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. 

Anthrax, Again

The NYT has what they bill as the most comprehensive profile of the alleged anthrax killer yet.

Before I get into the important new details from the profile, can you help me with this detail? This is billed as a comprehensive profile. Yet when the NYT gets around to describing the attacks, here’s what they say:

Days later came word of the anthrax letters. First, the death of a tabloid photo editor in Florida, Robert Stevens. Then the poison letters mailed to NBC News and The New York Post with notes declaring “Death to America! Death to Israel!”

And finally the letters to Senators Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, and Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, spewing deadly spores through the postal system and across official Washington.

Particularly given that one of the biggest unexplained details of the "attacks" is how, right after the last attack and just a month and a half after Judy reported on a more potent anthrax program, Judy got an envelope full of fake anthrax. Don’t you think the NYT could have mentioned those details?

Nevermind–we know how they like to pretend Judy never existed. 

Speaking of which, one detail I was previously unaware of is that the Army quashed an investigation led by Ft. Detrick’s own scientists.

 When institute scientists began their own review of the evidence, nervous Army officials ordered the inquiry dropped.

That, too, seems worth more detail.

The story also reveals more details about the fibers found on the envelopes sent to victims–yet virtually unmentioned in the FBI’s limited releases about Ivins.

Meticulous study of tiny brown fibers found stuck to the envelopes led nowhere.

Those are the brown fibers that didn’t match Ivins’ own hair, nor any of his clothes that the FBI carted away from his house.

And it turns out that Ivins testified before a grand jury in 2007.

In May 2007, Dr. Ivins — assured by prosecutors that he was not a target of the investigation — testified under oath to a grand jury on two consecutive days. He answered all the questions about anthrax. Only once did he plead his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, when he was asked about his secret interest in sororities.

Given the timing, I’d be curious why over a year passed and they got no closer to Ivins.

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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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Anthrax: Nobody Buys the FBI Story

During the DNCC, I asked Pat Leahy whether he believed the FBI’s claim that Bruce Ivins was the one and only anthrax attack culprit. Today, Lichtblau and Shane have an article showing that Pat Leahy isn’t the only one who doesn’t believe the FBI’s tale.

A month after the F.B.I. declared that an Army scientist was the anthrax killer, leading members of Congress are demanding more information about the seven-year investigation, saying they do not think the bureau has proved its case. 

In a letter sent Friday to Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Democratic leaders of the House Judiciary Committee said that “important and lingering questions remain that are crucial for you to address, especially since there will never be a trial to examine the facts of the case.”


“My conclusion at this point is that it’s very much an open matter,” Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Senate committee, said of the strength of the case against Dr. Ivins, a microbiologist at the Army’s biodefense laboratory who worked on anthrax vaccines. “There are some very serious questions that have yet to be answered and need to be made public.”


But in interviews last week, two dozen bioterrorism experts, veteran investigators and members of Congress expressed doubts about the bureau’s conclusions. Some called for an independent review of the case to reassure the public and assess policies on the handling of dangerous pathogens like anthrax.


Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican and frequent critic of the bureau, said he was frustrated by the delay in closing the case and answering questions.

“If the case is solved, why isn’t it solved?” Mr. Grassley asked. “It’s all very suspicious, and you wonder whether or not the F.B.I. doesn’t have something to cover up and that they don’t want to come clean.”


“They took their shot,” said Representative Rush D. Holt, a Democrat who holds a doctorate in physics and has followed the case closely because the letters were mailed in his New Jersey district. “They hoped and maybe believed that the case they laid out would persuade everyone. I think they’re probably surprised by the level of skepticism.”

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Senator Leahy Is Not Satisfied with the Anthrax Investigation

The biggest news from a blogger chat with Patrick Leahy at the DNC today came in response to a question I threw out as we adjourned–about whether or not he was convinced with the FBI’s case in the anthrax case. We had this exchange:

emptywheel: Do you think Ivins acted alone? Are you convinced Ivins sent the anthrax letters?

Leahy: No, I’m not satisfied. I think someone was involved either before or after. I’m not satisfied with the answers I’ve gotten.

I suggested that he had seen significantly more evidence than the public had seen–he gave me a funny look; I’m not sure what that meant.  

He said SJC will do a hearing with Mueller in mid-September. Leahy expects some hard questions from both Democrats and Republicans.

Shorter WaPo: The Anthrax Case Sux

Last week, the FBI selectively leaked the news that Bruce Ivins had taken personal leave on September 17, 2001; they seemed to be arguing that Ivins had taken leave to drive to Princeton, all in time to return for an appointment that evening.

A partial log of Ivins’s work hours shows that he worked late in the lab on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 16, signing out at 9:52 p.m. after two hours and 15 minutes. The next morning, the sources said, he showed up as usual but stayed only briefly before taking leave hours. Authorities assume that he drove to Princeton immediately after that, dropping the letters in a mailbox on a well-traveled street across from the university campus.

