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

* Noah Schactman: Many scientists “were deeply, deeply critical” at how their work was used.

Posted by DXer on April 2, 2011


Dr. Bruce Ivins wins highest civilian award from Defense Dept. in March, 2003


Noah Schactman radio interview …


Mr. Schactman conducted several dozen interviews and reviewed 3500 pages. Noah says he’s not sure whether they got the wrong/right guy. He says that even lead agents admit the case is kind of shaky.

Excerpts from the interview …

  • “This is not the kind of case I could ever see being won in court.”
  • The authorities never figured out …
    • what his motive would be,
    • or how he would have brewed this up,
    • or when he would have brewed this up.
  • Many scientists “were deeply, deeply critical” at how the investigation turned out and how their work was used.
  • Noah explains that there were lots of clones of RMR-1029 around.
  • He notes that Ivins spent years under FBI scrutiny without a lawyer.
  • He says that they had known for a long time he was a suicide risk.
  • Almost to a man, his co-workers don’t believe he did it — not attitude, not means, not equipment.

14 Responses to “* Noah Schactman: Many scientists “were deeply, deeply critical” at how their work was used.”

  1. DXer said

    The Washington Post has addressed again the story it told in January 2009 about discovering the 4 morphs — with no new information and without mentioning the key elements that were necessary to tell the story in context.

    I love the Washington Post.

    But heck, this story does not even take into account that the genetics experts — referring to the genetics — Dr. Fraser-Liggett and Dr. Keim — say there are major holes in the genetics case and the specifc reasons. See recent article by Noah Schachtman in which involved interviews of the genetics experts. To wit: There could be mutations in any large collection, for example, grown at Dugway, they explain and the sample collection involved self-reporting. (Missing Ames wouldn’t be around to be submitted). I first reported this a couple years ago after Paul Keim explained it over lunch to a mutual friend and distinguished scientist David Franz.

    It is not to fault Terry Abshire’s or Jacque Ravel’s excellent work — or the excellent work by the many other experts working on the genetics. It just bears on the conclusions one draws from the genetic findings.

    It is very important to understand — but always overlooked — that the 4 morphs only narrowed things from 700 known to have Ames to “up to 377.” (see powerpoint for the 700 figure from the NAS materials provided by the FBI and uploaded by Lew) and the Amerithrax Investigative Summary for the “up to 377” figure.

    So even the major holes pointed out by genetics expert Fraser-Liggett and Paul Keim are pretty unimportant. It is like the FBI first reporting that there were a couple hundred in Jon Benet Ramsey’s house that night — and then the genetics experts saying “wait,” there may have been hundreds more.

    The “up to 377” in the Amerithrax Investigative Summary refers those with access at both Building 1425 and 1412. Agents were telling Dr. Ivins lawyer, that left an estimated 200 with access. You get an estimated 200 when you eliminate those with access to the Ames at both buildings.

    Indeed, even Terry Abshire, who discovered the morphs, had the matching Ames in her unlocked refrigerator. She mistakenly thought it must have been from Bruce but actually it had been left by Joany Jackman when she left USAMRIID. See Joany Jackman’s 302.

    That Ames was from Flask 1029 and had been used to make a dried powder.

    Here are Ivins video about the ezzell/abshire making the dried Ames out of Ivins’ flask.

    It had been irradiated in the slurry which is a very important point that should never be overlooked in reporting.

    Dr. Ezzell, who I first called about this in July 2009, was very courageous in forthrightly addressing all this.

    No one at the November 29 could watch how distinguished he was — dressed in all black and wearing a white beard –without deeply appreciating his willingness to address these issues. When he had a heart attack minutes after he finished, everyone was genuinely concerned as they would be for a new friend.

    It was okay that the FBI did not disclose this making a dried powder out of Flask 1029 to the NAS — with DARPA thanking both Terry Abshire and John Ezzell in the literature for their assay work — because that is what we have reporters to do.

    They just haven’t done it yet.

    The key facts relating to the DARPA project involving making the dried powder does not bear on the fact that the mutations could be observed.

