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:

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

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, 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.


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

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

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).

On Saturday, the Journal of Bioterrorism & Biodefense published an article (pdf) by Hugh-Jones, Rosenberg and Jacobsen that provides the details of their theory, first described in a McClatchy article, that the anthrax spores employed in the 2001 anthrax attacks were “weaponized” by a process that involved tin-catalyzed polymerization of silicon monomers.  Wasting no time, David Willman was quickly trotted out in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday to tut-tut this latest information as arising from “critics” of the FBI and to provide an outlet for those who unquestioningly parrot the FBI’s conclusion from its Amerithrax investigation that Bruce Ivins acted alone in carrying out the attacks.

Shortly after the McClatchy article was published, I provided this perspective on the new revelations it contained:

The presence of silicon and how it may have gotten into the anthrax material has been a point of great controversy throughout the entire investigation. This question is important because the chemical nature of the silicon and the level at which it is present is presumed to be an indicator of whether the anthrax spores have been “weaponized” to make them suspend more readily in air so that they are more effective in getting into the small passageways of the lungs of the intended targets of the attack. 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. A more sophisticated type of weaponizing would rely on mixing the spores with nanoparticles of silica (silica is the common name for the compound silicon dioxide) to make them disperse more easily.

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.

As the photo above shows, the anthrax spores in the attack material had silicon that was found exclusively in the spore coat and not in the exosporium.   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.


CNN Carries DOJ Water in Repeating Weak Amerithrax Accusations Against Ivins

In an article published on on Saturday and a program aired Sunday evening, CNN does their best to lend credence to DOJ’s shoddy work that resulted in the unsupported conclusion that Bruce Ivins acted alone in the anthrax attacks of 2001.  Remarkably, in their effort to shore up DOJ’s weak evidence, CNN chose to emphasize one of the weakest links used to tie Ivins to the attacks.

The article and program center on Ivins’ apparent fixation on the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.  One former object of Ivins’ attentions, researcher Nancy Haigwood, is relied upon almost exclusively for making the leap from Ivins’ obsession with the sorority to his role in the anthrax attacks.  The article relates the early interactions between Haigwood and Ivins:

Haigwood had met Bruce Ivins in the mid-1970s during graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She recalled his incessant questions about her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma.

Having joined the sorority as an undergraduate, Haigwood stayed involved as the adult adviser at the UNC chapter. Ivins, she says, always asked her for information about Kappa Kappa Gamma.

“Every time I talked to him, nearly, he would mention it,” says Haigwood. “And finally I said, ‘You know, Bruce, that’s enough!'”

As time went on, Ivins continued to contact Haigwood and apparently submitted a false letter to the editor of a newspaper under her name and vandalized her car.  Haigwood began to suspect Ivins in the attacks because of an email he sent to her and others in November, 2001 highlighting his work with the anthrax isolated from the attacks.  In one a photo in the email, he is handling culture plates without gloves, a break of containment protocol for working with such dangerous material.  Haigwood felt that by sending out this photo, Ivins was emphasizing his immunity to anthrax because he had been vaccinated.

In January of 2002, the FBI emailed members of the American Society of Microbiology, asking for help in identifying suspects in the attack.  Only Haigwood replied to this request and she submitted Ivins’ name.

Once the FBI finally got around to concentrating on Ivins as their primary suspect, they had to undergo some very significant contortions in order to incorporate the Kappa Kappa Gamma obsession into the “evidence” of Ivins’ guilt: Read more

DOJ: These Aren’t the BioPort Spores You’re Looking For

DOJ just submitted a filing asserting that a number of claims they made in filings last week were erroneous.They’re claiming that:

1) Their statement of facts supporting their claim asserting that no anthrax disappeared from USAMRIID and therefore Ivins must be the anthrax killer (but an unforeseen one) should have admitted that Ivins did have a lypholizer in his lab, but not in a way he could use.

2) Their statement that a scientist who had been vaccinated against anthrax could walk out of USAMRIID with anthrax injected into his body–as opposed to bloodstream–could get anthrax out of the lab.

3) Their statements quoting army regulations should match those army regulations.

4) The book on lab security was not written until 2007.

In other words, much of the filing is a bid to resubmit their homework. They look like idiots. But whatever.

Except for the central claim to the filing.

