Tuesday, September 16, 2008

IMMUNITY TO ANTHRAX FACT: A continuing story

Certain facts disseminated by the FBI continue to annoy many. As noted in a story DD wrote for the Reg recently, the fact that the FBI -- as well as other scientists called into consult on the case -- determined that the attack spores were not weaponized is an item of note few seem prepared to swallow.

When FBI microbiologist Douglas J. Beecher tangentially wrote about this in 2006 in the peer-reviewed article "Forensic Application of Microbiological Culture Analysis To Identify Mail Intentionally Contaminated with Bacillus anthracis Spores" for the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, it immediately became a bone of contention.

At the time, 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."

This didn't matter, Beecher reasoned.

Even when anthrax powder appeared to be in clumps, a rough product, "some fraction is composed of particles that are precisely in the size range that is most hazardous for transmission of disease by inhalation."

Beecher's peer-reviewed science immediately got in the way of a now infamous news report published in Science in 2003.

Written by journalist Gary Matsumoto, that Science news piece -- which, paradoxically, was not the result of peer-reviewed science, passed on an elaborate theory as to the nature of the attack anthrax.

The attack anthrax, it explained, was weaponized with a silicon additive, polymerized glass. This made it exceedingly dangerous and implied that only someone, or some state-run biowarfare operation, possessing an arcane knowledge into the use of anthrax as a weapon could have produced it.

"Two years on from the attacks, public discussion of the silica additive has all but ceased; the discussion about polymerized glass has yet to occur," wrote Matsumoto. "Instead, the FBI has devoted much of its effort to the idea that a low-budget amateur operation could have produced a 'weaponized' form of anthrax powder without a sophisticated additive."

It was a swipe at the FBI, an implication the agency was on the wrong track. Near the end of the piece, the author quoted experts on silica additives who reasoned that the specifics of the additive might lead to the killers.

Fast forward to the present.

With the suicide of Bruce Ivins, the FBI came forward with a very reasonable initial effort to explain the hard science behind some of its conclusions.

It had been obvious the FBI was acutely aware the over-heated rhetoric concerning whether or not the attack anthrax had been weaponized was going to be an issue. Beecher's article -- even though peer-reviewed -- hadn't made a dent.

Enter Sandia National Laboratories and materials scientist Dr. Joseph Michael. On hand for the FBI's recent science presentation, Michael unequivocally said that scientists at Ft. Detrick and another Army laboratory had been mistaken when they made statements years ago on alleged weaponization of the spores.

(To understand why this was important, one must familiarize oneself with Matsumoto's old piece from Science here as well as the much more recent science transcript from the FBI here. Taken together, for laymen these are difficult to bite down on. The jargon dealing with weaponized anthrax and speculation in the Science news piece is formidable and, perhaps, explains in part why the mainstream media and others have had such a hard time telling the story clearly.)

While these scientists had detected a silicon signal in the attack spores, they were operating from what turned out to be an insufficiently deep analysis. Subsequent research done by others showed the silicon trace more precisely, pinpointing it in the spore coat of the attack anthrax, not on its surface.

This is the way of science and it is not evidence of incompetence or conspiracy. Customarily, one makes the best of what one has in terms of experimental evidence and when better information is developed, the working explanation evolves to accomodate it.

In any case, more thorough analysis delivered a newer conclusion: The silicon present in the spore coat had no effect on the surface properties of the attack anthrax.

"Sandia's work demonstrated anthrax letters contained non-weaponized form," states this page maintained by the national laboratory.

Electron micrograph photos of the attack anthrax were furnished by Sandia. Similar photographic materials of anthrax spores specifically weaponized with silicon were also made available for comparative purpose. In no way do the attack spores resemble a weaponized sample. (This is well explained on a page maintained by author Ed Lake, here.)

The FBI's (and Sandia's} explanation is a logical and conservative analysis seemingly based on good science. One would assume it will eventually be published in some form and become the basis for further work on how and why anthrax spores take up silicon from the environment.

And it has basically been ignored by the mainstream media and others who, disappointingly, should know better.

This week the political process and the mainstream press have again illustrated how damaging the theory that the attack anthrax was weaponized has been.

So, to make clear once again, good scientific work, including electronic micrograph scanning of the attack anthrax, show it was not weaponized. This is in direct contradiction to much of the current received wisdom on the matter. This fact does not directly implicate Bruce Ivins as the anthrax mailer although it does have some meaning for the FBI's argument that he was the culprit.

Those arguing that the FBI has once again goofed everything up and that Bruce Ivins could not have been the anthrax terrorist rely strongly on the idea that the Detrick scientist could not have made the attack spores BECAUSE they were allegedly so advanced and deadly. They still argue that the presence of silicon means the spores were weaponized and that since Ivins had no experience in such matters, they must have been made by someone else (or a group of someone elses.)