    But it is the sort of context that is a necessary part of the story.

    Especially given that the Ezzell/Ashire lab then threw out Dr. Ivins February 2002 lab (which had the 4 morphs).

    Here is the inventory sheet showing that the dried powder for DARPA was made from Flask 1029. The expanded inventory was made by the FBI.

    I think the FBI and its scientists and the NAS panel members have done a lot of excellent work.

    But we need reporters to interview Former Colleague #1 (Patricia Fellows), Former Colleague #2 (Mara Linscott), … about both the DARPA research for which they were thanked and for the many points that they have made about Dr. Ivins to the FBI. which underlying the FBI’s “Iivns Theory”.

    We also need interviews of Joany Jackman and Terry Abshire and John Ezzell about the DARPA research.

    Of course, for the interviews of Dr. Ezzell, we have the filmed question and answer that were made on these precise issues.

    Prior to 9/11, when did USAMRIID’s John Ezzell, the FBI’s anthrax expert who was assisted by Terry Abshire, who made a dried aerosol using Ames supplied by Bruce Ivins, send the dried spores to Johns-Hopkins Applied Physics he had made at the request of DARPA? Did those spores show a silicon signature?

    The FBI removed the original of Lab Notebook 4010 and other notebooks from USAMRIID without leaving a copy. Reporters should obtain the remaining 58 pages of Lab Notebook 4010 (relating to Flask1029)

    An email withheld for 2 years after Dr. Ivins death that shows Dr. Ivins knew that 5 ml of virulent Ames had been taken from Building 1412

    Why did the FBI let USAMRIID General John Parker’s false claim that USAMRIID did not make dried powder stand when the FBI and the scientists overseeing the investigation knew its own expert had made dried powdered aerosol using Ames?

    Will it take Congressional subpoena power to fill in the blanks in the email asking about weaponized anthrax that came to Detrick and then was shipped out and some was missing? …

    Given that the FBI estimates that up to 377 had access required elimination (allowing for some duplication who had access in both 1425 and 1412), why did US Taylor think and falsely claim that only 100 needed to be eliminated — only those with access at Building 1425? For him not to know that those with access only in Building 1412 had to be eliminated also leaves a gaping hole one could drive a cropduster through.

    When was the location of the flasks (initially there were two flasks) carefully whited out so as to change its location from Building 1412 to Building 1425?

    Who was Dr. Ivins writing about the Ames missing from building 1412 and the autoclaving of samples there?

    What happened to the other slant sent from Texas?

    Ivins notes that the original researcher who obtained the slants from Texas came to work for the CIA. When did he start working for the CIA?

    When did SRI first obtain virulent Ames and from whom?

    Where was the research on the corona plasma discharge and sonicator on Ames spores supplied by Bruce Ivins conducted for DARPA? Anywhere else? Where were aerosol studies done using dried powder? …

  2. DXer said

    Public television from a couple years ago had Dr. Fraser-Liggett and Dr. Keim making the points.

  3. DXer said

    On the issue of the code, the only (unnamed) scientist whose opinion was provided said that the theory is not viable.

    The author of the book also thinks it is not viable.

    Nancy Haigwood was made at Ivins because her work in the Washington Post two days before his call had been described as having been ridiculed for years as cold fusion.

    And so if this is her interpretation, it is especially important that an independent expert opinion be obtained based on a microscope examination that can discern double-lining.

    Handwriting analysis — which includes double-lining — is a forensic science that is within the scope of the GAO review.

    The GAO should obtain all forensic analyses relating to determination of which letters were double-lined and then solicit an independent review by an experienced expert who has the necessary equipment.

    Those that advance the theory duck this issue entirely and mischaracterize the views of those, like the author of the book and the only expert whose opinion is provided, who think the theory is not viable.

    • DXer said

      According to the psychiatrists, the scientists would bring reading in the hot suite for when they were just hanging out. (This would make sense if you had to wait for an autoclave to run 1 1/2 – 2 hours to autoclave a dead animal recently deceased from a subcutaneous challenge).