Most of their filing tries to reel in their admission that USAMRIID sent anthrax to both Battelle and BioPort labs–the latter is an anthrax vaccine manufacturer that was at risk of losing its contract in 2001. Points 2-7 all try to replace “BioPort and Battelle” with just Battelle.

Now, I’m not sure what their rationale for retracting the admission that they sent anthrax from Bruce Ivins’ anthrax flask to BioPort is. Ivins’ description of what he did with the flask in question appears to clearly show he sent 100 ml to BioPort on December 4, 2000 (indeed, one of Ivins’ colleagues testified that some anthrax was sent to BioPort). And BioPort would have precisely the same motive for sending out anthrax as the FBI attributed to Ivins: an financial interest in ensuring the government kept producing the anthrax vaccine. Update: This report (h/t Jim White) seems to confirm the Rabbit Challenge took place at USAMRIID.

In other words, it appears that USAMRIID actually did send anthrax to BioPort, a lab with a clear motive for creating fear about anthrax. And this filing appears to want to claim that USAMRIID didn’t send that anthrax–even though Bruce Ivins’ records, which the government has relied on to say Ivins had control over the anthrax, says they did.

And this head fake helps the government’s claim that Bruce Ivins was the anthrax killer … how?

Update: A justice department spokesperson explains that BioPort never got any active anthrax spores. “The only RMR-1029 spores which Bioport received were irradiated/dead/non-viable/harmless.  Battelle is the only private research facility which received viable RMR-1029 spores.”

Government Inches Closer to Admitting It Hasn’t Solved Anthrax Attack

As a number of you have noted, ProPublica is out with a story on yet more evidence why Bruce Ivins was probably not the anthrax killer. Here’s the deposition they cite in their story; his former colleague Patricia Worsham described how USAMRIID didn’t have the facilities to dry the anthrax used in the attack, and certainly not the quantities that were used in the attack.

I think I summarized it before to a certain extent, in that I don’t believe that we had facilities at USAMRIID to make that kind of preparation. It would have taken a great deal of time; it would have taken a huge number of cultures; it would have taken a lot of resources that would have been obvious to other people within containment when they wanted to use those resources.

We did not have anything in containment suitable for drying down anything, much less a quantity of spores. The lyophilizer that was part of our division was in noncontainment. If someone had used that to dry down that preparation, I would have expected that area to be very, very contaminated, and we had nonimmunized personnel in that the area, and I might have expected some of them to become ill.

Just as interesting is the argument the lawyers for Maureen Stevens–Bob Stevens’ wife–made when withdrawing their earlier stipulation that Bruce Ivins was the killer. They cite two former supervisors of Ivins, William Russell Byrne and Gerard Andrews, explaining why they thought Ivins couldn’t have made the anthrax used in the attacks.

Byrne argued that, had Ivins used the lypholizer to dry the anthrax, it would have left evidence.

He reiterated that if the laboratory’s equipment (lypholizer) had been used to lypholize that powder, you would have been able to find evidence of it pretty easily (76/23). The powder would have gotten everywhere insider the lypholizer.

And Andrews explained that the volume the equipment in Ivins’ lab was insufficient to make the amount of spores used in the attack.

Dr. Andrews stated: “No, I don’t believe he had the equipment, in my opinion.” He said that the equipment in BSL3 had limitations in that the lypholizer was a low-volume lypholizer that could handle maybe up to 50 mils at a time in separate small tubes. He opined “where would he do it without creating any sort of contamination is beyond me, but it has been speculated that the lypholizer may have been moved into a Class 2 Biological Safety Cabinet to prevent spores from flying everywhere. I would think the physical size of the lypholizer would be difficult to get the entire, or the speed vac to get the entire apparatus under the hood. It might be possible to get the apparatus under the hood; however, there would be contamination of it inside the hood if that was the case.

Byrne and Andrews also address Ivins’ training–that is, lack of training on weaponizing anthrax.

Right now, to try to salvage this suit, the government is arguing that the plaintiffs have no evidence of anyone else making the anthrax, but that since Ivins’ supervisors didn’t think he had the capability to make the anthrax, the government can’t be held liable for the anthrax that killed Bob Stevens.

But along the way, evidence like this–as well as further evidence that Ivins didn’t have sole control of the anthrax–is making it more and more clear that the government hasn’t solved this case.