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10 Years of emptywheel: Jim’s Dimestore

As you saw in Marcy’s posts yesterday, emptywheel is celebrating the ten year anniversary of the move from The Next Hurrah to Firedoglake.   You will notice that the current version of the blog comes to you without ads. If you want this wonderful state of affairs to continue, contributions are a must. A new subscription option helps to make sure the hamsters keep turning the wheels on the magic blog-hosting machines and the ever more sophisticated mole-whacking machinery stays up to date.

Marcy’s outstanding work over the years has received great acclaim. A huge part of the success of the blog, though, has been its ongoing tradition of the best commenting community on the internet. Over the years, the conversations that have taken place on each seminal post have helped to decipher the meaning of cryptic government documents, bring in alternate views and point out new information as it breaks. In the end,  emptywheel isn’t just a blog, it’s a community. For all of your support and participation during these trying times, we thank you.

In keeping with the “10” theme, Marcy has a post highlighting her favorite surveillance posts over each of the last ten years. She has graciously allowed a few of us hangers-on to participate with posts of our own.  I haven’t been an official emptywheeler for all of those ten years.  I did spend a year as an evening editor at Firedoglake around the time of the migration from TNH, so I got to start my friendship with this group of writers and commenters around that time.  I’m going to list my favorite ten posts from the time I started posting here, shortly after the blog moved from Firedoglake to the independent site. Several of these posts link back to earlier work at MyFDL. Sadly, the archives of that work were imperfectly migrated to the Shadowproof successor to Firedoglake, and so searching for those is imperfect and many of the graphics are lost.

So here is Jim’s Dimestore listing my 10 favorite posts on Emptywheel.net, in chronological order:

DETAILS OF SILICON-TIN CHEMISTRY OF ANTHRAX ATTACK SPORES PUBLISHED; WILLMAN TUT-TUTS

Sandia National Laboratories image of attack spore. In the upper frame, silicon, in green, is found exclusively on the spore coat and not on the exosporium (outer pink border).

Perhaps my favorite topic over the years has been a technical analysis of the evidence presented by the FBI in its Amerithrax investigation. It is absolutely clear from this analysis of the anthrax attacks of 2001 that the FBI failed to demonstrate how Bruce Ivins could have carried out the attacks on his own. This post goes deep into the technical weeds of how the spores in the attack material were treated so that they would disperse easily and seem to float on air. The bottom line is that high amounts of silicon are found inside these spores. The silicon could not have gotten there naturally, and it took very sophisticated chemistry to get it there and treat it to make sure it stayed. Ivins had neither the expertise nor the equipment to achieve this highly advanced bioweaponization. Earlier work I did in this series showed that Ivins also could not have grown the anthrax used in the attacks.  My favorite candidate for where it was produced is an isolated lab built by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency on what is now called the Nevada National Security Site (formerly the Nevada Test Site) that Judy Miller described on September 4, 2001.  That article by Miller has always stood out to me as the ultimate limited hangout presented by DoD before the fact, where we see a facility of the perfect size for producing the amount of material used in the anthrax attacks. Those attacks occurred just a short time after the article was published. Miller’s assurance in the article that the site only was used for production of harmless bacteria sharing some characteristics with anthrax just never smelled right to me.

INTELLIGENCE AIDE FLYNN RE MCCHRYSTAL: “EVERYONE HAS A DARK SIDE”

When Michael Hastings’ article in Rolling Stone led to Stanley McChrystal’s firing, little did we know that this would be the beginning of the fall from grace for David Petraeus and his all-star band of torture enablers. These “operators”, as Hastings termed the team, relied on night raids and illegal detentions as the core of their counterterrorism initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan. These foolishly evil practices fueled massive growth in the insurgencies in response. In this post, Flynn reveals to us that he felt McChrystal, and everyone else, has a “dark side”. As we now await fallout from Flynn’s guilty plea for his lies to the FBI about conversations with Russian Ambassador Kislyak (mainly, his testimony against the rest of Trump’s team), it appears that Flynn himself found the dark side to be quite compelling.

