Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sandia National Laboratories Demonstrated That Anthrax letters Contained Non-Weaponized Form

Sandia's material characterization analysts (from left to right) Joseph Michael, Paul Kotula, and manager Ray Goehner (photo by Randy Montoya).

"Sandia’s work demonstrated to the FBI that the form of bacillus anthracis contained in those letters was not a weaponized form, a form of the bacteria prepared to disperse more readily. The possibility of a weaponized form was of great concern to investigators, says Joseph Michael, the principal investigator for the project. This information was crucial in ruling out state-sponsored terrorism."--Sandia National Laboratories (8-21-08)

On Tuesday, September 16, 2008, the Director of the FBI Robert Mueller testified before the House Judiciary Committee and there was some discussion of the Amerithrax (anthrax) investigation. [Scroll down to relevant commentary at Anthraxinvestigation.com]

Some politicians, scientists, and writers were critical of the FBI investigation because of confusion about the issue of "weaponized" anthrax, or anthrax coated with silica. In the days after the anthrax attack, three top scientists claimed the anthrax was weaponized.

These scientists were William C. Patrick III, Richard Spertzel, and Al Zelicoff; but did these scientists actually see the silica coating on the spores?

A 2003 (revised 2004) article by a blogger named Ed Lake points out that the anthrax could contain silica without being weaponized. Mr. Lake's article "Were the anthrax spores coated with silica or not?" seems to be making some points that dovetail with the evidence that scientists at Sandia who helped the FBI are now revealing.

Richard Spertzel wrote a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal (8-5-08) that claimed that the FBI's suspect Bruce Ivins could not have perpetrated the anthrax attack:

Over the past week the media was gripped by the news that the FBI was about to charge Bruce Ivins, a leading anthrax expert, as the man responsible for the anthrax letter attacks in September/October 2001.

But despite the seemingly powerful narrative that Ivins committed suicide because investigators were closing in, this is still far from a shut case. The FBI needs to explain why it zeroed in on Ivins, how he could have made the anthrax mailed to lawmakers and the media, and how he (or anyone else) could have pulled off the attacks, acting alone.

I believe this is another mistake in the investigation.

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.

Information released by the FBI over the past seven years indicates a product of exceptional quality. The product contained essentially pure spores. The particle size was 1.5 to 3 microns in diameter. There are several methods used to produce anthrax that small. But most of them require milling the spores to a size small enough that it can be inhaled into the lower reaches of the lungs. In this case, however, the anthrax spores were not milled.

What's more, they were also tailored to make them potentially more dangerous. According to a FBI news release from November 2001, the particles were coated by a "product not seen previously to be used in this fashion before." Apparently, the spores were coated with a polyglass which tightly bound hydrophilic silica to each particle. That's what was briefed (according to one of my former weapons inspectors at the United Nations Special Commission) by the FBI to the German Foreign Ministry at the time.

Another FBI leak indicated that each particle was given a weak electric charge, thereby causing the particles to repel each other at the molecular level. This made it easier for the spores to float in the air, and increased their retention in the lungs.

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. [See full text]

Dr. Zelikow's comments in the WSJ (8-5-08) suggest that he never examined the anthrax himself.

The Los Angeles Times (9-17-08) now reports that a scientist named Peter B. Jahrling, who assisted the federal investigation of the 2001 anthrax mailings, said on Tuesday, September 16, 2008, that "he erred seven years ago when he told top Bush administration officials that material he examined probably had been altered to make it more deadly."

The Los Angeles Times (9-17-08) reports:

"I believe I made an honest mistake," Jahrling said in response to questions e-mailed to him for this article, adding that he had been "overly impressed" by what he thought he saw under the microscope.

"I should never have ventured into this area," said Jahrling, who is a virologist, referring to his analysis of the anthrax, which is a bacterium. Jahrling's initial analysis -- and his briefing of officials at the White House -- was first detailed in a 2002 book by bestselling author Richard Preston.

Although Jahrling was careful in 2001 not to implicate Iraq or any other regime in the mailings, others used his analysis to allege that the silicon perhaps linked the letters to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Inhaled anthrax can kill at a rate of 80% to 90% unless patients are treated quickly with an antibiotic.

Jahrling's comments Tuesday came soon after a congressional hearing at which FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III announced that he was arranging for an outside review of scientific findings that helped the bureau conclude that another scientist at Ft. Detrick, Bruce E. Ivins, perpetrated the deadly mailings. The review is to be overseen by the National Academy of Sciences, Mueller said.

