The FBI has completed its disclosures, and the media, bloggers and scientists have spent a month discussing the anthrax letters case and putative guilt of Bruce Ivins. Where does the case stand, and what remains to be answered?
Hoax Letters Remain a Mystery
At least one hoax letter was apparently thought by the FBI to have been sent by the anthrax perpetrator (it was sent from England while Steven Hatfill was training there, and was considered, at least by some, to be part of the case against him). Judith Miller at the NY Times received a hoax letter, and Tom Brokaw received both a hoax letter and an anthrax letter around the same time. Anthrax hoax letters were sent from Florida and possibly other places. It is critical that all these letters be publicly revealed, and that information on fingerprints, handwriting analysis, identification of the envelopes, identification of the tape used (if any) and the ink is compared to the true anthrax letters. If any came from the same source, then the anthrax perpetrator(s) must be able to be placed where they were mailed, in the appropriate time frame. Can any of the (now 200 plus–see Sept. 6 NY Times article) persons who had access to the spores from Ivins’ flask be placed in New Jersey and the other locations at the right times? If not, the crime involves more than one person.
Sept. 3 note: Thanks to Ed Lake for pointing out that the Malaysia letter was mistakenly thought to contain anthrax, and was not a hoax letter. He also noted that a letter mailed in Florida had its image included in this article in the Saint Petersburg Times.
Allegations Against Dr. Ayaad Assaad May be Important Evidence
Although the letter sent to the FBI at Quantico suggesting former USAMRIID researcher Dr. Ayaad Assaad was a bioterrorist arrived just before the anthrax cases came to light, that is no guarantee it came from an anthrax perpetrator. But it certainly might have, so its provenance is important, as are other details such as the text of the letter (which allegedly contained details about Assaad that few people would know, suggesting a former coworker was the author), where it was posted, and the type of envelope, stationary, ink, possible saliva, fingerprints, etc. Why has the FBI been so secretive about this letter? Unless it is part of an ongoing criminal proceeding, it should be revealed to Congress and the public. On Sept. 7, Assaad told more of his story.
The Princeton Mailbox May Not be the Original Site Where the Letters Were Mailed
Were the letters originally mailed from the designated Princeton mailbox? The mailbox was not investigated for almost a year after the letters were sent, according to Congressman Rush Holt, whose district included the mailbox location. It has been reported that the mailbox that tested positive for anthrax was also used as a box to store bags of mail, in addition to being a box for mailing letters. Thus conceivably the box was cross-contaminated from mail being stored there, and the letters were originally mailed elsewhere. Learning the concentrations of anthrax found at various boxes and post offices might help support whether the Princeton box was the original site at which the letters were mailed.
Was the question of cross contamination, raised by local authorities in 2002, ignored once the Kappa Kappa Gamma storeroom was discovered near this mailbox?
The perpetrator(s) almost certainly lacked awareness that the spores could freely leave the envelopes. (The edges were taped because the perpetrator thought that was where leakage might occur.) So the perp could have been relatively careless about which mailbox was used, on the mistaken assumption it could not be traced. Seeking a suspect for whom this mailbox would be convenient thus makes a lot of sense, but only if the letter was mailed there, and not if the mailbox was only subject to cross-contamination.
Weaponized Spore Preparation of Senate Letters
A vast amount of contradictory information has been provided to the media regarding the “weaponization” of the anthrax spores in the Daschle/Leahy letters. It is critical that the actual weaponization process be identified and compared with what is known of weaponization techniques explored by US and foreign programs. This part of the investigation will need to be discussed in a top secret venue in order for a complete accounting of the facts to be made. Exploration of this topic must include an accurate description of the spore preparation when the Daschle letter was first opened, by those who first evaluated it, discussion of how it could have been produced (and whether FBI or others have successfully re-engineered the exact preparation) and discussion of the materials and equipment required to produce it. Who had knowledge of this process, access to necessary materials and equipment, and a Biosafety 3 or 4 laboratory, to safely produce at least 14 grams of product to fill at least 7 envelopes? (It is accepted that some of the envelopes contained a simpler, unweaponized form of anthrax, but total production was an estimated 14 grams.)
How Many Letters Were There?
Seven envelopes arrived at or were addressed to the following seven locations: the AMI building (The National Enquirer and several other tabloids were located here), FL; the NY Post, NY; ABC News, NY: NBC News, NY; CBS News, NY; Senator Tom Daschle, Washington, DC; Senator Pat Leahy, Washington, DC. Media outlets from which no letters were found had anthrax cases in employees or visitors. There could have been additional letters sent elsewhere that did not cause diagnosed anthrax infections, and were never found.
How Were Letter Recipients Selected?
