Silicon and Tin Added to Weaponize Anthrax
McClatchy noted yesterday:
Buried 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 culprit.
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.
A 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, suicide.
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 official said.
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 silicon-based additive.
"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 lab."
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.
"You 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 product.
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 data "baffling."
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 resolved."
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."
Mike 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.
"America, the 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 history."
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 anthrax inquiry.
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:
McClatchy notes:"Some 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:"When 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:"Only 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)."
But 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:
At 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.
Two 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, Maryland.
I noted last year:
Edward Epstein writes in a must-read article in Wall Street Journal's Opinion section:
Silicon 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.
Natural 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."
Nevertheless, 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.
The 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"...
When I 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."
So, 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:"You 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 laboratory.
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:
The 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:
The 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.
Sworn statements made by two of the scientist's superiors who said they don't believe Bruce Ivins was solely to blame for the attacks ...
The 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.
"They 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."]
Andrews 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.
Andrews 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.