DESPITE METAPHYSICAL IMPOSSIBILITY, US GOVERNMENT REPEATEDLY ATTEMPTS RETROACTIVE CLASSIFICATION

Another favorite topic of mine over the years has been the utter futility of the military’s efforts to “train” troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It has been an endless sequence of the military getting countless “do-overs”, with Congress rolling over and believing every single utterance of “This time it will work for sure!”. Part of the military’s strategy in hiding their training failures was to keep changing how Afghan troops were counted and evaluated for combat readiness. A corollary to the futility of the training effort is the horrific death toll of “green on blue” attacks, where the Afghan or Iraqi trainees attacked and often killed those who were training them. When this problem got especially bad in Afghanistan in 2011, DoD commissioned a sociological analysis that returned a result the military did not like. The report indicated that the military was utterly failing to address vast cultural differences between Afghan and coalition troops.  The military, in its infinite wisdom, decided to classify the report, but did so after it already had been released in unclassified form.  Oops.

PERSIANS PUNK PHOTO PRETENDERS: PARCHIN PRETTY IN PINK

Detail from the photo carried in CNN’s story showing the pink tarp over the building said to contain the blast chamber.

Neocons have long lusted after violent regime change in Iran. Cooked up allegations on Iran’s nuclear capabilities have played a central role over the years in how they wished to achieve that war. Despite the neocons’ best efforts to sabotage negotiations, Iran agreed to a comprehensive set of severe restrictions on its nuclear capabilities in return for “dropping” (quotes because the US has claimed other grounds for maintaining other sanctions) the worst of the US sanctions that crippled Iran’s economy. Along the way, I had a ton of fun picking at two of the worst offenders in spreading anti-Iran propaganda: David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security and George Jahn of AP. Reports that Iran had constructed a high explosives blast chamber at the Parchin military site became quite a point of argument. Albright spent countless hours scouring satellite images of the site and claimed the photographs showed that Iran was attempting to clean radioactivity from the site. Iran seemed to have a lot of fun with this process. I’m sure the pink tarps in the post here were added just to punk Albright. I maintained that the real evidence of what had taken place at the site couldn’t be scrubbed, because the accused activity would have resulted in the steel chamber itself being made radioactive throughout its entire thickness. Perhaps Iran made the same assessment, because once the IAEA gained access to the site, there was no steel chamber to be found. Was there ever a blast chamber there? Who knows? In the end, whether Iran carried out that work is immaterial, as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has the most aggressive inspection regime ever agreed to by a country that hasn’t just lost a war.  We can rest assured that Iran has no capability at the current time of assembling a nuclear weapon, and the neocons are left to pout about diplomacy working better than their war ever could have. If you want to know why Donald Trump put Rex Tillerson in charge of dismantling the Department of State, look no further than the success diplomacy played in achieving the JCPOA.

JOHN GALT KILLS TEXANS IN MASSIVE FERTILIZER PLANT EXPLOSION

When a massive explosion in West, Texas killed 15 people, injured over 250 and destroyed 500 homes, it was clear to me who had killed these Texans: Ayn Rand’s mythical libertarian hero John Galt. How else do  you explain a site being allowed to store hundreds of thousands of pounds of ammonium nitrate with inadequate fire protection and fatally close to inhabited structures than the misguided libertarian belief that free enterprise should rule?  In the post, I pointed to the dangers inherent in the lack of zoning laws that allowed this fatal mixture of structures. As we later learned from the Washington Post,  John Galt’s influence on the destruction was decades in the making:

The plant was a mom-and-pop operation, a distribution center where farmers picked up custom mixes of fertilizer to boost crop yields. It was built in 1962 a half-mile outside West. As the harvests grew, so did the town. In 1967, the rest home opened 629 feet from the plant. In the early ’70s, a two-story apartment complex was built even closer. Then a playground and basketball court, a mere 249 feet away.

We learned last year that ATF has determined that the fire that preceded the blast was intentional.  So while we don’t know who started the fire itself, we know for a fact that, ultimately, it was John Galt who killed these 15 Texans.

US DRONE STRIKE IN PAKISTAN REEKS OF POLITICAL RETALIATION YET AGAIN

The current concern that Donald Trump will lash out in fury with a nuclear strike, somewhere, anywhere, just to vent his anger over Mueller’s noose tightening over his entire administration is not the first time that it was appropriate to be concerned about an  enraged high-ranking government official killing innocent people. In the case of John Brennan, poorly targeted rage attacks carried out as retaliation for a perceived wrong happened repeatedly. In the post linked here, a drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal area seemed timed as retaliation for Pakistan refusing to reopen supply routes that had been closed six months earlier when the US killed 24 Pakistani troops in an erroneous attack. The post goes on to detail other rage drone strikes that Brennan ordered, with the worst probably being the killing of over 40 people who were simply gathered to discuss mineral rights. That strike was carried out the day after the CIA’s Raymond Davis was finally released and was clearly carried out without proper evaluation of targeting criteria, as it seems few if any actual terrorists were killed.

