CASE CLOSED … what really happened in the 2001 anthrax attacks?

* FBI anthrax science to be reviewed; conclusions due 23 months after FBI says it is closing the case (5-8-09)

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 8, 2009

David Dishneau of Associated Press reports (5/8/09) …

  • The National Academy of Sciences said Friday it will review the lab work behind the FBI’s conclusion that Army scientist Bruce Ivins was responsible for the anthrax mailings that killed five people in 2001.
  • The FBI will pay the Washington-based society nearly $880,000 for the independent, 15-month committee review of the genetic and chemical studies investigators used to link Ivins to the attacks, academy spokeswoman Jennifer Walsh said.
  • The review, which was requested by the FBI, won’t assess the evidentiary value of the bureau’s detective work or the FBI’s conclusion that Ivins acted alone, the academy said.
  • The academy said it will evaluate “the reliability of the principles and methods used by the FBI, and whether the principles and methods were applied appropriately to the facts.”

LMW COMMENT

This scientific review is a welcome step, but it also shows how pathetic the FBI was in reaching conclusions about Dr. Ivins’ guilt without adequate science to support those conclusions.

To pay $880,000 now, after Ivins committed suicide (allegedly) and after the FBI announced that he was the sole perpetrator, is disgraceful. And even now, the Academy’s study will not, in a 15 month review, assess “the evidentiary value of the bureau’s detective work or the FBI’s conclusion that Ivins acted alone.”

Just about every one who has read my novel CASE CLOSED, to be published this summer, has expressed their skepticism as to the validity of the FBI’s case, or the honesty of the investigation.

I don’t claim that my novel tells what actually happened, but it sure lays out a possible scenario to explain the FBI’s ineptness. As one of my characters says in the novel …

“The greatest police force in the land put into ponderous motion a truly massive investigation. Although some think there are only a few real suspects who should be investigated, namely those people with the means and the access to actually prepare and send the anthrax laced letters, the greatest police force in the land looks everyplace but where these prime suspects are known to be. Not surprisingly, no arrests are made. Now why would the best police force in the land look in all the wrong places?”

That’s the question that made me write CASE CLOSED.

 

read the entire news clip at … http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090508/ap_on_re_us/us_anthrax_investigation_2;_ylc=X3oDMTB0NXJpN3Z2BF9TAzIxNTExMDUEZW1haWxJZAMxMjQxODA2MTc5

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15 Responses to “* FBI anthrax science to be reviewed; conclusions due 23 months after FBI says it is closing the case (5-8-09)”

  1. Ike Solem said

    Unfortunately, thanks to this episode and all the leaks it entailed, the whole world has a pretty good idea of how aerosolized preparations can be made – and it’s the same technology used to make dry aerosol drug powders, scary enough.

    The stuff certainly wasn’t made with a lyophilizer, but it might have been made with what is known as a “BattellePharma Electrospray Nebulizer”, produced by the Battelle Memorial Institute’s for-profit startup, founded in April 2000 – first named “Battelle Pulmonary Therapeutics”, they changed their name to BattellePharma in April 2002, then to Ventaira in Jan 2004, and have recently been re-absorbed by the parent, Battelle Memorial Institute. Their system can produce dry aerosol powders at a fixed size – 1-5 microns – which is perfect for lung inhalation, and which also matches the size of the anthrax spores.

    From their PR blurb:
    Ventaira is a specialty pharmaceutical company based in Columbus, Ohio that develops a proprietary pulmonary drug delivery technology, Mystic(TM) (Electrohydrodynamic-EHD), and formulation capabilities to deliver drugs more efficiently to and through the lung.

    One of the main issues in the forensics is the particle size of the spores – New Scientist, Oct 2001:

    “Last week, US Senator Bill Frist announced that the powder in the Daschle letter was in particles 1.5 to 3.0 microns wide, a very narrow size range. The results of the physical analysis of the New York Post letter are not yet known.”

    Can you do that with a lyophilizer? Hell no! That is an EASILY demonstrated fact. There really is only one technology that seems capable of producing such a narrow range of aerosol powder sizes, and that is the above EHD system, or something similar. Don’t think Ivins has one of those, did he? Furthermore, the device has apparently been pulled off the market for good – for obvious reasons?

    Did the FBI ever investigate BPT – BattellePharma – Ventaira? Find out who has access to such equipment? Most likely, they did. The field agents in the anthrax case did a very good job early on, even tracking the spores back to Princeton, NJ – and that’s when the FBI appointed a new lead, Richard Lambert.

    Richard Lambert took over immediately after the Princeton spores were discovered, and his tenure lasted through 2006, and he made sure that Hatfill was “the sole suspect.” Now, he has been reassigned to East Tennessee, where Battelle has a huge operation at Oak Ridge Nuclear Labs, and where the anthrax cleanup team for the Hart Senate Building is based.

    So is this proof of a plot to cover for the real culprits? Not at all – it’s just a narrative, unsupported by direct evidence – just like the Bruce Ivins story – but it is worth looking at.

    As far as the actual preparation of coated anthrax spores, you can imagine this is difficult to do – you are talking about coating individual spores with a silica coat so that they don’t stick together. Apparently, they add silica materials to the a purified spore preparation and pump it through the electrospray, and out comes dry coated spores. You can’t do this in a basement – you need a huge lab with serious biohazard containment, a filtered air supply, and one-of-a-kind equipment – it’s probably not as hard as enriching uranium, but it takes a similar kind of expertise.

    So, can we have a congressional investigation, already?

    • DXer said

      The tech rep long ago confirms the literature that a mini-spray dryer for example can produce a uniform 1 micron particle size. Ken Alibek initially thought a spray dryer was used then in a draft of Biohazard 2 opines that a fluidized bed dryer could have been used. A number of people who have actually made anthrax simulant have spoken to this question. A fluidized bed dryer can also be used according to experts who have made simulant for aerosol experiments. The head of the Air Force lab made a product, in a controlled experiment, that demonstrated similar performance characteristics and had the spike for silicon. He used a siliconizing solution in the slurry.

