In Search Of The Anthrax Attacker – Following Valuable Clues By Meryl Nass, MDFebruary 3, 2002 “Senior Bush administration officials have privately said that little progress is being made in the anthrax investigation, which has involved hundreds of investigators, [who] are no closer to finding the culprit, they say.” So reported Todd J Gillman and Michelle Mittelstadt of the Dallas Morning News on January 31. It has been four months since the first case of inhalation anthrax was diagnosed. Last week, the FBI announced that it would be sending flyers to 500,000 residents of the Trenton, New Jersey region, asking for leads. This week, the FBI arranged with the American Society for Microbiology to e-mail its US membership, in another attempt to reach out to scientists that might have insight into the attacks. Dr. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, an arms control expert at the State University of New York, Purchase, and chair of a bioweapons panel at the Federation of American Scientists authored an analysis of the attacks that may have prodded the FBI into investigating the US bioterrorism establishment. She thinks the scientific details could be too complicated for investigators to grasp. But if the FBI has no anthrax expertise, there are plenty of scientists who do, and who would be happy to assist in the investigation. Last October, both Ken Alibek (the defector who was #2 in the Soviet biowarfare establishment, and who also developed the most virulent Soviet anthrax) and William Patrick (the man who was #1 in the US biowarfare establishment, and developed a powder used for weaponizing anthrax, allegedly the same material used in the attacks) were quoted as saying that no one had sought their help in the investigation. That made me extremely curious, since they were two public figures most knowledgeable about weaponized anthrax, and would know how to analyze the anthrax and identify its origin. Why had the anthrax been sent in letters, rather than released in ventilation systems, tunnels or subways? The (estimated) two trillion spores per letter could have caused a lot more mischief in another setting. Something else was odd. The attacker had actually warned the recipients that the letters contained anthrax, and suggested they take penicillin. Then a lightbulb went off: someone was sending these letters to create an effect, not to cause damage. The letters were sealed with tape, presumably to further prevent the escape of spores. The point was to frighten, not to kill. And the targets were chosen with an eye to getting publicity and making an impact on Congress. The attacker also had familiarity with forensic investigations. He avoided using saliva on the letters, used a form of printing that is most difficult to analyze, and otherwise left a paucity of evidence. Did he have professional help? (I am referring here to the anthrax attacker in the singular and using the male gender, although I suspect that, for logistical reasons, it is unlikely that one person acted alone, or was even a loner, as the FBI profile has suggested.) I subsequently learned of William Patrickís 1999 analysis of anthrax sent by mail, written for a defense contractor. Iíve not seen the report, but have been told he did not consider that envelopes contained pores, and was not aware that postal machines squeeze and compress the mail, forcing anthrax spores out of intact envelopes. The attacker may well have read Patrickís report, or even used it as a model. Who had access to this report? To commit a crime one must have a motive. Because of the unpredictability of who might become ill, or die after exposure to the letters, I doubt that the attacker had specific victims in mind. A grudge against Tom Brokaw or Senator Daschle has been postulated. Did the attacker really think they opened their own mail? More likely, the attacker wanted to frighten Congress, which controls spending for bioterrorism. If new appropriations for bioterrorism defense are a measure of the attackerís success, he has certainly triumphed. Who are the beneficiaries of a bioterrorism scare? The biowarfare establishment has benefited so far: CDC got $450 million extra for bioterrorism, and the states will get $1.1 billion dollars. More money has been spent on stockpiling antibiotics, and the government has contracted for 209 million doses of smallpox vaccine, at a cost of $850 million. Other biowarfare vaccines in development have probably had new life breathed into them. The US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (where the Armyís center for biodefense, Fort Detrick, is located) will receive increased funding and stature. Bioport, the anthrax vaccine manufacturer that tried in vain for the past 2 years to get FDA approval, after as major overhaul of its facility, just got it – though Congressman Ben Gilman has asked the GAO to investigate this, and the Defense Department has declined to say whether anthrax inoculations for the military will resume. Who had the means? After the attacks it was revealed that the powdered, weaponized anthrax is identical to that made by our own biowarfare establishment; that is, by the same people who are benefiting from the attacks. One area of wasted investigative effort was the search for the origin of the “Ames” anthrax strain used. It was reported initially that hundreds of labs held Ames anthrax samples. Then it turned out that few actually did. On October 11, after receiving FBI approval to do so, Iowa State University destroyed their anthrax collection. Did this result in the loss of crucial evidence? But how would tracing back the Ames strain solve the case? Even if only 20 labs had samples, not all of them had high levels of security. After all, some are university labs. Scientists share strains with hardly a thought. Ames anthrax could have been stolen, shared, or even dug up from Texas soil. Or removed from one of the labs by a scientist with access. Dr. Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University maintains an extensive anthrax database; he examined the Ames anthrax used in the attacks with a series of genetic probes, and said it was identical to the strain held at several government labs. But to be certain, the entire genome of the attack anthrax and the government anthrax are being deciphered, so that individual differences can be counted and examined, and estimates made as to precisely how close (or how many generations apart) the two strains really are. (Of course, this assumes that the actual government strain, and the actual letter strain were provided to the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Md.) Reading William Broadís article, “Geographic Gaffe Misguides Anthrax Inquiry,” in the January 29 New York Times, one finds confusion over the meaning of the strainís origin. Broad also takes Dr. Rosenberg to task over her earlier statement that the anthrax “may be a remnant of the US biological weapons program.” Broad discovered that the Ames strain came from a cow that died in Texas in 1981, not from a cow that died in Iowa in the 1930ís. He then inferred that the strain did not come from the US biowarfare stockpile, which was officially destroyed by 1975, when the Biological Weapons Convention went into effect. But a CIA memo signed by Thomas Karamessines, and provided to the Senate, informs us that the CIA (at least) kept 100 grams of anthrax, illegally, after the Convention went into effect. So some of the old stockpile could still be around. The fact that the Ames strain was isolated from a cow in 1981, and from a goat several hundred miles away in 1997, indicates that there is a lot of Ames in Texas, and it most likely was there well before 1981, and ever since. So it could have comprised part of the old US stockpile. William Patrick and others would know, and there should be records to show what was actually produced. The more germane issue, however, is whether the isolation of Ames in 1981 exonerates the Defense Department, CIA, or US government contractors from possible involvement in the anthrax attacks. It does not. No matter whether the government first got its supply of Ames before or after 1970, when it officially ended its offensive biowarfare program, Ames was eventually used to create a government supply of dry, weaponized anthrax, which at this time appears to be identical to that used in the attacks. Of more importance to the investigation, however, is the origin of: a) the material added to the anthrax spores that causes them to separate from each other, greatly enhancing virulence, and b) the method that assured the spores were relatively uniform in size, and were sized for optimal lethality. Although Ames was shared, this method of production, as well as the additive, would have been closely-guarded secrets. They are what made Ames extremely lethal, and the same could be done with other strains. Furthermore, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which the US initiated and signed in 1972, prohibits the possession of biological agents that are not used for defensive purposes. No defensive use for this form of anthrax has ever been publicly disclosed. In contrast, the Ames anthrax that is used in (defensive) vaccine experiments is dispersed by an aerosolizer from a liquid slurry. No dry anthrax is used. (In liquid form, anthrax is a poor weapon.) To test our defenses against dry anthrax, you can use a benign Bacillus spore, a cousin of anthrax. The mere possession of dry, weaponized anthrax could be deemed illegal under the terms of the Convention. So the United States kept its existence secret, and would have had little reason to share it. We wouldnít want the material or recipe for making highly dispersible spores to reach potential enemies. The real question is: who had access to this material, or knew the method for its production? A clue: you will find the attacker among the very small clique of bioweaponeers with this specialized knowledge or access to the weaponized end product. Now to the question of whether the anthrax was homemade, or snatched from a government inventory. It is much more likely to have been snatched, but either is possible. Anthrax cannot be produced without leaving evidenceótelltale spores that have escaped into the environment. Companies that use spore-forming organisms to manufacture vaccines (for tetanus and botulinum toxoid, for instance) can never use the facility for making other products, due to persistent contamination with invisible spores. The Hart Senate Office Building clean-up took 3 months and cost $14 million, and may not have rid the building of every anthrax spore. Therefore, production in a basement lab could lead to spore detection (and proof of guilt) for the foreseeable future, if environmental samples were obtained and cultured. Furthermore, the equipment and materials the attacker purchased to produce the anthrax could be traced. In addition to increasing the attackerís chances of being detected, spore production is dangerous. Remember, this is someone who knows all about anthrax. He knows what these spores can do, and would not have wanted to expose himself to them. Anthrax experts know that physical protection (particularly the use of a self-contained breathing apparatus) is your primary protection from inhaled anthrax. It has long been established that large spore counts can overwhelm vaccine-induced immunity and antibiotic protection. In fact, for a long time the Ames strain was called “vaccine resistant” at Fort Detrick. So anyone in-the-know would have worked with the spores in a safe setting. They might well have been vaccinated and used antibiotics, but would not have relied on them exclusively for protection. Therefore, anthrax was almost certainly manufactured, mixed with the anti-cling powder, and placed into envelopes in a protected environment. Placing the spores – two trillion at a time – into envelopes would have been particularly dangerous. These spores floated off the glass slides when scientists first tried to look at them. You canít fill an envelope without losing millions or billions of spores in the process. It is only logical that the filling occurred within an official anthrax “hot suite”- a Biosafety Level 3 or 4 facility, by someone in a “moon suit” using a protected air supply. There are a small number of these facilities. They must have substantial security, possibly video cameras, and there must be logs that indicate who used them. If the attacker used government-made (or defense contractor-made) anthrax, and filled the envelopes in hot suites already contaminated with Ames anthrax, he will have left no evidence. He could walk out of the hot suite with his filled envelopes in a plastic bag or other secure container, and no one would be the wiser. Furthermore, the first known letters were postmarked September 18, and contained a fake Islamic message. Yet another clue: although anthrax degrades extremely slowly, and could have been obtained or produced at any time, the choice of September and an Islamic message suggests the first envelopes, at least, were filled between September 11 and 18. Who used the hot suites then? This past week a new, important wrinkle was reported. An Egyptian-born scientist, Dr. Ayaad Assaad, had been fingered as a possible bioterrorist in an anonymous letter sent to Quantico Marine Corps Base, before any anthrax letters had even been discovered. It is unclear whether the letter was sent to the military or to the FBI, which maintains a substantial presence on the base. Assaad had worked at Fort Detrick for years, but was laid off in 1997, and had an age discrimination lawsuit pending against his former employer. Furthermore, while at Detrick he had been the butt of a salacious and demeaning poem circulated by a group of coworkers- all Army scientists- who called themselves the “Camel Club.” Unauthorized nighttime research and missing anthrax slides at the lab where the club members worked embellish the story. Although one might manage to grow anthrax from a spore found on a stolen pathology slide, itís unlikely. Slides are generally heated, and the material may have been treated with formaldehyde, which kills anthrax. There must be easier ways to obtain anthrax, especially if you work at Fort Detrick. Although itís a juicy story, there is a huge divide between anthrax on a pathology slide and the production of weaponized anthrax. They do not equate. At first glance, the letter about Assaad seemed to have been written by a former Camel Club member, who decided to revive an old antagonism. But it is much more likely that the real attacker knew of the club, and meant to lay guilt on former club members. (The club members were not anthrax scientists, but instead worked on pathogenic viruses.) Letís look more closely. The first letters to arrive with anthrax took a long time to cause illness. Until then, they were dismissed as hoaxes. The letters to the New York Post and NBC were postmarked September 18; the letter to The Sun, a Florida-based tabloid, has never been found. The first anthrax case was diagnosed in Florida on October 3, probably 15 days after the letter was sent. It seems logical, therefore, that the Quantico letter (that insinuated Assaad was a bioterrorist) was meant to arrive after the public had become aware of an anthrax attack. Had that happened, the letter would have been perceived as a response to the attacks. But since it arrived first, indicating foreknowledge of the attacks, it could only come from the attacker himself. Therefore, where the letter came from, when it was sent, and the personal details of Assaadís life that it contained are vitally important. Only a small number of people could be sufficiently familiar with Assaad and the Camel Club shenanigans to have written it. A very important clue: one of these people is the perpetrator. He may also have some connection to Quantico. Where does this leave us? Most likely, the suspect still works in the biodefense field, but might be a former employee. He may have read William Patrickís report on mailed anthrax. Places where the perpetrator likely worked may include Fort Detrick, Dugway Proving Ground (where a large Biosafety level 3 facility for testing biowarfare aerosols exists), Battelle Memorial Institute, CDC, and Bioport, but there are others. All these entities potentially stand to benefit from the new interest in bioterrorism. The person probably worked at Fort Detrick years ago, and knew Assaad and the Camel Club members. Either recently, or in the past, the attacker had access to weaponized anthrax. He used a high containment, Biosafety 3 or 4 facility to prepare his anthrax-laden envelopes between September 11 and 18. Where do we go from here? People who fit this profile should be investigated, to include interviews possibly using lie detectors. If warranted, their homes and businesses should be carefully cultured for stray spores. Retired Fort Detrick workers, who are familiar with what was stockpiled, and how anthrax products were made, should be interviewed. Several are on record as saying they have not been approached. All appropriate Biosafety facilities, here and in other nations, should have their logs reviewed. It should be easy to construct lists of those who worked at Detrick and knew Assaad, those who had access to weaponized anthrax or knew the recipe, and those with access to the hot suites. However, if there do exist several attackers, the overlap might be hard to find. This person, or his program, if such is the case, is likely to benefit nicely from the anthrax scare. The anthrax attacks were a heinous crime in a number of ways. First, they caused the deaths of five innocent civilians, who in military jargon might be considered “collateral damage.” Second, they directly attacked the center of our government, and our free press. Third, they appear to have been motivated by the calculation that the country needed to be scared to death, in order to act in a way the attacker wanted. And so we have, allocating billions of taxpayer dollars for responding to and preparing for bioterrorism. That is not how decisions should be made in a democracy. Finally, biological attacks are a clandestine, cowardly method of attack, in which the perpetrator is usually difficult to identify. If the attacker remains free, the attractiveness of future biological attack only increases.