NO, WE AREN’T ALL GOING TO DIE BECAUSE EBOLA PATIENTS ARE COMING TO US FOR TREATMENT

image.ppat.v04.i11.g001

Scary, color-enhanced electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles. Creative Commons license courtesy of Thomas W. Geisbert, Boston University School of Medicine.

The Ebola outbreak in 2014 led to widespread fear in the US, especially when it was announced that medical personnel who had been treating Ebola patients in Africa and became infected would be transported to Atlanta for treatment. There was no appreciation for how the disease actually is spread, what the conditions were where the medical workers became infected in Africa and how such spread would be much less likely in a properly run US hospital. A poorly run hospital in Texas, however, did manage to have personnel treating Ebola acquire infections. Of course, the treatment at CDC in Atlanta was carried out without incident, and the virus did not spread in the US, even after the Texas hospital had its initial failure. In fact, as the virus wound down, those who study and understand the virus were shown to have been completely correct in their analysis when they modeled how large the outbreak would get before receding once proper intervention was carried out. But the fears of Ebola wiping out the US weren’t the only bit of bad science that had to be knocked down during the outbreak. Conspiracy theories started spreading that the Ebola virus in the 2014 outbreak had been genetically engineered in a bioweapons lab and was accidentally released from a lab in Africa. DNA sequence analysis quickly debunked that one.

WASHINGTON POST FAILS TO DISCLOSE HEINONEN’S UANI CONNECTION IN ANTI-IRAN OP/ED

Yes, the Iran nuclear agreement is so important that it is the only topic repeated in my ten favorite posts. In this post, we are in the time just a few months before the agreement is finalized, and the neocon opponents of the deal are reaching a fever pitch. The post outlines a horrible failure of full disclosure by the Washington Post. This occurred after Bezos purchased the paper, but clearly was a failure of beating back the darkness in which democracy dies. In this case, the Post carried an op-ed opposing the Iran deal. Besides allowing an incendiary headline (The Iran Time Bomb) and giving voice to Michael Hayden and neocon nightmare Ray Takeyh, the Post made its biggest failure regarding the middle author, Olli Heinonen. The Post allowed Heinonen to identify himself only by his current Harvard affiliation and his former role in IAEA. What is left out of that description is that Heinonen was also playing a prominent role on the Advisory Board of United Against Nuclear Iran, shadowy group with even more shadowy funding sources. Somehow, in the course of its “advocacy” work against Iran, UANI had come into possession of US state secrets that suddenly allowed it to avoid a civil case for defamation of a businessman they accused of breaking sanctions against Iran. Why, yes, of course the New York Times also allowed Heinonen to deceptively carry out his work on their pages, too. This time it was in a “news” story that came out shortly after the UANI civil court case was dismissed when the judge stated the case could not proceed because of the state secrets involved. Of course, even after more than two and a half years, neither the Washington Post nor New York Times have admitted their omissions in describing Heinonen’s affiliations in the cited articles. It is really remarkable that diplomacy defeated this full court press by the neocons who were working with the full cooperation of the media.

WAVING THE CONSTITUTION AT THOSE WHO IGNORE IT

I waved my pocket copy of the Constitution at Nancy Pelosi on July 19,2008. Khizr Khan waved his at Donald Trump on July 28,2016.

I waved my pocket copy of the Constitution at Nancy Pelosi on July 19,2008. Khizr Khan waved his at Donald Trump on July 28,2016.

I haven’t written much in the last couple of years, but I just couldn’t avoid writing this one only ten days after surgery to replace my aorta. When I saw Khizr Khan’s appearance at the Democratic National Convention, I was really moved when he waved his pocket copy of the Constiution at Donald Trump. I had done the same thing in July of 2008 when Nancy Pelosi appeared at Netroots Nation in Austin. I was waving my Constitution at Pelosi to remind her of her failure to impeach George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for their roles in torture and illegal wars. Khan was calling out Trump for his campaign promises that so clearly violate the Constiution. Sadly, Trump has followed through in enforcing many of those policies Khan warned us about and we are left without much more recourse than continuing to wave our Constitutions at those who violate it on a daily basis.