  2. Ike Solem said

    Ed Lake,
    I’m the recipient of an NSF graduate student fellowship in microbiology, and have done a fair amount of labwork with microbes, of the non-pathogenic sort. I have a pretty good idea of what the natural lifecycle of anthrax is, and how it has been used in biological warfare programs over the 20th century. For a basic introduction to the topic, try:

    “The Biology of Doom” by Ed Regis
    “Biohazard” by Ken Abelikov / Alibek
    “The Demon in the Freezer” by Richard Preston

    However, the main points remain. No highly aerosolized powder was ever made by the FBI, despite claims. The FBI team itself was swapped out twice, the first one right after the news broke around Dec 21 2001 that they were focusing on about five national labs.

    We should all be relieved that such highly aerosolized powders are very difficult to make, and that no basement bench scientist is likely to succeed in any such effort. Unfortunately, inhalation drug technology is widespread, and the use of inhalation to deliver viral vaccines is unpleasantly close to the use of inhalation to deliver biological warfare agents, as was done on 9/18 and 10/9. In the case of Teresa Heller? see this Oct 21 story:

    Among the mail processed by the postal center in Hamilton is that from the West Trenton post office, which is in Ewing. A West Trenton letter carrier identified by The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger as Teresa Heller came down with cutaneous anthrax but is recovering, health officials say. It’s her route that FBI agents and postal inspectors have zeroed in on.

    Or, try the NYtimes, 10-25-2001

    Investigators in New Jersey had initially focused on a mail route in West Trenton, since Teresa Heller, the letter carrier infected with anthrax, worked there. But 20 tests taken at that West Trenton post office, as well as swab tests of mailboxes and mail collection bins at businesses and apartment buildings along her route, have found no evidence of anthrax.

    Investigators now say it is possible that Ms. Heller might have been exposed some other way. She worked on Sept. 19, the day after the NBC letter was postmarked, and it is possible that the crate that held the letter was given to her the next day.

    Notice also that cutaneous anthrax (smeared on the skin) is a different beast from aerosolized anthrax that can penetrate the lung aveoli effectively at small doses – and we can be sure that all the postal workers who got inhalation anthrax got it after 10/9, and were exposed to small amounts, pointing to a clear difference between the preparations in the two letters – a point on which there is wide scientific agreement.

    P.S. In Richard Preston’s report on the anthrax letters (which I assume is fairly reliable, as Preston had a long working relationship with Detrick Labs over the Ebola reporting he did), he covers this issue:

    Here’s what Preston reported as taking place on Oct 19, 2001, as the Daschle powder was being analyzed (it arrived on Oct 15, 2001 at USAMRIID):

    “The skulls were falling apart. He could see them crumbling into tiny clumps and individual spores, smaller and smaller as he watched. This was anthrax designed to fall apart in the air, to self-crumble, maybe when it encountered humidity or other conditions. He had a national security clearance, and he knew something about anthrax, but he could not imagine how this weapon had been made. It looked extremely sinister. He started feeling shaky.”

    That fits with a preparation that could slip through envelope pores in enough quantity to infect numerous postal workers with inhalation aerosol – which, as noted, did not happen with the 9/18 preparation.

    That’s really a fundamental reason that neither Ivins or Hatfill are plausible suspects – you cannot make that kind of preparation with anything other than highly specialized equipment made for no other purpose, using top-secret chemical recipes – but we do know that such recipes include silicon. (The recipe that Iraq had used included bentonite, a compound which was not detected).

    Note that detection of silicon additives in the spore preparation was carried out by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, from one of their press releases:

    In recent months, staff members have participated in a number of Department of Defense (DoD) projects to protect servicemembers and provide support for homeland defense. The recent anthrax study was one of them.

    “Ft Detrick sought our assistance to determine the specific components of the anthrax found in the Daschle letter,” said Florabel G. Mullick, MD, ScD, SES, AFIP Principal Deputy Director and department chair. AFIP experts utilized an energy dispersive X-ray spectrometer (an instrument used to detect the presence of otherwise-unseen chemicals through characteristic wavelengths of X-ray light) to confirm the previously unidentifiable substance as silica. “This was a key component,” Mullick said. “Silica prevents the anthrax from aggregating, making it easier to aerosolize. Significantly, we noted the absence of aluminum with the silica. This combination had previously been found in anthrax produced by Iraq.”

    All told, this does not support any FBI conclusions about either Hatfill or Ivins. The later efforts by Sandia seem designed to come up with an alternate explanation, which is highly unconvincing (i.e. ‘naturally incorporated into the spore coat’).

    Think about it. The 9/18 letters go through the mail to various news outlets, and one man gets sick in Florida and dies. There is little public reaction. Then, a second set of letters is sent on 10/9, with a more potent preparation and a letter that says “anthrax” (unlike the 9/18 ones) – and they go to the Senate. Numerous people are infected, hundreds go onto antibiotics, and the entire Hart Office Building is evacuated for successive rounds of intensive decontamination (carried out by engineering firm Camp Dresser McKee, contracting with Oak Ridge National Labs). Mass panic ensues. Mission accomplished?

    An unknown number of letters may have been thrown away. Here are the four that were recovered:

    http://www.ph.ucla.edu/EPI/bioter/detect/antdetect_letters_a.htm#Brokaw%20envelop

    Clearly, two different preparations, one far different from the other.

    • DXer said

      On March 23, 2003, the Washington Post reported on documents allegedly discovered at the residence of bacteriologist Abdul Qadoos Khan — on a seized laptop — relating to the production of anthrax. The Washington Post explained that “What the documents and debriefings show, the first official said, is that “KSM was involved in anthrax production, and [knew] quite a bit about it.” Barton Gellman in the Post explained that Al Qaeda had recruited competent scientists, including a Pakistani microbiologist who the officials declined to name. ”

      The documents describe specific timelines for producing biochemical weapons and include a bar graph depicting the parallel processes that must take place between Days 1 and 31 of manufacture. Included are inventories of equipment and indications of readiness to grow seed stocks of pathogen in nutrient baths and then dry the resulting liquid slurry into a form suitable for aerosol dispersal.” The Washington Post story notes that U.S. officials said the evidence does not indicate whether al Qaeda completed manufacture. The documents are undated and unsigned and cryptic about essential details.

    • DXer said

      The journal Nature summarized:

      “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.”

