Friday, November 03, 2006

COLD ANTHRAX CASE: Hobbyist chemists can make it, sez anonymous government man

Today the Los Angeles Times ran "Many Fear FBI's Anthrax Case is Cold," by reporters Richard B. Schmitt and Josh Meyer. It was notable for its use of wretched sources and a lazy interpretation of what's known about the anthrax samples from microbiologist Douglas J. Beecher's paper on the spores found in the letter to Patrick Leahy. In fact, the reporters don't even bother to mention Beecher's work as an original source. It's an omission worth a dinging when coupled with the reliance on an unnamed "former federal official."

And is always the case, when given anonymity, expect the eye-rolling quote. Of course, the reporters do not disappoint.

"Now all of a sudden you have people who may be hobbyists . . . or chemists who think they can do this stuff and may have done this stuff," according to the Times' poorly-chosen expert.

Hobbyists! I think I'll make dried spores from Ames strain anthrax as a hobby! And put some in the mail!

Of course, readers can be glad the "former" anonymous law enforcement official is out of the game, intelligence-insulting as he is.

Reading Beecher's paper does not create the impression the anthrax was made by hobbyists. It merely dispels the widely disseminated notion that there was some unique quality to it that could have only come from a state-sponsored bioweapons production lab.

What the paper does make clear is that the material was very dangerous to handle, so much so that the FBI laboratory work on it had to rely on a great deal of professional training and scientific rigor. And that is a definition which would tend to exclude hobbyists, contrary to the beliefs of anonymous law enforcement officials and the simple-minded.

But read the original, linked above, to get the full flavor of it. Whatever the case, DD isn't losing any sleep over the notion that hobbyist bioterrorists might soon begin again to attack the nation.

The Times article also entertains the fancy that the FBI, perhaps, is not making use of the best scientists in the hunt for the Amerithraxer. DD would say that publication of the Beecher paper in the peer-reviewed scientific literature makes just the opposite case, but the poor judgment of our symbolic analysts in the mainstream media is never to be underestimated.

So the Times trots out Ken Alibek, "a bio-weapons pioneer from the former Soviet Union." Ken Alibek wants to help. And the FBI's not interested.

" . . . Alibek said he had written to [Robert] Mueller to volunteer," writes the newspaper. " ' I said please keep in mind, I have expertise and would like to help you resolve this case,' he said. Alibek said he got a 'thanks, but no thanks' letter from a top aide . . . "

And DD, with GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow T-shirt on, would say the FBI gave the right response.

At the time of the anthrax attacks, Ken Alibek was in the news claiming citizens could protect themselves from anthrax by ironing their mail. See here -- for one example.

(As background, this came from a meeting with Congressman Chris Shays, a pol who DD regards as a useless pox when it comes to knowing anything sensible about national security. Between making available the knowledge that an atom bomb can be made from stuff scrounged at Home Depot and ironing anthraxed mail, he seems to have the alpha and omega of zany-but-also-nuts covered.)

But back to Alibek. Since Amerithrax he's been busy. In 2003, Alibek and a cohort at George Mason University made the startling
out-of-the-box claim that smallpox vaccination might confer immunity to HIV infection.
They were quickly shelled into silence by the scientific community.

And in 2002 his name was discovered attached to a brand of OTC health pills called "Dr. Ken Alibek's Immune System Support Formula." In Science magazine, Alibek said he'd been acting as a consultant to the pill-maker. Another scientist called the remedy snake oil.


Blogger P. Curtin said...

A small diversion. The Bush administration has been nasty to many people so I am not expecting any sympathy but....
The government has been very keen to shut down amateur science. Somehow the law enforcement world decided that if we aren't cooking up meth then we must be developing weapons. The idea of native curiosity eludes them.

12:20 PM  

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