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

Posts Tagged ‘Iowa Ames destroyed’

* among the still unanswered anthrax questions … Who decided to destroy the large collection of anthrax samples at the Iowa State University?

Posted by DXer on December 22, 2011

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Iowa State University

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I was re-reading Noah Schachtman’s detailed overview of the anthrax attacks and subsequent FBI investigation, published in WIRED in March 2011 when I was struck by this sentence … “Scientists from around the world were asked to send in a bit of every Ames anthrax sample in their possession.”

This reminded me of the fact that a large reservoir of anthrax, located at the Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa was purposely DESTROYED shortly after the initial attacks, clearly with FBI concurrence.

The reasons behind this bizarre event have never been adequately explained.

These questions remain unanswered …

  • Who decided to destroy those valuable samples?
  • Who was aware of the destruction before it happened?
  • What reasons were given at the time, and do those reasons seem to make any sense?
  • And also, why haven’t we heard more about this issue, even in Schachtman’s otherwise very comprehensive account?

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DXer adds … in its report, GAO can also address any issues relating to Iowa.

From Keim’s Q and A:

Q: Did the FBI or U.S. Department of Justice consult with any genetics expert when they were asked in October 2001 whether it was okay for the [B. anthracis strains held at] Iowa State University and USDA Ames (at the strip mall) to be destroyed?

A: I was not consulted nor am I familiar with the actual steps that lead to the destruction of these materials. During that time period (late 2001), I was doubtlessly the most engaged microbial geneticist working with the FBI. If I wasn’t consulted, then probably none others were either. Additional Commentary:  It is hard to understand why this destruction was done and why it was allowed to occur. Clearly someone in Iowa panicked at being in the media bright lights and wanted to get rid of the material. If this was really authorized by the FBI, who that authority was has not been released, to my knowledge. If the investigation had eventually lead back to Iowa, this would have been viewed as destruction of evidence and obstruction of justice. Now that would have been a public relations nightmare!

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By way of some background, I interviewed all the professors and posted what they reported, the reasons given etc.  The new Dean of the Vet school encouraged the key professor involved to speak with me after an initial reluctance.  And so I ended up speaking with a number of people at ISU to include Dr. Roth and Dr. Cheville if I am remembering the names correctly.  Jim D at microbiology was especially helpful and was not involved in the misguided decision to destroy the collection.

Now first it is important to distinguish between ISU and Agriculture Department.  The labs are nearby but they are physically distinct and under different management.  Some of the ISU professors worked at at the Ag lab.  There was a BL-3 Ag there at USDA.  But a basic first mistake most people make in discussing the issue is confusing ISU with USDA Ames.

Second, the numerous strains kept at ISU were never shown to have been Ames.  Even with the ambiguity of the mailing label (with their being no cancellation on the envelope showing where it was postmarked), the strains at ISU were not known or shown to have Ames.  On the other hand, the important William Broad article based on the correspondence file provided by Gregory Knudson does not actually definitively resolve the question as to the routing of the envelope.  That would require a cancellation, a postmark.  I obtained the mailing label and uploaded it at various websites.  Dr. Knudson, who later went to work for the CIA, had asked USDA Iowa to help collect virulent strains.  The conventional, but not authoritatively proven consensus, is that it was mailed directly from Texas.  There were two slants mailed that arrived at USAMRIID.  Dr. Ivins could not find the second one and presumed Dr. Knudson took it with him when he left USAMRIID.  (Incredibly, the fellow who mailed it from Texas had not even been interviewed.  He had retired to someplace like Idaho and we had to track down; he does not recall specifics; the FBI instead was relying on the Director of the Texas TVMDL).

As for whether USDA had Ames — whether from the first collection or later in the course of vaccine work — it gets less clear.  Thomas Bunn, manager of the BL-3 lab, declined to respond.  A formal FOIA request was vetted through some sort of national terrorism committee.  The nice FOIA person said there were no responsive documents.  But he took pains to emphasize that at least they had nothing that was “known as Ames.”  One logically would want to ask Dr. Bunn, who had worked at USAMRIID, whether he had some from his days at USAMRIID.