      Ivins flask did not contain tin.  There was no iron or oxygen or silicon or tin detected in the spore coat of those spores.Dr. Michael speculated it might have been in the water. But Ft. Detrick water did not have high levels of tin. Former Russian bioweapons expert Sergeui Popov comments:

      “Although the tin and iron may have come from the water used for cultivation, their amount, in my opinion, far exceeds the levels commonly present in the water used in a laboratory. Another possibility to consider is that the suspect used a primitive but a sturdy and a widely-available container to dry the spores, namely a tin can. It would explain a simultaneous presence of both elements. This suggestion is easy to test in experiments.”

      Dr. Popov reports: “I don’t remember the exact levels from the presentation, but it spikes out like hell.”

      Dr. Popov walks me through the scenario:

      “Let’s do a hypothetical spore prep in the simplest way and try to suggest something to prepare a dry powder. You cultivate the bacteria and end up with a wet paste (doesn’t matter if you used a fermenter, flasks, or plates).  Now, you have to dry it and make it dispersable. The lyophilization is out of question (slow, unproductive, visible, requires equipment, generates powder in the flasks with narrow necks, difficult to dispose or decontaminate the flasks).  Plastic is out of question either (disposable, but not heat resistant, comes mainly as awkwardly capped tubes or jars with poorly sealed lids).  A tin is perfect, unbreakable, easy to seal and heat up (if necessary).  Many of them are lying around. You first try a slow evaporation with a low heat. In order to agitate a dry residue you can use a spatula, then put the powder in the envelope.  It doesn’t work good, the brown powder is too coarse (Florida anthrax).  A desiccation is quiet, can be done in the same container, simple, does not produce any contamination, and produces better powder. Just open the lid, put a can into a bigger jar and forget about it for a few days. Then put a few glass beads into the container, close the lid. Shake it and the beads will make a powder. No contamination, no aerosols, everything in the same container, and no traces.”

      Even those “tin cans” nowadays made of aluminum or steel are commonly plated with a thin layer of tin.  For example, some Heinz products in 2001 involved contamination of a spaghetti product in tomato sauce with high levels of tin.

      Sergei first described use of such a tin container in September 2008 in discussing the possible drying method used and Professor Rosenberg’s opinion addressing the drying method.

      “Prof. Rosenberg

      One of those methods, azeotropic drying, was used recently at Dugway-the only US laboratory that has admitted to making dry anthrax—for drying pelleted anthrax spores that were intended to simulate closely the spores used in the attack. The azeotropic method used is “proprietary.”  Bill Patrick said in 1996 that he had taught Dugway to use an azeotropic drying method developed at Fort Detrick in the 1950’s.  […] Knowledge of appropriate azeotropic drying methods is esoteric, and methods developed for anthrax spores are classified.  Expertise and experience of this sort is another discriminator that could be used to screen the list of 100+ potential suspects.

      [Dr. Popov’s] Comment

      It is nice that the method have been classified, but the knowledge cannot be a discriminator of guilt. Scientists can do things right without a direct knowledge but with a sufficient background. My internet search turned out several articles on ambient drying without heating, based on the properties of the water-organic emulsions. Drying is a key to the successful preparation of the spore powder, and a poor quality of Florida anthrax demonstrates that the person made several small-batch attempts to discover an appropriate procedure. Therefore, we may conclude that the person experimented without a preliminary knowledge of a previously established protocol. In my opinion, the requirement to conceal the experiments was extremely important for the perpetrator in the choice of cultivation approaches as well as the drying procedure. The perpetrator had to use minimal amount of medium and equipment; produce minimal amount of suspicious waste, including the organic solvents. Ideally, the cultivation, sporulation, as well as drying would be performed in the containers routinely used in the lab, which could be unsuspiciously dumped into trash for autoclaving.

       Here is the most interesting part, but you don’t have to take it seriously. During my internet research, I also came across a procedure for the preparation of fungal spores. The author described how to buy all necessary equipment at Wal-Mart. He used a desiccant in a small jar to dry the spores. Here is a hypothetical scenario based on my experience (please, don’t consider it as an indication of my guilt). Take a small amount of spores and inoculate several agar plates (this is a part of a microbiological routine). Nobody will notice the “missing” amount of bacteria. Forget about the plates for several days in order to let the culture grow and sporulate. If somebody finds the plates and asks questions, say “sorry, I forgot to dispose of them” (it happens all the time). If not, scrape the spores, which are now almost “theoretically” pure, and put a paste into an unsuspicious container. It may be an empty vial left after a used reagent. Plenty are lying around. Attach a cap loosely and put a vial into a bigger container with some desiccant in it. These tin or plastic containers come with many reagents and protect the content from moisture. Close the lid and put the container aside, and it will look like somebody forgot to dispose of it. Again, if somebody asks, say it is trash. Two days later, stay late in the lab, take the vial out, use a spatula to disperse the dry stuff, and put it into an envelope. Next time, you may try to add a drop of silicate to the spore paste before drying. All these procedures will take minutes to accomplish.  Everything is disposable, and there will be no traces left behind. Now, try to criticize this scenario, and maybe we will get a little bit closer to what really had taken place.”

  3. Ike Solem said

    Ed Lake,
    I’m the recipient of an NSF graduate student fellowship in microbiology, and have done a fair amount of labwork with microbes, of the non-pathogenic sort, as well as polymerase chain reaction, gene sequencing and phylogenetic analysis – for microbes that process nitrogen, biodiesel algae, etc.

    I do however have a pretty good idea of what the natural lifecycle of anthrax is, and how it has been used in biological warfare programs over the 20th century. For a basic readable introduction to the topic, try:

    “The Biology of Doom” by Ed Regis
    “Biohazard” by Ken Abelikov / Alibek
    “The Demon in the Freezer” and “The Hot Zone” by Richard Preston

    However, my main points remain. No highly aerosolized powder was ever made by the FBI, despite claims. The FBI team itself was swapped out twice, the first one right after the news broke around Dec 21 2001 that they were focusing on about five national labs.

