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

* letter to NAS with additional questions … and the NAS response received within one hour

Posted by DXer on June 23, 2009

CASE CLOSED by Lewis WeinsteinCC - front cover - small

explores the FBI’s failed investigation of the 2001 anthrax case …

* see CASE CLOSED VIDEO on YouTube

* purchase CASE CLOSED (paperback)


Mr. Kearney of the NAS Office of News & Public Information

responded to the questions below within one hour, as follows …

Lew, again, I’ll try to reply in general, and more specific answers may be available when project starts this summer.  I’d note that this study will be carried out no differently than any other study we do.  Yes, the names and bios of those nominated to the provisional committee will be posted in our Current Projects web site and there is a 20-day public comment period on the committee makeup.  As far as conflict of interest, here’s a link to our policy  The committee will be made up of members with appropriate expertise to carry out charge.  We never issue “progress reports” although we sometimes issue interim reports if those are called for in a statement of task that is approved by our governing board before the study starts; there is no interim report planned for this study.  A public report will be issued by committee.  We’ll let you know when committee gets posted and when first meeting will be as soon as that information is available.  I’ll be on travel for a bit, so my colleage Jennifer Walsh will let you know if I’m not around.  Bill.


letter to NAS with additional questions

The following letter was emailed this morning to Mr. William Kearney in the NAS Office of News & Public Information, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC. I want to thank all of the readers of this CASE CLOSED blog who contributed to shaping and refining the questions asked. These are all procedural questions. As I indicated in the letter, there are more questions related to the science, all of which came from readers of this blog, which will be organized and sent in a separate letter …


Dear Mr. Kearney,

Thank you very much for your prompt reply to my questions of June 19, 2009.

Along with many readers and contributors to my CASE CLOSED blog, I truly appreciate that the NAS has undertaken this difficult task, one which is vital to our understanding of what really happened in the anthrax attacks and in the ensuing FBI investigation. In fact, many are looking to the NAS as the chief hope for an impartial resolution of this now eight year old mass murder. Not many accept the FBI’s conclusion that Dr. Ivins was the sole perpetrator, at least not on the basis of the evidence thus far made known.

Your answers have of course generated more questions.

I want to emphasize that the skepticism expressed in these questions is not related to the NAS, which is highly respected by all, but rather to the FBI, which is generally regarded as not fully forthcoming in this whole anthrax business.

Here are the additional questions …

  1. NAS-FBI contractHas NAS ever made a contract public? Will NAS consider doing so in this case? Is NAS prohibited from doing so by the provisions of the contract?
  2. Chair and Committee to perform studyWill the names and academic affiliations of the study chair and team be made public when they are appointed? Will the study team consist of a broad range of scientists from the physical sciences as well as life sciences, including chemical engineers, aerosol specialists, and analytical chemists?
  3. Chair and Committee – Conflict of interest (1) Will employment at a Battelle-managed lab constitute a disqualifying conflict of interest? Will any scientist who works for or at a lab managed by a corporation or other party that had virulent Ames be disqualified? Will any scientist who works for or at a lab managed by a corporation or other party supplied Ames by Bruce Ivins be disqualified?
  4. Chair and Committee – Conflict of interest (2) … One commenter on this CASE CLOSED blog points to a gathering arranged by the FBI and CIA at a resort in Naples, Florida … in which he says 40 biodefense or emerging disease scientists were paid to work full-time for 30 days from mid-June and mid-July 2008. Participation in the conference was kept confidential … it may even have been classified “secret.” … an FBI scientist presented the FBI’s Amerithrax genetics findings at the gathering. The government personnel socialized with the gathered scientists throughout the 30-day period and one purpose of the conference was so that their assistance could be recruited on such matters. Under NAS conflict of interest policy, will scientists who participated in that conference be allowed? If so, will those scientists be required to disclose that participation so that it can be taken into account by the public?
  5. Coordination with FBIWhat rights, if any, does the FBI have by contract to prohibit, delay or modify specific study tasks or the publication of study findings and conclusions? Is the FBI point person specified in the contract? Doesn’t NAS know who the FBI coordinator will be, or are you prohibited from releasing that information?
  6. Final ReportWill the report which is eventually released to the public be the complete report? Does the contract with the FBI allow them or anyone else to limit which portions of the report can be made public? Will all supporting findings be made public in addition to the conclusions based on those findings?
  7. Progress Reports … Has NAS issued progress reports in other studies? Is the absence of a progress report in this study the result of a specific provision of this contract with the FBI?
  8. Questions from the public … Will the study team be made available to answer the public’s and the media’s questions? Is the policy regarding public and media interaction in this study consistent with NAS policy in other studies or is it the result of specific provisions/restrictions in the contract for this study? Will NAS encourage agencies from whom it receives information to upload and make available to the public all relevant FOIA eligible documents of which NAS has become aware? Will NAS identify such relevant FOIA eligible documents, whether uploaded or not, as soon as it becomes aware of them?

