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

* a column from 2002; same story of FBI lethargy and ineptitude today

Posted by DXer on May 16, 2009

Nicholas Kristof wrote in the NYT (7-2-2002)

  • The F.B.I.’s lackadaisical ineptitude in pursuing the anthrax killer continues to threaten America’s national security by permitting him to strike again or, more likely, to flee to Iran or North Korea.
  • Almost everyone who has encountered the F.B.I. anthrax investigation is aghast at the bureau’s lethargy.
  • Astonishingly, the F.B.I. allowed the destruction of anthrax stocks at Iowa State University, losing what might have been valuable genetic clues.
  • Then it waited until December to open the intact anthrax envelope it found.
  • The F.B.I. didn’t obtain anthrax strains from various labs for comparison until March, and the testing is still not complete.
  • The bureau did not systematically polygraph scientists at two suspect labs, Fort Detrick, Md., and Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, until a month ago.

LMW COMMENT

This is an old article, written in 2002. But what has changed?CC - front cover - small

For several years after 2002, the FBI focused on one Ft. Detrick scientist, only to pay him $5.8 million to settle his lawsuit in 2008. Then, just weeks later they said another Ft. Detrick scientist was the sole perpetrator, the only problem being that he had committed suicide eight days before. Of course this meant that the FBI has never had to prove its case.  

The FBI’s 2008 announcement that they were about to “close the case” brought forth a storm of protest from scientists, news media, and the U.S. Congress.

The most recent commenter before I prepared this post said the only hope of ever learning the truth was a fullscale Congressional investigation. I agree.

The FBI’s failure to solve the case is inexplicable … which is what led me to write CASE CLOSED, soon to be published.

read the entire Kristof article at … http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/02/opinion/anthrax-the-fbi-yawns.html

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4 Responses to “* a column from 2002; same story of FBI lethargy and ineptitude today”

  1. Ike Solem said

    I think it’s worth taking a careful look at the most recent round of FBI claims, as reported in Science Magazine last August 22:

    WASHINGTON, D.C.—Facing growing public skepticism, impatient politicians, and a blogosphere rife with conspiracy theories, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on Monday sought to bolster its case that Army scientist Bruce Ivins was the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax attacks by extensively discussing the scientific evidence. Backed by six outside researchers who lent a hand in the investigation, FBI officials explained during two press briefings how they linked spores from the envelopes sent to Congress and the media back to a flask at Ivins’s lab at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). Although the agents did add a few new details to the picture that has emerged over the past 3 weeks, several scientists say that many questions still remain unanswered (see sidebar).

    The briefings confirmed the scientific process that sources close to the investigation, as well as independent microbiologists who analyzed a key court document, had described before (Science, 15 August, p. 898), a process that relied on whole-genome sequencing to find four mutations unique to the spores used in the attacks. The bureau also hammered home that, in contrast to widespread reports, no special additives, such as silica, were added to the spore preparation, and that Ivins—who killed himself on 29 July—would have been able to produce the letters on his own 7 years ago using standard lab equipment.

    To reinforce the scientific message, the FBI took the unusual step of organizing two briefings, one for reporters from scientific journals, including Science, so that it had ample time to delve into the scientific nitty-gritty, and the other for the general press. It also brought in microbiology heavyweights such as Rita Colwell, who helped fund the sequencing of the attack strain in 2001 while she was head of the National Science Foundation.

    This was just a PR push to close the case and protect the biowarfare establishment from a serious Congressional investigation. Notice that since the anthrax attacks, billions have been dumped into “Project Bioshield”, the technological equivalent of a “Star Wars Missile Shield”.

    The biggest issue seems to be this, however:
    An analysis by materials researcher Joseph Michael at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, convinced the FBI that no silica or other chemicals had been added to the anthrax in the letters, as an earlier analysis by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) had indicated. Transmission electron microscopy by Michael and colleagues revealed that the silicon AFIP researchers had detected in the samples was contained inside the spores—a natural occurrence documented in previous research—and not in a coating intended to make the anthrax disperse more easily.

