Press proves immune to FBI's anthrax corrective
Facts bounce off the conspiracy theories
The posting to the net of a transcript of the FBI's briefing to the press on the science behind the anthrax case is remarkable for two things: first, for its explanation of the development of microbial forensics and the team of scientists behind it; and second, for the determination of some members of the press to run off on a conspiracy theory hinging upon whether or not the anthrax was ever weaponized.
As to the second part, the FBI and its team of independent scientists unequivocally said it wasn't, after repeated badgering by one journalist - unnamed in the transcript - who insisted other scientists at Ft. Detrick and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology had determined the anthrax to be weaponized because silica was allegedly seen on the surface of the spores.
Dr Joseph Michael, a materials scientist at Sandia National Laboratories who had, with others, analyzed the anthrax powders in depth, flatly denied this. "They are mistaken," the man replied to repeated questioning.
The explanation was that silicon had been detected in the attack samples but it was inside the spores - not on the surface. Scientists had determined that Bacillus species sequester silicon from the environment in protein and that the purpose of this was thought to be a natural process to "make the spore heartier." They had gone back in the literature to find a paper published in 1982 which discussed the matter and then, for comparative purposes, tracked down the original samples which the paper described.
Attack sample 'very different'
"We found no additives; no exogenous material on the outside of the spores," said Michael. "We did have the opportunity to look at weaponized material to compare it to the letter material and they were very different. And [in] the weaponized material the additives appear on the outside of the spore. Again, in the letter materials the silicon and oxygen were co-located on the spore coat [which is] within the spore. In fact, we found some vegetative cells that were going through the sporulation process and the spore within the mother cell had this same signature."
To grasp the importance of this it's necessary to understand where those obsessed with whether or not the anthrax was weaponized are coming from. After the initial mailings, weaponization was thought to be the trademark of a state-run biological weapons program. Different programs had different methods of production and the differences, it was alleged, constituted unique signatures. In the initial hysteria, this was said to point to Iraq.
More recently, the weaponization argument has been used to insist that Bruce Ivins could not have been the anthrax mailer because he had no experience in such methods. This was heard coming from Ft. Detrick personnel, who have an obvious professional interest in not being seen as the workplace of the anthraxer, and those who are still utterly convinced the FBI had the wrong man.
And weaponization with silica was what made the mailed anthrax so hazardous, the argument concludes.
This was not so, countered the scientists at the FBI's press briefing, reluctantly discussing a matter which many microbiologists know but which they wish not to be common knowledge: microbial powders are very fragile. The cells tend to generate fine dusts upon handling.
"In fact, many biological single-cell organisms when you dry them, like algae, they - they're very buoyant..." said Dr. Vahid Majidi of the FBI. "That is, you know, you open the contained, they do fly all over."
And sorting through mail machines pulverized the anthrax, too.
The FBI did not have "any answers for what process was used to grow additional spores or what methodology was used to dry them."
"I think that a lot of folks focus on the issue of [a] lyopholizer," said Majidi, describing a common biochem lab piece of hardware used to freeze-dry biological preparations. "You can ask any of the folks and the panel members, and they will tell you that you can dry biological samples in one of dozens of ways."
Was it unusual that the anthrax was so easily dispersible? No, said the FBI scientist.
"There is a misconception going around this room that very simple spore preparation, simply spores washed in water, when dried, are not dangerous and friable," added one unidentified official. "That is a misconception."
to people who look down on other people who try to find alternate explanations for things. The simplest solution may not be the only solution, and part of science is to prove the theory by finding the facts. If doubts remain, you find all the facts and cross out the theories that don't fit the facts. If you're left with more than one theory, then you obviously don't have all the facts yet.
However, that doesn't mean you beat down on others for finding different conclusions given the same data. Such behavior is unscientific and plain wrong. Let the conspiracy theories fly, I say. You never know when one of them may turn out to be correct. Like former Presidential candidate John Edwards' affair - that turned out to be true, once all the facts had been found. If the anti-conspiracy-theory posters on here would have their way, we would simply believe everything the government tells us - cause it's true, the government says. Because we're good for you and we're doing the telling.