    We should all be relieved that such highly aerosolized powders are very difficult to make, and that no basement bench scientist is likely to succeed in any such effort. Unfortunately, inhalation drug technology is widespread, and the use of inhalation to deliver viral vaccines is unpleasantly close to the use of inhalation to deliver biological warfare agents, as was done on 9/18 and 10/9. In the case of Teresa Heller? see this Oct 21 story:

    Among the mail processed by the postal center in Hamilton is that from the West Trenton post office, which is in Ewing. A West Trenton letter carrier identified by The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger as Teresa Heller came down with cutaneous anthrax but is recovering, health officials say. It’s her route that FBI agents and postal inspectors have zeroed in on.

    Or, try the NYtimes, 10-25-2001

    Investigators in New Jersey had initially focused on a mail route in West Trenton, since Teresa Heller, the letter carrier infected with anthrax, worked there. But 20 tests taken at that West Trenton post office, as well as swab tests of mailboxes and mail collection bins at businesses and apartment buildings along her route, have found no evidence of anthrax.

    Investigators now say it is possible that Ms. Heller might have been exposed some other way. She worked on Sept. 19, the day after the NBC letter was postmarked, and it is possible that the crate that held the letter was given to her the next day.

    Notice also that cutaneous anthrax (smeared on the skin) is a different beast from aerosolized anthrax that can penetrate the lung aveoli effectively at small doses – and we can be sure that all the postal workers who got inhalation anthrax got it after 10/9, and were exposed to small amounts, pointing to a clear difference between the preparations in the two letters – a point on which there is wide scientific agreement.
    Considering that this is a microbial forensics case, these basic details are of great importance, as the only evidence recovered was the letters. Don’t quibble – do you think the preparations were different?

    • Anonymous Scientist said

      Ed Lake wrote:

      “But, the media powder was still very dangerous. It still killed two people (Stevens and Nguyen).”

      Mr Lake has a habit of writing his opinion as if it were fact. The FACT is that it is not known exactly what grade of powder killed Bob Stevens or Kathy Nguyen. Kathy Nguyen may very well have been exposed to the more potent material through some sort of cross contamination.

      As far as Bob Stevens is concerned – the AMI letter was never recovered. The FBI do not like to talk about the AMI letter much these days – since even their wild imaginations (they were the guys who dreamed up the Princeton sorrority address fairytale to link it to Ivins) could not dream up why Bruce Ivins would send an anthrax letter to the National Enquirer.

      But the AMI letter is very interesting – since it gave 2 people inhalational anthrax and none cutaneous – in other words it did the same as the Daschle/Leahy stuff. So was it the same batch? Or was it a third batch all together?

      The FBI wanted to know – at least they did back in August 2002 when they re-entered AMI to try to find a lot of original spores – so they could test for CHEMICAL signatures (hmm, that’s funny, today the FBI say there ARE no chemical signatures – just “natural” silicon.
      ———————-
      http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0208/26/bn.01.html

      DR. DWIGHT ADAMS, FBI LAB SUPERVISOR: We have four main goals in reentering the AMI building. Number one, we hope to do a very comprehensive, detailed assessment of the spore contamination throughout the entire building. Number two, a very detailed assessment with regard to the mail room in particular. Both of these efforts are to generate new leads in the criminal investigation. Number three, we’re looking for a dissemination device, such as a letter or letters. Again, to generate new leads for the investigation.

      And finally, we are looking for large quantities of spores in order to chemically characterize those spores and compare them against the spores found in the Senator Leahy and Daschle letters.

      —————————————-

      If the AMI material had been the same as the NYP powder they would also have isolated the rare the rare B subtilus contaminant found in the NYP powder – but they did not – and they grew spores from dozens of locations in AMI.

      So the AMI powder may well have been a third batch. But that doesn’t fit with an Ivins theory – so, hey, just brush it under the carpet along with the record breaking levels of silicon that they couldn’t reproduce found in all the powders.

  4. DXer said

    Ike writes:

    “Were they able to prepare a similar grade powder to the Daschle-Leahy letters using off-the-shelf lab equipment? No.”

    At the conference, the FBI reported that they could and did make a similar grade powder. Indeed, in a report issued in September 2001, the product made to test the threat of mailed anthrax had the same performance parameters. Upon opening of the envelope, the product immediately dispersed across the room. The report has long since been declassified.

    The lead investigator Montooth, told the Washington Post: “When you go to the true experts and ask them how many people can develop [anthrax spores] into something with this purity and this concentration, they shake their heads.” “Some will say there are perhaps six. Others will say maybe a dozen.” The Washington Post reports: “But drying the spores turned out to be no obstacle at all, FBI scientists said. It required only one more step, using a common laboratory machine known as a lyophilizer. Ivins had one in his lab.” (The lyophilizer was used in a DARPA project and did not have a protective hood). The head of the Air Force lab, expert at making anthrax simulants, advises me by email: “The Amerithrax spores were neither freeze dried nor milled. I have seen both and the Amerithrax had characteristics of neither.” Dr. Alibek, who once thought a spraydryer likely was used, told me that he later came to think a fluidized bed dryer was used. In September 2008, Dr. Serge Popov of the GMU Center for Biodefense has explained a far simpler method based on his experience involving a tin container.

    In an October 16, 2008 letter to the academy, Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), a member of the House intelligence committee, asked the panel to investigate whether the bureau’s scientific discoveries were “inconsistent with the FBI’s conclusions.”

    Before the anthrax mailings, in an interview in September 2000, Dr. Ken Alibek addressed whether Bin Laden could make a “Alibek-caliber” powdered anthrax. Dr. Alibek was a colleague of microbiologist Ali Al-Timimi. Al-Timimi was taught by Bin Laden’s Sheik al-Hawali and actively communicating with him.

    “HOMELAND DEFENSE: OK. Let’s say I’m an Usama bin Laden type individual. I have millions of dollars. Can I produce a high-quality “Ken Alibek-caliber” dry powdered anthrax?

    KEN ALIBEK: In many cases it’s not likely. Of course, if you get hundreds of thousands of dollars and if you have a person who knows how to do this, you could make a highly effective biological weapon. But if you have a person with millions of dollars but has no idea how to do this, or someone with a bachelor’s degree in biology even, it’s not going to help. You need to have somebody with either practical knowledge or somebody with the right type of mind to do this. Unfortunately, this information is available now.