Now as for the reason for the destruction, the offered reason was the cost of National Guard protection.  That didn’t make much sense, as a practical matter, because it was a simple thing to courier them over to the USDA lab which was very nearby. But in the rush of events we can forgive a University President for not knowing too much about the particulars of regulation of select agents.   As for who at DOJ approved, or did not object, Professor Boyle would point to Buck Revell as someone to ask.  But I have no idea.  DOJ, for its part, would say that it was getting guidance from CDC.

Certainly, with the  benefit of hindsight, it was a bonehead decision and the FBI science people (to include experts like Budowie), if consulted, likely would have advised restraint and preservation of evidence.  Dr. Keim, like Dr. Hugh-Jones, in hindsight agrees that it was very unfortunate decision.  Dr. Kimothy Smith could say whether he was ever asked but likely not given that Dr. Keim doesn’t know anything about it.  (GAO could easily find out what FBI scientist was asked and obtain written record of the response).  In-house scientists might have been less attuned to the nature of the genetic inquiry that was second nature to the experts in Dr. Keim’s lab and now the stuff of popular press articles.

ISU is a fascinating case study given virulent anthrax was handled at a shopping mall in a satellite lab — photographs show the very poor physical conditions.  It illustrates just how simple it would be for virulent anthrax to be stolen.

Also, Jim D.  in microbiology, had a prototype device on loan the summer of 2001 called the MICROBIAL VAC that concentrated anthrax by a factor of 10 using repeated centrifugation and sequential filtration.  From an Idaho company funded by an SBIR.  The inventor, Bruce Bradley, tells me it could be used to make anthrax into a powder but only on a small scale.  The advisor on the project (at WSU) was the mentor and co-author with a supporter of Bin Laden’s sheiks from Al-Timimi’s charity, Dr. Diab.  That supporter, a PhD animal geneticist, had quit his job, where he researched making dried powders for foodstuffs, and came here to Syracuse.  Then he went back to Idaho where the webmaster Al-Hussayen was being investigated and was quoted there in August 2002.  Then he returned here.  The supporter of Bin Laden’s sheiks was arrested in February 2003, the day and minute Ali Al-Timimi’s townhouse was searched on Northern Virginia.   The scientist who had come to Syracuse, Ismail, lived a mile from me and is very gracious fellow with highly educated family and friends.  He was placed under house arrest, I believe, but never questioned (at last report)  My source on info relating to the charity knew nothing of this person’s work.   Another good friend who studies polymers and living organisms lives in the apartment complex the scientist was in.  And so I hope to someday meet him and do a proper interview.  When I once contacted him by telephone, there was “too much going on” (I presumed surveillance etc.) for him to talk.   His mentor says he  was expert in mixing silica and so maybe has insights on the silicon signature also.  His supervisor, JH, though says he would just use it in mixing.  His supervisor/colleague and wife were concerned about him because they had not heard from him since he abruptly quit his PhD research job and came here ostensibly to work for a spin-off of Ali-Al Timimi’s charity, the one based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Research on animal foodstuffs involves microencapsulation which protects the medicine from being destroyed by enzymes before reaching the target organ).  Out in Idaho, Sami’s MSA VP, whose room was searched at the same time, had a PhD thesis with 350 pages of drying coefficients.  So people who don’t think highly religious people are not also often highly educated need to get out more.

At the time of the searches of Ali’s townhouse and the locations in Idaho, 100 agents came here in February 2003 and simultaneously interviewed 150 people.  The FBI used the cover of OPERATION IMMINENT HORIZON in investigating Amerithrax.  But it is all classified, Ali Al-Timimi is perhaps a TOP ECHELON informant and so it will be a difficult subject for the GAO to gain insights on.   But truth is a funny thing.  Given the gaps in proof and speculation that dominates the handling of this case, maybe all we can do is wait until after the next 911 and look back with the benefit of hindsight.