Yeah, right. Government is made up of human beings, and I've not seen a perfect human yet. So, I keep my Eye in the Pyramid on our government, and my bullshit detector handy - it gets a lot of use these days. And if someone comes up with a plausible explanation of events, I listen. Then I run down the facts myself and make a decision. **I** make the decision, not you guys.
And by the way, that's why people are reading more web sites than newspapers, these days. The non-corporate people who are energized enough to find the facts are more useful than the corporate news giants who spew the same opinion-laden crap (like our cable news networks), who don't show news anymore. I haven't seen a news report from Africa or South America on Fox or MSNBC in years (you have to go to their websites for that "fluffy" stuff). I mean, whatever happened to the days when Walter Cronkite just gave you the news, without opinions?! When my newscaster starts telling me how to live my life, I turn off the God-damned TV (or at least switch channels).
In summary, I'm all for people using their brains and not listening to other people telling them what or how to think. Let the conspiracy theories fly free, and leave their originators alone. The truth will attend to itself.
Mine's the coat with "Free Thinker" embroidered on the back.
It can be an attack and a decision to manage perception
Someone mailed anthrax. I think we can agree on that. One question is, who did so? At the time of the initial attacks, and for at least three years afterwards, the pool of suspects was in the tens of thousands in the US alone. (Every member of a large microbiological society was sent a letter asking them 'if you can think of anyone, would you tell us?' A joke, as bad as the Unabomber investigation.)
Did the attacks originate in the US? There was a turf war between various agencies on the answer to this question. Dueling experts from Ft. Detrick, the FBI, etc were being quoted, mostly anonymously. The schools of thought were largely "furrin divils" versus "local wingnuts."
At some point, not one but four independent government source were reported by ABC news to have said that bentonite had been found in the samples being analyzed, and further declared that the Iraqi weapon program used bentonite to weaponize anthrax.
That leak to ABC was deliberate perception management. It was instrumental in making the US more willing to attack Iraq -- a number of people are on the record as saying that they were swayed by the bentonite story. (Lots of good reporting in Salon on this topic.)
The White House had decided by the start of business September 12 that a return to Iraq was on the dance card. Bob Woodward reported that. The week of the 11th, the NSA was openly discussing perception management to channel people's responses to September 11. By 'openly discussing,' I mean 'in interviews broadcast on PBS that very week.'
Putting the anthrax on Iraq was brilliant. Low likelihood that the mailer was going to be busted in a relevant timeline. The mailer might even have ties to the middle east - no one knew at the time. Why not plant disinformation in the press?
Now we hear years later:
- no bentonite
- no silica of the sort which would be use for weapons forming
- local boy makes good. BTW, this local boy writes letters to his hometown paper, lots of them, that make him seem a lot closer in outlook to Dorothy Day than Tim McVeigh.
I'd like to see ABC come clean about who those four sources were, or at least -- if not divulge their identities -- have a chat and ask them for their responses to the death of Ivins, and also what the fuck they were thinking when they said 'bentonite' before. And yes, run a story about what those four had to say, now after the fact.
As for Ivins: I haven't taken time to read the transcript of the Q and A yet. What I know from what I have read is that they've done a good job of saying "the strain came from a flask in Ivins' lab" in a non-adversarial setting. No one to ask informed questions about chain of custody, about analytical methods, no one with time and background being paid to study the evidence presented.
Granting the FBI that flask still leaves them a long way from Ivins. In these labs, people wandered around and in and out on a very regular basis. (I had the opportunity to spend a little time at the facility in the mid-90s; yes, it's got strong military overtones - but at the end of the day, it's full of boffins with boffin habits.)
The reporting on lab procedures and sample handling throughout the case makes it very clear that they actually don't know who had access to what and when.
RE: All conspirators blah blah blah
"You sadly fail at armchair psychology"
Nice, so you suggest that I was somehow "wrong" and then you hint that it wasn't psychology, rather, it was a form of probability mechanism imbedded in our minds that is the cause for the behavior?
I concede that you win at internet trolling and forming an argument where there is none.