ON JULY 2016 PANEL, GEORGE PAPADOPOULOS USED SAME COVER ORGANIZATION AS JOSEPH MIFSUD 

My one minor contribution so far to the unfolding saga of Russian influence on the 2016 election was prompted by noticing a photo in my Twitter stream shortly after the George Papadopoulos plea agreement was made public. What initially caught my eye was that my Congressman, Ted Yoho, was in the photo with Papadopoulos while both appeared in a panel discussion in Cleveland in July of 2016. However, once I started digging into the circumstances of the photo, I discovered that when he appeared for the panel, Papadopoulos claimed an affiliation with an entity that was also an affiliation for the shadowy Joseph Mifsud. We still don’t have a satisfactory explanation of how these two came to have a shared cover organization where it seems both Papadopoulos and Mifsud had positions that were grossly inflated with respect to their previous career accomplishments. I still think that if we ever discover who was behind these two getting such inflated positions, we will learn much about who might have been orchestrating later events in which these two played roles.

GAO Analysis Highlights Lab Samples Excluded in Sloppy FBI Anthrax Investigation

As the last Friday before Christmas, late yesterday afternoon was the most obvious Friday news dump hour of the year, and the government didn’t disappoint. The Government Accountability Office released the results of a twenty-three month long study of the genetic analysis that was used to tie the material found in the anthrax attacks of 2001 to the laboratory of Bruce Ivins, whom the FBI concluded (pdf) was solely responsible for the attacks. The FBI’s conclusion is highly suspect for many reasons. On the science side, it is very unlikely that Ivins could have produced all of the attack material on his own and the detailed chemistry of the attack spores suggests that highly sophisticated materials and techniques unavailable to Ivins likely were used to prepare the attack material. Regarding that second point, note that even William Broad refers indirectly to the chemistry concerns in his New York Times article on the GAO report:

To the regret of independent scientists, the report made no mention of an issue beyond genetics: whether the spores displayed signs of advanced manufacturing. They have pointed to distinctive chemicals found in the dried anthrax spores that they say contradict F.B.I. claims that the germs were unsophisticated.

Evidence of special coatings, they say, suggests that Dr. Ivins had help in obtaining his germ weapons or was innocent.

The GAO study was undertaken, in part, because of questions raised by the National Academies study released in 2011 and with special prompting by Representative Rush Holt, from whose district the letters likely were mailed. The GAO study focused on obtaining a better understanding of the validity of the genetic analysis that was carried out and the statistics underlying the conclusions reached.

For a refresher, a helpful illustration from the GAO report shows the underlying biology of the genetic analysis that was carried out in the Amerithrax investigation. Here we see photos of a typical colony of the Ames strain of Bacilus anthracis on an agar plate and four variant colony types that occurred at low frequency when the attack material was spread out on agar so that colonies arose from single cells of the overall population of bacteria that were present in the attack material:
morphs

DNA sequence analysis was employed to identify the changes that led to these variant colony shapes. The FBI then commissioned private laboratories to develop DNA-based tests (relying on polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, methodology) that could be used to screen the large bank of isolates of the Ames strain that the FBI had accumulated through a subpoena submitted to all 20 laboratories known to have isolates of the Ames strain. Developing these assays represented a new frontier in forensic genetics and it did not prove possible to develop tests for all of the mutations identified in the original DNA sequencing. In the end, four tests were developed by the four different contractors.

The Amerithrax report stated that of the 947 samples included in the final analysis, only eight showed all four of the DNA changes the tests were designed to detect. Seven of those samples came from the laboratory where Ivins worked (U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID) and one came from Batelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio. The FBI noted that there was a record of material being transferred from USAMRIID to Battelle, accounting for the sample found there.

The GAO analysis finds a number of significant issues with the FBI’s work: Read more

Joby Warrick Is the New Judy Miller

Poor Joby Warrick. With Judy Miller so disgraced that Fox News had to issue a “she has nothing to apologize for” press release when they hired her back in 2008, Joby drew the short straw yesterday and was assigned to transcribe the hyped bullshit concerns arising from Israel Syria’s neighbors that Syria might be contemplating use of biological weapons. The entire Warrick article needs to be read to get a full feel for its credulous recitations of completely unfounded speculation being passed off as actual intelligence, but I will stick with just a few paragraphs. Warrick opens by making a completely baseless claim:

Last month’s alleged chemical attack near Damascus has re­focused attention on Syria’s 30-year-old biological weapons research and raised concerns about whether the government there could activate an effort to make a weapon.

