisses a second flask because of an erroneous lab notebook entry, we get no detail about what that entry is or who made it.

Initially, agents thought Ivins divided his spores into two flasks and kept one in a different building, which would have increased the number of people with potential access. That belief was based on a lab notebook entry that turned out to be erroneous, agents said.

After all, if the FBI’s own lab book has these errors, then why should we trust them? If it’s an error in Ivins’ own lab notebook, are they suggesting he was trying to confuse them? The error, by itself, certainly doesn’t dismiss the concerns.

Then there’s the question of the different qualities of the anthrax samples used in the attack.

Differences between the two grades of anthrax powders used in the attacks — the earlier batch sent to New York news outlets was coarser and darker than the powder mailed to the Senate — confirm that there were at least two production runs. Bureau officials knew they were looking for someone who had repeated access to Ivins’s flask as well as talent for sophisticated spore preparations. 

As freep points out, there’s no reason to believe someone accessed the flask in Ivins’ office twice, just that someone created samples specific to each attack. Furthermore, how can you make this argument without having some explanation for who sent Judy Miller fake anthrax? There’s every reason to believe that her non-attack was part of the larger scare; if so, then you’d need to acknowledge that some of the attack anthrax wasn’t anthrax at all.

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FBI Still Using Shiny Objects to Distract from Their Flimsy Anthrax Case

The WaPo’s big takeaway from the Robert Mueller/FBI oversight hearing today is something I reported last month: Pat Leahy believes Bruce Ivins did not act alone. As Leahy said today,

If Ivins is the one who sent the letter, I do not believe in any manner that he is the only person involved in this attack on Congress and the American people. I believe there are other people involved either as accessories before or after. I believe there are others out there who could [should?] be charged with murder.

Now that the WaPo has caught up, here’s where this story has been and continues to go. The FBI is attempting to use the shiny object of their fancy new science techniques to distract from how crappy the rest of the evidence in this case is.

Both yesterday and today, when Mueller was asked about an independent review of the case, he said the FBI would have the National Academy of Sciences appoint a board of scientists to review the genetic analysis that led the FBI to believe that the anthrax used in the attack came from a flask in Bruce Ivins’ lab. When Arlen Specter asked to name some people to serve on that review board, Mueller said–as he responded to most questions about the anthrax case–he would have to get back to Specter.

But, more importantly, it’s not just that Americans are wondering whether the fancy new genetic analysis the FBI did is sound.

We’re worried about Pat Leahy’s seeming certainty that only scientists at Dugway in UT and Batelle in OH have the technical competence to make the anthrax used in the attacks; when Leahy made Mueller call FBI to find out if that were true, Mueller eventually responded that the answer is classified. We’re worried that the FBI’s explanation for how and why Ivins would have driven several hours to Princeton to mail the anthrax letters keeps changing from dubious story to dubious story–meaning even if Ivins made this anthrax, they have no proof he mailed it. And we’re worried that the FBI seems to have attributed Ivins’ wife’s beliefs to him in order to explain the choice of targets–even though Leahy’s apparent suspicion (that the attack was related to recent efforts to develop an offenseive bioweapons program) provides a much more plausible explanation for the targets.

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Robert Mueller Visits Senate Judiciary Committee

Oops, missed Pat Leahy’s opening statement, but the hearing is being streamed here. After babbling about how poor Curt Weldon was the victim of a nasty FBI leak, Specter is at least asking some specifics about the anthrax investigation.

Leahy interrupts Mueller just as he’s pitching his great anthrax investigation.

Leahy: I’ve thought about throughout this time. You briefed me in Vermont. These weapons that were used against the American people and Congress–are you aware of any facility in the US that is capable of making the anthrax besides Dugway in UT and Batelle in OH? Other than those two?

Mueller: Fifteen in the US and 2 overseas. 

Leahy: Are there any other facilities capable of making this anthrax?

Mueller: I do believe there are. I would have to get back to you.

Leahy: At some point we’re going to take a break and please get me that information, because I know of no others besides those two. I’m aware of the article from September 4 reporting a program of secret research on biological weapons, project has been embraced by Bush Administration. Weapons used against Americans were right after that. 

Now into questions.

Leahy: You commented on corporate scandals. There will be investigations regarding possible fraud or lawbreaking in those areas?

Mueller: 1400 investigations and 24 investigations looking at larger corporations who may have engaged in "misstatements."

Leahy: The USG is on the hook for 800 billion to 1 trillion–almost as much as the Iraq war–and I suspect that everyone wants to know if there was fraud.

Leahy: New guidelines. You say no broad new authorities. We’re unable to get a review of that, we have not been briefed. It’s been as superficial briefing as possible. I was surprised by your statement. Under the proposed guidelines, line FBI agent would be able to use several new intrusive methods at threat assessment level. 