      The psychiatrists consulting with the FBI write (without a citation)

      “Uninviting as the hot suite was, Dr. Ivins and some of his
      colleagues sometimes took reading material there that was
      unrelated to their research.

      A colleague noted that one periodical to be found there was the
      National Enquirer.”

      Now one internet poster takes this unsourced citation and argues that the targeting of National Enquirer is explained by the fact that Dr. Ivins had “a stack of National Enquirers” “in his office.” (The mistake is accompanied by a long list of other comparable mistakes and mischaracterizations that have gone uncorrected even after I emailed corrections).

      That is not even what the psychiatrists claim without citation. There was no stack and the periodical is not being said to have been in Dr. Ivins’ office.

      This sort of error is why it is important to cite sources and link or upload the documentation.

      The first task is to find any 302 that mentions the National Enquirer and what Dr. Ivins read while hanging out in the work place. The 302s demonstrate that Dr. Ivins thought the AFA publication, for example, too extreme and he would poke fun at it. (I now owe you a source – see how it works?)

      The rule of thumb of fact-finding such an issue is this: find the 302 and quote it. If it doesn’t exist, there is no support for the unsourced claim that an unnamed colleague reported it to the FBI about someone at USAMRIID once reading the National Enquirer.

      This is so far from probative evidence it’s not funny — but it illustrates how if you cobble together enough factual mischaracterizations you can develop a theory that might substitute for material evidence.

      • DXer said

        Here is citation to the Washington Post article that understandably so upset Dr. NH.

        Trials and Errors
        Reviewed by Lorraine Adams; The Washington Post; Sep 23, 2001; T.05.

        Psychiatrists, to the extent consulted at all, should look to that week’s events at the same as 30 years earlier. Last week’s event often importantly color events otherwise in the distant past.

        It is speculative to think Dr. Ivins was somehow connected to this story. It is not very speculative to think that Dr. NH would have been upset by the article and blamed Dr. Ivins as a reviewer of Vaccine for some research setbacks. (If a key development could have been published, the research might have been deemed a successful innovation).

  4. richard rowley said

    A very telling bit of the WIRED article by Shachtman is what Montooth admits to: he isn’t sure when Ivins processed the anthrax, what motivation he had (full paragraph page 1 of online version):
    No one involved that day expressed any doubt about Ivins’ guilt. But things are not always as clear-cut as they may seem in an FBI presentation. Two years later, sitting in her office overlooking West Baltimore, Fraser-Liggett concedes she has reservations. “There are still some holes,” she says, staring out her window in discomfort. Nearly 2,000 miles away in Flagstaff, Arizona, Keim has his own concerns. “I don’t know if Ivins sent the letters,” he says with a hint of both irritation and sadness. Even agent Edward Montooth, who ran the FBI’s hunt for the anthrax killer, says that—while he’s still convinced Ivins was the mailer—he’s unsure of many things, from Ivins’ motivation to when he brewed up the lethal spores. “We still have a difficult time nailing down the time frame,” he says. “We don’t know when he made or dried the spores.” In other words, it’s been 10 years since the deadliest biological terror attack in US history launched a manhunt that ruined one scientist’s reputation and saw a second driven to suicide, yet nagging problems remain. Problems that add up to an unsettling reality: Despite the FBI’s assurances, it’s not at all certain that the government could have ever convicted Ivins of a crime.

  5. DXer said

    If you have any ideas on how to expedite, I’m very interested in filling gaps in the documentary record for Sep-Oct 2001 — for example, the autoclave logs.

    I am interested, for example, pictures of the autoclave in the hallway in Building 1425, a sample of the form that was used to record use, and the particular pages from Sep-Oct 2001 as well as the log book dating to the time that the additional amount from Dugway was autoclaved in late 1997 or early 1998. Dr. Ivins said that it wasn’t up to snuff and that it was autoclaved (although he has no specific recollection). The FBI has not produced the notes on the subject he mentioned in an interview.

    Maybe people may be leaning too hard on (debunking) the idea that Dr. Ivins whipped some new anthrax up while overlooking the fact that a portion of what was sent by Dugway was never put in Flask 1029 — and a large additional amount was made by his assistants and not put in Flask 1029 (even though they understood it to be used for the same purposes).