Really, Joby? Aside from those “intelligence officials in two Middle East countries” who fed you this material, has anybody else voiced a concern that Syria is contemplating use of bioweapons, or even could produce bioweapons if they wanted to?

Even Warrick has to admit that any work on bioweapons in Syria is now over 30 years old. But that doesn’t deter Warrick and the spooks whispering in his ear:

Syria’s bioweapons program, which U.S. officials believe has been largely dormant since the 1980s, is likely to possess the key ingredients for a weapon, including a collection of lethal bacteria and viruses as well as the modern equipment needed to covert them into deadly powders and aerosols, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials and weapons experts.

Wow. the “US and Middle Eastern officials and weapons experts” guiding Warrick’s hands on the keyboard as he types are saying that despite not working on bioweapons for thirty years or so, they have the deadly organisms and equipment that would be needed to make “deadly powders and aerosols”.

Warrick and the spies who feed him have absolutely nothing on which to base this accusation. Let’s check a neutral source on what the real status of biotechnology capability in Syria is and whether it can be rapidly adapted to bioweapons. The Nuclear Threat Initiative provides a report on Syria’s potential bioweapons capability that was last updated in February of this year. They come to very different conclusions than Warrick (emphasis added):

In the past, unclassified statements by U.S. officials occasionally claimed reason to suspect Syria of maintaining an offensive BW program. [2] However, in contrast to discussions of Syrian chemical warfare (CW) capabilities, such claims have not included any details on the size and scale of Syria’s potential BW program, and are not presented alongside supporting evidence. Instead, discussions on this topic have focused on speculative extrapolations of Syrian dual-capable industry and on Syrian political motivations. Such analysis can be neither detailed nor comprehensive. Although the existence of a biotechnology industrial base would suggest that Syria has some indigenous expertise useful for developing a biological weapons capability, it does not imply and cannot confirm the existence of an offensive biological weapons program. Furthermore, given that Israel, a state that is understood to possess a nuclear arsenal and continues to occupy the Golan Heights, remains Syria’s primary security concern, and given the risk of “blowback” when deploying biological weapons, such weapons would be of questionable tactical desirability from a Syrian perspective. While public sources on the nature of Syria’s chemical and nuclear programs are limited, even less exists about Syria’s biological program, and “there is no hint of its existence from open sources.” [3]

The report goes on to detail what Syria’s biological industries do (again, emphasis added): Read more

The FBI’s Evidence Against the Genius Who Framed Elvis

The Washington Post has a long article detailing how the FBI held onto their original suspect in the case of letters laced with ricin sent to various political figures long after they knew that he was innocent and had obtained evidence pointing to James Everett Dutschke, who now has been jailed for the crime. The article did a very good job of drawing the parallel of the FBI’s arrest and mistreatment of Elvis impersonator Paul Kevin Curtis in this case with the Amerithrax investigation that falsely targeted Steven Hatfill after the anthrax attacks of 2001:

After keeping Elvis impersonator Paul Kevin Curtis in jail for a week, interrogating him while he was chained to a chair and turning his house upside down, federal authorities had no confession or physical evidence tying him to the ricin-laced letters sent to President Obama and other public officials.

/snip/

“They wanted to keep Mr. Curtis in custody while they built a case,” said Hal Neilson, a former FBI agent who is Curtis’s attorney. “They knew early on he wasn’t the right guy, but they fought to hold on to him anyway.”

/snip/

Criminal justice experts say the arrest of Curtis without any physical evidence to tie him to the crime harks back to the investigation of bioweapons expert Steven J. Hatfill, who was falsely accused of the 2001 anthrax-letter attacks that killed five people. Like Curtis, Hatfill had an unpublished novel that seemed to tie him to the crime.

With Curtis, however, experts said the FBI’s leap was larger.

“Hatfill had technical qualifications and a background that also led the FBI to zero in on him, but this guy is an Elvis impersonator with an apparent history of mental instability and a Facebook page with some distinctive and curious language on it,” said Amy E. Smithson, a senior fellow with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies who studies biological weapons.

The circumstantial case against Dutschke appears quite strong on its own, given the ongoing feud he was known to have with Curtis. One bit that somewhat supports Dutshcke possibly being capable of acting on his own to produce the ricin found in the letters comes from the widespread knowledge that Dutschke is quite intelligent, although his membership in Mensa was used by Curtis as part of the ongoing feud.

