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Context of 'August 18, 2008: FBI Gives Scientific Briefing to Press to Show Evidence against Anthrax Attacks Suspect Ivins'

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In February 2002, scientist Bruce Ivins submitted a sample of the anthrax he has been using to FBI investigators, but it was destroyed because it was not submitted according to strict protocols. As a result, he is asked to submit a second sample in April 2002, and does. Ivins works at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory, and is helping with the anthrax investigation even as the FBI has reason to believe the anthrax could have come from USAMRIID (see Mid-October 2001 and Winter 2001). Ivins is using a variety of the Ames anthrax strain known as RMR-1029. Around early 2004, scientists will discover some unique genetic markers to the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks and will start comparing that anthrax to other anthrax. No match will be found between Ivins’s April 2002 sample and the anthrax used in the attacks. As a result of this discrepancy, the FBI will raid Ivins’s lab in July 2004 and seize more samples of RMR-1029 (see July 16, 2004). Additionally, Paul Keim, a biologist at Northern Arizona University and an expert at distinguishing various strains of anthrax, keeps duplicates of all the anthrax samples sent to the FBI. In early 2007, it will be discovered that he still has a copy of Ivins’s February 2002 sample. A match will be discovered between that RMR-1029 sample and the sample from the attacks (see Early 2007). However, at least 100 scientists had access to this sample (see Late 2005-2006). [New York Times, 8/20/2008] It remains unknown if Ivins altered the sample he submitted. Keim will later say that the genetic markers found in other samples of RMR-1029 should have been found in Ivins’s sample. He will note that “the FBI is implying he did it on purpose.” However, he will say that “Ivins may simply have failed to collect a representative sample.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/1/2008] In an August 2008 press briefing (see August 18, 2008), a government official will be asked if the sample submitted was not RMR-1029. The official will reply, “I don’t want to speculate that far.” [US Department of Justice, 8/18/2008]

Entity Tags: Paul Keim, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bruce Ivins

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks

Experts disagree if recently deceased anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins had the skills needed to make the anthrax used in the attacks.
Bioweapons Expert - “One bioweapons expert familiar with the FBI investigation” says Ivins did have this skills. This expert points out that Ivins worked with anthrax at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory, and regularly made sophisticated preparations of anthrax bacteria spores for use in animal tests. “You could make it in a week,” the expert says. “And you could leave USAMRIID with nothing more than a couple of vials. Bear in mind, they weren’t exactly doing body searches of scientists back then.”
Former Weapons Inspector - But others disagree. Richard Spertzel, a former UN weapons inspector who worked with Ivins at USAMRIID, says: “USAMRIID doesn’t deal with powdered anthrax.… I don’t think there’s anyone there who would have the foggiest idea how to do it. You would need to have the opportunity, the capability and the motivation, and he didn’t possess any of those.”
Unnamed Former Colleague - An unnamed scientist who worked with Ivins says it was technically possible to make powdered anthrax at USAMRIID, but, “As well as we knew each other, and the way the labs were run, someone would discover what was going on, especially since dry spores were not something that we prepared or worked with.” [Washington Post, 8/3/2008]
Former Supervisor - Jeffrey Adamovicz, who had been Ivins’s supervisor in recent years, says that the anthrax sent to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) was “so concentrated and so consistent and so clean that I would assert that [Ivins] could not have done that part.” [McClatchy Newspapers, 8/7/2008]
USAMRIID Division Chief - Gerry Andrews, the chief of USAMRIID’s bacteriology division at USAMRIID from 1999 to 2003, says the anthrax in the Daschle letter was “a startlingly refined weapons-grade anthrax spore preparation, the likes of which had never been seen before by personnel at [USAMRIID]. It is extremely improbable that this type of preparation could ever have been produced [there], certainly not of the grade and quality found in that envelope” (see August 9, 2008).
FBI Scientist - On August 18, FBI scientist Vahid Majidi says, “It would have been easy to make these samples at USAMRIID.” He believes that one person could make the right amount of anthrax in three to seven days (see August 18, 2008). [US Department of Justice, 8/18/2008]

Entity Tags: Vahid Majidi, Jeffrey Adamovicz, Gerry Andrews, Bruce Ivins, Richard Spertzel, United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks

In his first public comments since the identification of recently deceased Bruce Ivins as the FBI’s prime suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001 and July 29, 2008), FBI Director Robert Muller tells reporters, “I do not apologize for any aspect of the investigation.” It is erroneous “to say there were mistakes.” [New York Times, 8/9/2008] Ten days later, FBI scientist Dr. Vahid Majidi, leading an FBI press briefing about the anthrax investigation (see August 18, 2008), will say, “Obviously, looking at it in hindsight, we would do things differently today.… And the amazing thing about this case that I would like to additionally point out is the amount of lessons learned. Were we perfect? Absolutely not. We’ve had missteps and those are the lessons learned…” [US Department of Justice, 8/18/2008]

