August 9, 2008

Was the 2001 anthrax "weaponized" or not?

As Testing99 has commented, the idea that a lone mad scientist could have pulled off the 2001 anthrax attacks is, in one way, much scarier than the idea that it was a conspiracy using special weaponized anthrax. If Ivins, whose anthrax specialty was defense, not offense, could have done it all by himself, then anthrax terrorism isn't that hard to do. Not easy -- Ivins had 20 years experience at the bioweapons lab -- but not dauntingly hard, either.

That would be bad news.

We were frequently told in 2001 that the terrorist's anthrax had been weaponized using sophisticated techniques to make it especially dangerous, but, did that turn out to be true?

Greg Cochran emails:

I'm pretty sure that the FBI doesn't think there was any super-special 'weaponization' at all. From Wiki:

" The August 2006 issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology contained an article written by Dr. Douglas Beecher of the FBI labs in Quantico, VA.[30] The article, titled "Forensic Application of Microbiological Culture Analysis to Identify Mail Intentionally Contaminated with Bacillus anthracis spores ," states "Individuals familiar with the compositions of the powders in the letters have indicated that they were comprised simply of spores purified to different extents." The article also specifically criticizes "a widely circulated misconception" "that the spores were produced using additives and sophisticated engineering supposedly akin to military weapon production." The harm done by this misconception is described this way: "This idea is usually the basis for implying that the powders were inordinately dangerous compared to spores alone. The persistent credence given to this impression fosters erroneous preconceptions, which may misguide research and preparedness efforts and generally detract from the magnitude of hazards posed by simple spore preparations." However, after this article had appeared the editor of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, L. Nicholas Ornston, stated that he was uncomfortable with Beecher's statement in the article since it had no evidence to back it up and contained no citation. "

I've never seen any evidence of any coating, either, just a lot of people say that there must have been some. Finding silicon with a mass spectrometer doesn't mean a there was any coating. This discussion is complicated by a natural reluctance to talk about the exact methods of preparing weapons-grade anthrax. I suspect that one point they'd really like to skip over would be that its fairly easy.

More on this from the Washington Post, 2006:
" The FBI would not allow Beecher to be interviewed about his article. But other scientists familiar with the forensic investigation echoed his description. Whoever made the powder produced a deadly project of exceptional purity and quality -- up to a trillion spores per gram -- but used none of the tricks known to military bioweapons scientists to increase the lethality of the product. Officials stressed that the terrorist would have had to have considerable skills in microbiology and access to equipment.

"It wasn't weaponized. It was just nicely cleaned up," said one knowledgeable scientist who spoke on the condition he not be identified by name because the investigation is continuing. "Whoever did it was proud of their biology. They grew the spores, spun them down, cleaned up the debris. But there were no additives."

Like I said. This simplifies the situation considerably.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

14 comments:

Eric said...

That's something of a relief. But I thought the purpose of his research was to defend against an Anthrax attack. Wouldn't he have needed the real deal to know if his work was productive?

I'm having a little bit of trouble understanding how Ivins' Anthrax could be so much more deadly than the Aum Shinrikyo attempt merely through "cleaning it up". Is the concentration of the spores that important?

RKU said...

Well, Greg Cochran is a smart guy, but if these are two of his best sources for the non-weaponized claim, I'm pretty skeptical.

The first is by an FBI lab researcher, and the editor of the journal publishing it complains that it's based on "no evidence." Not too good.

In the second, the FBI won't even let the reporters speak with their researcher, but a few "anonymous sources" say he's correct.

By contrast, there are dozens of news stories quoting leading scientists and the on-the-record government researchers saying that the Daschle anthrax was weaponized to exceptional deadliness. These sources include the top Ft. Detrick people where the government had sent the anthrax for analysis.

I'm absolutely no expert on any of this stuff. But weighing one FBI guy (with "no evidence") plus a few anonymous sources against all these other top experts doesn't exactly convince me.

f_cubed said...

I am amazed at the lack of understanding by erudite/learned folk here of biological process. Ma Nature - with all her diverse complexity - tends to constantly use the KISS principle.

Off topic: old, with cataracts and glaucoma I have had a most difficult time deciphering the twisted jumbled characters key to access.

Andrew Ryan said...

