Silicon and Tin Added to Weaponize Anthrax
McClatchy noted yesterday:
in FBI laboratory reports about the anthrax mail attacks that killed
five people in 2001 is data suggesting that a chemical may have been
added to try to heighten the powder's potency, a move that some experts
say exceeded the expertise of the presumed killer.
The lab data, contained in more than 9,000
pages of files that emerged a year after the Justice Department closed
its inquiry and condemned the late Army microbiologist Bruce Ivins as
the perpetrator, shows unusual levels of silicon and tin in anthrax powder from two of the five letters.
Those elements are found in compounds that could be used to weaponize
the anthrax, enabling the lethal spores to float easily so they could
be readily inhaled by the intended victims, scientists say.
The existence of the silicon-tin chemical signature offered
investigators the possibility of tracing purchases of the more than 100
such chemical products available before the attacks, which might have
produced hard evidence against Ivins or led the agency to the real
But the FBI lab reports released in late February give
no hint that bureau agents tried to find the buyers of additives such as
tin-catalyzed silicone polymers.
The apparent failure of the
FBI to pursue this avenue of investigation raises the ominous
possibility that the killer is still on the loose.
McClatchy analysis of the records also shows that other key scientific
questions were left unresolved and conflicting data wasn't sorted out
when the FBI declared Ivins the killer shortly after his July 29, 2008,
One chemist at a national laboratory told McClatchy
that the tin-silicone findings and the contradictory data should prompt
a new round of testing on the anthrax powder.
A senior federal
law enforcement official, who was made available only on the condition
of anonymity, said the FBI had ordered exhaustive tests on the possible
sources of silicon in the anthrax and concluded that it wasn't added.
Instead, the lab found that it's common for anthrax spores to
incorporate environmental silicon and oxygen into their coatings as a
"natural phenomenon" that doesn't affect the spores' behavior, the
To arrive at that position, however, the FBI had
to discount its own bulk testing results showing that silicon composed
an extraordinary 10.8 percent of a sample from a mailing to the New
York Post and as much as 1.8 percent of the anthrax from a letter sent
to Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, far more than the
occasional trace contamination. Tin — not usually seen in anthrax
powder at all — was measured at 0.65 percent and 0.2 percent,
respectively, in those letters.
Several scientists and
former colleagues of Ivins argue that he was a career biologist who
probably lacked the chemistry knowledge and skills to concoct a
"There's no way that an individual
scientist can invent a new way of making anthrax using silicon and
tin," said Stuart Jacobsen, a Texas-based analytical chemist for an
electronics company who's closely studied the FBI lab results. "It
requires an institutional effort to do this, such as at a military
Martin Hugh-Jones, a world-renowned anthrax expert who
teaches veterinary medicine at Louisiana State University, called it
"just bizarre" that the labs found both tin — which can be toxic to
bacteria such as anthrax during lab culturing — and silicon.
have two elements at abnormally high levels," Hugh-Jones said. "That
reduces your probability to a very small number that it's an accident."
The FBI guarded its laboratory's finding of 10.8 percent silicon in
the Post letter for years. New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler
asked FBI Director Robert Mueller how much silicon was in the Post and
Leahy letters at a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee in
September 2008. The Justice Department responded seven months later
that silicon made up 1.4 percent of the Leahy powder (without
disclosing the 1.8 percent reading) and that "a reliable quantitative
measurement was not possible" for the Post letter.
During the FBI's seven-year hunt, the Department of Homeland Security
commissioned a team of chemists at the Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory in California to grow anthrax-like spores under varying
conditions to see how much silicon would end up naturally in the final
They found little, if any, silicon in most cases, far
less than was in the New York Post letter, said Stephan Velsko, one of
the two researchers. He called the tin readings from the FBI's anthrax
Peter Weber, Velsko's co-researcher, said the
academy panel's focus on the conflicting data "raises a big question,"
and "it'd be really helpful for closure of this case if that was
In a chapter in a recently updated book,
"Microbial Forensics," Velsko wrote that the anthrax "must have indeed
been produced under an unusual set of conditions" to create such high
silicon counts. That scenario, he cautioned, might not be "consistent
with the prosecution narrative in this case."
Wilson, a chemist for another silicone products maker, SiVance, in
Gainesville, Fla., said that numerous silicon products could be used to
make spores or other particles water-repellent. He also said that the
ratios of silicon to tin found in the Post and Leahy samples would be
"about right" if a tin-catalyzed silicone had been added to the spores.
Jacobsen, a Scottish-born and -educated chemist who once experimented
with silicon coatings on dust particles, said he got interested in the
spore chemistry after hearing rumors in late 2001 that a U.S. military
facility had made the killer potions. He called it "outrageous" that
the scientific issues haven't been addressed.
most advanced country in the world, and the FBI have every resource
available to them," he said. "And yet they have no compelling
explanation for not properly analyzing the biggest forensic clue in the
most important investigation the FBI labs had ever gotten in their
As a result of Ivins' death and the unanswered
scientific issues, Congress' investigative arm, the Government
Accountability Office, is investigating the FBI's handling of the
By way of background, I pointed out in 2008 that some of the top anthrax experts in the world say that the killer anthrax was weaponized.
