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

Archive for August 23rd, 2011

* Jonathan Tucker … New Questions About the FBI’s Anthrax Case: Valid Concerns or Red Herring?

Posted by DXer on August 23, 2011

Jonathan Tucker

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DXer COMMENT …

Dr. Tucker looked at the DOJ’s claims and credited the DOJ view that Dr. Ivins could have done it — relying on the DOJ’s claim that he had no reason to be the lab  

Yet nowhere did he address the argument that the DOJ’s claim is directly contradicted by the documentary evidence that was withheld by the DOJ and only produced by USAMRIID 3 years after Dr. Ivins’ death.

Clearly the aim, then, should be to obtain the evidence that shows what he was doing on the nights that the DOJ mistakenly said he had no reason to be in the lab.

The documents have been uploaded to the website and the media and authors just haven’t addressed the issue.

… and by the way, when did evidence that something was possible

become a substitute for evidence that something was done?

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New Questions About the FBI’s Anthrax Case:

Valid Concerns or Red Herring?

BY JONATHAN B. TUCKER   •   22 AUGUST 2011 … posted at WMD Junction, a new online forum brought to you by the editors of The Nonproliferation Review.

  • The latest challenge to the FBI’s case against Ivins comes from depositions given by some of his former USAMRIID colleagues in a suit against the US government filed by Maureen Stevens, whose late husband, Robert Stevens, was the first victim of the anthrax letter attacks.
  • Although at first glance the court documents appear to raise serious doubts about the FBI’s case against Ivins, the scientists’ claims are based on assumptions that may well be false.
  •  because no spores were ever found in Ivins’s home or car, and no eyewitness saw him mail the letters from a mailbox in downtown Princeton, New Jersey, the FBI’s case was entirely circumstantial.

Questions Raised in the Depositions

  • The depositions taken from USAMRIID scientists and technicians as part of the lawsuit by Maureen Stevens were first disclosed on July 18 in a joint article by three news organizations: PBS Frontline, ProPublica, and McClatchy Newspapers.[1]
  • According to the article, testimony in the court documents suggests that Ivins did not have access to the specialized equipment and know-how he presumably would have needed to dry the spores into the high-quality powder sent through the mail, raising doubts about whether he was technically capable of committing the crime.
  • While the scientists’ depositions appear compelling at first glance, many of the statements are misleading.
  • First, much has been made of the specialized knowledge needed to prepare dry powders of B. anthracis spores, yet this factor may have been exaggerated.
  • Early reports that the spores contained a high level of silicon suggested that they could have been deliberately “weaponized” by coating them with silica to reduce static clumping and facilitate their delivery as a fine-particle aerosol.
  • FBI scientists later determined, however, that the silicon was not on the surface of the spores but had been incorporated into an inner layer called the endosporium when the anthrax bacteria were grown and induced to sporulate. Thus, Ivins would not have needed weapons-related expertise to process the spores.
  • Second, the depositions by Worsham and Little imply that the only way to produce significant quantities of dried B. anthracis is by using a lyophilizer, yet lower-tech approaches may also be feasible.
  • The fact that the B. anthracis powder mailed to the two senators was so buoyant and dispersed so readily led many observers to conclude that it had been deliberately weaponized.
  • Dr. Vahid Majidi, the assistant director of the FBI’s WMD Directorate, said that this false belief resulted from the fact that very few scientists have experience with preparations of dried bacteria.
  • in response to the question whether the equipment in Ivins’s lab would have been sufficient to grow and dry the spores, Majidi said, “It would have been easy to make these samples at RID [USAMRIID].”[4]
  • During the press briefing, FBI officials estimated that making the preparation of powdered B. anthracis spores could have taken one person between three and seven days of work.[5]
  • They also corrected false reports that the FBI had been unable to reverse-engineer the highly refined B. anthracis powder mailed to the two senators.[6]
  • When asked if the FBI’s powder behaved the same as the material in the letters, Majidi replied, “as far as our preparation goes, we were able to repeat almost everything except the silicant signal [the high silicon content of the spores]. … Can we make the same spore purity? Yes. Can we make the spore dry? Yes.”[7]
  • Based on this information, it appears that Ivins could have dried the spores without the need for a lyophilizer by using a low-tech method, such as heat-drying the concentrated slurry on glass plates and then harvesting the dried material inside a sealed glove box.
  • In sum, public statements by Majidi and other senior FBI officials suggest that the assumption underlying the more recent statements of the USAMRIID scientists—that specialized equipment, expertise, and tacit knowledge are required to produce a lethal preparation of dry anthrax spores—may be incorrect or at least exaggerated.

Conclusion

  • Although the FBI’s circumstantial case against Bruce Ivins will never satisfy hard-core skeptics and conspiracy theorists, the mosaic of evidence is fairly convincing when viewed as a whole.
  • At the same time, it is far from certain that a federal prosecutor could have persuaded a jury of Ivins’ guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

[Editor’s note: Jonathan Tucker died suddenly in late July, just days after submitting this article for publication.

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