Tuesday, August 5, 2008

If Not Ivins, Then Who?

Crossposted from our new home blog,They gave us a republic...

A stunning op-ed from the Wall Street Journal asserts that the Anthrax killer is still on the loose, and that Bruce Ivins could not have manufactured the Anthrax.

Richard Spertzel lays out a very compelling set of facts that indicate that the FBI wants to close the case and move on. The initial reaction to the revelation that Ivins was a suspect, who then killed himself with tylenol codeine, was that he may have been a patsy. I think he was a patsy in waiting. I think the FBI was waiting to see what Ivins would do so they could hang the case on him and close it. Why else would this have dragged on for so long? To make that case, let's follow what Spertzel lays out in his op-ed:

The spores could not have been produced at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, where Ivins worked, without many other people being aware of it. Furthermore, the equipment to make such a product does not exist at the institute.

It gets worse:

Information released by the FBI over the past seven years indicates a product of exceptional quality. The product contained essentially pure spores. The particle size was 1.5 to 3 microns in diameter. There are several methods used to produce anthrax that small. But most of them require milling the spores to a size small enough that it can be inhaled into the lower reaches of the lungs. In this case, however, the anthrax spores were not milled.

What's more, they were also tailored to make them potentially more dangerous. According to a FBI news release from November 2001, the particles were coated by a "product not seen previously to be used in this fashion before." Apparently, the spores were coated with a polyglass which tightly bound hydrophilic silica to each particle. That's what was briefed (according to one of my former weapons inspectors at the United Nations Special Commission) by the FBI to the German Foreign Ministry at the time.

The Washington Post says that the FBI has a possible reason for how Ivins carried out the milling and the processing of the Anthrax spores. My question is--how plausible is this? Does that shoot a hole in Spertzel's assessment?

...Ivins, the government's leading suspect in the 2001 anthrax killings, borrowed from a bioweapons lab that fall freeze-drying equipment that allows scientists to quickly convert wet germ cultures into dry spores, according to sources briefed on the case.

Ivins's possession of the drying device, known as a lyopholizer, could help investigators explain how he might have been able to send letters containing deadly anthrax spores to U.S. senators and news organizations.

The device was not commonly used by researchers at the Army's sprawling biodefense complex at Fort Detrick, Md., where Ivins worked as a scientist, employees at the base said. Instead, sources said, Ivins had to go through a formal process to check out the lyopholizer, creating a record on which authorities are now relying. He did at least one project for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that would have given him reason to use the drying equipment, according to a former colleague in his lab.

The FBI's own sloppy procedures and leaks are what undermines their case. Are we to believe that Ivins was really foolish enough to request a piece of equipment that, had the FBI been capable of conducting a reasonably competent investigation, should have tipped everyone off? If the lyopholizer was the equipment used to weaponize the Anthrax, how is it that every single lyopholizer wasn't accounted for, tested, and tracked back to whoever used it within days or weeks of the 2001 attack?

This is another carefully orchestrated leak that could be used to bolster the FBI's non-case. They have been diligent at letting every little damning detail come out, all but convicting Ivins with the certainty of their investigation. But when you start to look at the facts, that certainty melts away. Could there have been a legitimate reason for Ivins to use that equipment? And could the equipment Ivins used actually do the job?

Another FBI leak indicated that each particle was given a weak electric charge, thereby causing the particles to repel each other at the molecular level. This made it easier for the spores to float in the air, and increased their retention in the lungs.

In short, the potential lethality of anthrax in this case far exceeds that of any powdered product found in the now extinct U.S. Biological Warfare Program. In meetings held on the cleanup of the anthrax spores in Washington, the product was described by an official at the Department of Homeland Security as "according to the Russian recipes" -- apparently referring to the use of the weak electric charge.

The latest line of speculation asserts that the anthrax's DNA, obtained from some of the victims, initially led investigators to the laboratory where Ivins worked. But the FBI stated a few years ago that a complete DNA analysis was not helpful in identifying what laboratory might have made the product.

So, it not Ivins, then whom? Spertzel lays this out as well:

Furthermore, the anthrax in this case, the "Ames strain," is one of the most common strains in the world. Early in the investigations, the FBI said it was similar to strains found in Haiti and Sri Lanka. The strain at the institute was isolated originally from an animal in west Texas and can be found from Texas to Montana following the old cattle trails. Samples of the strain were also supplied to at least eight laboratories including three foreign laboratories. Four French government laboratories reported on studies with the Ames strain, citing the Pasteur Institute in Paris as the source of the strain they used. Organism DNA is not a very reliable way to make a case against a scientist.

The FBI has not officially released information on why it focused on Ivins, and whether he was about to be charged or arrested. And when the FBI does release this information, we should all remember that the case needs to be firmly based on solid information that would conclusively prove that a lone scientist could make such a sophisticated product.

The lone "mad scientist" motif runs through the investigation. We still can't figure out how Ivins kept any sort of clearance. Was he allowed to keep his clearance so that they could continue to investigate him? Did they let him continue to have access so they could watch him and see if he tried to duplicate what the original Anthrax killer had done? If you knew there was someone unstable in an organization who could possibly carry out a copycat attack--and then give you the perfect patsy on whom you could hang the whole affair--would you risk waiting for years to see if your patsy tripped up?

Ivins may have been demented, troubled, and unstable enough to use a biological weapon against innocent people. But was he the man who carried out the Anthrax attacks in 2001?

From what we know so far, Bruce Ivins, although potentially a brilliant scientist, was not that man. The multiple disciplines and technologies required to make the anthrax in this case do not exist at Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Inhalation studies are conducted at the institute, but they are done using liquid preparations, not powdered products.

The FBI spent between 12 and 18 months trying "to reverse engineer" (make a replica of) the anthrax in the letters sent to Messrs. Daschle and Leahy without success, according to FBI news releases. So why should federal investigators or the news media or the American public believe that a lone scientist would be able to do so?

I don't know about you, but the FBI's case is pretty much in doubt, and a possibly innocent man took the fall for one of the worst failures in the history of the US government.

Remember to update your blogrolls and bookmarks with our new domain name, They gave us a republic...

No comments: