By Greg Gordon | McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — Buried in FBI laboratory reports about the anthrax mail attacks that killed five people in 2001 is data suggesting that a chemical may have been added to try to heighten the powder’s potency, a move that some experts say exceeded the expertise of the presumed killer.
The lab data, contained in more than 9,000 pages of files that emerged a year after the Justice Department closed its inquiry and condemned the late Army microbiologist Bruce Ivins as the perpetrator, shows unusual levels of silicon and tin in anthrax powder from two of the five letters.
Those elements are found in compounds that could be used to weaponize the anthrax, enabling the lethal spores to float easily so they could be readily inhaled by the intended victims, scientists say.
The existence of the silicon-tin chemical signature offered investigators the possibility of tracing purchases of the more than 100 such chemical products available before the attacks, which might have produced hard evidence against Ivins or led the agency to the real culprit.
But the FBI lab reports released in late February give no hint that bureau agents tried to find the buyers of additives such as tin-catalyzed silicone polymers.
The apparent failure of the FBI to pursue this avenue of investigation raises the ominous possibility that the killer is still on the loose.
A McClatchy analysis of the records also shows that other key scientific questions were left unresolved and conflicting data wasn’t sorted out when the FBI declared Ivins the killer shortly after his July 29, 2008, suicide.
One chemist at a national laboratory told McClatchy that the tin-silicone findings and the contradictory data should prompt a new round of testing on the anthrax powder.
A senior federal law enforcement official, who was made available only on the condition of anonymity, said the FBI had ordered exhaustive tests on the possible sources of silicon in the anthrax and concluded that it wasn’t added. Instead, the lab found that it’s common for anthrax spores to incorporate environmental silicon and oxygen into their coatings as a “natural phenomenon” that doesn’t affect the spores’ behavior, the official said.
To arrive at that position, however, the FBI had to discount its own bulk testing results showing that silicon composed an extraordinary 10.8 percent of a sample from a mailing to the New York Post and as much as 1.8 percent of the anthrax from a letter sent to Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, far more than the occasional trace contamination. Tin — not usually seen in anthrax powder at all — was measured at 0.65 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively, in those letters.
An FBI spokesman declined to comment on the presence of tin or to answer other questions about the silicon-tin connection.
Several scientists and former colleagues of Ivins argue that he was a career biologist who probably lacked the chemistry knowledge and skills to concoct a silicon-based additive.
“There’s no way that an individual scientist can invent a new way of making anthrax using silicon and tin,” said Stuart Jacobsen, a Texas-based analytical chemist for an electronics company who’s closely studied the FBI lab results. “It requires an institutional effort to do this, such as at a military lab.”
Martin Hugh-Jones, a world-renowned anthrax expert who teaches veterinary medicine at Louisiana State University, called it “just bizarre” that the labs found both tin — which can be toxic to bacteria such as anthrax during lab culturing — and silicon.
“You have two elements at abnormally high levels,” Hugh-Jones said. “That reduces your probability to a very small number that it’s an accident.”
The silicon-tin connection wasn’t the only lead left open in one of the biggest investigations in FBI history, an inquiry that took the bureau to the cutting edge of laboratory science. In April, McClatchy reported that after locking in on Ivins in 2007, the bureau stopped searching for a match to a unique genetic bacterial strain scientists had found in the anthrax that was mailed to the Post and to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, although a senior bureau official had characterized it as the hottest clue to date.
FBI officials say it’s all a moot point, because they’re positive they got the right man in Ivins. A mentally troubled anthrax researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., Ivins overdosed on drugs not long after learning that he’d soon face five counts of capital murder.
In ending the inquiry last year, the Justice Department said that a genetic fingerprint had pointed investigators to Ivins’ lab, and gumshoe investigative techniques enabled them to compile considerable circumstantial evidence that demonstrated his guilt.
Among these proofs, prosecutors cited Ivins’ alleged attempt to steer investigators away from a flask of anthrax in his lab that genetically matched the mailed powder — anthrax that had been shared with other researchers. They also noted his anger over a looming congressional cut in funds for his research on a new anthrax vaccine.