    How does that fit in with the statements from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, who had a whole lot of experience working with pathogens – unlike Sandia, who had zero experience?

    “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.”

    First, let’s see the AFIP data, and then let’s see the Sandia data, and then we can try and understand why they came to such different conclusions – but based on experience, Sandia’s conclusions are pretty iffy. Why not trust the experts? Why farm it out to some DOE lab, one operated by Lockheed at that?

    See this also:

    Many experts had believed that only special coatings or electrostatic charges—which would require sophisticated chemical and physical expertise—could explain why the powder in the Senate letters seemed to float so easily (Science, 28 November 2003, p. 1492). If the bureau is right, “that makes it more frightening in a way,” says bioterrorism expert Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, as it suggests that people with no special skills in those fields could make an efficient, deadly powder.

    Happily, the bureau is wrong – spectacularly so, in fact. Now, the real question is how this was allowed to happen – I think the resignation of the head of the FBI is in order, as well as a complete public review of all extant biowarfare research being funded by the U.S. government. That’s likely what a Congression investigation would lead to, which is probably why it is being strongly resisted.

    The sheer insanity of it all is really astounding – I mean, Charles Manson had nothing on these guys.

    • DXer said

      As the FBI WMD Chief explained, silica or a silica-based substance may have been in the culture medium. Under a DARPA-funded patent, it is used to concentrate anthrax. It does not aid dispersability such as is done in the case of the old Dugway method used in the 1990s (except insofar as greater concentration achieves greater floatability). The patent inventors were the two leading Battelle consultants. Ali Al-Timimi, who was working and closely coordinating with the 911 imam and Bin Laden’s sheiked, worked just a few feet from the Battelle consultants at George Mason University’s Discovery Hall during some of the 2000 and 2002 period.

      The Mason Gazette in “Mason to Pursue Advanced Biodefense Research” on November 17, 2000 had announced: “The School of Computational Sciences (SCS) and Advanced Biosystems, Inc., a subsidiary of Hadron, Inc., of Alexandria, are pursuing a collaborative program at the Prince William Campus to enhance research and educational objectives in biodefense research. The article noted that the program was funded primarily by a grant awarded to Advanced Biosystems from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). A 2007 GMU PhD thesis explains that the “An Assessment of Exploitable Weaknesses in Universities” by Corinne M. Verzoni offices and research located in Discovery Hall, making this an attractive building on the Prince William Campus to target for information and technology.” The 2007 PhD student biodefense student explained: “Discovery Hall currently has BSL 1, 2 and 2+ labs in which students work with attenuated and vaccine strains of Fracella tularemia, anthrax and HIV. GMU will eventually have new biological labs featuring a BSL-3 lab which will have anthrax and tularemia.”

      Instead of starting a center from scratch, GMU chose to join forces with Dr. Alibek and Dr. Bailey’s existing research firm, Hadron Advanced Biosystems Inc. Hadron was already working under contract for the federal government, having received funding from DARPA. Dr. Alibek told the Washington Post that he and Bailey had spent their careers studying an issue that only recently grabbed the country’s attention, after the anthrax mailings the previous fall. Dr. Bailey and Alibek met in 1991, when a delegation of Soviet scientists visited the USAMRIID at Ft. Detrick. Dr. Bailey explained that the purpose of the tour was to show the Soviets that the US was not developing offensive biological weapons. Bailey said he tried to engage Alibek in conversation but Alibek remained aloof. Alibek, for his part, explains that he was suspicious of this American smiling so broadly at him. A year later, Alibek would defect to the US and reveal an illegal biological program in the Soviet Union of a staggering scope. Alibek says that one reason he defected was that he realized that the Soviet intelligence was wrong — that the US research was in fact only defensive.