Specter: Did you personally review the evidence and conclude there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Mueller: Yes.

Specter: WRT the hairs on the mailbox, why no effort to swab Ivins for DNA until the time he committed suicide.

Mueller: I would have to get back to you.

Specter: I’m going to send you a letter. When you anticipate designating an independent group of experts. 

Mueller: We are asking NAS to identify experts to serve on panel.

[Note: what about the non-scientific evidence???]

Mueller: I will consider whether you can name people.

Specter: What’s there to consider.

Mueller: I’m not familiar with how NAS does these reviews.

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Robert Mueller Visits House Judiciary Committee

On CSPAN3 and via the Committee website (though the latter didn’t work for me).

The two big issues will be the new guidelines for FBI investigations–which may allow racial profile–as well as the laughable case the FBI made that Bruce Ivins was the sole killer in the anthrax attack.

In an opening stated, Jerrold Nadler revealed that the FBI would not give staffers on HJC the new guidelines–they were able to see the guidelines, but not keep a copy. Nadler made a back-handed suggestion that the FBI had done so to prevent Congress from providing influence on those guidelines.

Mueller says the new guidelines are in the process of implementation and says they have [with emphasis] been briefed to HJC’s staff. 

I guess input would be too much to ask. 

Mueller on Ivins: "Special concern for the victims of the mailings … provide special information … included information about science developed for the investigation…. developed for the investigation … we have initiated discussions with National Academy of Sciences to undertake a review of the scientific approach … have provided as much information as we can."

Conyers starts out impatient: This has been months we’ve been trying to get a response to the seven questions I put to you."

Mueller: I’ve always made myself available … when it comes to QFRs, it goes through review and there is some delay. We worked to get to it back to you as soon as we could yesterday. We do our level best to get you responses as soon as we can. I will also sit down and discuss issues that may be on your mind.

Conyers talking about a raid conducted by 200 officers to find out who paid for the Cuyahoga County Dem Chair’s driveway paving. Mueller will get back to Conyers.

Nadler: Congratulations for your role in standing up against abuse of power [referring to Gellman’s exceprts of Angler]. In understanding bottom line of investigation and how accurate we can take it to be, it’s important to understand murder weapons: contained silica. Some observers say it may have been sophisticated additive, requires special expertise, former boss of Ivins says he did not have. Briefing last month, govt scientists say anthrax contained no additives. Scientists say a percentage higher than 1/2 of 1 percent has never been found naturally. What was the percentage of weight of silicon?

Mueller: I’d have to get back to you.

Nadler: You can tell us what Read more

Bruce Ivins Rips the FBI’s Anthrax Case to Shreds in His Will

Remember the rationale the FBI gave for why he sent anthrax to Senators Daschle and Leahy?

In 2001, members of the Catholic pro-life movement were known to be highly critical of Catholic Congressional members who voted pro-choice in opposition to the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Two of the more prominent members of Congress who fell in this category were Senator Tom Daschle, then Senator Majority Leader; and Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, both recipients of the 2001 anthrax mailings. 

The FBI suggested Ivins was ardently pro-life, which contributed to his selection of Leahy and Daschle as targets.

Problem is, they never actually prove that Ivins was ardently pro-life. Rather, they describe him discussing his wife’s pro-life activities as head of the local Right to Life group.

On July 10, 2002, in an e-mail to a friend, Dr. Ivins identified his wife, [redacted] as the President of the Frederick County Right to Life, as well as having connections to many other pro-life/anti-abortion groups. 

They go on to include another excerpt from the email that suggests he considers himself pro-life–though it also suggests he is not entirely sure an anti-choice stance is the true Christian stance.

Dr. Ivins later states in the same e-mail, "I’m not pro-abortion, I’m pro-life, but I want my position to be one consistent with a Christian.

Without providing the context of that sentence, Ivins’ use of the conjunction "but" in the sentence does more to suggest Ivins has some doubt whether traditional pro-life activities are Christian than it does to prove that he–and not just his wife–was ardently pro-life.

Yet the claim that Bruce Ivins was pro-life was the primary reason the FBI gave for why Ivins targeted Daschle (they brought up the PATRIOT Act, but focused more on Leahy’s involvement in slowing the passage of the bill). In addition, the FBI explained the "Greendale School" reference on one of the envelopes because of the couple’s joint membership in the American Family Association (with no indication that Bruce Ivins–and not his wife–was the active subscriber of their materials).  

Which is why it’s so damning to the FBI case that Ivins wrote instructions in his will that if his family refused to cremate him and scatter the ashes, he would give a huge donation to Planned Parenthood.

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