Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/09/11/anthrax_fbi_conspiracies/

Press proves immune to FBI's anthrax corrective

Facts bounce off the conspiracy theories

By George Smith, Dick Destiny

Posted in Science, 11th September 2008 13:12 GMT

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."

Majidi did not want to get "wrapped around the issue of how was a sample processed" - referring to the briefing's hijacking into a discussion of weaponization.

Whether or not the anthrax was weaponized was not a critical piece of evidence, the FBI man maintained.

"The important part of the evidence is that the materials of the letter with the genetic mutations could exclusively be related only to RMR-1029," said Majidi. RMR-1029 was the lot of anthrax spores in the care of Bruce Ivins, a very large reserve of spores - ten to the twelfth power - considered a high quality preparation which was the "gold standard" for anthrax research at Detrick.

And the incriminating genetic signature of RMR-1029 was worked out as the science of genomic microbial forensics advanced between 2002 and 2007.

RMR-1029 was an accumulation of over thirty production runs of anthrax - "over 164 liters of spore production, concentrated down to about a liter."

It was, the FBI said, an unusual preparation and not a single culture, atypical in its phenotypic variance from a standard overnight plating of anthrax. The variations of it, and hundreds of other samples, were slowly teased out by analysis and the science was validated by a team of scientists from government, academia and the private sector.

Paul Keim, a genomic scientist who identified the spore powders as the Ames strain of anthrax for the FBI explained the mutation variance with respect to Ivins' flask of RMR-1029.

There was "a very large number of generations" in the RMR-1029 spore flask, said Keim. "[And] so mutations... while they're rare... are observable when working with very large numbers, like a trillion ..." RMR-1029's variations were narrowed to a unique four, all of which were found in the attack letters.

Harder than it looks

One last point to consider is that the FBI's explanation of the Ivins case supports the idea that it's elementary to engineer a biological attack. If Ivins, a single individual with no training in weaponization could do it, couldn't anyone?

This writer thinks that's overly simplistic.

Bruce Ivins was the perfect example of someone uniquely trained to work with anthrax. And Ft. Detrick was the ideal place to engineer it. He (or, if you still don't believe it was Ivins, someone at Detrick) had easy access to a large, perfect and proven virulent reservoir of anthrax. And everyone in the facility was immunized against it, so risk in mishandling was not a significant obstacle. Any mistakes made in the making of the attack letters wouldn't sicken someone and expose the plot. Indeed, the existence of anthrax biodefense research at the facility provided ample cover for hiding one's work.

One can't just walk down the street to the micro-lab at the local city college and find the same thing. ®

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 neighbourhood hardware stores.