The most likely explanation for sending letters to the media was to obtain publicity. Isn’t it obvious that an anthrax letter would be worth its weight in gold to a tabloid? The National Enquirer produced a multi-page spread about the anthrax letter it received. I was interviewed for the story. I was also queried about what the AMI employees should be doing to prevent illness. How could you get better publicity than by having the story stare at customers from every supermarket checkout counter in the country? The NY Post was probably chosen for a similar reason: the fact it would be unlikely to suppress a story about an attack on itself. The other NYC media outlets were probably chosen because they are the sources of national TV news.
The Letters Weren’t Meant to Kill, Though a Few Deaths Enhanced the Effect. What Were They Meant to Do?
Both the choice of recipients, and the letters’ warnings, are the reasons I believe the letters were sent to create a major effect–but not to kill. If you wanted to kill, you would not tell the recipient the letter contains anthrax, and to take penicillin. In the absence of those warnings, there would have been a longer delay before recipients received lifesaving antibiotics, and many more deaths.
If you wanted to kill, you would put the anthrax into the ventilation system of a Congressional or other building (in those days there was no BioWatch system) and wait for the deaths to pile up. The anthrax letters were a “best case” scenario for bioterrorism, designed to give the US Congress and public a taste (and only a taste) of a biological Armageddon.
Why? The logical answer is that the second set of letters were designed to scare Congress members to death. This would induce them and the Administration to spend more money on bioterrorism, and pass legislation that appeared to reduce the likelihood of future biological terrorism or its impact. Examples of affected legislation included the Project Bioshield Act and the Patriot Act. DHHS Secretary Tommy Thompson purchased about a billion dollars’ worth of Cipro and smallpox vaccine within weeks of the attack, and insisted on getting the moribund anthrax vaccine manufacturer re-approved and producing. Thompson, now a civilian, continues to reap the benefits through commercial interests in a variety of companies providing bioterrorism services to the government. But other government officials have reaped similar benefits; several are on the board of the anthrax vaccine manufacturer now, including a former Secretary of DHHS, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, and a former Assistant Secretary at DHHS.
The letters’ messages were a crude attempt to direct blame at the Muslim community. The text, along with the general knowledge that Saddam Hussein possessed anthrax, is likely to have bolstered support in the US for war against Iraq, despite a lack of evidence that Iraq was involved with Al Qaeda and the September 11 attacks. (In marketing, perception is everything.)
Spore Virulence and Repulsion
With respect to the actual “weaponized” (or not) spore preparation in the Daschle and Leahy letters, a little more needs to be said. In factories contaminated by dry spores (such as 4 goat hair mills in the Eastern US in the 1940s and 1950s) virtually no one developed inhalation anthrax (prior to a suspicious vaccine trial) although there reliably occurred one cutaneous anthrax case per hundred person-years in factory employees. There were also subclinical infections in employees that led to immunity, as determined serologically. Inhalation anthrax was extremely hard to acquire, despite a study showing that spores were present in the factories’ ambient air, and that hundreds were inhaled daily.
Reasons postulated for the lack of inhalation cases include the fact that spores readily adhere to things in the environment. They become subsumed in particles larger than 5 microns, which stick to the walls of the airways and are excreted. A very high spore count, or very impaired immunity, is usually required to overwhelm the lungs’ defenses.
Was silicon, found in an elemental analysis of the spores, a natural occurrence or was it added? How much was found? This too is critical in pinning down the nature of the spore preparation.
Description of the first examination of the Daschle anthrax noted its tendency to repel other particles, rather than stick to them. If a charge were added to the spores, the charge would be expected to dissipate over days or weeks; thus the characteristics of the anthrax could have changed when inspected later. Furthermore, Dr. John Ezzell initially evaluated this anthrax in a high containment lab at USAMRIID. It was later processed before sharing with some other labs, to reduce its lethality. This processing likely changed other characteristics as well.
A charge could also lead spores to re-aerosolize after landing on surfaces, increasing virulence considerably. A UN official, Dr. Kay Mereish, reported that the letter anthrax had in fact been prepared with a charge, according to a 2006 lecture at a CBRN meeting by D. Small, who had worked with the anthrax. Marilyn Thompson reported that the US administration had USAMRIID “tone down” its description of the Daschle anthrax as “weaponized.”
So there is reason to question the current FBI assertion that no special weaponization process of the spores was performed, beyond washing. How can a Congressional hearing arrive at the truth of this critical piece of information?
Knowing how the spores were weaponized to produce the Daschle product is essential to finding the perpetrator(s) of the crime. Only a small number of people will have knowledge of any spore weaponization processes, and an even smaller number will know how to prepare spores identical to those in Daschle’s letter.
Whether the letter anthrax was made using a US or foreign process, such production (and even development of the process) might be considered to contravene the legal limits of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, to which the US and most nations are party. Thus secrecy and/or disinformation might have resulted from the perceived need to protect an illegal US or foreign program.
Getting to the bottom of the letters’ weaponization will yield a very small number of suspects, and at least one will be a guilty party.