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Additional background on this issue is contained in an article on this blog posted July 5, 2009 …

* al-Qaeda was seeking anthrax; in Ames, Iowa, anthrax samples were destroyed; is there a connection? text of the new YouTube video

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* Excerpts from “I Heard The Sirens Scream” by by Pulitzer Prize winning author Laurie Garrett

Posted by DXer on July 27, 2011

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Excerpts from “I Heard The Sirens Scream”

by Pulitzer Prize winning author Laurie Garrett

(sub-headings by LMW) …

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FBI’s misuse of non-FBI labs …

Twenty-nine non-FBI laboratories across America were engaged in the effort, with no direct communication or knowledge of each other’s findings permitted. The FBI investigators changed their strategies and notions of appropriate science fairly regularly, never allowing the academic, private or government laboratories that comprised the “team” to either provide guidance in plotting the scientific inquiry, or frankly clueing the researchers in on why any particular avenue of study was being pursued.

investigation by public humiliation … 

for years the key tactic used to elicit statements or confessions was public humiliation.

intense scrutiny of Ivins – until he took his own life …

The scrutiny of Ivins grew so intense, featuring overt 24-hour surveillance of his suburban Maryland home and questioning of his children, that Ivins’ already delicate psychological state rapidly deteriorated, until the microbiologist took his own life by swallowing a massive quantity of the headache remedy, acetaminophen.

strange circumstantial evidence …

The bulk of the evidence against Ivins was circumstantial, and every bit as strange as that the FBI had leveled against Hatfill and other persons of the agency’s interest.

destruction of Iowa Ames …

the University of Iowa and the State’s troopers had, with much fanfare, destroyed the original samples during the fall of 2001. Amazingly, the Justice Department had raised no objections at the time, failing then to appreciate how critically important the samples would prove to be for Amerithrax forensics.

silicate signature …

When the so-called “silicate signature” on anthrax samples obtained from other sources was compared to the 2001 envelope spores there were two critical differences: There was far less silicate, and none of the comparable samples had silicon inside the spores, as the Amerithrax samples did. The Sandia researchers had proved all of this before the spring of 2002, and experimentally demonstrated that the only way silicate got inside the spores was if the chemical was in the medium used to grow the bacilli.

silicon and tin …

During the 2001 early investigation the FBI tested samples from the letters and found both silicon and tin in the mailings to the New York Post and Senator Leahy, in both cases constituting less than 1 percent of the bulk weight of the samples. The early FBI silicon/tin findings were contradicted by the Sandia work, as well as testing at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The early silicon/tin data from the FBI would not be disclosed to Congress or outside researchers for many years, and its significance or accuracy remained controversial ten years later.

no connection with Saddam … known before Colin Powell UN speech …

This 2002 Sandia finding, if accurate, had two profound implications: First, it disproved any alleged connection between chemicals on the anthrax spores and their purported production as WMD by Saddam Hussein or any other country. While the finding did not rule out the possibility that a foreign state actor grew the spores, there was no evidence that silicon, bentonite or any other chemical was used in the process to make the spores stay fluffy, un-clumped and therefore “weaponized.” The second implication was critical to the forensics, as the Sandia group basically told the FBI, “Find a guy that uses silicate in his bacterial growth medium, and you’ve got your culprit.”

Sadly, this information was kept secret until July 2008. There is no evidence in the public record that the FBI allowed the finding to be conveyed to those individuals inside the Bush Administration or CIA that were searching for links between the anthrax and the government of Iraq, nor does it appear the Justice Department allowed the information to be incorporated in any manner in the 2003 United Nations Security Council debate at which Secretary of State Colin Powell conveyed the case for war on Baghdad.

FBI investigation focused in wrong directions …

For years the FBI inquiry continued focusing on one incorrect suspect or lead after another.