      Former USAMRIID Deputy Commander and Acting Commander Ames researcher Bailey coinvented, with Ken Alibek, the process to treat cell culture with hydrophobic silicon dioxide so as to permit greater concentration upon drying. He was in Room 156B of GMU’s Discovery Hall at the Center for Biodefense. The patent application was filed March 14, 2001. Rm 154A was Victor Morozov’s room number when he first assumed Timimi’s phone number in 2004 (and before he moved to the newly constructed Bull Run Hall). Morozov was the co-inventor with Dr. Bailey of the related cell culture process under which the silica was removed from the spore surface.

      One ATCC former employee felt so strongly about lax security there the scientist called me out of the blue and said that the public was overlooking the patent repository as a possible source of the Ames strain. ATCC would not deny they had virulent Ames in their patent repository pre 9/11 (as distinguished from their online catalog). The spokesperson emailed me: “As a matter of policy, ATCC does not disclose information on the contents of its patent depository.” Previously, though, the ATCC head publicly explained that it did not have virulent Ames.

      George Mason University, Department Listings, accessed August 17, 2003, shows that the National Center For Biodefense and Center for Biomedical Genomics had the same mail stop (MS 4ES). The most famed bioweaponeer in the world was not far from this sheik urging violent jihad in an apocalyptic struggle between religions. Dr. Alibek’s office was Rm. 156D in Prince William 2. The groups both shared the same department fax of 993-4288. Dr. Alibek advises me he had seen him several times in the corridors of GMU and was told that he was a religious muslim hard-liner but knew nothing of his activities.

      Charles Bailey at 3-4271 was the former head of USAMRIID and joined the Center in April 2001. He continued to do research with Ames after 9/11. Dr. Alibek reports that shortly after the mailings, he wrote FBI Director Mueller and offered his services but was advised that they already had assembled a large group. A 2004 report describes research done by Dr. Alibek and his colleagues using Delta Ames obtained from NIH for a research project done for USAMRIID. There were two grants from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency from 2001. One $3.6 million grant dated to July 2001 and the other was previous to that.

      Ali Al-Timimi had the same telephone number that Dr. Victor Morozov of the Center for Biodefense would later have when he joined the faculty and occupied the newly constructed Bull Run Building, which opened in late 2004 (Rm. #362). Dr. Morozov focuses on the development of new bioassay methods for express analysis, high-throughput screening and proteomics. He has recently developed a new electrospray-based technology for mass fabrication of protein microarrays. Dr. Morozov is currently supervising a DOE -funded research project directed at the development of ultra-sensitive express methods for detection of pathogens in which slow diffusion of analytes is replaced by their active transport controlled and powered by external forces (electric, magnetic, gravitational or hydrodynamic). His homepage explains that: “A variety of projects are available for students to participate in 1. Develop methods for active capturing of viruses and cells. 2. AFM imaging of macromolecules, viruses and cells. 3. Develop active immunoassay. 4. Analyze forces operating in the active assay of biomolecules and viral particles. 5. Develop immobilization techniques for antibodies and other biospecific molecules. 6. Study crystallization dynamics and morphology of organic and inorganic crystals in the presence of protein impurities. 7. Develop software to analyze motion of beads. 8. Develop software to analyze patterns in drying droplets. 9. Develop an electrostatic collector for airborne particles.”