I reported in 2008:
of Ivins' former colleagues also dispute the FBI's assertion that he
had the capability to mill tiny anthrax spores and then bind them to silicon particles, the form of anthrax that was mailed to the office of then-senator Tom Daschle, D-S.D."
And as New Scientist writes, FBI agents "mention a 'silicon signature' for the anthrax in the envelopes with no further comment. Silica may be used to weaponise spore powders."
Evidence for the theory that the anthrax used in the attacks was coated with anti-clumping agents also comes from a a 2001 CBS article:
technicians at the Army biodefense lab in Fort Detrick, Md., tried to
examine a sample from the Daschle letter under a microscope, it floated
off the glass slide and was lost. "
Anthrax would normally
clump, so the fact that it "floated off the glass slide" points to the
anthrax being treated with anti-clumping and anti-static agents.
Why is this important?
It takes very sophisticated equipment and processes to coat something as small as an anthrax spore with anti-clumping agents:
a sophisticated lab could have produced the material used in the
Senate attack. This was the consensus among biodefense specialists
working for the government and the military. In May 2002, 16 of these
scientists and physicians published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association, describing the Senate anthrax powder as “weapons-grade” and exceptional: “high spore concentration, uniform particle size, low electrostatic charge, treated to reduce clumping” (JAMA, 1 May 2002, p. 2237)."
Dr. Ivins was a vaccine researcher, not a weapons maker. Moreover,
Ivins was working in a lab where - according to his co-workers and
supervisors - people went in and out all night checking on experiments
(so they presumably would have seen suspicious activity by Ivins, had
there been any), and Ivins did not have access to the extremely
high-tech equipment which would have been necessary to produce the
weaponized anthrax. He wasn't one of the count-on-one-hand group of
people who knew how to coat anthrax spores with anti-clumping agents
I wrote in 2009:
The publisher of the prestigious scientific journal Nature writes:
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.
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,
I noted last year:
Edward Epstein writes in a must-read article in Wall Street Journal's Opinion section:
was used in the 1960s to weaponize anthrax. Through an elaborate
process, anthrax spores were coated with the substance to prevent them
from clinging together so as to create a lethal aerosol. But since
weaponization was banned by international treaties, research anthrax no
longer contains silicon, and the flask at Fort Detrick contained none.
Yet the anthrax grown from it had silicon,
according to the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. This
silicon explained why, when the letters to Sens. Leahy and Daschle were
opened, the anthrax vaporized into an aerosol. If so, then somehow
silicon was added to the anthrax. But Ivins, no matter how weird he may
have been, had neither the set of skills nor the means to attach
silicon to anthrax spores.
At a minimum, such a process would
require highly specialized equipment that did not exist in Ivins's
lab—or, for that matter, anywhere at the Fort Detrick facility. As
Richard Spertzel, a former biodefense scientist who worked with Ivins,
explained in a private briefing on Jan. 7, 2009, the lab didn't even
deal with anthrax in powdered form, adding, "I don't think there's
anyone there who would have the foggiest idea how to do it." So while
Ivins's death provided a convenient fall guy, the silicon content still
needed to be explained.
The FBI's answer was that the anthrax
contained only traces of silicon, and those, it theorized, could have
been accidently absorbed by the spores from the water and nutrient in
which they were grown. No such nutrients were ever found in Ivins's
lab, nor, for that matter, did anyone ever see Ivins attempt to produce
any unauthorized anthrax (a process which would have involved him
using scores of flasks.) But since no one knew what nutrients had been
used to grow the attack anthrax, it was at least possible that they had
traces of silicon in them that accidently contaminated the anthrax.
contamination was an elegant theory that ran into problems after
Congressman Jerry Nadler pressed FBI Director Robert Mueller in
September 2008 to provide the House Judiciary Committee with a missing
piece of data: the precise percentage of silicon contained in the
anthrax used in the attacks.
The answer came seven months later
on April 17, 2009. According to the FBI lab, 1.4% of the powder in the
Leahy letter was silicon. "This is a shockingly high proportion,"
explained Stuart Jacobson, an expert in small particle chemistry. "It is
a number one would expect from the deliberate weaponization of
anthrax, but not from any conceivable accidental contamination."
in an attempt to back up its theory, the FBI contracted scientists at
the Lawrence Livermore National Labs in California to conduct
experiments in which anthrax is accidently absorbed from a media heavily
laced with silicon. When the results were revealed to the National
Academy Of Science in September 2009, they effectively blew the FBI's
theory out of the water.
Livermore scientists had tried 56 times to replicate the high silicon
content without any success. Even though they added increasingly high
amounts of silicon to the media, they never even came close to the 1.4%
in the attack anthrax. Most results were an order of magnitude lower,
with some as low as .001%.