RMR-1029 flasks …

In 2004 the FBI seized Ivins’ RMR-1029 flasks, having remarkably allowed them to remain in his possession for more than two years, while he was simultaneously on a list of some 200 anthrax scientists considered to be possible culprits. Those RMR-1029 samples were sent to Worsham, Keim and Fraser-Liggett to be submitted to their respective forms of analysis.

April 2007 … Ivins “not a target” … and then he is …

Though Ivins was questioned many times and underwent a lie detector test, he remained an active part of the investigation into 2007, and in April of that year received a formal letter from the Justice Department informing him that he was “not a target” of the Amerithrax search. … But just one month after receiving that “not a target” reassurance Ivins was called to testify for two days before a federal grand jury, where his handling of RMR-1029 was parsed in detail. Shaken by the proceedings, Ivins told colleagues he feared that he was being fingered as the murderer. He began to drink alcohol heavily and went on back on the anti-depressant Celexa, which he had ceased using years before.

FBI’s belligerent scrutiny of Ivins …

For the next eight months Bruce Ivins, his family and his closest colleagues at USAMRIID were subjected to increasingly overt and belligerent scrutiny by the FBI and eventually the media.

On June 9th the FBI questioned Ivins again, in the presence of his attorney, and the scientist appears to have been deeply shaken by the interrogation. Throughout the following month the FBI conducted undisguised surveillance of his home, and followed him wherever he drove or walked, spoke with his wife and children, and made their watchdog presence known. For Ivins – a man who was under psychiatric treatment for paranoia – the federal vehicles parked outside his suburban home must have left him unhinged.

Spertzel – “The FBI needs to explain” …

Richard Spertzel, who headed the biological weapons inspections for UNSCOM during the lead-up to the Persian Gulf War, wrote in the Wall Street Journal just days after the FBI named Ivins as the culprit, “The FBI needs to explain why it zeroed in on Ivins, how he could have made the anthrax mailed to lawmakers and the media, and how he (or anyone else) could have pulled off the attacks, acting alone. I believe this is another mistake in the [Amerithrax] investigation.”

Ivins’ group therapy with Jean Duley …

One month later, on July 9th Ivins allegedly made statements in his weekly group therapy session that were so alarming that the session convener feared he either intended to kill others, or himself. According to the counselor that chaired the session, Jean Duley (who was not trained in psychology) Ivins told the group he was angry about how the FBI and the government were treating him, and had become convinced that he faced the death penalty.

Would FBI case have led to conviction? …

Would all of this have resulted in conviction had Bruce Ivins lived to see his day in court? His lawyer, Paul Kemp doesn’t think so, and other legal experts have vouched that all the FBI evidence shows is that Ivins was a disturbed, paranoid individual, probably bona fide mentally ill. A case could be made that his mental illness preceded 9/11, but that still doesn’t prove that Bruce Ivins made, and mailed, the anthrax letters.

Weaknesses and omissions in FBI case …

  • the FBI cannot prove that Ivins was in the State of New Jersey on the two days when the deadly letters were dropped in Trenton-area mailboxes.
  • The FBI also failed to offer evidence that Ivins could produce handwriting, using either hand that resembled that penned on the letters and envelopes.
  • the FBI couldn’t prove that Bruce Ivins managed to remove samples of wet bacilli from that flask, and turn them into dry, fluffy spores.
  • whoever created the batch of dry spores must have contaminated the space in which he, or they, worked. But there was no evidence of such contamination at USAMRIID, or on any of the property owned by the Ivins family.
  • Even if the RMR-1029 matched every one of the Amerithrax letters, there was still no proof that Bruce Ivins was the person that converted samples into dry spores, stuffed them into envelopes and mailed the deadly postage.

yet FBI Director Mueller insists Ivins acted alone …

18 months later, with the NRC conclusions still not reached, FBI Director Robert Mueller declared case closed, officially shutting down the Amerithrax investigation. Dr. Bruce E. Ivins acted alone, and was the anthrax killer, Mueller insisted.