Many other questions were proposed by readers and contributors to the CASE CLOSED blog. These additional questions are of a scientific rather than procedural nature. It will take longer to sort through the very substantial material submitted to the blog in the past several days and to summarize specific questions for the NAS from this material, but I will communicate again with you when this has been done.

Yours very truly,

Lewis M. Weinstein

5 Responses to “* letter to NAS with additional questions … and the NAS response received within one hour”

  1. DXer said

    “As part of the investigation, the FBI has set up a special lab at Fort Detrick, Md., a place that also is being investigated by the FBI because of repeated security breaches in the past 10 years. The bureau also has asked for help from dozens of scientists across the nation.

    Martin Hugh-Jones, an epidemiologist with Louisiana State University, was one of them. The school has one of the labs that studied the Ames strain anthrax — and Hugh-Jones said FBI agents swarmed the campus conducting interviews and collecting the names of former lab employees.

    Hugh-Jones said he felt a key method used by investigators — determining the rate of genetic mutations across generations of bacteria to try to find the lab of origin — has proved inconclusive.”

    FBI mystified by anthrax attacks

    Later work on the genetics, however, showed that the virulent Ames supplied by Bruce Ivins from flask 1029 had the same genetic profile. The outstanding question to Dr. Hugh-Jones is: did the LSU lab provide a sample of the virulent Ames supplied the DARPA researchers from Ann Arbor (who were using the BL-3 lab at LSU) in response to the subpoena? Martin’s chief assistant was a key FBI genetics consultant who did the typing of the anthrax attack and other samples — and so this is a detail that likely has not escaped people’s memory.

    Did a sample of the virulent Ames supplied by Bruce ivins still exist at the lab at the time of the subpoena so that it could be supplied?

    Taxpayers fund such research and deserve a response to this question.

    • DXer said

      Anthrax scientists under microscope
      August 10 2002

      “Handling anthrax is very difficult,” Professor Hugh-Jones said. “And whoever killed those people had access to good quality, fine anthrax in powder form, and there would be only six to a dozen people in the United States with access to that.”

      Professor Hugh-Jones says he is not one of them. He nevertheless suspects the FBI is keeping an eye on him while it continues a year-long investigation into the letters laced with anthrax. “They record my calls,” he said, and he is also sure that the FBI is reading his email. “I don’t mind. They don’t think I did it. They are just interested in what I think.”

      And what is that?

      “Well, basically, I agree with the FBI. I think it must be somebody with scientific knowledge.”

      • DXer said

        Did Hugh-Jones know this scientist who the documents provided me by the Defense Intelligence Agency show was sent by Ayman Zawahiri to infiltrate Western labs to obtain pathogenic anthrax?

        What lab with a BL-3 facility and thousands of pathogens did infiltrator Rauf Ahmad visit snd describe in his letter to Ayman Zawahiri?

        Zawahiri’s Plan To Obtain the Ames Anthrax Strain, Global Politician, April 15, 2005

  2. DXer said

    This question of whether possession of Ames constitutes a disqualifying interest for the NAS review gets a little tricky because of the inadequate records kept, lack of public information on who had virulent Ames, and the fact that some researchers traded anthrax strains like they were baseball cards.

    For example, why won’t the former manager of the LSU lab, Pamala Coker, say whether she provided a sample of the virulent Ames supplied by Bruce Ivins to the University of Michigan DARPA-funded researchers in response to the subpoenas from mid-October 2001 – February 2002? I have the same question for Dr. Hugh-Jones and Dr. Kimothy Smith. It’s a simple question and only takes a few moments. It comes with the responsibility of having dealt routinely with deadly pathogens at that LSU lab and running a BL-3 lab.

    Anthrax Investigation Tracks Vaccinations —
    “It was like trading baseball cards,” anthrax expert Martin Hugh-Jones, a professor at Louisiana State University, said in an interview last week. …,0,5097371.story

    11/28/2001 – Updated 11:41 PM ET
    Anthrax scare based on simple science

    By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY

    Finely crafted anthrax spores seen in the most recent bioterrorist attacks betray a startling level of terrorist expertise. But despite their surprise at the sophistication of the work, microbiologists interviewed in past weeks now acknowledge that the science employed in the cause of terror can be accomplished in relatively common laboratories and that bioterrorists have some fairly simple solutions at hand for protecting themselves from infection as they handle killer microbes.

    As investigators weigh the evidence in the anthrax attacks — and as they prepare to open the anthrax-infected letter mailed to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. — they are trying to use their understanding of the sophistication involved to help them look for likely sponsors of the bioterrorism.

    “A lone person might produce enough for a small number of letters,” says Craig Smith, a member of the bioterrorism committee of the Infectious Disease Society of America. “But, to develop enough high-quality spore concentration milled to the right size would require more equipment and much more expertise.”

    The anthrax-laced letter sent to the office of Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., weeks ago contained 2 grams of spores, less than one-tenth of an ounce, but containing perhaps as many as 200 billion spores. Treated with silica — finely ground sand — the spores spread like cigarette smoke through the Hart Senate Office Building.

    “It came from someone with extensive microbiological experience,” says anthrax expert Martin Hugh-Jones of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Also, the culprits must have access to the anthrax strains traded regularly by biologists in an uncontrolled fashion before 1996.

    Safely handling such an “aerosolized” form of anthrax requires at least a “Biosafety Level 3” laboratory.

    Simply possessing a special-agent pathogen doesn’t require registering, which is one reason so much uncertainty surrounds the source of the anthrax used in the attacks. The American Society of Microbiology estimates that between 20 and 30 university labs nationwide and an unknown number of labs worldwide handle anthrax.

    With registration, even a relatively common hospital-style Level 2 lab equipped with an open-faced vented cabinet can handle anthrax. Creating the bacteria in aerosol form requires a Level 3 facility.

    But for bioterrorists bent on destruction, who could dose themselves with antibiotics or vaccine for self-protection, niceties such as biosafety levels are a moot point, says biosafety expert Lee Thompson of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Experts say the terrorists could do their work in a basement or a garage if they didn’t worry about infecting themselves or the public around them. There likely would not be any inquiries by public health officials unless people around the clandestine lab started to show up with anthrax, Thompson says.

    “There is no doubt, if you were vaccinated or didn’t care about your life, you could acquire and produce a spore product if you had the correct shopping list and recipe,” Smith says. “Remember, around the world, many of these dual-use items (whether for producing medicines or dangerous microbes) are totally unregulated.”
    In its natural form, anthrax clumps into a brown powder that resists going airborne, Smith says. Even in their most fine state in nature, spores will hang together in clumps, about 5 microns across at a minimum, that bioweapons experts say is unwieldy for effective attack. …

    Actually making anthrax into aerosolized form involves growing the spores, drying them and grinding the resultant clumps into a fine tan powder, then carefully mixing them with silica or other compounds to aid the spread.

