Today’s front page Washington Post article by Joby Warrick on the Ivins case appears to present the FBI’s side of the story. I will post excerpts from the article and comment (in italics) on its inconsistencies.
Abshire focused her lens on a moldlike clump. Anthrax bacteria were growing here, but some of the cells were odd: strange shapes, strange textures, strange colors. These were mutants, or “morphs,” genetic deviants scattered among the ordinary anthrax cells like chocolate chips in a cookie batter…
Ivins, the FBI discovered, had spent more than a year perfecting what agents called his “ultimate creation” — his signature blend of highly lethal anthrax spores — and guarded it so carefully that his lab assistants did not know where he kept it…
“It was his ultimate creation,” said Jason D. Bannan, an FBI microbiologist assigned to the Amerithrax case. “This was the culmination of a lot of hard work.”
Exceptionally pure concentrations of anthrax spores were Ivins’s trademark and placed him in an exclusive class…
It was intended for garden-variety animal experiments, but the collection of anthrax spores known as RMR-1029 was anything but ordinary. Ivins, its creator, had devoted a year to perfecting it, mixing 34 different batches of bacteria-laden broth and distilling them into a single liter of pure lethality…
Ames-strain bacteria was essentially identical wherever it was found, the advisers said…
The art of “spore preparation” is a tedious job often relegated to novices and technicians.
Inconsistency: Ivins made exceptionally pure spore preparations, but his “master” prep was full of mutants.
Exaggerations: FBI agents call his flask of Ames anthrax his “ultimate creation,” but all it contained was the combined product of 34 separate small production runs at Fort Detrick and Dugway, only some of which Ivins had made. FBI advisers said that Ames was pretty much the same wherever it was found. So the claim of Ivins’ flask having special virulence, compared to other Ames batches, is doubtful.
Ivins spent a year perfecting it? How do you “perfect” 34 separate batches when you didn’t make all of them? There has been no prior evidence that the flask contained “special” Ames spores, nor does this article report any such evidence.
Furthermore, as is noted in the article, growing anthrax is usually the work of technicians, and does not require advanced skills. Growing spores is not a method of perfecting them. The recipes are widely available in the open literature. Ivins could have spent a year growing the anthrax in the flask, but he would have been accomplishing plenty of other tasks simultaneously.
Unknowingly, Abshire had discovered a key to solving the anthrax case. But it would take nearly six years to develop the technology to allow FBI investigators to use it…
Some of the technology needed to solve the case had not been invented. And the FBI’s top science advisers were warning that the effort would fail…
…the bureau had to invent an entirely new investigative field, microbial forensics…
When the FBI later asked Ivins for anthrax spores from his lab, he deliberately bypassed his prize spore collection, agents said, and gave them a false sample…
Inconsistencies: Ivins gave the FBI a sample from the RMR-1029 flask initially, one tube of which was sent to Paul Keim. When FBI complained about the way the sample was prepared, he gave them a pure specimen, rather than the mixture he initially provided, which contained the 4 mutations FBI later focused on. But why would Ivins have done this to fool the FBI, when he gave them RMR-1029 first, and provided both samples before the methodology to track the mutations had even been invented?
And the WP article acknowledges this:
But Ivins could not have known that RMR-1029 contained genetic mutants, in relatively high numbers. A batch of spores like RMR-1029 might be expected to contain, at most, one mutated variant. But Ivins’s flask, because of its unusual pedigree, contained five.
Furthermore, FBI obtained voluntary specimens from most scientists; would a guilty party volunteer the specimen used to prepare the letter spores, as Ivins did initially?
For one thing, no one besides Ivins seems to have known where they were kept. The plain, triangle-shaped storage flask was one of many kept in plastic tubs inside a refrigerated storage room in Ivins’s restricted lab. It had only a handwritten label — RMR-1029, shorthand for “reference material received, No. 1029.” When spores were needed for experiments, Ivins alone would retrieve them. “His own people who worked with him on a daily basis didn’t know which flask it was,” Langham said.
Exaggeration: He kept the vial, properly labeled, in the refrigerated storage room where it belonged. Maybe he didn’t share its exact location with others because it contained a huge number of highly lethal spores, equal to millions of lethal doses? Isn’t that exactly what he should have been doing from a biosafety perspective?
The list of suspects narrowed, officials said, until only one was left: Ivins. Ivins alone created and controlled the distinctive collection of anthrax cells that provided the seeds for the attacks. And he was the undisputed master at manipulating the bacteria into dense concentrations of deadly spores. While graduate school microbiologists could have performed most of the tasks, Ivins had the experience and the “good set of hands” required to achieve a spore preparation of such quality, a government scientist said.
Exaggeration: you need a master to concentrate spores. No: you need a centrifuge, or a filter, and a college student can do it. Good hands not required.
Exaggeration: “Ivins alone controlled the distinctive concentration of anthrax cells…” But everyone he gave a sample to from that flask also controlled the same distinctive concentration of anthrax cells. That is why FBI received multiple matching samples from other scientists.
“When you go to the true experts and ask them how many people can develop [anthrax spores] into something with this purity and this concentration, they shake their heads,” said Montooth, the lead Amerithrax investigator. “Some will say there are perhaps six. Others will say maybe a dozen.”
Misleading: the spore purity was a result of the spores having been washed thoroughly after they were grown. When experts say only 6-12 people could have produced similar spore preparations, they are referring to the special features of the dry, weaponized spores, not to the fact the spore preparation was concentrated or lacking in debris. It remains uncertain whether Ivins could have produced such dry spores, and it is doubtful that the spores in the flask, in liquid medium, had the same concentration as the dry letter spores.
But drying the spores turned out to be no obstacle at all, FBI scientists said. It required only one more step, using a common laboratory machine known as a lyophilizer. Ivins had one in his lab.
“Because he grew spores on a daily basis, he was in a position to make [the powder], and no one would be the wiser,” Montooth said.
Misleading: The lyophilizer reportedly available to Ivins would have required many runs to dry the volume of spores used in the letters, thus taking a longer time than was available between 9/11 and the letter attacks. It would also be more visible to colleagues, some of whom have said he could not have done it without being detected.