As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Continuing Saga of the Anthrax Case

Glenn Greenwald beat me to today's update on the anthrax case, showing pretty conclusively that the FBI's case, which is being dribbled out slowly, just doesn't add up to much. One thing I learned from Greenwald is that yesterday's revelation about Ivins' obsession with a sorority being the reason he mailed the letters near their house at Princeton, which already sounded ridiculous (they don't have sororities at the several dozen other campuses closer to his Frederick, MD home?), was also completely factually wrong.

The mailbox just off the campus of Princeton University where the letters were mailed sits about 100 yards away from where the college's Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter stores its rush materials, initiation robes and other property. Sorority members do not live there, and the Kappa chapter at Princeton does not provide a house for the women.

I know that most sexual deviants often hide out and use mailboxes near where sororities house their rush materials - it's as axiomatic as breathing oxygen and emitting carbon dioxide - but color me skeptical.

In fact, color the New York Times skeptical as well, particularly of the FBI's investigation methods.

They had even intensively questioned his adopted children, Andrew and Amanda, now both 24, with the authorities telling his son that he might be able to collect the $2.5 million reward for solving the case and buy a sports car, and showing his daughter gruesome photographs of victims of the anthrax letters and telling her, “Your father did this,” according to the account Dr. Ivins gave a close friend.

As the investigation wore on, some colleagues thought the F.B.I.’s methods were increasingly coercive, as the agency tried to turn Army scientists against one another and reinterviewed family members.

One former colleague, Dr. W. Russell Byrne, said the agents pressed Dr. Ivins’s daughter repeatedly to acknowledge that her father was involved in the attacks.

“It was not an interview,” Dr. Byrne said. “It was a frank attempt at intimidation.”

Dr. Byrne said he believed Dr. Ivins was singled out partly because of his personal weaknesses. “They figured he was the weakest link,” Dr. Byrne said. “If they had real evidence on him, why did they not just arrest him?”

The picture being painted of Ivins as some kind of creepy, sexually depraved deviant may be true - the obsession with Kappa Kappa Gamma (which according to the NYT ended in 1981), holding a private mailbox to receive porn - but it has literally nothing to do with sending poisoned letters to media and political figures and making them crudely look like they were coming from Islamic terrorists. The fact that Ivins voted in several Democratic primaries makes it curious that he would have sent these letters out exclusively to Democratic leaders, particularly those who were holding up negotiations on the Patriot Act (Leahy, Daschle).

There's apparently going to be a wealth of scientific information coming out tomorrow, but for now, the biggest leak concerns Ivins' use of freeze-drying equipment that could be used to convert wet anthrax spores into powder.

Ivins's possession of the drying device, known as a lyopholizer, could help investigators explain how he might have been able to send letters containing deadly anthrax spores to U.S. senators and news organizations.

The device was not commonly used by researchers at the Army's sprawling biodefense complex at Fort Detrick, Md., where Ivins worked as a scientist, employees at the base said. Instead, sources said, Ivins had to go through a formal process to check out the lyopholizer, creating a record on which authorities are now relying. He did at least one project for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that would have given him reason to use the drying equipment, according to a former colleague in his lab.

I'll go over to Greenwald for this one.

But that appears to be completely false. Here is the abstract of a 1995 research report, for which Ivins was the lead scientist, reporting on discoveries made as part of their research into anthrax vaccines (h/t substantial). This is the method they described using:

The efficacy of several human anthrax vaccine candidates comprised of different adjuvants together with Bacillus anthracis protective antigen (PA) was evaluated in guinea pigs challenged by an aerosol of virulent B. anthracis spores. The most efficacious vaccines tested were formulated with PA plus monophosphoryl lipid A (MPL) in a squalenel lecithin/Tween 80 emulsion (SLT) and PA plus the saponin QS-21. The PA+MPL in SLT vaccine, which was lyophilized and then reconstituted before use, demonstrated strong protective immunogenicity, even after storage for 2 years at 4°C. The MPL component was required for maximum efficacy of the vaccine. Eliminating lyophilization of the vaccine did not diminish its protective efficacy. No significant alteration in efficacy was observed when PA was dialyzed against different buffers before preparation of vaccine. PA+MPL in SLT proved superior in efficacy to the licensed United States human anthrax vaccine in the guinea pig model.