      Al-Timimi obtained a doctorate from George Mason University in 2004 in the field of computational biology — a field related to cancer research involving genome sequencing. He successfully defended his thesis 5 weeks after his indictment. Curt Jamison, Timimi’s thesis advisor, coauthor and loyal friend, was in Prince William II (Discovery Hall) Rm. 181A. The staff of Advanced Biosystems was in Rm. 160, 162, 177, 254E and several others. Computational sciences offices were intermixed among the Hadron personnel on the first floor of Prince William II to include 159, 161, 166A, 167, 181 B and 181C. Rm. 156B was Charles Bailey, former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, who was head of the Center for Biodefense. Defense contractor Hadron had announced the appointment of Dr. Bailey as Vice-President of Advanced Biosystems in early April 2001. “Over 13 years, Dr. Bailey had served as a Research Scientist, Deputy Commander for Research, Deputy Commander and Commander at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute. As a USAMRIID scientist, he designed and supervised the construction of BL-3 containment facilities. His hands-on experience with a wide variety of pathogens is chronicled in 70 published articles. During his 4 years with the Defense Intelligence Agency, he published numerous articles assessing foreign capabilities regarding biological weapons.” When I asked Dr. Bailey to confirm Al-Timimi’s room number relative to his own, his only response was to refer me to University counsel. Counsel then never substantively responded to my inquiry regarding their respective room numbers citing student privacy. Ali’s friend and thesis advisor, Dr. Jamison never responded to an emailed query either. GMU perhaps understandably was very nervous about losing the $25 million grant for a new BL-3 regional facility to be located very near our country’s capitol.

      Dr. Charles Bailey for DIA wrote extensively on the the biothreat posed by other countries (and presumably terrorists). He shared a fax number with Al-Timimi. What came over that fax line in Spring and Summer of 2001? At some point, Dr. Al-Timimi, Dr. Alibek and Dr. Bailey also shared the same maildrop. It certainly would not be surprising that the two directors who headed the DARPA-funded Center for Biodefense — and had received the biggest defense award in history for work with Delta Ames under a contract with USAMRIID — would have been briefed on the threat of mailed anthrax.

      In Fall 2001, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (”AFIP”) had detected silicon dioxide (silica) in the attack anthrax — with a characteristic big spike for the silicon. No silica was observable on the SEMs images that Dr. Alibek and Dr. Matthew Meselson saw. The Daschle product was “pure spores.” Was silicon dioxide used as part of a microdroplet cell culture process used prior to drying to permit greater concentration? As explained in a later related patent, the silica could be removed from the surface of the spore through repeated centrifugaton or an air chamber.

      Dr. Alibek and Dr. Bailey had filed a patent application in mid-March 2001 involving a microdroplet cell culture technique that used silicon dioxide in a method for concentrating growth of cells. The patent was granted and the application first publicly disclosed in the Spring of 2002. Weren’t the SEMS images and AFIP EDX finding both consistent with use of this process in growing the culture? It’s been suggested informally to me that perhaps the silicon analytical peak was more likely due to silanol from hydrolysis of a silane, used in siliconizing glassware. But didn’t the AFIP in fact also detect oxygen in ratios characteristic of silicon dioxide? Wasn’t the scientist, now deceased, who performed the EDX highly experienced and expert in detecting silica? Hasn’t the AFIP always stood by its report. In its report, AFIP explained: “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.” Perhaps the nuance that was lost — or just never publicly explained for very sound reasons — was that silica was used in the cell culture process and then removed from the spores through a process such as centrifugation. The applicants in March 2001 for an international patent relating to vaccines were a leading aerosol expert, Herman R. Shepherd, and a longstanding anthrax biodefense expert, Philip Russell.

      Dr. Morozov is co-inventor along with Dr. Bailey for a patent “Cell Culture” that explains how the silicon dioxide can be removed from the surface. Perhaps it is precisely this AFIP finding of silicon dioxide (without silica on the SEMs) that is why the FBI came to suspect Al-Timimi in 2003 (rightly or wrongly, we don’t know). The FBI would have kept these scientific findings secret to protect the integrity of the confidential criminal/national security investigation. There was still a processor and mailer to catch — still a case to prove. After 9/11, intelligence collection takes precedence over arrests. As Ron Kessler explains in the new book, Terrorist Watch, many FBI officials feel that they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. Outside observers are constantly second-guessing them about how to proceed rather than trusting that they are in the best position to balance the competing considerations of national security, intelligence gathering, the pursuit of justice, and the safeguarding of civil liberties. Above all, in disclosing the theory of access to know-how, the FBI has needed to protect the due process rights of Al-Timimi while he has defended himself on other charges.