    We just don’t understand that if your objective is to develop an effective biological weapon and to deploy it with an aerosol, all this information is available. It is a matter of time and effort in gathering this information. In many cases, it’s not necessarily the information that counts. It’s a matter of knowledge in microbiology and aerosol science and knowing how to build a more effective aerosol device. If you’ve got the money, and you’ve got the managerial skills to find the right people, the rest is just a matter of time.
    ***
    HOMELAND DEFENSE: So the information is still in your head if you wanted to do this? If you wanted to go set up an offensive production capability, you could do it?
    KEN ALIBEK: I have no such intentions.
    HOMELAND DEFENSE: But the point is, you probably have that information. If terrorists get the right technical data, they can reduce their timetable, for example, shrinking it from three years to three months.
    KEN ALIBEK: That is correct. But I don’t like it when someone says I can do this. I know I can do this, but I know I will never do this.
    HOMELAND DEFENSE: Well, we’re very glad that you’re on our side now. On a different subject, is the U.S. government doing the right things now to protect the country?
    KEN ALIBEK: For me, this is a most painful topic.”

    Scientists have determined that anthrax spores mailed to Capitol Hill were made less than two years ago before being mailed. Moreover, contrary to what has often been implied or assumed, the technique to weaponize the anthrax used in the Fall 2001 was not the one used by the US Army in weaponizing anthrax in the 1950s. William Patrick’s process for weaponizing anthrax involved freeze drying and chemical processing whereas it was the process contemplated by Al Qaeda that involved spraydrying. “We made little freeze-dried pellets of anthrax,” Donald Schattenberg explained, “then we ground them down with a high-speed colloid mill.” The finding cast doubt on the hypothesis that the spores could have been stolen from a lab a long time ago.

    Commenting on the fine powder sent Senator Daschle and Leahy, “Only nations, probably, have figured out how to do this,” Professor Matthew Meselson at Harvard said at the time. But, he adds, this means “how to do it is in the minds of people,” including former employees of weapons programs in the Soviet Union and the US. Dr. Spertzel, the U.N. Special Commission chief biological inspector from 1994 to 1998 told the Washington Post: “In my opinion, there are maybe four or five people in the whole country who might be able to make this stuff, and I’m one of them. And 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.” At a break from a briefing before a Congressional subcommittee in December 2001, Dr. Richard Spertzel and Dr. Ken Alibek discussed access to the Ames strain and the method of weaponization. They might just as well have been demonstrating how to palm a basketball — with Dr. Alibek agreeing with Dr. Spertzel on the likely general method but saying it is easier than Dr. Spertzel may think. According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Scanning electron microscopy of the spores used in the Senate office attack showed that they range from individual particles to aggregates of 100 [microns] or more. Spores were uniform in size and appearance and the aggregates had a propensity to pulverize (i.e., disperse into smaller particles when disturbed).”

    The Homeland Security Subcommittee on Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attack held a hearing in July 2005 on “Engineering Bio-Terror Agents: Lessons from the Offensive U.S. and Russian Biological Weapons Programs.” The hearing evaluated Al Qaeda’s ability to develop and use catastrophic biological weapons — such as weaponized anthrax. The hearing examined the known biological warfare capabilities developed by the U.S. and Russian offensive programs, and the potential of those capabilities being utilized in future terrorist attacks. One of the witnesses at the hearing ironically was the former colleague of Al-Timimi, Dr. Kenneth Alibek, Executive Director, Center for Biodefense, George Mason University

    Another witness, Dr. Michael V. Callahan, Director, Biodefense & Mass Casualty Care, CIMIT/Massachusetts General Hospital, explained:

    “It is also important to note that the people who participated in that exercise used all open source information, they used the U.S. Patent Office and they used out of print microbiology textbooks. It is a scary incredible thing, and it is not just theoretical, it has already been capitalized both in laboratory modeling and in actual experience..”

  5. Ike Solem said

    First of all, good work on this.

    Let’s recall that two sets of letters were mailed, on postmarked 9/18 and one on 10/9. It is believed that all the letters from 10/9 were recovered (Daschle and Leahy) while the letters from 9/18 were not recovered, by and large.

    Several lines of evidence point to separate preparations being sent through the mail, the second being far more dangerous than the first. The most obvious is that the mail carriers only came down with anthrax from the second set of letters, not the first.

    The letters appear intended to spark a panic, as they were sent first to major media outlets in NYC and Florida. This did not spark a panic – but the second set of letters was clearly labeled ‘we have this anthrax’ and did spark a panic that continued up until around Dec 21, when it became clear that the source of the anthrax was a domestic U.S. lab, not Al Qaeda or Iraq.

    If you know anything about the U.S. offensive biowarfare program (1943-1969), you know that anthrax played a major role, as the spore form is very durable. It was first produced as a liquid slurry, and then efforts were made to produce a dry powder form (again, for use in munitions). The Soviet Union did the same thing in their Biopreparat program, at a very large scale. Bottom line: a key factor in the production of bioweapons was the ability to generate an aerosol powder that would penetrate the lung.

    The method of doing this was to introduce agents into a wet slurry of spores that would then coat the spores during the drying process. Silicon was one of those “anti-clumping agents”.

    After all, anthrax is a disease of cattle and normally spreads when a cow takes a bite of grass, soil and a few clumps of anthrax spores – i.e., the anthrax wants to clump up naturally. It has a very unpleasant ecology – after infecting the host, it rapidly kills it, grows to profusion, and generates spores that soak into the ground as the carcass rots, waiting for the next unfortunate to come along – think Alien.

    Doing this without killing yourself or contaminating everything around you is apparently very difficult, and is the kind of technology only found within leading biological warfare defense labs in just a few locations around the world.

    However, what it produces is a material that easily disintegrates into almost individual particles, perfect for entering the lungs – or for slipping through the pores of mail machines. If such a potent preparation was used in the second mailings, it would explain why mail sorters and handlers became sick and died, and also it would explain why the entire Hart Senate Office Building had to be decontaminated several times.

    No such decontamination efforts were necessary after the first letters, nor did the entire mail route become contaminated. Obviously, if different preparations were made, that makes Ivins an even less likely suspect.