The Aum Shinrikyo attempt used the Sterne vaccine strain of anthrax which is not virulent. Ivins used the highly virulent Ames strain. The difference is the Ames strain has aq plasmid, sort of extra tiny chromosome, that allow the bacteria to make a protective capsule, kind of a bacterial armor, that prevents our immune cells from killing them.

headache said...

What amazes me is that in spite of all the war crimes trials, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Geneva Protocol of 1925, countries are still researching biotech weaponry. I thought WWI put an end to that? Or is it a case, as usual, that only certain countries (such as the US, Israel and Britain) are morally and legally allowed to conduct these experiments, whereas the other ones doing this (Russia, China) are considered immoral and rogue?

Let’s assume for argument's sake the US and Britain are only researching biotech weaponry to develop antidotes and not to use them offensively. What assurance do we have that, in the hypothetical case that the US is under siege and with their backs to the wall, they do not end up using it offensively? Or is all this talk about morality just another smokescreen for “might is right”?

testing99 said...

Thanks Steve for the kind words.

Eric -- Aum IIRC flirted around with various bio-weapons, but lacked expertise and soon went to Sarin. Their idea, lunatic as it was, seemed to be kill enough people in Tokyo to make the government stop it's investigations into Aum.

Aum's principal problems with Sarin was in delivery. Their agents carried the nerve agents separately, in paper bags, and then poked holes into the containers to mix them, hurriedly left the trains and station. It was a very low-tech affair. An intelligence agency would likely have a custom built device that would mix and disperse the sarin, perhaps posing as security cameras (and maybe with a built in fan). You'd be amazed at how people will overlook men in maintenance uniforms putting up or taking down stuff. Naturally any intelligence agency will want to conceal their involvement, among the ways they would do that is keeping agents out of the hands of authorities, even if it's dead bodies.

Ivin's Anthrax was roughly as deadly as Aum's Sarin attack (it killed 12, injured thousands). Both did not kill that many people but showed how an "amateur" exercise could be made deadly by organizational skill. AQ has as it's organizational goal training, training, and more training in carrying out terrorist attacks, bin Laden's views publicly expressed are that training makes the difference in people killed.

If you imagined co-ordinated attacks in the various subways across the US, where there is not much air flow, with Anthrax, matched by weeks later an attack in a domed sports stadium, staged to overwhelm the hospital infrastructure, you get a sense of the scope of the problem. Not the least of which is the awful decontamination costs of subways and stadiums.

British WWII experiments on a remote Island with Anthrax led to the island being quarantined well, up until now. So it's very costly to decontaminate places.

David said...

Suitcase nukes are just around the corner! Call Bruce Willis NOW.

Ronduck said...

Headache, the US and the Soviet Union both signed and ratified the Biological Weapons Treaty in the mid 1970's but at the end of the Cold War it became publicly known that the SU had continued to develop bioweapons in secret.China still includes defense against biological weapons in its' national civil defense preparations. The US on the other hand does conduct research, but does not have any local civil defense organizations.

I remember reading that in order to defend against biological agents the government needs to collect samples of what it intends to defend against. Those collected samples could also be used to develop offensive weapons if we were dishonest and wanted to violate our treaty promises.

Here is the link to the bioweapons treaty:
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biological_Weapons_Convention

If you feel I have left anything out please feel free point out its' absence, or email me.

RKU said...

I repeat: This whole Ivins case is just a TOTAL joke.

He was one of 100 people who had access to the supposedly guilty anthrax, and he was also a little unbalanced. Other than that, there's zero evidence against him. ZERO.

Here's an example of what I mean. The FBI exhaustively sifted all his email and computer records, and found quite a lot of evidence he had a grudge against that Kappa sorority, but absolutely nothing suscipious connected with the anthrax attacks or the years of investigations.

The sole exception---which the media played as a "smoking gun"---was that in late Sept. 2001 he sent a friend an email saying he was sure that Osama had sarin and anthrax and would probably attack America with them. How could he have known the attacks were coming? Nailed him!

But when people checked, it turned out that the exact morning of that email, the local Washington Times had run a big story saying that Osama had sarin and anthrax and would probably attack America with them.

I say arrest the WashTimes reporter---he must have been part of the anthrax plot!

Anonymous said...