Clearly, Ivins' legitimate work researching anthrax vaccines entailed the use of a lyopholizer. As the commenter notes, "If you google 'lyophilize' and 'anthrax', most of the pages returned are about anthrax vaccines, which is what Dr. Ivins was working on at Ft. Detrick."

You're going to hear about some fantastic new technique - some radical DNA technology that the FBI hopes to use as a tool to convince a CSI-loving public about the dead accuracy of their claims. But as Dr. Meryl Nass notes, the most sophisticated technology can link the powder to a lab, but not an individual. This is an effort to close a case that should not be closed. Rep. Rush Holt, who represents the district from where the anthrax was mailed, wants an investigation.

Having watched how [the FBI] collected evidence, I don't have a lot of confidence, and I think the burden is on them to satisfy me, and other members of Congress, that they've done this right. . . . The case seems to me at this point to be circumstantial, and again, without briefings from the FBI, it would be presumptuous of me to say. And it would be presumptuous of people in Central New Jersey to breathe a sigh of relief and say: "They got the murderer. He is no longer at-large." The people deserve better re-assurances than what they've been given.

Finally, there's this op-ed from Richard Spertzel, the head of the biological-weapons section of Unscom from 1994-99 and a member of the Iraq Survey Group. He is completely unconvinced by the claims leaking out of the FBI, but his claims should be met with absolute skepticism.

Let's start with the anthrax in the letters to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The spores could not have been produced at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, where Ivins worked, without many other people being aware of it. Furthermore, the equipment to make such a product does not exist at the institute [...]

In short, the potential lethality of anthrax in this case far exceeds that of any powdered product found in the now extinct U.S. Biological Warfare Program. In meetings held on the cleanup of the anthrax spores in Washington, the product was described by an official at the Department of Homeland Security as "according to the Russian recipes" -- apparently referring to the use of the weak electric charge [...]

Furthermore, the anthrax in this case, the "Ames strain," is one of the most common strains in the world. Early in the investigations, the FBI said it was similar to strains found in Haiti and Sri Lanka. The strain at the institute was isolated originally from an animal in west Texas and can be found from Texas to Montana following the old cattle trails. Samples of the strain were also supplied to at least eight laboratories including three foreign laboratories. Four French government laboratories reported on studies with the Ames strain, citing the Pasteur Institute in Paris as the source of the strain they used. Organism DNA is not a very reliable way to make a case against a scientist.

I don't know what Spertzel is getting at with the "Russian recipes," but he's actually contradicting himself with this editorial. In 2002 he claimed that he could make this stuff. He's been pushing the state-sponsored terrorism angle for years, as well. In this situation, your friends may be your enemies and it's hard to piece together where the truth lies. Whatever the case, there needs to be a coordinated, sustained effort to get a full-scale investigation rather than having Ivins tried in the media.

This timeline from Marcy Wheeler is also helpful. update here (h/t Steinn Sigurdsson) - if you look at Ivins' patent for the anthrax vaccine in 2002, he very clearly used a lyopholizer in the course of the research.

The concentrated sample was desalted again using the same buffer, frozen and finally lyophilized using a Speed-Vac. The dried samples were dissolved in 25 μl of the TRIS buffer described above and diluted 1:1 with a 2×SDS solubilization buffer consisting of 50 mM Na 2 CO 3 , 4% (w/v) SDS, 12% (v/v) glycerol, 2% (v/v) 2-mercaptoethanol and 0.01% (w/v) Bromphenol Blue prior to heating at 95° C. for 5 min.

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