    There is another issue, in that only the second set of letters left spore traces in the Princeton mailbox that goes out to Trenton – we can only assume that the first letter was mailed from the same place, quite an assumption.

    As far as the genetic evidence goes, that suffers from serious chain-of-custody and plausible contamination issues, as the USAMRIID lab in Detrick MD and the Battelle lab in Jefferson OH both received samples of the Daschle letters to analyze.

    The Sandia silicon analysis is likewise highly questionable on basic grounds – like replication. Were they able to grow silicon-coated bacillus? No. Were they able to prepare a similar grade powder to the Daschle-Leahy letters using off-the-shelf lab equipment? No. Technically, the arguments would all have been destroyed in a court of law – and it’s very hard to see how Ivins could have made two preparations – certainly not the Daschle-Leahy preparations.

    I think we should go ahead with what Rep Holt, D – NJ, wants to do – a complete Congressional investigation into the entire business, from start to finish.

    • DXer said

      After the January 2001 apparent threat to use mailed anthrax relating to the detention of Vanguards of Conquest leader #2, a Canadian research team undertook to assess the risk. (That threat was the subject of a still-classified PDB from the CIA to President Bush in early February 2001). The report titled “Risk Assessment of Anthrax Threat Letters” issued September 2001.

      In contrast to the 1998 study by William Patrick that had been requested by Dr. Hatfill’s employer SAIC, the Canadian study found considerable exposure to those in the room resulted when such a letter was opened. Bacillus globigii spores (in dry powder form) were donated by the US Department of Defense (Dugway Proving Ground, Utah). Stock concentration powder was -1 x 10 11 cfu/gm. The anthrax sent to the Senators had a smaller particle size –tending toward a uniform 1 micron, subject to clumping that easily broke apart . Bacillus globigii (BG) spores are routinely used as a simulant for Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) spores. “The letter was prepared by putting BG spores in the center of a sheet of paper, folding it over into thirds, placing the folded sheet into the envelope and sealing using the adhesive present on the envelope. The envelope was then shaken to mimic the handling and tumbling that would occur during its passage through the postal system.” The aerosol, produced by opening the BG spore containing envelope, was not confined to the area of the desk but spread throughout the chamber. Values were almost as high at the opposite end of the chamber, shortly after opening the envelopes. 99% of the particles collected were in the 2.5 to 10 µm size range. The report explained: “In addition, the aerosol would quickly spread throughout the room so that other workers, depending on their exact locations and the directional air flow within the office, would likely inhale lethal doses. Envelopes with the open corners not specifically sealed could also pose a threat to individuals in the mail handling system.”

      More than 80% of the B anthracis particles collected on stationary monitors were within an alveolar respirable size range of 0.95 to 3.5 µm. Thus, the simulant performed very well. Those who continue to argue that the Daschle product was so advanced beyond what the US could do are mistaken. Indeed, the more notable question is why such a good product was prepared in response to a threat letter sent to an immigration minister. The reason perhaps is that authorities suspected that it was Al Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad that sent the letter. The CIA and CSIS apparently feared that the Vanguards of Conquest would use the good stuff.

      The CIA knew EIJ intended to use anthrax — from the proclamations of Jaballah’s friend, the captured military commander Mabruk and Jaballah’s brother-in-law’s former law partner al-Zayat. Authorities knew Al Qaeda was getting technical assistance from scientists — and that many of the senior Egyptian leaders had advanced or technical degrees. The specifications provided by Dugway perhaps involved treated fumed silica and a spraydryer (with a last critical step reserved to be done at Dugway) likely were based on what Al Qaeda might send with a little help from their friends.

      Canadian officials explained they e-mailed the study to the CDC soon after reports of the discovery of anthrax at the American Media Inc. headquarters in Florida. The e-mail, however, was never opened, reports the lead CDC anthrax investigator, who regrets that he never read the email. “It is certainly relevant data, but I don’t think it would have altered the decisions that we made.” At one point, about 2,000 CDC employees were working on the anthrax matter. This Canadian report was perhaps the single most important scientific data point for the CDC to take into account. It certainly was one of the most important reports for the FBI to take into account. Bail was denied by decision on October 5, 2001. Then highly potent anthrax was sent the next day just as had been promised. But Ayman had returned to the target of his greatest interest — rather than a Canadian immigration minister, he and Shehata and their colleagues targeted the minister who oversaw the Department of Justice and appropriations to Egypt and Israel, and who gave his name (”the Leahy Law”) to the law that permits continuing appropriations to Egypt in the face of allegations of torture. Zawahiri never makes a threat he doesn’t intend to try to keep.

      Bill Patrick, who often worked with George Mason University students in northern Virginia, had written a report in 1999 for a consultant SAIC at the request of Dr. Steve Hatfill. As one bioterrorism expert commented about the report: “Anytime you pick something up like this, and it seems to layout the whole story for you months or years before the fact, your immediate response is to step back and say ‘whoa, something may be going on here. “Our attacker may very well have used this report as something of a — if not a template, then certainly as a rule of thumb.”

      The Canadian experiments in 2001 showed that if anthrax spores were finely powdered, a letter could release thousands of lethal doses of the bacteria within minutes of being opened. Furthermore, large amounts of material leaked out of sealed envelopes even before they were opened. By then, more than two dozen federal government employees knew of the Canadian studies, which showed that a real anthrax threat letter was a far more dangerous weapon than anyone had believed. Within days, a dozen more people were informed of the now highly relevant experimental findings. One FBI squad was focused on people who may have known of the study — such as William Patrick’s friend, Dr. Steve Hatfill. Another squad would be focused on the usual suspects and their friends. For the next eight years, the investigation would be shrouded in great secrecy.

  6. Lew Weinstein said

    ED

    Welcome to our blog. I look forward to some healthy discussion as we try to get to the truth in this very distressing matter.

    LEW

  7. Anonymous Scientist said

    Here’s some commentary on the silicon content. The silicon content is perhaps the sinlge most important piece of forensic evidence supplying a unique fingerprint and pointing directly to the lab that manufactured the mailed material. But since the FBI cannot link the silicon content to Detrick or Dr Ivins they are pretending that the silicon content is not important at all. This goes beyond bad science – it’s simply a deliberate misrepresentation of science.