On Tuesday, for example, Glenn Greenwald thundered:

"[Congressman Jerry Nadler] specifically focused on the fact that scientists (including in the FBI) had long claimed that the anthrax sent to Sen. Daschele was dried anthrax that had been coated with silica and was thus far too sophisticated for Ivins to have prepared, only for the FBI suddenly to reverse itself recently and claim that the anthrax was not coated with silica but had, instead, simply naturally absorbed silicon from the air."

Your host reads Greenwald reguarly and admires his work greatly. But this statement does a bit of a disservice to readers in implying the FBI had pulled the information that the anthrax was not weaponized out of a hat, in contradiction to its earlier judgment, perhaps in order to accomodate an argument that Ivins had made the anthrax.

The FBI and the scientists working in consultation with it have not contended that silicon found in the spore coat of the attack material was "naturally absorbed" from the air. In matter of fact, they have pointed to a couple of publications from the peer-reviewed literature, each performed by different scientists, which describe a surprising incorporation of silicon into the spore coat of a species related to Bacillus anthracis.

From a scientific way of thinking, this is a reasonable way to make a point.

In the older literature, in an article from the Journal of Bacteriology published in 1964 ("Spectrochemical Analysis of Chemical Elements in Bacteria" by M. A. Rouf from Washington State University) and in another from 1980 ("Distribution of Calcium and other elements in cryosectioned B. cereus T spores, determined by high resolution scanning electron probe X-ray microanalysis," Murray Stewart, et al; Journal of Bacteriology) they presented two distinct sets of data. The data showed silicon in spores, a surprise to researchers, but nevertheless present. The researchers could not explain why the silicon was there nor did they have to. Science allows one to make an observation based on experiment evidence. In the second paper, the scientists speculated "the silicon content of the cortex coat layer may result from specific incorporation or from contamination from glassware or from silicone vacuum oils employed in the apparatus used to freeze-dry the spores."

In other words, FBI scientists attempted to elucidate the presence of silicon in the attack mixture by pinning down its precise location within or on the spore. Electronic micrography was used to do this. In parallel, the scientists looked for previously published science in the literature, not only to show that it was possible for bacterial spores to incorporate silicon, but also in attempt to get a handle on why this might be so.

In the space of a political argument or a newspaper article, these are hard things to explain. Perhaps readers have not even understood this bit written by their host!

It is far easier to maintain that silicon must equal weaponization because other experts have said so!

"Nadler had various good questions about that -- including wanting to know the level of concentration of silica found in the anthrax (since, if it were higher than 1/2 of 1%, it would mean it was impossible for it to have been naturally absorbed)," continued Greenwald.

Was it a good question? DD doesn't think so.

Jerry Nadler had no way of knowing what constitutes an unnaturally absorbed concentration of silicon in spores, or a concentration which presumably points to weaponization. While there is some data on the percentage of silicon found in the spore coat in the Rouf paper (about 1 percent/dry weight) and more diverging values expressed in a different way by Stewart, neither constitute any benchmarks for judgment on what makes a weaponized Bacillus spore.

These papers basically show silicon to be present using different methods and different quantitation. And since they show the silicon to be distinctly within the spore coat (not on the surface, which is where weaponization would presumably be found,) Nadler's statement -- if accurate -- seems to indicate that he's operating under an assumption in contradiction to the published science which exists on the subject.

FBI director Robert Mueller couldn't address the question and was shelled for it. And he should have been prepared to answer with something other than a deferment.

But it's also fair to make the observation that had scientists even been present to handle the question, no Congressmen would have accepted (any many would not have understood) any explanations having to do with the silicon signal present in the attack anthrax.

In today's Washington Post, Carrie Johnson worked over the same ground.

"Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) asked Mueller to explain discrepancies in bureau accounts of the potency of the anthrax spores in letters that were sent to lawmakers and media organizations," she wrote. "At one point, FBI officials said the substance was 'weaponized,' a step that made the powder more airy and required special scientific know-how. But in a briefing last month, government scientists said that silicon in the spores was a natural byproduct of the environment, not the result of deadly engineering.

"Nadler demanded information on the amount of silicon found in the spores ..."

Johnson's coverage was only sort of correct. It was right in giving the final impression that the FBI had explained silicon in its most recent science briefing.

But Johnson's piece also cast the impression the FBI recently and suddenly changed its mind about the nature of the anthrax. At the beginning of the article, DD cited that in 2006 -- in a scientific paper -- an FBI microbiologist had asserted the attack spores had no special properties.

If one returns to newspaper accounts, a nebulous -- but radically diverging timeline, one also influenced by reporting restricted to only a few sources not connected with the investigation, emerges.