But what is the nature of the evidence that is known at the current time linking Dutschke to the crime? Unlike the Georgia wanna-be ricin terrorists, where the FBI only found the criminals to be in possession of intact castor beans and an unworkable plan, the ricin in this case was actually processed somewhat. From the criminal complaint (pdf): Read more

The “Conspiracy Theory” That Prompted Kevin Curtis’ Earlier Letters to Politicians

Yesterday, charges against Paul Kevin Curtis that he sent letters testing positive for ricin to Senator Lowell Wicker and the White House were dropped. It is quite encouraging that the FBI would this time choose not to continue harassing Curtis once they realized they had no evidence against him, unlike their behavior in the Amerithrax case where they pursued Steven Hatfill for years (until paying out a $2.8 million dollar settlement) and drove Bruce Ivins to his grave on the basis of evidence that couldn’t withstand scrutiny.

Curtis was true to his quirky and colorful character yesterday after being released, and the New York Times reported how he explained at a subsequent press conference that he had no idea what ricin is:

Mr. Curtis, a party entertainer who dresses and sings as Elvis, Prince, Johnny Cash, Bon Jovi and others, had been in jail since Wednesday. He said he had never even heard of ricin. “I thought they said rice,” he said. “I said I don’t even eat rice.”

Curtis was already known to local officials when the tainted letters surfaced and most press coverage of his arrest provided details about why he wrote so many letters before the tainted ones emerged. From a Washington Post article on his arrest:

But a darker world apparently also existed for Curtis, according to frequent writings on social media Web sites, legal records and a lengthy trail of letters sent previously to lawmakers from Mississippi to Capitol Hill.

The man the FBI says unnerved much of official Washington this week, leaving mail handlers, staffers and aides seeing danger in any crinkled or unmarked envelope, was also a well-practiced conspiracy theorist. He wrote online that Elvis-impersonating contests had become rigged and politicized.

Many of his diatribes revolved around conspiracy theories, on which he blamed many of the malignancies in his life. The broken relationships, the financial duress, the increasing isolation he perceived — all grew out of an episode when he was working in a morgue as a contract cleaner, according to an online post on ripoffreport.com, which was signed, “I am Kevin Curtis and I approve this message.”

According to the long, detailed post, Curtis accidentally discovered bags of body parts in the morgue and reported his finding to authorities, who immediately made him a “person of interest where my every move was watched and video taped.” He described cameras zooming in on him and said he was followed by agents.

So the picture painted when he was arrested and charged was that Curtis was a disturbed person who was so crazy he believed that there is a black market in human body parts and that he was being persecuted for exposing a portion of that market. Interestingly, now that the charges against him have been dropped, the New York Times piece linked above makes no mention of the conspiracy theory while today’s Washington Post story makes only a very brief reference to it in a list of other portions of his life story:

Curtis is known for detailed Internet diatribes, his long-held conspiracy theory about underground trafficking in human body parts — which he has turned into a novel-in-progress called “Missing Pieces” — and his work as an Elvis impersonator. The Corinth, Miss., man has been arrested four times since 2000 on charges that include cyber-harassment.

Curtis’ account of discovering evidence of illegal body part trafficking stood out to me because I knew that such illegal trafficking in fact exists. A local firm here in Gainesville has been in the middle of an ugly story unfolding around the difficult legal and ethical issues relating to how tremendous advances in medical science have driven a huge demand for human tissue and bone.

Most people are quite aware of the process of organ transplantation and how organ donation either through advance planning or by surviving family members signing off on donation saves many lives. But there also are many medical procedures that rely on human bone or tissue that has been processed.

Back in July of 2012, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists posted a long article that goes into the details of the black market for human tissue and bones and how this market is driven by the huge profits to be made: Read more

New Anthrax Scare: This Time Leahy’s Letter Tests Negative

With the war drums on Iran beating loudly, homeland security theater is ratcheting up yet another level as a wave of letters containing a powdery substance have been mailed again to media and political figures. This time, unlike the October-November 2001 episode, all letters tested so far have been negative for anthrax or other harmful substances, but the mailer has threatened that ten percent of the large number of letters mailed will be deadly. Most notable in this current series is that a letter was received at the Burlington, Vermont office of Senator Patrick Leahy. Recall that Senator Leahy was one of those targeted with the most deadly version of the anthrax mailed in 2001.