FBI scientists and outside experts hired by the bureau to analyze the anthrax recovered from the mailings announced Aug. 18 that although they had found silicon, it occurred within the spores naturally and was not added.

In challenging those experts, one journalist reminded them that Jahrling, among other scientists, had concluded otherwise.

Some critics of the FBI investigation have asserted that Ivins lacked the skills to have "weaponized" the anthrax with any additive that enhanced its virulence.

At Tuesday's hearing [9-16-08], a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), pressed Mueller anew about how the silicon got into the spores.

After being informed of the events at the hearing, Jahrling renounced his earlier analysis.

"In retrospect," Jahrling said, "I believe I was mistaken and defer to the experts."

...In 2001, Jahrling briefed a roomful of officials at the White House, including Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, Mueller and Tom Ridge, President Bush's secretary of Homeland Security.

The next day, the Washington Post published a front-page article headlined "Additive Made Spores Deadlier" [10-25-01; reprinted here] that reported:

"The presence of the high-grade additive was confirmed for the first time yesterday by a government source familiar with the ongoing studies, which are being conducted by scientists" at Ft. Detrick.

The article said that the United States, the former Soviet Union and Iraq were "the only three nations known to have developed the kind of additives that enable anthrax spores to remain suspended in the air, making them more easily inhaled" and more deadly.

At the time, Jahrling was employed as the senior civilian scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, within Ft. Detrick. [See full text]

The debate over whether the anthrax was weaponized or not is a few years old, but the Sandia scientists who cooperated with the FBI and studied the anthrax have not been able to reveal their research until now.

Sandia National Laboratories (8-21-08) and Scientific American (9-19-08) are publishing stories about Sandia's participation in the FBI's Amerithrax investigation.

The Sandia press release explains:

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Here is Sandia's 8-21-08 press release about their secret research for the FBI:

FBI unveils science of anthrax investigation

Sandia's work demonstrated anthrax letters contained non-weaponized form

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —They have worked for almost seven years in secret.

Most people did not know that the work in Ray Goehner’s materials characterization department at Sandia National Laboratories was contributing important information to the FBI’s investigation of letters containing bacillus anthracis, the spores that cause the disease anthrax. The spores were mailed in the fall of 2001 to several news media offices and to two U.S. senators. Five people were killed.

Sandia’s work demonstrated to the FBI that the form of bacillus anthracis contained in those letters was not a weaponized form, a form of the bacteria prepared to disperse more readily. The possibility of a weaponized form was of great concern to investigators, says Joseph Michael, the principal investigator for the project. This information was crucial in ruling out state-sponsored terrorism.

In fall of 2001, the FBI considered how to best investigate the anthrax letters. The agency convened two blue ribbon exploratory panels, and Sandia’s name came up during both panels for its expertise in electron and ion microscopies and microanalysis over the range of length scales from millimeters down to nanometers. The first spore material from the letters arrived at Sandia in February of 2002.

Sandia faced some uncertainty in working on this type of investigation. Researchers signed nondisclosure agreements and agreed to make themselves available to government agencies on short notice when called to give information.

Joseph Michael, transmission electron microscopy (TEM) lab owner Paul Kotula, and a team of roughly a dozen others examined more than 200 samples in those six and a half years. The samples analyzed at Sandia were confirmed to be non-viable prior to arriving at the labs. They received samples from the letter delivered to the New York Post, to former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), and to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The samples looked different, in part because of how the samples were prepared, which made examination initially difficult.

When bacillus anthracis spores are weaponized, the spores are coated with silica nanoparticles that look almost like lint under the microscope. The “lint” makes the particles “bouncier” and less likely to clump and fall to the ground. That makes the spores more respirable and able to do more damage, says Michael. Weaponization of the spores would be an indicator of state sponsored terrorism.

“Initially, scanning electron microscopy [SEM] conducted at another laboratory, showed high silicon and oxygen signals that led them to conclude that the spores were a weaponized form, says Kotula. “The possible misinterpretation of the SEM results arose because microanalysis in the SEM is not a surface-sensitive tool,” says Kotula. “Because a spore body can be 1.5 to 2 microns wide by 1 micron long, a SEM cannot localize the elemental signal from whole spore bodies.”

Using more sensitive transmission electron microscopy (TEM), Kotula and Michael’s research indicated that the silica in the spore samples was not added artificially, but was incorporated as a natural part of the spore formation process. “The spores we examined,” Kotula says, “lacked that fuzzy outer coating that would indicate that they’d been weaponized.”