"Investigators and experts have said the spores in the Daschle and Leahy letters were uniformly between 1 and 3 microns in size, and were coated with fine particles of frothy silica glass," wrote Guy Gugliotta and Ceci Connolly for the Washington Post in November of 2002. "The weaponized product was astonishingly pure ..."

The article, entitled "FBI Secretly Trying to Re-Create Anthrax from Mail Attacks" was mostly a collection of assertions from old bioweapons experts not connected to the case. The upshot was that the experts were convinced the anthrax was the work of a professional, or professionals, trained in the dark art of weaponization, a position many of them still maintain.

This article followed another by Gugliotta, Connolly and Gary Matsumoto in October, one which worked over the same territory, entitled "FBI's Theory on Anthrax Attacks is Doubted; Attacks Not Likely Work of 1 Person, Experts Say."

"[The Post's sources] say that making a weaponized aerosol of such sophistication and virulence would require scientific knowledge, technical competence, access to expensive equipment and safety know-how that are probably beyond the capabilities of a lone individual," they wrote.

"As a result, a consensus has emerged in recent months among experts familiar with the technology needed to turn anthrax spores into the deadly aerosol that was sent to Sens. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) that some of the fundamental assumptions driving the FBI's investigation may be flawed."

Why was it flawed? Because it did not take into account the alleged weaponization of the spores and skills needed to make them.

"The answer was silica -- the same silicon dioxide that comprises substances ranging from beach sand to window glass," reported the newspaper. "The attacker needed a special kind of silica, however, because the aerosol that delivered the spores was as sophisticated as any on the market."

Matusmoto would take a similar discussion to Science magazine for its news article published in 2003.

However, the same article had to grudgingly concede that the FBI had another explanation for the silicon signal in the attack spores.

"Sources on Capitol Hill say that in an FBI background briefing given in late 2002, Dwight Adams, one of the FBI’s topranking scientists, suggested that the silica discovered in the Senate anthrax was, in fact, silicon that occurred naturally in the organism’s subsurface spore coats," wrote Matsumoto. "To support his thesis, Adams cited a 1980 paper published by the Journal of Bacteriology ..."

This paper, it was implied, was old and out-of-date, perhaps not reproducible and its findings were possibly the result of a "contaminant." Which, by the way, is also to say that the silicon present in the attack spores could have been the same type of minor component, not an example of weaponization.

Nevertheless, for Science Matsumoto pursued the theory that the attack spores had been coated in polymerized glass.

So it is seen that the meme that the anthrax spores were weaponized has been notoriously difficult to dislodge.

In its recent science briefing, the FBI was confronted by a reporter -- probably Gary Matsumoto -- obsessed with the topic of weaponization. As a result, much of the subsequent discussion was hijacked.

Glenn Greenwald returned to the topic today in discussion of further congressional hearing.

"Senator Patrick Leahy] began the hearing by identifying the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground and the private CIA contractor Battelle Corporation -- but not Fort Detrick -- as the only two institutions in the U.S. capable of producing anthrax of the strain that was sent to him and Sen. Daschele," Greenwald wrote.

"Leahy asked Mueller whether he was aware of any other institutions capable of producing the anthrax, and when Mueller -- amazingly though unsurprisingly -- claimed he couldn't answer, Leahy demanded that he obtain the answer during a break and tell the Committee today what the answer is."

In recent weeks and in Beecher's 2006 paper, the FBI has repeatedly attempted to show the attack anthrax was not so specially made that it could only have come from places like Dugway or Battelle.

In its recent presentations, the FBI's scientists -- not Robert Mueller, addressed these concerns in more concrete terms. There was no obvious attempt to mislead, so it is appalling, but perhaps unsurprising, that Robert Mueller would be so unprepared to answer questions on the same set of subjects. At the very least, it indicates an attitude in which the FBI director couldn't be bothered to do a better job, that even the facts as explained by his own people were of little interest to him.

Mueller has indicated he will seek independent evaluation of the FBI's work from the National Academy of Science. It's a good step to take. But it seems to have been interpreted as a reproach to the scientific analysis already performed. Scientists at the FBI's presentation have already indicated that they have plans for publishing in the peer-reviewed literature. And one -- Paul Keim -- has been regularly publishing articles on genomic analysis of Ames strain anthrax mixtures for some time.


Should've kept my big mouth shut

In the FBI's briefing on August 18th, agency employees and scientists were continually sidetracked by questioning about the spores' alleged weaponization. (See above.)

One exchange went like this:

Question: "Dr. Peter Jarling [sic] and Dr. Tom Geiserd [sic] of USAMRIID said that they both saw silica on the exosporium, and Dr. Frank Johnson and Dr. Florabel Mullick of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology both said that they found silica, not -- you know, in their elemental analysis at APHID. I went back to them several times and they both -- all these scientists insisted it was silica on the surface of these spores. So I was wondering what --

"Can you please account for the discrepancy between your findings and those of two U.S. Army laboratories?"