the NRC’s damning report  …

  • In November 2010 the NRC completed its investigation, based on 9,600 pages of documents and hundreds of hours of testimony and oral evidence, drafting a damning report that was submitted to the FBI for security review prior to publication.
  • The FBI was not pleased with the scientists’ findings, and produced 641 pages of previously withheld documents for additional NRC scrutiny.
  • The exhausted 16 scientists and judicial experts on the NRC panel had little interest in poring over additional evidence, but agreements were reached, the Department of Justice agreed to add funds to the NRC budget. The panel reconvened until February 2011.
  • The FBI’s mysteriously withheld 641 pages of evidence did little to sway the NRC, which issued its damning and final conclusions on February 15, 2011.
  • The NRC was not convinced by the FBI’s primary evidence against Bruce Ivins, the RMR-1029 flask of Ames strain anthrax.
  • Two assertions are in the FBI version of events:
    • Ivins was in possession of the culprit anthrax, contained in flask RMR-1029.
    • And he behaved in a manner that showed he was trying to hide the incriminating evidence from Special Agents.
  • The NRC disputed both assertions.
    • “It is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion about the origins of the B.anthracis in the mailings based on the available scientific evidence alone,” the NRC concluded. “The results of the genetic analyses of the repository samples were consistent with the finding that the spores in the attack letters were derived from RMR-1029, but the analyses did not definitely demonstrate such a relationship.”
  • the NRC panel was never convinced that the FBI’s registry truly contained every sample of Ames strain in the world.
  • And none of the panel members could shake the hunch that the evil-doer would never have turned over sample to the FBI.

two al-Qaeda blockbusters in the NRC report …

  • First, among the bodies recovered from the United Flight 93 crash site were those of Ziad Jarrah, Ahmad Al Haznawi and the two other al-Qaeda hijackers thwarted by brave passengers in their attempts to crash the jet into the White House. PCR analysis was performed in 2001 on the hijackers’ tissues, testing positive for Bacillus anthracis. This possible anthrax finding was especially interesting because Ahmad Al Haznawi was the al-Qaeda member that sought medical help in the emergency room of the Ft. Lauderdale Holy Cross Hospital on June 22, 2001. Dr. Christos Tsonas treated Al Haznawi with antibiotics for a black crusty sore on his hand, which was after 9/11 retrospectively diagnosed as a possible case of cutaneous anthrax infection.
  • The other revelation in the 641 pages was evidence related to three 2004 searches for anthrax spores carried out by the FBI and “other intelligence partners” in an “overseas location” used in 2001 by al-Qaeda. Though the location is classified, it appears to have been in Afghanistan, where U.S. Special Forces found two al-Qaeda related laboratories, one in Kabul and the other in Tora Bora, where Osama bin Laden successfully dodged American capture in December 2001. The three different rounds of swabbing, soil sampling and testing yielded contradictory results, some positive for anthracis, some negative. Adding to the confusion, another unnamed U.S. intelligence agency scoured the location before the FBI first reached the site, not only finding anthrax, but the Ames strain. The Ames-type Bacillus anthracis is a form of the bacterium never previously found in Asia. Further details of the possible al-Qaeda role in Amerithrax remain classified, and were not provided to the NRC.

possible al-Qaeda involvement deserves a more thorough review …

The entire issue of possible al-Qaeda involvement in the 2001 anthrax attacks “deserves a more thorough scientific review,” the NRC said.

attack anthrax was made on at least two separate occasions …

  • Whoever made the Ames anthrax apparently did so, on at least two separate occasions. Though the samples mailed in September to media outlets in Florida and New York were generally the same as those found in the October letters to Leahy and Daschle, the appearance of the samples are clearly different.
  • There were subtle genetic differences among the anthracis spores, from letter to letter, giving further support to the notion that the culprit(s) manufactured two separate quantities of anthrax, possibly in two different locations.
  • Far from providing a “smoking gun” linking the Amerithrax letters to RMR-1029, the mutants could have arisen from years of growing the bacilli in various types of fluids, in a variety of settings.

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