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Low-tech anthrax still deadly? FBI research widens suspect list

'Weaponised' theory undermined

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Analysis Five years passage has eroded much of the received wisdom on the anthrax attacks. And many of the characters who took central stage are either gone and discredited, or not talking.

Judith Miller, an alleged expert on bioterror by way of her pre-9/11 book, "Germs," was often on Larry King to contribute her opinions. In a piece published in the New York Times and Guardian on October 15, she related how she'd become a part of the case upon receiving a hoax letter containing a white powder, mailed from St. Petersburg, FLA, not far from where the first anthrax infection killed a man.

Today Miller is toast, paid to go away for bringing shame upon the Times with bad reporting on the fruitless US hunt for WMD's in Iraq.

Miller's "friend and mentor," Bill Patrick, the nation's Dr. Disease from its Cold War bioweapons operation, has also gone dark. Voluble and ubiquitous in the newsmedia with descriptions of his experiences in bioweapons production during the initial hysteria, he clammed up when the FBI turned inward, looking at the attack as something that had possibly come out of the US bioweapons/biodefense industry or someone connected to it.

Former Federation of American Scientists bioterror guru, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, who went Oliver Stone with conspiracy theory, allegedly fingering microbiologist Steven Hatfill to the FBI, wound up on the outs with FAS.

Nicholas Kristof, originally brimming with what was said to be inside dope on whodunit, named Hatfill on the opinion pages of the New York Times, but doesn't see fit to opine on it any more. Sued along with his newspaper for defamation by Hatfill, he's covering Darfur, perhaps as atonement.

And while the FBI seems stalled in its hunt for the bioterrorist, it hasn't impeded the publication of good science on the anthrax letters.

To this end, we point you to the forbiddingly entitled "Forensic Application of Microbiological Culture Analysis To Identify Mail Intentionally Contaminated with Bacillus anthracis Spores," by Douglas J. Beecher of the FBI's Hazardous Material Response Unit in Quantico, VA.

Published in the August issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, a peer-reviewed journal, the article is fascinating for the many things it says about mailed anthrax, specifically that which was found in a letter mailed to Senator Patrick Leahy. (While the abstract is on the web, the entire article won't come free to journal non-subscribers until four months from now. However, it has been circulating behind the scenes and we just happen to have a copy.)

The article goes into detail on the FBI unit's analysis of a huge volume of Congressional mail and the uncovering of the Leahy letter in just three days. It was a fine effort, when you slog through the dust-dry science, the FBI team employing brains and good old-fashioned determinative microbiology.

Beecher's team reasoned that potentially contaminated letters could be found by taking advantage of the mail's original separation into large plastic bags. Spores would be suspended in bag air by shaking and then sampled through freshly cut holes, swabbing the results directly to culture plates.

"Nearly all growth that occurred under sampling conditions . . . was B. anthracis," writes Beecher. The method allowed the FBI to quickly winnow out bags that contained anthrax spores. And then very roughly quantify them as to how hot they were in pathogen with respect to each other.

What they've laid out, in clear hard science, was that the Leahy letter was exceedingly dangerous.

Generally speaking, other letters found to be heavily contaminated, but not purposely loaded with anthrax powder, passed through the same sorting machine within one to two seconds of it and the poisoned letter sent to Tom Daschle.

Not only did cross-contaminated mail shedding of spores create an extreme danger but "[t]he capacity of [uncontaminated] envelopes to accumulate and retain dried spores was also remarkable . . . "

One graph showing concentration of spores found in the FBI's analysis room air shows an obvious spike, linked to the time when the bag containing the Leahy letter was opened.

This led Beecher to conclude: " . . . it appears that it is virtually impossible to intentionally place dried spores within a standard envelope without heavily contaminating its outside."

The Applied and Environmental Microbiology paper is unintentionally hard, thankfully so, on the media's old favorite bioterror experts.

In 2001, the wizard of Soviet bioweapons, defector Ken Alibek, spent some time clowning for the media, recommending that people could iron their mail to sanitize the anthrax. When simply agitating the anthrax letters produced extreme hazard, it was atrocious advice.

"I thought about what Bill Patrick, my friend and bio-weapons mentor, had told me: anthrax was hard to weaponize," wrote Judith Miller back in 2001, too.

"To produce a spore small enough to infect the lungs took great skill. Bill knew that firsthand. He had struggled to manufacture such spores for the United States in the 1950s and 60s as a senior scientist in America's own germ weapons program . . . "

More nonsense. No bentonite, no silica. Nothing to tie it to a particular weapon-making process or regime.

Beecher writes, " . . . a widely circulated misconception is the spores were produced using additives and sophisticated engineering supposedly akin to military weapon production. This idea is usually the basis for implying that the powders were inordinately dangerous compared to spores alone."

The scientist found that such things didn't matter.

Even if the anthrax powder appeared to be in clumps, "some fraction is composed of particles that are precisely in the size range that is most hazardous for transmission of disease by inhalation." And that number is a large one.

While these findings seem to open the range of suspects to those with lesser capability than those with experience from state-run bioweapons programs, this might not necessarily be the case. It seems reasonably clear that some of the scientists from old state-run bioweapons programs may not have been as knowledgeable as they let on. That doesn't mean everyone is the same.

And because the Leahy letter was so dangerous to handle, one might argue that either the anthraxer was either extremely lucky or someone with a significant amount of training, possibly equivalent to those who worked in the FBI's hotroom.

If the FBI knows, either way, it's not telling. But we can thank them a great deal for the open science. ®

George Smith is a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighborhood hardware stores.

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