Details on this latest episode were first reported by Reuters on Wednesday:

Several members of the Congress received mail threatening a biological attack and containing a suspicious powder later found to be harmless as law enforcement officials warned on Wednesday that more letters could be on their way.

A number of media organizations and TV shows, including the New York Times and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, received mail postmarked Oregon warning that letters had been sent to the Washington or local offices of all 100 U.S. senators and that 10 contained a deadly pathogen, a law enforcement source said.

House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, received a letter containing a powdery substance at one of his offices in his home state of Ohio, a Republican aide said, adding that the powder was harmless.

/snip/

In a notice to Senate staffers titled “Urgent: Suspicious Mail Alert,” [Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance] Gainer warned that the sender of the letters had “indicated that additional letters containing a powdery substance will be arriving at more Senate offices and that some of these letters may contain actual harmful material.”

More details have since come out:

The letters make vague complaints about too much money in politics and had a Portland, Oregon return address from an organization listed as “The MIB, LLC,” a law enforcement official told CBS News.

In addition to the letters to the lawmakers, officials said television comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert received letters mentioning the letters to senators.

The author told the comedians he would send letters to all 100 senators and ten percent of them would contain “lethal pathogens,” an official told CBS News.

The author wanted an end to corporate money and lobbying, an end to “corporate personhood,” and called for a new constitutional convention to rewrite the constitution.

The author also told the comedians he would tell the senators they are “working for the wrong side” and there is a ten percent chance they have been exposed to a lethal pathogen. The author also said he “randomized” which letters would contain the pathogen and even he did not know who would get which letter.

Because of the advance notice, the letter received at Leahy’s office was spotted and the authorities were called: Read more

Anthrax Sent to Pakistan’s PM Begs Question of Whether FBI Investigated Presumed Anthrax Sent to US Pak Embassy in 2001

Yesterday’s revelation by Pakistan that a package containing anthrax had been sent to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has both shocked Gilani’s security staff and provoked memories that anthrax was sent to multiple targets in Pakistan in late 2001 while the US was enduring its own deadly anthrax attacks. Thinking on these issues raises the question of why the FBI had in its possession a sample of presumed anthrax sent to the US embassy in Pakistan in late 2001 but we have not seen a comparison of its DNA to the DNA of the anthrax used in the US attacks of 2001.

Although initial reports suggested that the parcel was received at the Prime Minister’s residence about 20 days ago, the consensus now is that the package was received last October. Multiple reports are claiming the package was sent by a “female professor” in Jamshoro, just north of Karachi. So far, only the New York Times has provided a portion of the suspect’s name. I have found a faculty listing for a female associate professor whose name includes the portion printed in the Times, but since her field of work as listed does not overlap at all with the biological and microbiological skills that would be needed to produce anthrax, I will not repeat the name, since there is a distinct possibility her name was chosen randomly.

One of the more detailed reports comes from The News:

The Secretariat sources told The News that Deputy Secretary Abdul Hafiz, in his written complaint said: “The Secretariat received a registered envelop (Registered No 209) from Sindh University, Campus Colony, Jamshoroo, in the name of Prime Minister of Pakistan Yusuf Raza Gilani through the Post Office in the inner CR Section of this Secretariat on October 18, 2011, at 3:20pm. There was also a plastic envelop inside the outer paper envelop, containing some type of powder or chemical. On receipt of the envelop, the security officer of the Secretariat sent the envelop, along with the material, to Dr Shaukat Pervaiz, PCSIR, Islamabad, for its examination and submission of report.

We also learn from the Daily Times that the anthrax may have been weaponized:

 A senior police official, on the condition of anonymity, told Daily Times that the packet was received by a security official at the main gate of the secretariat. The security official found that the packet was filled with a suspicious powder and sent it to the PCSIR laboratories for test. “The PCSIR report confirmed that the packet was filled with anthrax, which could also contain silica or other sophisticated additives to make it float more easily in the air,” the police official maintained.

Given that the anthrax was real and possibly even weaponized accounts for the fear shown by Gilani’s security staff:

The security staff members of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Wednesday went into a state of shock over the revelation that a parcel received at their boss’s official residence in October last year carried deadly anthrax.