Entity Tags: Robert S. Mueller III, Vahid Majidi

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks

The Justice Department gives a private briefing to some Congresspeople and government officials outlining the FBI’s case against deceased anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins. Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD), a target of one of the 2001 anthrax letters, attends the briefing and is impressed with the FBI’s arguments. He says that prior to the briefing, he was “very dubious,” but now he finds the government’s case “complete and persuasive.” [USA Today, 8/13/2008] However, Daschle’s reaction seems to be unusual. The New York Times reports that “a number of listeners said the briefing left them less convinced that the FBI had the right man, and they said some of the government’s public statements appeared incomplete or misleading.” Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) says, “The case is built from a number of pieces of circumstantial evidence, and for a case this important, it’s troubling to have so many loose ends. The briefing pointed out even more loose ends than I thought there were before.” Naba Barkakati, the chief technologist for the Government Accountability Office (GAO), says: “It’s very hard to get the sense of whether this was scientifically good or bad. We didn’t really get the question settled, other than taking their word for it.” As a result of these continuing doubts, the FBI decides to make public more details of their scientific evidence against Ivins in a press conference to be held a week later. [New York Times, 8/15/2008]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Rush Holt, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bruce Ivins, Naba Barkakati, Tom Daschle

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks

Vahid Majidi.Vahid Majidi. [Source: FBI]In the face of continued widespread doubt about the government’s case against deceased anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins (see August 12, 2008), the FBI holds a press conference presenting more of its scientific evidence against Ivins. A panel discussion of experts working with the FBI is headed by Dr. Vahid Majidi, the FBI’s assistant director for the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, and Dr. Chris Hassell, who heads the FBI’s laboratory. The others on the panel are Paul Keim, Dr. James Burans, Dr. Rita Colwell, Claire Fraser-Liggett, Jacques Ravel, and Dr. Joseph Michael. They are all scientists who assisted with the FBI investigation.
bullet Majidi says, “[T]here were no additional additives combined with the [anthrax] to make them any more dispersible.” He adds, “The material we have is pure spores.”
bullet Hassell says that over 60 scientists worked with the anthrax investigation, validating the data throughout the process. He also says that more than ten peer reviewed scientific articles will be published in the coming months about the science behind the investigation’s findings.
bullet Michael explains that initial results showed that the anthrax spores contained silicon and oxygen. This led to erroneous conclusions that the anthrax had been weaponized with additives to make it more deadly. Later, more powerful microscope analysis showed that the silicon and oxygen were within the anthrax spores and not a layer outside the spores, indicating the anthrax was not weaponized.
bullet Burans says the silicon and oxygen were natural occurrences in the spores and they would not have made the anthrax deadlier since they were not on the outside of the spores.
bullet Asked if the silicon and oxygen could have been intentionally put in the anthrax by a person, an unnamed official replies, “The understanding of that process is not well understood.”
bullet Majidi says scientists were unable to determine what equipment was used to turn wet anthrax into the dry powder used in the attacks.
bullet Burans says that one reason why there was so much confusion about the weaponization of the anthrax is because so little is known about dry anthrax. Nearly all experimentation on anthrax is done using wet anthrax, because it is much safer to handle. He says: “to this day in our laboratories, we avoid at all costs working with [anthrax] in dried form. There’s no reason to.”
bullet Majidi says scientists were able to make anthrax resembling the anthrax used in the attacks, and the anthrax they made behaved in the same way. However, they were not able to recreate the presence of silicon inside the spores. He says, “It would have been easy to make these samples at USAMRIID.” Burans adds that one person could make the amount of anthrax used in the letters in three to seven days. [US Department of Justice, 8/18/2008]

Entity Tags: Rita Colwell, Vahid Majidi, Joseph Michael, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Claire Fraser-Liggett, Jacques Ravel, Paul Keim, Bruce Ivins, Chris Hassell

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks

On August 18, 2008, the FBI presented some of its scientific evidence against anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins at a press briefing (see August 18, 2008). However, one day later the New York Times editorial board writes that more evidence needs to be presented: “The FBI spent years pointing a finger at a different suspect. It is not enough for the agency to brush off continuing skepticism.… None of this circumstantial evidence [pointing to Ivins] has been subjected to close outside scrutiny. Congress should be sure to examine it closely.… Now that Dr. Ivins’s suicide has precluded a court trial, there needs to be an independent evaluation of whether the FBI has found the right man.” [New York Times, 8/19/2008] The Times editorial board published a similar editorial on August 7, calling for an independent evaluation of the case against Ivins (see August 7, 2008).

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bruce Ivins

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks


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