What these tests inadvertently
demonstrated is that the anthrax spores could not have been accidently
contaminated by the nutrients in the media. "If there is that much
silicon, it had to have been added," Jeffrey Adamovicz, who supervised
Ivins's work at Fort Detrick, wrote to me last month. He added that the
silicon in the attack anthrax could have been added via a large
fermentor—which Battelle and other labs use" but "we did not use a
fermentor to grow anthrax at USAMRIID . . . [and] We did not have the
capability to add silicon compounds to anthrax spores"...
asked a FBI spokesman this month about the Livermore findings, he said
the FBI was not commenting on any specifics of the case, other than
those discussed in the 2008 briefing (which was about a year before
Livermore disclosed its results). He stated: "The Justice Department and
the FBI continue working to conclude the investigation into the 2001
anthrax attacks. We anticipate closing the case in the near future."
even though the public may be under the impression that the anthrax
case had been closed in 2008, the FBI investigation is still open—and,
unless it can refute the Livermore findings on the silicon, it is back
to square one.
A manufacturer of specialized anthrax equipment said:
would need [a] chemist who is familiar with colloidal [fumed] silica,
and a material science person to put it all together, and then some
mechanical engineers to make this work . . . probably some containment
people, if you don't want to kill anybody. You need half a dozen, I
think, really smart people."
The U.N. biologist mentioned above also said that the equipment to make such high-tech anthrax does not exist at Fort Detrick, where Ivins worked.
People who work at Fort Detrick have confirmed this. In other words, a
lone scientist couldn't have done it without the support of a whole
government laboratory. And Fort Detrick was not one such potential
Vaccine expert Dr. Meryl Nass has also criticized the FBI's case against Bruce Ivins:
The letter spores contained a Bacillus subtilis contaminant, and silicon to
enhance dispersal. FBI has never found the Bacillus subtilis strain
at USAMRIID, and it has never acknowledged finding silicon there,
either. If the letters anthrax was made at USAMRIID, at least small
amounts of both would be there.
Does the FBI stand for the Federal Bureau of Invention?
Yesterday's McClatchy post also points out:
silicon-tin connection wasn't the only lead left open in one of the
biggest investigations in FBI history, an inquiry that took the bureau
to the cutting edge of laboratory science. In April, McClatchy reported
that after locking in on Ivins in 2007, the bureau stopped searching
for a match to a unique genetic bacterial strain scientists had found
in the anthrax that was mailed to the Post and to NBC News anchor Tom
Brokaw, although a senior bureau official had characterized it as the
hottest clue to date.
Ivins' Bosses Say Under Oath that He Couldn't Have Done It
And as AP notes, two of Bruce Ivins' bosses have - under oath - said that Ivins couldn't have done it:
widow of a Florida tabloid photo editor who died in the 2001 anthrax
mailings is casting fresh doubt on the FBI's conclusion that a lone
federal scientist staged the attacks, according to new documents filed
in her lawsuit against the government.
statements made by two of the scientist's superiors who said they don't
believe Bruce Ivins was solely to blame for the attacks ...
statements raising questions about the FBI's conclusions were made in
depositions earlier this year by W. Russell Byrne and Gerard Andrews,
who oversaw Ivins' work at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of
Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. Byrne was chief of
bacteriology at the biodefense lab from 1998 to early 2000 and Andrews
held the post from 2000 to 2003.
According to court documents,
Byrne told Stevens' attorneys that Ivins "did not have the lab skills
to make the fine powdered anthrax used in the letters" and that it
would have been difficult for Ivins to do the work at night undetected.
Byrne said others would have noticed the unusual use of equipment and
supplies because of the hazardous microbes involved in their work.
pay attention to things because your lack of observation could cost
you your life," Byrne said, according to the documents.
In a telephone interview Thursday, Byrne said he knew Ivins for 15 years and remains unconvinced he was capable of such crimes.
"It just wasn't the Bruce Ivins that I knew," said Byrne, who retired in 2003 and still lives in Frederick.
Andrews, the other superior, told lawyers it
would have taken Ivins six months to a year to refine the anthrax
spores used in the deadly mailings, instead of the roughly 20 hours the
FBI found he spent at night in the lab. [One of the handful of people who actually can produce the kind of high-tech weaponized anthrax used in the attacks previously said, "Even with a good lab and staff to help run it, it might take me a year to come up with a product as good."]
also said Ivins did not have the expertise to do the work and some of
the necessary equipment wasn't available at Fort Detrick at the time.
added that in the 16 years he knew Ivins, there was no indication
"that he understood the weaponization technology of anthrax spores, nor
did any of his colleagues ever talk to me about his interest or
understanding" of the processes required.
"Dr. Andrews stated in
his opinion, it would take more than one person to achieve this attack
because of the unusual physical characteristics of the powders," the
court document said.
He's Guilty Because He Was Odd
So what evidence does the FBI have against Ivins?
As Anthrax expert Dr. Nass notes, all of the FBI's "circumstantial" evidence falls apart the minute it is looked at closely.
At the end of the day, the FBI literally hinges its case on the fact
that Ivins was "odd". Based on that criteria, the FBI could convict
anyone it chose based on mere character assassination.