But then some DFH bloggers pointed out that that theory was impossible.

It would not be possible for Ivins to have mailed the anthrax. According to my calculations above, the window during which Ivins could have put the letter in the mailbox on September 17 was from 10:25 to 1:35. But here’s what the FBI itself says about the window in which the letter was mailed:

The investigation examined Dr. Ivins’s laboratory activity immediately before and after the window of opportunity for the mailing of the Post and Brokaw letters to New York which began at 5:00 p.m. Monday, September 17,2001 and ended at noon on Tuesday, September 18, 2001. [my emphasis]

In other words, had he mailed the anthrax when they’re arguing he did, the letter would have been picked up at the 5:00 PM pick-up (if not an earlier one–often boxes have a mid-day pick-up as well), and post-marked on September 17, not on September 18.

So, after their operative theory couldn’t even withstand the scrutiny of the DFHs in the world, they revised their theory.

Meanwhile, government sources offered more detail about Ivins’s movements on a critical day in the case: when letters were dropped into the postal box on Princeton’s Nassau Street, across the street from the university campus.

Investigators now believe that Ivins waited until evening to make the drive to Princeton on Sept. 17, 2001. He showed up at work that day and stayed briefly, then took several hours of administrative leave from the lab, according to partial work logs. Read more

Google Maps Says Maybe, Maybe Not


According to the WaPo, Bruce Ivins took personal leave time on September 17, 2001, which, the FBI argues, is when he would have driven to Princeton to mail the anthrax.

Meanwhile, bits of fresh information continued to come out. A partial log of Ivins’s work hours shows that he worked late in the lab on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 16, signing out at 9:52 p.m. after two hours and 15 minutes. The next morning, the sources said, he showed up as usual but stayed only briefly before taking leave hours. Authorities assume that he drove to Princeton immediately after that, dropping the letters in a mailbox on a well-traveled street across from the university campus. Ivins would have had to have left quickly to return for an appointment in the early evening, about 4 or 5 p.m.

Ivins normally got to work early–around 7:30 AM. Assuming his brief stay was half an hour (are they suggesting he went in and picked up the anthrax? and if so, did anyone ask why he’d do so during daytime hours?), he would have had eight hours to drive to Princeton and back. That’s certainly doable–Google says the drive takes 3 hours and 25 minutes. Who knows whether Ivins sped much in his 1993 Honda Civic (in 2001, he also had a 1996 Dodge van; he did not yet have his 2002 Saturn). But even if he went faster than Google says he should have (he would have been driving on I-95, after all, which pretty much requires speeding), he almost certainly would have hit rush hour traffic at least once in his drive, if not twice.

In other words, Ivins could have made the drive, but just barely.

All of which ought to raise the stakes on the FBI’s really dubious explanation for why Ivins purportedly mailed the anthrax in Princeton. After all, there are Kappa Kappa Gamma chapters at George Washington in DC, at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and Washington and Lee in Lexington, VA–all much closer to Ft. Detrick than Princeton. So what’s the explanation for driving to Princeton (twice), when Ivins could have associated the anthrax mailing with KKG which much less effort if he had mailed it from any of a number of other schools.

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Release Ivins’ Lie Detector Test

Check out this WSJ article chronicling Bruce Ivins’ reactions to the anthrax investigation as it moved forward (h/t Hmmm). The article notes that many of his actions might be natural responses to the attack itself–or they might be efforts to cover up his own involvement in the attack.

Most interesting, though, is confirmation of a detail alluded to by Ivins’ lawyer, but never confirmed. Ivins took–and apparently passed–a lie detector test just after the attack. The FBI never asked him to take a second one, not even when they were having other scientists do so.

That winter, the FBI asked Dr. Ivins to take his first and only lie-detector test, according to a law-enforcement official. The polygraph was part of the bureau’s vetting of investigators. The FBI hasn’t released the results. Dr. Ivins retained his role in the investigation.


By this time [spring 2002], all of the scientists in the bacteriology division were under the FBI’s investigative microscope, people working there at the time said. One after another, they submitted to a 3½-hour polygraph test. Dr. Ivins "was in the safety zone" because he had already passed his polygraph, Dr. Andrews said. Dr. Ivins was never tested again, a law-enforcement official said.

I understand lie detector tests can be really unreliable and some people can game them. But we’re talking about a guy who, even by his own admission, was an emotional basket case. No wonder the FBI didn’t mention the lie detector test when it applied for search warrants on Ivins, nor did it mention the test in its press conference the other day. Either the apparent results of his test refute their claim he was emotionally unstable, or they suggest he wasn’t the culprit.

Chuck Grassley has asked the FBI for details on any lie detector tests Ivins submitted to.

Was Dr. Ivins ever polygraphed in the course of the investigation? If so, please provide the dates and results of the exam(s). If not, please explain why not.

It’ll be interesting to see how the FBI gets around the fact that the polygraph seems to poke a pretty big hole in their case against Ivins.