It would appear that the anthrax was meant as a warning, considering that it was sealed inside plastic within the paper envelope in which it was mailed. Read more

Did Ivins Move the Refrigerator? New Cold Facts Cast Further Doubt on Amerithrax Conclusions

The top-notch Frontline/ProPublica/McClatchy group that has been continuing to investigate the anthrax attacks of 2001 and the subsequent Amerithrax investigation by the FBI posted some photos on Monday that they obtained through FOIA requests. They are here. Mouse over the first photo and then you can click through the slideshow. The most important photo is the one of the lyophilizer. The FBI is claiming Bruce Ivins used this to dry the spores used in the attacks. That is not two pieces of equipment in the photo; here’s a clearer shot of what looks like the same model available on the used market. The thing is huge! The problem is that it is NOT in Ivins’ “hot suite”, so using it in its place would have put spores all over the place in area where at least some of the personnel probably weren’t vaccinated (and thus would have died). This would have been an obvious contamination event Ivins could not have hidden. Technically, the lyophilizer is “mobile”, but as you can see, it’s the size of a refrigerator and it would have been obviously missing if Ivins wheeled it into the hot suite. Also, it uses 220V (see the wiring that obviously was put in so the lyophilizer could be used in this spot), so Ivins might not have had an outlet available in the hot lab. Also notice the piece of paper on the top part;  that’s most likely a sign-up sheet to reserve it since this thing is used for drying down large amounts of liquid and these runs take a number of hours. You can bet if Ivins had signed into the log during the critical period we would know about it. There is only one sheet there, though, so the sheet from the appropriate time period might not have survived until the time USAMRIID was being looked at carefully.

Here is the photo of the lyophilizer, slightly enlarged from the PBS website:

The caption supplied by the Frontline/ProPublica/McClatchy team reads:

The lyophilizer, or freeze dryer, which the FBI says Ivins could have used to make the attack anthrax. Stored outside of the secure BSL-3 hot suite, the lyophilizer was a central focus of the investigation; however, the FBI was never able to definitively link it to the attack anthrax, and some of Ivins’ colleagues are skeptical that he would have risked drying anthrax outside of the secure suite.

The FBI’s claim that this lyophilizer was used by Ivins came about in a very emabarrassing way for the Department of Justice. DOJ had submitted a document in the wrongful death suit filed by the widow of Robert Stevens, who was the first fatality in the attacks. The initial filing stated flatly that Bruce Ivins did not have access to the equipment needed to dry the anthrax spores used in the attacks. After the FBI went ballistic over that filing, a judge allowed DOJ to submit an amended document (see page 3) where DOJ referred to the “refrigerator sized” lyophilizer in the BSL-2 containment area, where DOJ also noted that no work with live anthrax was carried out.

For those of you who want more details on the science behind the reasoning that Ivins could not have used this lyophilizer in this spot to dry the spores used in the attack, keep reading after the jump.  Read more

Why Didn’t DOJ Look More Closely at DTRA’s Role in 2001 Anthrax Attacks?

The 317,000 square foot DTRA headquarters opened in 2005 to bring together the agency's 2000 employees.

[Note: This post has been updated to correct an error regarding the location of the Project BACUS facility.  Erroneous material has not been deleted but has been put into strikethrough font.]

In following up on yesterday’s announcement that the family of Robert Stevens, the first victim in the 2001 anthrax attacks, has settled their wrongful death suit with the US Government for $2.5 million, Marcy came across a number of documents recently released through the case. One of those documents got my attention from its title: “Integrated Capabilities Assessment of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases” (USAMRIID Capabilities pdf). I had anticipated that the document would be a technical assessment that would be relevant to the question of whether the facilities and equipment available to Bruce Ivins would have been appropriate for production of the anthrax spores used in the 2001 attacks. However, it turns out that the document was a report on a 1996 security assessment of the USAMRIID facility where Ivins worked. I almost moved on to other documents, but then I saw the list of agencies that conducted the review:

The last entry on the list is what stands out. The Defense Special Weapons Agency was folded into the newly formed Defense Threat Reduction Agency, or DTRA, in late 1998. And DTRA was important to me because they were the agency that carried out Project BACUS, first reported by Judy Miller on September 4, 2001. Miller’s Times article described DTRA building a facility at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah Nevada Test Site with a 50 liter fermenter capable of producing bioweapons microbes. The project was an exercise to determine how difficult it would be for authorities to spot a bioweapons production facility built by terrorists. Later, I found that in her bioweapons book published in 2001, Miller disclosed that the BACUS facility also is capable of weaponizing bacterial spores.

With those bits of history in mind, some of the findings from the 1996 assessment stand out. From the introductory material, we find this summary: Read more

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.