Monday, June 12, 2006

BIOTERROR TRAINING: Can this procedure make you a bioterrorist?

The layman's conception of what is the bioterror threat in the United States has been so twisted by counter-terror experts and dog-and-pony presentations in the media that elementary and trivial documents recovered from jihadists have influenced policy and federal spending. Over the past couple years, I've witnessed it first hand. Since it's a complicated story, one that doesn't fit the usual scripts of menace and superterrorism, it's told only in out of the way places.

But as has been written here, the jihadist chemical and biological terror documents are only useful when they go unseen or are not presented opposite real technical literature which a genuine expert finds commonplace. Take for instance, last week's blog entry on the Annals of Terror.

If you skip to the last paragraph and click on the final link, you will be returned an eye-popping number of references on the characterization, isolation and purification of botulinum toxins. All from the very legitimate refereed and heavily cross-referenced scientific literature.

But do newspaper reporters, editors or counter-terror experts ever compare jihadist literature with such papers, perhaps to determine the worth of the latter? Hardly ever. Of course, it's unfair to tar everybody. I know of some exceptions who have labored to get the more complex story told but you can count them on the fingers of one hand. So if you're reading this and you think I mean you when I'm talking about those who provide scripts, you're mistaken. Or if you're reading it and you think you're one of the good guys delivering the truth, of course you are.

In any case, years ago, I edited an e-zine called The Crypt Newsletter. It occasionally commented on media misperceptions, too. For one article or book long in the past, someone had claimed freeze-drying biochemical preparations, or perhaps microorganisms, into a powder was a complicated process.

Since weaponized microorganisms or their products are the instruments of bioterrorism. They are, in matter of fact, biochemical preparations.

Since I'd done it many times with hardware store equipment, I described it briefly on the Crypt Newsletter website. Not many people read it and I forgot about it entirely until sometime after 9/11 when I started getting the occasional e-mail questioning my sanity for posting it. These went on for a little while, always coming from odd places and including vituperative language aimed at getting me to remove it from the web for the greater good. Finally it hit me -- counter-terror experts were scouring the web for documents they thought could teach the finer technical details of bioterrorism.

In time, they faded away, probably as the arrival of ready access to the scientific literature on the web made the point moot.

Here's the example. (The original is here) Is it an ominous bioterror training document? Answer at foot of article.

[I will] now tell the reader just how cheap lab scale "freeze-drying" of bacteria is to do.

"Freeze-drying," or lyophilization, is a useful process in which a solution or suspension of bacteria or bacterial products is reduced to a dry powder. The conversion to a powder greatly reduces the volume of any fermentation and provides a form in which the material of interest is easily stored.

"Freeze-drying" relies upon the idea that one can freeze an aqueous sample of interest and remove the water from it by exposing it to a vacuum. Under these conditions, water sublimes away from a sample, from solid to vapor, and is drawn off under vacuum and trapped in a jacket cooled to sub-freezing temperature. What is left behind is a powder or crystalline matrix.

Equipment and materials needed:

One vacuum pump, used: $100 - 200.00 tops. Most high school chemistry labs have one.

Vacuum pump oil -- a few quarts. Price -- nominal.

One 25 pound block of dry ice wrapped in butcher paper: $25.00

One hammer, to smash the dry ice into fragments easy to use. Price: nominal.

An ice cream cooler to keep the dry ice in until you're ready to use it (a freezer will do, too).

Price: Whatever an ice cream cooler, new or used, costs.

Five gallons of non-reagent grade ethyl alcohol, reusable.

One Dewar bucket, 4 - 5 gallons. Price: $120.00.

One tube of vacuum grease. Price: $10.00.

Twenty feet of vacuum hose, an excessive length. Price: $20.

A knife or scissors to cut the vacuum hose into appropriate lengths. Price: nominal.

One glass vacuum trap. Price: $200 - $300.

Some plastic sample vials or round-bottom vacuum flasks. Price: $200 - $300.

Glass wool. Price: nominal.

One white lab coat (optional). Price: $17.

To make a "freeze-drying" bath, the dry ice is smashed into pieces and some pieces are added to the Dewar bucket full of ethyl alcohol. Chunks of dry ice are added
until the mix isn't bubbling vigorously.

Assembly and use is a rather obvious process to anyone who has ever had experience lyophilizing biological samples or products of a fermentation in the laboratory.

Definitely not expensive . . . and not complicated to anyone who has seen it done once or twice.
Answer: Trick question. If it was translated into Arabic and then translated back into English for a counter-terror expert to give to a reporter, it is a bioterror document. If it's the original, it isn't.


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