      Presently, Al-Timimi’s prosecution is on remand while the defense is given an opportunity to discover any documents that existed prior to 9/11 about al-Timimi and to address an issue relating to NSA intercepts after 9/11. Ali’s defense counsel explained to the federal district court, upon a remand by the appeals court, that Mr. Timimi was interviewed by an FBI agent and a Secret Service agent as early as February 1994 in connection with the first World Trade Center attack. The agents left their business cards which the family kept. Defense counsel Johnathan Turley further explained that “We have people that were contacted by the FBI and told soon after 9/11 that they believed that Dr. Al-Timimi was either connected to 9/11 or certainly had information about Al Qaeda.”

      Isn’t SRA who Al-Timimi worked for 1999 where he had a high security clearance for work for the Navy? See Milton Viorst’s article “The Education of Ali Al-Timimi. Didn’t Dr. Bailey also work there at SRA in 1999? Did they work together? When I emailed Dr. Bailey in December 2007 to confirm Ali had the room right near his at Discovery Hall he politely referred me to university counsel and took no questions. Dr. Alibek and Dr. Popov have told me that Ali is not known to have worked on any biodefense project. Dr. Popova told me I should direct any such questions to Dr. Bailey. University counsel declined to answer any questions.

      • DXer said

        Dr. Al-Timimi’s counsel summarized the matter in a brief thusly:

        “we know Dr. Al-Timimi:

        * was interviewed in 1994 by the FBI and Secret Service regarding his ties to the perpetrators of the first World Trade Center bombing;
        * was referenced in the August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing (“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US”) as one of seventy individuals regarding whom the FBI is conducting full field investigations on a national basis;
        * was described to his brother by the FBI within days of the 9-11 attacks as an immediate suspect in the Al Qaeda conspiracy;
        * was contacted by the FBI only nine days after 9-11 and asked about the attacks and its perpetrators;
        * was considered an anthrax weapons suspect;
        [redacted]
        * was described during his trial by FBI agent John Wyman as having “extensive ties” with the “broader al-Qaeda network”;
        * was described in the indictment and superseding indictment as being associated with terrorists seeking harm to the United States;
        * was a participant in dozens of international overseas calls to individuals known to have been under suspicion of Al-Qaeda ties like Al-Hawali; and
        * was associated with the long investigation of the Virginia Jihad Group.
        ***
        The conversation with [Bin Laden’s sheik] Al-Hawali on September 19, 2001 was central to the indictment and raised at trial. ***
        [911 imam] Anwar Al-Aulaqi goes directly to Dr. Al-Timimi’s state of mind and his role in the alleged conspiracy. The 9-11 Report indicates that Special Agent Ammerman interviewed Al-Aulaqi just before or shortly after his October 2002 visit to Dr. Al-Timimi’s home to discuss the attacks and his efforts to reach out to the U.S. government.
        [IANA head] Bassem Khafagi was questioned about Dr. Al-Timimi before 9-11 in Jordan, purportedly at the behest of American intelligence. [redacted ] He was specifically asked about Dr. Al-Timimi’s connection to Bin Laden prior to Dr. Al-Timimi’s arrest. He was later interviewed by the FBI about Dr. Al-Timimi. Clearly, such early investigations go directly to the allegations of Dr. Al-Timimi’s connections to terrorists and Bin Laden — [redacted]”

  2. DXer said

    In fairness to the FBI in 2002, a lot did not come out until later.

    After being shipped to Jordan, where he was harshly interrogated, Hambali eventually began providing information about Al Qaeda’s anthrax production program. He told interrogators that the terror network had what author Ron Suskind describes as an “extremely virulent” strain of anthrax before the September 11 attacks. In the autumn of 2003, Suskind reports, U.S. forces in Afghanistan found a sample of the virulent anthrax at a house in Kandahar. Pulitzer Prize winning author Ron Suskind writes: “One disclosure was particularly alarming: al Qaeda had, in fact produced high-grade anthrax. Hambali, during interrogation, revealed its whereabouts in Afghanistan. The CIA soon descended on a house in Kandahar and discovered a small, extremely potent sample of the biological agent.” He continued: “The anthrax found in Kandahar was extremely virulent. What’s more, it was produced, according to the intelligence, in the months before 9/11. And it could be easily reproduced to create a quantity that could be readily weaponized.”

