Tuesday, August 05, 2008

ALL WET? Leakers and mass media thrash anthrax case

"God save the FBI if they're wrong again."

That's how your host ended his article on Bruce Ivins and the anthrax at the Reg yesterday. (See here.)

In the meantime, a great deal of information has been leaked willy-nilly to the big newspapers. However, while suggestive, none of it incontrovertibly pins the anthrax attacks on Bruce Ivins. What's to be believed? What will the FBI officially produce and stand behind which constitutes blockbuster proof?

Today, the Washington Post focused on a freeze-dryer.

"Bruce E. 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," wrote the post in Anthrax Dryer Key to Probe.

"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."

However, in the bacteriology and protein chemistry labs DD has worked in, freeze-dryers were prosaic -- common equipment. They have multiple uses, blandishments of some unique quality from a Washington Post story not withstanding.

Reporters, who do not know what constitutes scientific hardware, are not in a position to make a judgment on it as some sort of unique component in a crime.

In fact, a freeze-dryer is not particularly difficult to build from scratch. Many scientists know how to do it. And, yes, it can be used to dry bacterial samples. However, absent someone seeing Bruce Ivins specifically drying samples of what would become mailed anthrax powder, a lyophilizer in a microbiology lab is not necessarily a smoking gun.

See here for an explanation on how one works and is built.

While use of a freeze-dryer may be suggestive, it is not more than circumstantial at a facility like Fort Detrick. Lab freeze-dryers are not always specifically just for one individual's private use. Quite often they can be used by anyone in the lab.

See the Washington Post piece here.

In other matters, Richard Spertzel wrote an audacious column for the Wall Street Journal. Entitled Bruce Ivins Wasn't the Anthrax Culprit, Spertzel -- who was an expert scientist in the Iraq Survey Group -- points toward weaponization of anthrax.

Arguments over weaponization of the samples have always left your host cold but many people put great stock in them.

"Information released by the FBI over the past seven years indicates a product of exceptional quality," wrote Spertzel. "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."

However, this culling of information is selective. Five years later, in 2006, FBI scientist Doug Beecher published the forbiddingly entitled "Forensic Application of Microbiological Culture Analysis To Identify Mail Intentionally Contaminated with Bacillus anthracis Spores."

Published in the August 2006 issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, a peer-reviewed journal, the article was fascinating for the many things it said about mailed anthrax, specifically that which was found in a letter mailed to Senator Patrick Leahy.

Beecher wrote: " . . . a widely circulated misconception is the spores were produced using additives and sophisticated engineering supposedly akin to military weapon production. This idea is usually the basis for implying that the powders were inordinately dangerous compared to spores alone."

The FBI scientist found that such things didn't matter.

Even if the anthrax powder appeared to be in clumps, "some fraction is composed of particles that are precisely in the size range that is most hazardous for transmission of disease by inhalation." And that number is a large one.

The above three grafs come reprinted from an older piece DD prepared at the Reg on the FBI's conclusions here.

Spertzel op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.


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