BACKGROUND OFFICIAL: "I can answer that for you. They did not have the technology to make those statements. They would not have been able to give an elemental analysis using the technology --"

And a couple of minutes later, after more argument:

QUESTION: "I appreciate that but obviously what Dr. Jarling [sic] and Dr. Geiserd said they actually saw the silica on the surface of the spores."

DR. MICHAEL: "But that's just not possible. It's not possible."

QUESTION: "You're saying they're mistaken?"

BACKGROUND OFFICIAL: "Yes, they are mistaken."

In today's Los Angeles Times, David Willman reports "Scientist admits mistake on anthrax." The scientist? Peter Jahrling, a famous virologist at Ft. Detrick, the same scientist mentioned in the FBI transcript.

"An acclaimed government scientist who assisted the federal investigation of the 2001anthrax mailings said Tuesday that he erred several years ago when he told top Bush administration officials that material he examimed had been altered to make it more deadly," reported Willman.

This was not such a scoop since the FBI had already gone to some length to prove the attack spores were not weaponized. However, as we've discussed, the facts in the matter just bounce off the meme. And they continue to do so, as evidenced by Tuesday's House hearing in which Jerry Nadler was still trying to tweeze out information about the amount of silicon in the anthrax mailings.

In today's LAT report Willman covers only briefly the magnitude of the damage caused by Jahrling's (as well as others') claim and its subsequent vigorous discussion in the mainstream media. When DD uses the term "vigorous discussion," he means vigorous discussion of only one side of the story, the side that maintained the anthrax was weaponized.

"I should never have ventured into this area," Jahrling told the LATimes.

5 Comments:

Blogger Old Atlantic Lighthouse said...

If you search "two dielectric spheres" you will see that the electromagnetic properties of spheres does depend on the dielectric values of their internals. Silicon in internal shells can have an affect via this mechanism. The silicon may also dynamically diffuse from internal to external or vice versa depending on the overall situation.

I don't think Sandia claimed that internal silicon can not affect external events or behavior of a spore containing the silicon.

Some of this has been discussed already at Meryl Nass and by Barbara Rosenberg at a link from Nass.

Nass points out and you can see on the FBI webpage that they had a decontamination procedure in 2001 so that the envelopes could be studied at the FBI lab. The charge state of the anthrax is not guaranteed to be the same years later. The assumption that Si02 on the surface is the only form of weaponization is an assumption.

5:05 AM  
Blogger J. said...

Excellent discussion, sir. Not that the media or Congress will note it, but this is a well-laid out argument.

5:24 AM  
Anonymous Edward Hammond said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Not that that many people ask me what I think about these things anymore; but if they did, you've taken the words right out of my mouth.

What remains to be seen is if this long overdue eating crow by Peter Jahrling will make him less of an arrogant "I don't have to answer to anyone because I'm defending America" mission freak prone to error and more of a responsible research leader. If it doesn't, then I say can his ass.

5:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree with your assertion that Rep Nadler asked a poor question. The total concentration of silicon present is the most basic and fundamental number on which conclusions about weaponization can be based. We have no idea what that concentration is - the FBI will not release the number - at the briefing after being repeatedly asked they finally responded "It's high". Well how high? Is it 1%, 2%, 5%, more than 10%? If it is more than 0.5% that implies deliberate addition - weaponization aside. Astonishingly the FBI have been unable to reproduce the high silicon level found in the spores, even after 7 years (although they don't say what that concentration is). This implies that achieving that high level of silicon is not a trivial matter - and implies that whoever made it went to considerable effort to get it (the silicon) there - further implying he or they had a very good reason for incorporating the silicon.
I diasgree that there is not an existing database of silicon concentrations - the papers you quote cover this. You correctly state that the first paper showed a spore powder with 1%SiO2. But this is still only 0.47% Si - (at. weight of silicon is 28, molecular weight of SiO2 is 60). The second paper expresses the quantity of silicon in mmole/kg which can easily be converted to weight %. The highest % Si in these samples was still less than 0.5% (and was prepared in water heavily contaminated with silicon - it was not deionized water). All other spore samples from the second paper had less than 0.1% Si.
That is the reason Rep Nadler asked the question he asked. That question has still not been answered.

4:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The weaponized/non-weaponized argument is compelling. But here is the question no one seems to want to answer: where is the cctv showing Ivins making and taking anthrax from the lab? Detrick has cctv in all the labs (can be verified by talking with those that currently work and have formerly worked there). Maybe it was weaponized, or maybe it wasn't . . . but the FBI has claimed that Ivins did it at Detrick while working late. So please . . . someone . . . show me the tape if it exists. Everything in the lab is on camera except the bathrooms. Freedom of Information Act maybe?

--JSC

7:32 PM  

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