Scientists elaborate on the case against Bruce
From the Los Angeles Times
Scientists elaborate on the case against Bruce Ivins
One revelation is that, contrary to what some officials had
claimed, the mailed anthrax had not been 'weaponized.'
By David Willman
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 19, 2008
WASHINGTON - Scientists behind the case against Bruce E. Ivins, who
federal officials allege was solely responsible for the deadly anthrax
mailings of 2001, publicly described their work for the first time
Monday and said the spores had originated from a flask linked by
investigators to the deceased Army scientist.
In two briefings with reporters spanning nearly four hours, the
scientists provided new and sometimes clarifying details about the
extensive testing that led prosecutors to the brink of filing murder
charges against Ivins, who died of a prescription-drug overdose July
29. The briefings were intended to more fully explain the evidence
against Ivins and address concerns about the reliability of the
government's assertion that Ivins was the culprit.
But Ivins' attorney remained unconvinced, and a top government
scientist acknowledged that some skeptics would never be
"I don't think we're ever going to put the suspicions to bed,"
said Vahid Majidi, a chemist and assistant director of the FBI's
weapons of mass destruction unit. "There's always going to be a
spore on a grassy knoll."
Among the new details Monday was that, contrary to statements made
over the years by other government officials, the mailed anthrax had
not been coated with additives to "weaponize" it, or make it
more deadly. Silicon was detected within the spores, said several of
the eight scientists who met with reporters, but it occurred
naturally, not as a result of weaponizing.
The silicon did not make the anthrax more buoyant when exposed to air,
said James Burans, associate laboratory director of the National
Bioforensic Analysis Center.
"The silicon would not have contributed to the fluid-like
qualities of the anthrax powders," he said. But loading the
powder into envelopes, and their handling by the Postal Service, would
have made it more electrostatically charged and difficult to contain,
Burans also said that high-speed mail processing machinery could have
crushed the powder more finely -- evidenced by plumes that rose 30
feet above the floor at a postal annex in Washington.
On the other hand, he and the other scientists did not offer an exact
explanation of how Ivins was able to prepare the fluffy, dry, powdered
anthrax. Ivins, they said, could have used a lab-issue drier called a
lyophylizer, but not necessarily.
However it was done, said Majidi, "it would have been easy to
make these samples at" Ft. Detrick, Md., home of the Army's
infectious diseases research facility.
Over the past several years, the FBI searched worldwide to gather
1,070 samples of deadly Ames-strain anthrax -- the type used in the
mailings. Only eight of those anthrax samples contained four distinct
genetic mutations -- the same mutations found in the mailings. And
each of those eight samples, officials allege, could be traced to
parent material known as RMR 1029 that was maintained by Ivins in a
one-liter flask he controlled in a Ft. Detrick lab.
In addition to the far-reaching scientific efforts, investigators used
conventional police work to exclude as suspects about 100 others who
may have had access to RMR 1029 at Ft. Detrick and elsewhere.
In his view, Majidi said, the government amassed "a body of
powerful evidence that allows us to conclude that we have identified
the origin and the perpetrator of the 2001 [anthrax]
Starting in 1980, Ivins worked as a microbiologist at the Army's
Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, at
Ft. Detrick. Both before and after the anthrax mailings in September
and October of 2001, which killed five people and set off a wave of
fear on the heels of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he prepared
spores used in experiments on animals in an effort to develop or
improve vaccines against anthrax.
The parent material for the anthrax mailings -- the one flask of RMR
1029 -- was derived from a mixture of various batches of spores,
originally totaling 164 liters, said Chris Hassell, a chemist who
since June has headed the FBI's laboratory. Hassell said that Ivins
produced RMR 1029 from spores shipped from 22 "production runs"
at Ft. Detrick and from 13 runs received there from the government's
Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
When the FBI sought scientific help in analyzing powder recovered from
the mailings, it turned to USAMRIID -- and to Ivins. Officials who
addressed the media Monday acknowledged for the first time that Ivins
had helped the FBI compose the "protocol" for early
subpoenas that sought anthrax samples from USAMRIID scientists,
In February 2002, even before his subpoena arrived, Ivins submitted a
sample that violated the protocol, the officials said. And because FBI
officials concluded that the protocol violation would make Ivins'
sample inadmissible in court, the bureau destroyed it. In April 2002,
Ivins gave the FBI a second sample, which did not match the RMR 1029
A break in the case came in 2006, when a microbiologist assisting in
the probe, Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University, confirmed to
investigators that he had received a duplicate of the February 2002
sample. Subsequent analysis of that duplicate sample matched it to the
powder used in the 2001 letters.
Federal officials said they view with suspicion Ivins' deviation from
the protocol with his first sample and his submission of the
non-matching second sample. Ivins was the only USAMRIID scientist who
did not follow the protocol, said a prosecutor who attended the
Majidi said that, "looking at hindsight, obviously," the FBI
should not have destroyed Ivins' first sample. But overall, he said,
the methods and techniques used to build the case against Ivins had
been "highly validated" in consultation with a range of
experts. He and other officials said the underlying raw data would be
published in peer-reviewed scientific journals; no timetable was
A lawyer who had represented Ivins, Paul F. Kemp, said after the
briefings that he remained unconvinced by the government's rollout of
scientific information, which began Aug. 6.
"This is an ever-evolving script that they are writing," he
said in an interview.
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Times researcher Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles contributed to