However, the FBI never found hard evidence that Ivins produced the anthrax or that he scrawled threatening letters seemingly meant to resemble those of Islamic terrorists. Or that he secretly took late-night drives to Princeton, N.J., to mail them.
The FBI declared Ivins the killer soon after paying $5.8 million to settle a suit filed by another former USAMRIID researcher, Steven Hatfill, whom the agency mistakenly had targeted earlier in its investigation.
Anthrax is one of the deadliest and most feared biological weapons. Once inhaled, microscopic anthrax spores germinate into rapidly multiplying, highly toxic bacteria that attack human tissue. The resulting illnesses are lethal within days if untreated.
The letters, mailed just weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, not only went to the New York Post, Leahy and Brokaw, but also to American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla., and to Democratic then-Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Five people died, 17 were sickened and about 31,000 were forced to take powerful antibiotics for weeks. Crews wearing moon suits spent several weeks eradicating the spores from a Senate office building and a central Postal Service facility in Washington.
The FBI guarded its laboratory’s finding of 10.8 percent silicon in the Post letter for years. New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler asked FBI Director Robert Mueller how much silicon was in the Post and Leahy letters at a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee in September 2008. The Justice Department responded seven months later that silicon made up 1.4 percent of the Leahy powder (without disclosing the 1.8 percent reading) and that “a reliable quantitative measurement was not possible” for the Post letter.
The bureau’s conclusions that silicon was absorbed naturally drew a gentle challenge in February from a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, which evaluated the investigation’s lab work.
While finding no evidence that silicon had been added to the mailed anthrax, the panel noted deep in its report that the FBI had provided “no compelling explanation” for conflicts in silicon test results between the Sandia National Laboratories and its own lab.
Sandia — which used electron microscopes, unlike the FBI — reported only a tenth as much silicon in the New York Post letter as the bureau’s lab did. Sandia said it was all embedded in the spore coatings, where it wasn’t harmful.
The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology ran a third set of tests and found pockets of heavy silica concentrations, but it couldn’t say whether they were inside or outside the spores.
Jacobsen, the Texas chemist, suspects that the silica pockets represented excess material that went through a chemical reaction and hardened before it could penetrate the spores.
The National Academy of Sciences panel wrote that the varying composition of the powder might have accounted for the differing findings.
While finding no evidence that silicon was added, the panel said it “cannot rule out the intentional addition of a silicon-based substance … in a failed attempt to enhance dispersion” of the New York Post powder.
Tufts University chemistry professor David Walt, who led the panel’s analysis of the silicon issue, said in a phone interview that “there was not enough silicon in the spores that could account for the total silicon content of the bulk analysis.”
He said it was unclear whether the “trace” levels of tin were significant.
During the FBI’s seven-year hunt, the Department of Homeland Security commissioned a team of chemists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California to grow anthrax-like spores under varying conditions to see how much silicon would end up naturally in the final product.
They found little, if any, silicon in most cases, far less than was in the New York Post letter, said Stephan Velsko, one of the two researchers. He called the tin readings from the FBI’s anthrax data “baffling.”
Peter Weber, Velsko’s co-researcher, said the academy panel’s focus on the conflicting data “raises a big question,” and “it’d be really helpful for closure of this case if that was resolved.”
He suggested that further “micro-analysis” with a highly sophisticated electron microscope could “pop the question marks really quickly.”
In a chapter in a recently updated book, “Microbial Forensics,” Velsko wrote that the anthrax “must have indeed been produced under an unusual set of conditions” to create such high silicon counts. That scenario, he cautioned, might not be “consistent with the prosecution narrative in this case.”
About 100 tin-catalyzed silicone products are on the market, and an even wider array was available in 2000 and 2001, before the mailings, said Richie Ashburn, a vice president of one manufacturer, Silicones Inc., in High Point, N.C.
Mike Wilson, a chemist for another silicone products maker, SiVance, in Gainesville, Fla., said that numerous silicon products could be used to make spores or other particles water-repellent. He also said that the ratios of silicon to tin found in the Post and Leahy samples would be “about right” if a tin-catalyzed silicone had been added to the spores.