    Suskind writes:

    “Ever since the tense anthrax meeting with Cheney and Rice in December 2001, CIA and FBI had been focused on determining whether al Qaeda was involved in the anthrax letter attacks in 2001 and whether they could produce a lethal version that could be weaponized. The answer to the first was no; to the second, ‘probably not.’ Though the CIA had found remnants of a biological weapons facility — and blueprints for attempted production of anthrax — isolating a strain of virulent anthrax and reproducing it was viewed as beyond al Qaeda’s capabilities.

    Suskind continued:

    “No more. The anthrax found in Kandahar was extremely virulent. What’s more, it was produced, according to the intelligence, in the months before 9/11. And it could be easily reproduced to create a quantity that could be readily weaponized.”
    “Alarm bells rang in Washington. Al Qaeda, indeed, had the capabilities to produce a weapon of massive destructiveness, a weapon that would create widespread fear.
    The next puzzle piece was tucked, inconspicuously, inside a computer. The computer was picked up in late August in Pakistan in a sweep by ISI of apartments that were once safe houses for al Qaeda operatives. On the hard drive were pictures of a very precise, very professional casing effort in New York City. Grand Central Terminal, and its cavernous vaults, from many angles. Banks. Hotel lobbies.
    The headquarters of famous Manhattan-based companies, with pictures that included everything from heating, ventilation, and air-condition systems to locks on security doors.
    Many of the sites photographed represented closed spaces, each ideal, in different ways, for mubtakkar attacks or, now, an anthrax attack.”
    This apparently was the report from the trip to New York City by Dhiren Bhart and Al-Marri.

    Based on the additional information being provided in 2003, authorities also captured two mid to low level technicians — an Egyptian and a Sudanese. President Bush has explained that these mid-to low level technicians were part of a Southeastern Asian based cell that was developing an anthrax attack on the United States. In Fall of 2006, President Bush explained:

    “KSM also provided vital information on al Qaeda’s efforts to obtain biological weapons. During questioning, KSM admitted that he had met three individuals involved in al Qaeda’s efforts to produce anthrax, a deadly biological agent — and he identified one of the individuals as Yazid. KSM apparently believed we already had this information, because Yazid had been captured and taken into foreign custody before KSM’s arrest. In fact we did not know about Yazid’s role in al Qaeda’s anthrax program. Information from Yazid then helped lead to the capture of his two principal assistants in the anthrax program. Without the information provided by KSM and Yazid, we might not have uncovered this al Qaeda biological weapons program, or stopped this al Qaeda cell from developing anthrax for attacks against the United States.”

    Sufaat wrapped things up in the Summer of 2001, according to Tenet, and briefed Hambali and Zawahiri over the course of a week.

    University of Maryland researcher Milton Leitenberg views Al Qaeda’s efforts in Afghanistan as incompetent. He asserts: “The 2005 Silberman-Robb Commission report claims that Al Qaeda in Afghanistan did obtain ‘‘Agent X,’’ which is understood to have meant a B. anthracis pathogenic strain, and not a vaccine strain. The claim appears to be incorrect.” He argues Al Qaeda’s “effort failed, as the organization was unable to obtain a pathogenic strain of B. anthracis. Al Qaeda’s work was incompetent in the extreme and had barely advanced beyond early speculation by the time a joint allied military team raided and occupied its facilities in December 2001. Mr. Leitenberg concludes: “In terms of bioterrorism perpetrated by a terrorist organization, the Amerithrax events are an outlier, as they almost certainly were carried out by a U.S. scientist, fully trained, with access to pathogenic strains and optimum working conditions.”

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