    My thought is that the FBI has made an unrealistic argument about Dr. Ivins growing what he needed because it is inconvenient to argue that it was what was made by Pat and Mara and is unaccounted for… for their part, Pat and Mara say they used the frozen stock and so it wouldn’t have the 4 morphs but there is no contemporaneous documentation of the some of the anthrax that is not available to be tested (for example, #7736 in Building 1412.. and 7739c).

    Does anyone know what Pat and Mara say when contacted for an interview?

  6. DXer said

    What was the point of the NAS review if the FBI was going to play hide-the-ball for the 2 years of the NAS review? The FBI withheld — until after the draft NAS report was written — any news at all about the positive results in overseas testing.

    The GAO should have learned its lesson from the NAS experience.

    It should subpoena the investigators’ and scientists emails and watch suddenly the interviews go suddenly very differently — as the spin is substituted with explanation consistent with the contemporaneous documentary evidence. At the very least, GAO should ask nicely and see if the DOJ/FBI does not as an institution cause a memo to be written that results in all emails directed to be turned in.

    Any investigation that does not go for the emails is not best calculated to reconstruct reality years later.

    For starter’s the GAO should obtain an unadulterated (unculled) version of the paralegal’s annotated database.

    It will blow the investigators’ mind at what was withheld from the NAS and what is being withheld from the public under FOIA.

    “In December 2010-January 2011, the FBI first made available to the Committee “AMX
    Weekly Science Updates” and a newly de-classified document that described the collection and
    analysis of environmental samples from an undisclosed site outside the continental United States
    (OCONUS) for the presence of B. anthracis Ames (FBI/USDOJ, 2011, FBI Documents, WFO
    Report). This work was performed as part of the anthrax letters investigation. Few details were
    made available to the committee.

    At least three sample collection missions were conducted by the FBI and/or partners from
    the intelligence community at an overseas site because of information about efforts by Al Qaeda
    to develop an “anthrax program” (FBI/USDOJ, 2011). In May 2004, the FBI and partners from
    the intelligence community visited an overseas location at which they had been told an anthrax
    program had been operating, and brought back swab and swipe samples to the United States.
    None of the samples grew B. anthracis after incubation in culture media. However, three swab
    samples were reported as positive for B. anthracis and for B. anthracis Ames-specific sequences
    by PCR, including swabbings from the outside of an unopened medicine dropper package, a
    sink, and a sink drain hose. Repeat testing of these three positive samples as part of a group of
    15 blinded samples, including soil samples, water blanks and non-Ames Bacillus species, again
    yielded positive results for two of the three same samples (and for none of the other samples).
    However, not all replicates of the DNA extracts from the positive samples gave positive results.
    Apparently, an earlier collection mission to this site, prior to May 2004, by others in the
    intelligence community had also yielded samples with positive PCR results for B. anthracis…”

  7. DXer said

    As to the leg lesion, Noah asks “how would you prove that?”

    Well, you would test the human remains, which is what the FBI did.

    The human remains tested positive for Ames anthrax as I recall. See NAS report.

    The FBI dismissed the report on the grounds that it was laboratory contamination.

    There is a whole lot of laboratory contamination going on with respect to very critical issues. The FBI scientists should be more careful.

    At the same time, the FBI refused to provide NAS the documents they needed about the positive tests for Ames anthrax in Afghanistan.

    • Old Atlantic said

      The doctor who treated the hijacker says he thinks it was anthrax. That is evidence he had it.

      Ivins at the time of his hand infection emailed his colleague about it. His colleagues who were experienced in anthrax did not think Ivins had an anthrax infection, and at least one knew he was getting treatment for a skin infection on his hand. Does the email indicate Ivins showed his hand to her at some point? If Ivins was emailing her, he may also have been showing it to others. In any case, no one reports thinking Ivins had an infection of anthrax. This is evidence he did not.

      • DXer said

        Factoid: The FBI failed to disclose that Jdey was detained at the same time as Moussaoui but then released.

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