    Let’s first of all make some general statements. There are many chemicals – asides from seed spores and nutrients – that are used in preparing anthrax spores. These include NH4SO4, MgSO4·7H2O, MnSO4·H2O, ZnSO4·7H2O, CuSO4·5H2O, FeSO4·7H2O, CaCl2·2H2O, K2HPO4, and glucose.
    Silicon is NOT a needed element in the production of spores, and it is not usually found in appreciable amount. If EDX is carried out on spores it is likely that all the afforementioned elements will be found in sonme quantities. These elements are S, Mg, Mn, Zn, Cu, Fe, Ca and K.

    The FBI seem to be claiming that silicon is always found “naturally” in spores – as if the chemistry of silcion is a vital component of the spore microbiology and spores could not form without it. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are some elements for which this IS true. For example, this is true for the element calcium. Calcium undergoes specialized biochemical reactions with dipicolinic acid – and dipicolinic acid is always found in large quantities inside Bacillus spores. Thus it is no surprise that calcium is also found in large quantities in Bacillus spores. Calcium is a metal and readily forms calcium ions (Ca+) in water solution – allowing calcium to readily react with organic molecules like dipicolinic acid.

    This is NOT true for the element silicon – there are no specialized biochemical reactions for silicon in solution as the FBI appear to be claiming to support their “no surprise to find silicon” argument.

    The FBI certainly don’t want to comment on this paper recently published by pacific Northwest labs. They made Bacillus spores and performed trace elemental analysis by a technique called TOF-SIMS.
    Link is here: http://aem.asm.org/cgi/content/full/71/11/6524?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=subtilis&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=630&resourcetype=HWFIG

    They found lots of elements present – silicon was NOT one of them. This is not surprising – if you don’t add silicon to the spores in the first place you don’t find it there later. The FBI do not appear to understand this rather simple concept – or rather since it doesn’t fit with their Detrick/Ivins theory, they would rather brush it all under the carpet.

    The FBI meanwhile, seeem to be selectively leaking cherry picked results from old papers that DID find silicon in spores. They are leaking results reported in a book titled “Cytological and Chemical Structure of the Spore” in a chapter authored by W.G. Murrell, D.F. Ohye and Rosalind A. Gordon, circa 1969. This chapter by Murrell reports a number of spore preparations that show silicon content. What they coveniently fail to mention, however, is that Murrell, an Australian working in New South Wales had a certain protocol when he preepared his spores – he always did preparations in a 20L ferementer and he always used a silicone antifoam agent see link here: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2106236

    So, Murrell deliberately added a silicon compound and – not surprisingly, then detected silicon.

    The bottom line here is really very simple. If there are no spores inside Detrick containing amounts of silicon similar to the mailed spores then the mailed spores were NOT made at Detrick.

    The NAS team should perform a deep dive into the FBI scientists lab notebooks. The FBI labs apparently performed Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) spectroscopy to measure the silicon content of all the spores. The exact details of this need to be known. How much mass of sample was used? How was the sample prepared and diluted for ICP runs? What standards were used to calibrate for silicon? What does the raw data look like? What were the ICP results for the Daschle, NYP and Leahy powders?

    Finally the NAS team should obtain the original lab notebooks from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP). AFIP performed EDX spectroscopy and it is reported by a government official that the silicon spike in the EDX spectrum peaked near the top of the screen.

    This quote comes from major General John parker and can be read at this link: http://cryptome.info/0001/anthrax-powder.htm
    —————————————-
    Maj. Gen. John S. Parker, commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at the time of the attacks, says he saw AFIP’s lab reports. “There was a huge silicon spike” consistent with the presence of silica, he says. “It peaked near the top of the screen.”
    —————————————

    EDX can also be used for quantitative elemental analysis. These AFIP results should be reviewed by the NAS team and explained.

  8. Lew Weinstein said

    JEFF
    Thank you so much for bringing a level of objective scientific expertise to this issue. Your final conclusion … can I paraphrase it to say the FBI evidence against Dr. Ivins is far from conclusive? … was my reaction in August 2008, which prompted me to write CASE CLOSED. It seems ever more likely that the FBI’s intent in this case was to obfuscate and delay, and not to solve the case, and one must ask why.
    LEW