Jacobsen, a Scottish-born and -educated chemist who once experimented with silicon coatings on dust particles, said he got interested in the spore chemistry after hearing rumors in late 2001 that a U.S. military facility had made the killer potions. He called it “outrageous” that the scientific issues haven’t been addressed.
“America, the most advanced country in the world, and the FBI have every resource available to them,” he said. “And yet they have no compelling explanation for not properly analyzing the biggest forensic clue in the most important investigation the FBI labs had ever gotten in their history.”
As a result of Ivins’ death and the unanswered scientific issues, Congress’ investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, is investigating the FBI’s handling of the anthrax inquiry.
(Tish Wells contributed to this article.)
GREG GORDON, MCCLATCHY INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: Last year, the FBI and the Justice Department finally put to bed their long-running investigation of the 2001 anthrax mail attacks that killed five people and shut down Congress. They branded a mentally troubled anthrax researcher at the Army Bioweapons Lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland, Bruce Ivins, as the perpetrator. Ivins, though, was already dead. He committed suicide in July 2008 after learning that he soon could face murder charges and the death penalty. Now the recent release of thousands of pages of laboratory files could reignite questions about the FBI’s Ameri-thrax investigation and its case against Ivins, which was built solely on circumstantial evidence. Did the bureau really prove that no one added a chemical to try to weaponize the deadly powder, make the tiny spores repel moisture so that it wouldn’t clump and it would float more easily into people’s breathing zones? And if a chemical was added, did career biologist Bruce Ivins have the expertise to do it? A Texas chemist who has immersed himself in the case, Stuart Jacobsen, says his eyes widened when he finally got to see the FBI lab reports on the Internet. He found data indicating that two of the samples contained surprising levels of two elements.
STUART JACOBSEN, CHEMIST: Silicone, the element silicone, was there in very, very high concentrations. That should have not have been there in quantities like that. We’re talking about 10 percent in the New York Post sample. And also tin. That was very, very unusual. That should not have been in an anthrax sample. But, again, it was there at very, very high concentrations. And none of that has been adequately explained. And it’s a forensic signature. And with that evidence, one should be able to determine how it was made and who made it.
GORDON: The FBI researched the silicone question extensively. Early in the investigation, the bureau put the kibosh on leaked news stories saying that silicone had been added to weaponize the anthrax. A law enforcement official said that the FBI concluded that the anthrax spores had instead embedded silicone into their coatings, not on their outer membranes where they could cause damage. But behind the scenes, the files show, the bureau was getting conflicting data. For example, its own laboratory showed that the anthrax powder in a letter to The New York Post contained a soaring silicone level, 10.8 percent. Perhaps not insignificantly, that finding was accompanied by the highest level of tin found in any letter. Separate tests with powerful electron microscopes at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque found only about 1 percent silicone in the New York Post powder. Sandia’s scientists concluded that all of the silicone was embedding in the spore coatings. But a National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed the FBI’s lab reports recently reported that the bureau had provided no compelling explanation for the conflicting data. Scientists who’ve bird-dogged the inquiry believe that excess silicone lay outside the spores, just maybe not in the sample that went to Sandia. They suspect that a tin-catalyzed silicone product was added, one that they believe might have led investigators to the culprit. But FBI records provide no hint that the bureau checked to see who bought those products around the time of the letter attacks. Stuart Jacobsen says he can’t imagine how Bruce Ivins, a career biologist, could have come up with such a formula by himself.
JACOBSEN: I don’t believe that a single person could invent that covertly, not tell anybody about it, and then, you know, get first-time success in making powders that clearly were very, very dangerous and killed people. I do not believe that is possible. So therefore I think that the powder with the tin and silicone had to be developed somewhere in a lab, and there has to be evidence of that, then, at some institution somewhere.
GORDON: The FBI declined to respond to questions about a possible tin-silicone connection. Bureau officials say such questions are a moot point, that they got the right man. But Peter Weber, a chemist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories in California who did research on anthrax-like spores after the attacks, has a different take. He says more testing is warranted to resolve these conflicts and finally bring to closure one of the worst bioweapons attacks in US history. I’m Greg Gordon of McClatchy Newspapers.
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