Sandia’s work was the first to actually link the spore material in the New York Post, the Daschle and the Leahy letters. The elemental signatures and the locations of these signatures, while not indicating intentional weaponization, did show that the spores were indistinguishable and therefore likely came from the same source. That conclusion was corroborated a few years later by the DNA studies.

The materials characterization lab serves as a materials analysis resource for a diverse collection of projects. The lab plays an important role in stockpile surveillance, supporting Sandia’s nuclear weapons mission.

Michael was recently released from his nondisclosure agreement and flown to Washington, D.C., to participate in press conferences at FBI Headquarters along with several members of research teams who’d been asked to examine other aspects of the anthrax case.

The FBI was pleased with Sandia’s work, says Michael.

In an interesting article, Scientific American (9-19-08) reiterated that the use of a different type of instrument allowed the Sandia scientists to see that the anthrax was not coated on the outside with silica:

Using highly sensitive transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM), the researchers came to a startling realization: The silicon had grown organically inside the Bacillus anthracis samples, nothing had been added to weaponize the spores. "The silicon was not on the outside of the spore," says [Joseph] Michael, who headed up Sandia's investigation, "but rather incorporated on the inside."

It was this key information that helped the FBI to rule out the likelihood that a terrorist organization was behind the anthrax mailings and prompted the agency to turn its attention to U.S. government labs as the possible source of the anthrax. This move eventually led the agency to conclude that Bruce Ivins, a scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), a federal biodefense research laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., who initially assisted with the investigation, was the culprit. Ivins, 62, two months ago committed suicide as prosecutors prepared to charge him in connection with the mailings.

...Early in the investigation, the FBI appeared to endorse the view that only a sophisticated lab could have produced the material used in the Senate attack, investigative journalist Gary Matsumoto wrote in the November 2003 issue of Science. In fact, in May 2002 16 scientists and physicians working for the government published a paper in JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association, describing the Senate anthrax powder as "weapons-grade" and exceptional: "high spore concentration, uniform particle size, low electrostatic charge, treated to reduce clumping."

In addition, the August/October 2002 newsletter from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), a research organization that the government often turns to for help analyzing potentially pathological substances, reported that a mass spectrometry analysis found silica—a staple in professionally engineered germ warfare powders for decades—in the powder sent to Sen. Daschle. The silica was believed to be there to prevent the anthrax spores from aggregating and make it easier for them to disperse into the air, according to Matsumoto, who added that any such weaponized form of anthrax is "more than 500 times more lethal than untreated spores."

Finding the Right Technology

By the time the Sandia researchers began their work in February 2002, "we had heard just like everyone else that the spores had been weaponized," says Michael, who had proposed a study of the elemental composition of any materials found growing outside the spores.

The first step was to find the silicon. Michael was aware that FBI researchers had analyzed the samples with both scanning electron microscopy (SEM), which scans surfaces with a high-energy beam of electrons, and with energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDS), which analyzes x-rays emitted by a substance after it is hit with charged electrons. But at that point, no one had studied them with a scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM), which transmits a focused beam of electrons through a small part of a specimen to form an image and could provide compositional information by examining the spores a few nanometers (one nanometer is 40 millionths of an inch) at a time, a higher resolution than SEM could provide, Michael says.

This enabled Sandia researchers to not only detect the presence of a foreign substance such as silica, but also to determine its location on or inside the spore. "In the FBI's mind, it was important not only that trace amount of elements were present, but also…[to determine]…where those elements were located in the sample through microanalysis," says Paul Kotula, a Sandia material scientist who studied the samples with Michael.

The researchers could find no way that the silica could be placed inside the spore without leaving a residue on the spore's outermost layer. (They found none.) Instead, the researchers determined that the silica formed inside the spore naturally. After only a month examining the anthrax samples in March 2002, Michael and his team were convinced, contrary to other reports, that the anthrax used in the attacks had not been weaponized.

...In the end, it was at Sandia where scientists cracked the mystery behind the mailings. The problem was, says Michael, that he had to keep mum on his findings—which might have calmed a jittery nation still reeling from the 9/11 terror attack—until the FBI wrapped up its investigation. "That's been one of the really frustrating things for Paul [Kotula] and me," Michael says. "We knew the answers but couldn't tell anyone." [See full text and links to other articles about the anthrax mailings.]

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