  9. Jeff Adamovicz said

    I am Bruces’friend and colleague so I am somewhat biased on this topic. However, I was also the Chief of Bacteriology at USAMRIID and in Bruces supervisory chain and understand very well the science and the labs capabilities. So here is my take on the “evidence” surrounding this case. The original observations on the genetic mutants were made at USAMRIID-these are valid. The subsequent genetic assays for the morphotypes to trace the suppossed source all appear to be scientifically valid. However, there are a couple of rubs. For instance, one would only need a representation of the four mutant types in a sample to fool the morphotype assay. Suppossedly, the original RMR 1029 has more then 30 morphotypes but no evidence to support this claim has been provided. The more important and obvious problem is this: the FBI testing reports 8 samples with all four morphotypes (7 came from samples from USAMRIID and one from an unnamed source). RMR1029 ws prepared by Bruce in 1997 from a large number of smaller spore preps, these were assembled from in-house preps and a large number of preps from Dugway proving grounds. RMR1029 aliquots were subsequntly provided to other internal and external collaborators principally to support animal challenges. This begs two questions. 1. Why did only two labs submit samples that are positive for RMR1029? Does this mean that a lot of places (including the real perpetrater) failed to comply with the FBIs voluntary sample submission scheme? Why didnt’ the FBI themselves comment on the extent of compliance? They know or should know which labs legitimatley possessed RMR1029 so this knowledge should have been matched with the results as an internal proficinecy test ( a common quality control practice). While I no longer have access to detailed distribution records I can confidently state that more then two labs possessed aliquots of RMR1029. 2. Was there ever a search for RMR1029 precursor samples that possess all four morphotypes? I asked the scientific panel a question about this at the ASM-biodefense meeting in February 2009. They claimed they couldn’t answer this as it related to the investigation of the case. This answer was unsatisfactory and suggests that either the science staff has been told to not ask these questions or are very naive. Related to the genetic analysis is the issue of a so-called rare mutant B. subtilitis (niger varient) contaminant presnet in the first set of letters. The FBI/postal inspectors original affidavit claimed that there was a very unique genetic marker in this contaminant. It seems to me that this would make it a useful forensic tool. I believe the niger varient strain was used extensively at Dugway proving grounds as a simulant BW agent. So the question is was this varient found at Dugway or any other laboratory including the contract labs used to support forensic testing. Again, when I asked this question at the ASM-BD meeting the science panel could provide no useful information. Are they compartmentalized in the extent of their analysis or just completely naive?
    Next topic. Analysis of silicon content. There is still a huge unresolved issue on this subject. Early reports from 2002-4 seemed to suggest there was added silicon. Then, the recent reports from Sandia say there is not added silicon. These recent claims are unsubstantiated by experimental evidence and instead based on poor observational technique. The conclusion that no silicon was added is based on the STEM technique which looks at 200 nm “spots” on individual spores and provides a qualitative readout of the relative about of compounds contianing silicon. Here’s the problems. Joe Michaels who did the analysis publically admitted that it is no better then 50% accurate in estimately the content in the spores (Bad science #1). He did not analyze the slicon content in the extracellular area. My educated guess is that this is where the majority of any additive would actully reside. It is not clear why this wasn’t analyzed (Bad science #2). Lastly, if your hypothesis is that someone added silicon to the spores (or didn’t) you should do the obvious experiment to support or refute your hypothesis. Namely a simple titration experiment to add increaseing amounts of common silicon containing compounds to your spores and demonstration that your technique can detect this titration. This would also give data on the relative sensitively of your technique. To be fair to Joe he’s not a biologist or a microbiologist. This begs the question why wouldn’t a microbiologist be placed in charge of this type of experimentation?
    I will say initially I believed the FBI when they claimed that possessed overwelming evidence. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that their evidence is a mixture of good and bad science, poor/compartmentalized information and a lot of inuendo. I could go on for some time about other poor examples of “evidence” but I think that is enough for today. I truely hope the NAS panel is allowed to see all the “eviddence” I can only predict that their conclusions will be the same as mine.

    • Anonymous said

      Here’s some commentary on the silicon content. The silicon content is perhaps the sinlge most important piece of forensic evidence supplying a unique fingerprint and pointing directly to the lab that manufactured the mailed material. But since the FBI cannot link the silicon content to Detrick or Dr Ivins they are pretending that the silicon content is not important at all. This goes beyond bad science – it’s simply a deliberate misrepresentation of science.

      Let’s first of all make some general statements. There are many chemicals – asides from seed spores and nutrients – that are used in preparing anthrax spores. These include NH4SO4, MgSO4·7H2O, MnSO4·H2O, ZnSO4·7H2O, CuSO4·5H2O, FeSO4·7H2O, CaCl2·2H2O, K2HPO4, and glucose.
      Silicon is NOT a needed element in the production of spores, and it is not usually found in appreciable amount. If EDX is carried out on spores it is likely that all the afforementioned elements will be found in sonme quantities. These elements are S, Mg, Mn, Zn, Cu, Fe, Ca and K.
      The FBI seem to be claiming that silicon is always found “naturally” in spores – as if the chemistry of silcion is a vital component of the spore microbiology and spores could not form without it. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are some elements for which this IS true. For example, this is true for the element calcium. Calcium undergoes specialized biochemical reactions with dipicolinic acid – and dipicolinic acid is always found in large quantities inside Bacillus spores. Thus it is no surprise that calcium is also found in large quantities in Bacillus spores. Calcium is a metal and readily forms calcium ions (Ca+) in water solution – allowing calcium to readily react with organic molecules like dipicolinic acid.
      This is NOT true for the element silicon – there are no specialized biochemical reactions for silicon in solution as the FBI appear to be claiming to support their “no surprise to find silicon” argument.
      The FBI certainly don’t want to comment on this paper recently published by pacific Northwest labs. They made Bacillus spores and performed trace elemental analysis by a technique called TOF-SIMS.
      Link is here: http://aem.asm.org/cgi/content/full/71/11/6524?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=subtilis&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=630&resourcetype=HWFIG
      They found lots of elements present – silicon was NOT one of them. This is not surprising – if you don’t add silicon to the spores in the first place you don’t find it there later. The FBI do not appear to understand this rather simple concept – or rather since it doesn’t fit with their Detrick/Ivins theory, they would rather brush it all under the carpet.
      The FBI meanwhile, seeem to be selectively leaking cherry picked results from old papers that DID find silicon in spores. They are leaking results reported in a book titled “Cytological and Chemical Structure of the Spore” in a chapter authored by W.G. Murrell, D.F. Ohye and Rosalind A. Gordon, circa 1969. This chapter by Murrell reports a number of spore preparations that show silicon content. What they coveniently fail to mention, however, is that Murrell, an Australian working in New South Wales had a certain protocol when he preepared his spores – he always did preparations in a 20L ferementer and he always used a silicone antifoam agent see link here: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2106236
      So, Murrell deliberately added a silicon compound and – not surprisingly, then detected silicon.
      The bottom line here is really very simple. If there are no spores inside Detrick containing amounts of silicon similar to the mailed spores then the mailed spores were NOT made at Detrick.
      The NAS team should perform a deep dive into the FBI scientists lab notebooks. The FBI labs apparently performed Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) spectroscopy to measure the silicon content of all the spores. The exact details of this need to be known. How much mass of sample was used? How was the sample prepared and diluted for ICP runs? What standards were used to calibrate for silicon? What does the raw data look like? What were the ICP results for the Daschle, NYP and Leahy powders?
      Finally the NAS team should obtain the original lab notebooks from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP). AFIP performed EDX spectroscopy and it is reported by a government official that the silicon spike in the EDX spectrum peaked near the top of the screen.
      This quote comes from major General John parker and can be read at this link: http://cryptome.info/0001/anthrax-powder.htm
      —————————————-
      Maj. Gen. John S. Parker, commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at the time of the attacks, says he saw AFIP’s lab reports. “There was a huge silicon spike” consistent with the presence of silica, he says. “It peaked near the top of the screen.”
      —————————————
      EDX can also be used for quantitative elemental analysis. These AFIP results should be reviewed by the NAS team and explained.

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