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

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

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.