Ken Alibek's book "Biohazard" outlines the horrifying scope of the Soviet's bioweapons program. It's probably a bit overstated, but almost everyone agrees that the basic outlines are correct. The U.S. gave up on offensive biowar in the early 1970's, partly for moral reasons, but primarly because no one could figure out how it could really be used in the sort of wars we proposed to fight. The Soviets had no such qualms, not surprisingly.

Tschafer

airtommy said...

Ken Alibek is a shyster. Look a the criticisim on his Wiki page. "Dr. Ken Alibek's Immune System Support Formula"??? LOL!

In fact, if I were the FBI and I were investigating the anthrax attacks, I'd have Alibek on my long list of suspects.

RKU said...

Hey anthrax fans---

It's now starting to look like the FBI might have gotten the "drop-time" and the "postmark-time" a little mixed up on the Princeton letters.

http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2008/08/10/anthrax/index.html

If so, then either Ivins drove all night to Princeton...or he has an extremely strong alibi.

Anyone want to start a pool on how much the government (e.g. us) will end up paying poor Ivins widow for hounding him to death. Since Hatfill got $5M for just being harassed, I'd think a jury might award $50M or so...

TGGP said...

Spretzel in the WSJ is denying Ivins could have done it:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121789293570011775.html?mod=opinion_main_commentaries

teacher.paris said...

http://www.fredericknewspost.com/sections/opinion/display_columnist.htm?...

Katherine Heerbrandt
If not Ivins ...
Originally published August 29, 2008

When Norm Covert, a conservative former Fort Detrick public affairs officer, and attorney Barry Kissin, liberal activist opposing Detrick's biolab expansion, agree that Bruce Ivins was not the anthrax killer, either the world's spinning off its axis, or the truth is staring us so hard in the face we'd have to be blind to miss it.

Covert's piece this week in thetentacle.com establishes what many in our community, including scientists and support staff at USAMRIID, past and present, know: Bruce Ivins had nothing to do with preparing or sending the anthrax letters. --

In a recent letter to the FNP editor, Amanda Lane speaks for many who knew him: "I want to shout from the mountain tops that Bruce was the kind of man we look up to ... He was a decorated scientist and the humblest of men who didn't use his title as a status symbol. He picked up a mop or emptied the trash without a moment's hesitation. If he thought you were having a bad day he would offer candy or a catchy tune to cheer you up. If someone had to stay late to accomplish a task, Bruce would work with you so that the task would get completed faster."

Covert echoes what is widely reported by reputable scientists. The anthrax in the mailings, he says, was "highly bred, weapons-grade ... with a silica coating and a slight electrical charge so that each particle repelled the other ... each particle no more than five microns." Ivins had neither the expertise nor the equipment to create such a sophisticated form of anthrax.

But if not Ivins, then who or what?

"It's the elephant in the room nobody's talking about," Kissin says.

Since Nixon terminated the offensive weapons program at Detrick in 1969, there has been only one corporation in our country that operates laboratories where anthrax is weaponized: Battelle Memorial Laboratories, the corporation that does the biolab work for the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Army at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.

In December 2001, FBI Director Mueller announced that the Battelle-operated labs in West Jefferson, Ohio and at Dugway had been "searched," and that there were NO suspects in those labs.

The FBI has not mentioned Battelle since.

New York Times science writer William Broad covered the subject in his 2002 book "Germs, Biological Weapons and America's Secret War." According to Broad, Projects Jefferson and Clear Vision, begun in the late '90s were ongoing secret anthrax weaponization projects. Project Clear Vision was managed by the CIA at the Battelle labs in West Jefferson, Ohio. Project Jefferson was managed by the DIA at the Battelle-operated labs at Dugway.

Kissin and writer Sheila Casey thread this information together in a recently published article in the Rock Creek Free Press, http://www.rockcreekfreepress.com/CreekV2No9-Web.pdf, to conclude that the case against Ivins is nothing but a flimsy cover-up of the secret workings of these anthrax weaponization projects.

How do Americans even begin to confront the reality that the only bioattack in our history came from an American military/intelligence lab? An attack we were told made the massive expansion of biolabs at Detrick and across the country necessary.

And guess who's been hired for $750 million to manage and operate the first new biolab facilities at Detrick that are about to open?

Battelle Memorial Laboratories.