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

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.