    Further complicating things, the spores contained in the first attack, on a Florida media company, have been described by investigators as a clumpy powder, which would make a poor aerosol. Only two weeks later, the finely prepared Daschle-letter spores appeared. Those spores were ground so fine that they apparently drifted across offices and contaminated other letters in the mail. The same strain of anthrax was used in all the attacks, suggesting a common source.

    The bioterrorists “must have had a hell of a short learning curve,” says Patrick, who headed U.S. bioweapons work until the program’s halt in 1969. “Or maybe there’s two groups.”

    Despite the five deaths so far from anthrax attacks this year, mailing spores represents an inefficient way to kill people, he says. Overall, the letter method suggests the bioterrorists so far have been able to make aerosolized spores in only small quantities, Patrick says. “Little lab processes can make good (anthrax) products, but that does not scale up to doing it on an industrial scale.”

    Tests conducted on New York’s subways during the 1960s showed that industrial-strength spore attacks could infect 500,000 people with anthrax, Patrick says. Such a scenario represents the worst fears of investigators waiting for the next anthrax outbreak.

    “The 2 grams (in the Daschle letter) may only represent a small pilot plant operation,” Smith says. “Or, it may also represent a ‘testing of the waters,’ with more to come in the future. Remember, the goal of the terrorists is not necessarily to kill many people, but to get everyone to watch it on TV and change their patterns of daily living.

    “They have been successful.”

  3. DXer said

    From National Academies Press on the best laid plans…

    Security Context for the Biological Threat Reduction Program

    For many years, leading scientists and security specialists throughout the United States and other countries have issued warnings about the threat of bioterrorism, including attacks that could kill tens of thousands of people or other attacks that could lead to widespread social and economic disruption. The U.S. and many other governments have mounted major programs to prevent and to defend against such attacks. The following recent incidents suggest that these warnings and preparations must be taken seriously:

    Anthrax letters disseminated in the United States in 2001

    Plans for bioterrorism set forth in documents recovered from al Qaeda training camps in 2001 /1

    The discovery of “makeshift ricin laboratories” in the Pankisi Gorge adjacent to Chechnya and a “do-it-yourself guidance sheet” on how to make ricin found in the possession of a killed Chechen insurgent in 2003 /2

    An investigation launched in 2007 by the Procurator’s office in Moscow of alleged unsuccessful efforts to attack a large suburban chicken marketplace by introducing chickens affected with avian influenza virus, which would cause the market to close and business to shift to a competing marketplace

    An attempted theft targeted at the pathogen collection at the central reference laboratory for animal health in Indonesia in May 2007 that was thwarted by security systems installed by the U.S. government /4

    As indicated in these examples, the infrastructure required to support a biological terrorism attack is strikingly smaller than the facilities and personnel resources that were developed to support biological warfare capabilities during the Cold War. Today, the international concern is not bomblets in missile warheads containing infectious viruses that could be released on impact. The focus is on more compact, but also devastating scenarios, such as the dissemination of a few grams of high quality anthrax spores in a major subway system or the introduction of the foot-and-mouth disease virus into a stockyard.

    Dangerous biological agents are available in nature, and their potential use for malevolent purposes is increasingly understood by both our allies and our adversaries throughout the world. Intention on the part of a capable, but disgruntled scientist or perhaps more likely a group of misguided scientists to use such knowledge and do harm is a critical concern. Early detection of intention is essential to reduce the likelihood of misuse or proliferation of dangerous biological assets. In short, security systems surrounding virulent pathogen collections are of course important but cannot alone hold potential terrorists at bay. Gaining insights as to intentions is just as important as efforts to constrain through physical barriers and security procedures access to collections of strains of dangerous pathogens.

    One way to understand—and perhaps even alter—nefarious intentions regarding the misuse of biological agents is through development of close personal working relationships between American and counterpart scientists abroad, which introduce considerable transparency into scientific activities. Also, international projects can improve our understanding of foreign environments that might attract irresponsible groups seeking to misuse biological assets.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: