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2001 Anthrax Attacks

Battelle Memorial Institute

Project: 2001 Anthrax Attacks
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A New York Times article reveals that the US has been secretly conducting research on biological weapons that likely violates an international treaty banning the use of biological weaponry. The article, by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad, is titled, “US Germ Warfare Research Pushes Treaty Limits.” The US signed an international treaty in 1972 that forbids countries from developing or acquiring weapons that could spread disease, but it allows work on vaccines and other protective measures.
Creating Deadlier Anthrax - Beginning during the Clinton administration, the US began genetically engineering a more potent variant of the anthrax bacterium. Supposedly, this was done to help the US come up with defenses against such a bacterium being used against the US by terrorists or another country. The research is being done in at the West Jefferson, Ohio, laboratory of the Battelle Memorial Institute, a military contractor. It is said to be in response to advances in anthrax research conducted by the Russians in the 1990s. The program is still in an experimental phase, but the National Security Council is expected to give the final approval later in September.
Other Secret Programs - The CIA has also built and tested a germ bomb, but removed several parts to keep it from being functional. And the Defense Department has built a mock germ factory in the Nevada desert to demonstrate how easily terrorists could build such a factory. Both these projects are said to use inert substances instead of real deadly germs.
Dubious Legality - An unnamed senior Bush administration official says all these projects are “fully consistent” with the biological weapons treaty. However, some Clinton administration officials say these projects violate the treaty. They point out that such experiments would draw loud protests from the US if a country deemed hostile to the US were performing them. The US recently rejected efforts to strengthen the biological weapons treaty an allow international inspections of biodefense laboratories in order to keep details of these recent projects secret. (Miller, Engelberg, and Broad 9/4/2001)

On September 18, 2001, a scientist in Milwaukee tells police that he is building an anthrax delivery system in his basement. The unnamed scientist is drunk and having a dispute with a neighbor when he makes the comments to the police. On September 28, FBI agents arrive with a search warrant but find no anthrax or any sign of an anthrax delivery system. The man is said to work in a bowling alley, but had worked as a senior research scientist at Battelle Memorial Institute, a private contractor working with the US government on bioweapons programs including anthrax. He was fired from Battelle in 1996 and again in 1999. He is said to have specialties “in the areas of radio chemistry, military ordnance and munitions, and decontamination.” After being fired in 1999, his house was searched and chemicals were found in his basement that were not illegal to possess but which could have been used to make a lethal concoction. The story will first be reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on October 5, 2001, right when the real anthrax attacks are first becoming public (see October 4, 2001 and Shortly Afterwards). (Schuldt 10/5/2001) ABC News will revive the story on December 20, 2001, and say the unnamed scientist is under investigation for a role in the anthrax attacks. ABC will claim the FBI did find suspicious chemicals in his basement, but not anthrax. (News 12/20/2001) However, the next day it will be reported that the ABC story was wrong. US Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) will say he talked to FBI Director Robert Mueller after hearing the ABC New report, and Mueller “said the ABC News report was not true, that ‘The network did not check with us, we have no investigation and no one with or formerly with Battelle is a suspect.’” (Cadwallader and Candisky 12/21/2001)

A USAMRIID technician opening one of the anthrax letters in December 2001.A USAMRIID technician opening one of the anthrax letters in December 2001. [Source: Agence France-Presse / Getty Images]A front-page Washington Post story suggests that the Ames strain of anthrax used in the recent anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001) likely originated from USAMRIID, the US Army’s top biological laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and was shared with only a small number of other labs. USAMRIID gave it to the Battelle Memorial Institute, in Columbus, Ohio; the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, in Albuquerque, New Mexico; the Defense Research Establishment Suffield, in Canada; the US Army Dugway Proving Ground, in Utah; and the Chemical Defense Establishment at Porton Down, Britain. These in turn sent it to seven more labs, for a total of a dozen. But only five labs received the virulent form, and some of these may have received strains that were too old to have been the Anthrax used in the mailings, since it is known the anthrax used was two years old or less. (Fainaru and Warrick 11/30/2001; Johnston and Broad 6/23/2002)

The FBI is now investigating “whether potential profit from the sale of anthrax medications or cleanup efforts may have motivated” the anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001). Battelle, a company doing anthrax work for the CIA, mostly at the Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio, is the company most discussed in a Washington Post story about this. Dozens of scientists at Battelle have been interviewed by the FBI already because it is one of only a few places where weaponized anthrax has been made. (Schmidt and Warrick 12/21/2001) The story comes one day after ABC News reported a Battelle scientist is under investigation for the anthrax attacks, but that story is quickly denied (see September 18-28, 2001).

In 2002, microbiologist Perry Mikesell came under suspicion as the anthrax attacker. Mikesell is an anthrax specialist who worked with Bruce Ivins and others at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory, in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, he had worked at the Battelle Memorial Institute, a private contractor in Ohio working on classified government bioweapons programs. According to family members, he begins drinking heavily after the FBI starts suspecting him, consuming up to a fifth of hard liquor a day. One relative will later say, “It was a shock that all of a sudden he’s a raging alcoholic.” He dies in late October 2002. The relative will say, “He drank himself to death.” His connection to the anthrax investigation will not be revealed until 2008, and it still is completely unknown why the FBI was focusing on him. Two weeks before his suicide (see July 29, 2008), Ivins will liken the pressure he is facing from the FBI to the pressure that had been put on Mikesell. He will reportedly tell a colleague, “Perry [Mikesell] drank himself to death.” (Broad and Shane 8/9/2008)

NBC Nightly News reports: “Investigators tell NBC News that the water used to make [the anthrax spores] came from a northeastern US, not a foreign, source. Traces of chemicals found inside the spores revealed the materials used to grow them. And scientists have also mapped the entire DNA chain of the anthrax hoping to narrow down the laboratories where it came from. But one possible clue evaporated. The FBI concluded the spores were not coated with any chemical to make them hang longer in the air.” (MSNBC 10/5/2006) Later in the year, Rutgers University microbiologist Richard Ebright says, “This information [about the water], if correct, would appear to narrow the field” of laboratories that the anthrax used in the 2001 anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001) could have come from. Ebright knows of only three labs in the Northeast US that had seed cultures of the Ames strain prior to the attacks:
bullet USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons lab in Frederick, Maryland.
bullet The University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania. A scientist there had been conducting bioweapons research of interest to the US military.
bullet Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio. Battelle does classified biological research for the US military. (Ember 12/4/2006)

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) finds that the source of the anthrax involved in the 2001 attacks was not established by the FBI’s science. This conclusion is in contrast to that of the Justice Department and the FBI, which have asserted unequivocally that RMR-1029, an anthrax flask linked to USAMRIID vaccine researcher and deceased alleged anthrax-killer Bruce Ivins, was the source of the anthrax used in the attacks. The NAS was contracted by the FBI in 2009, for nearly $880,000, to review the science underlying the FBI’s investigation. The NAS council did not review other types of evidence assembled by the FBI, did not have access to classified materials, and did not do its own research. In its report, it makes no judgments regarding the guilt or innocence of any parties, or judgments about the FBI’s conclusion that Ivins was the sole perpetrator. (Dishneau 5/9/2009; Justice 2/19/2010, pp. 28 PDF pdf file; National Academy of Sciences 2/15/2011; Wiser 10/11/2011) The primary conclusion of the NAS is that “it is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion about the origins of the anthrax… based solely on the available scientific evidence.” The NAS says there were “genetic similarities” between the samples from the letters and RMR-1029, but that “other possible explanations for the similarities—such as independent, parallel evolution—were not definitively explored during the investigation,” and “the data did not rule out other possible sources.” The NAS agrees with the FBI that “RMR-1029… was not the immediate source of spores used in the letters,” and that “one or more derivative growth steps would have been required to produce the anthrax in the attack letters.” The NAS says the FBI did correctly identify the anthrax as Ames strain. It also agrees with the FBI that there was no evidence that the silicon present in the samples had been added in order to weaponize the anthrax, but says that, based on the information made available to it, “one cannot rule out the intentional addition of a silicon-based substance to the New York Post letter, in a failed attempt to enhance dispersion.” Silicon had not been present in the anthrax in RMR-1029 and it is not a normal part of anthrax spores, though it may be incorporated if it is present in its environment as the spores develop. The reason for the presence of silicon (up to 10 percent by bulk mass in the New York Post sample, though this differed with the amount measured in the spores), as well as other elements such as tin, remains unresolved. (National Academy of Sciences 2/15/2011) At a NAS press conference accompanying the report’s release, questions are raised regarding the amount of time needed to prepare the anthrax. Committee Chair Alice P. Gast responds, “There’s a lack of certainty in the time and effort it would take to make [the powders]… the FBI has not determined what method was used to create the powders.” In some situations several months might be required, but, according to Vice Chair David A. Relman, it would have been possible to complete the work in as little as two days. Regarding the low end of the estimate, Relman says: “There are a number of factors that would have to go into that calculation, including the skill set of the person or persons involved, the equipment and resources available, and the procedures and process selected. And, on that last point, that low end would rely upon the use of batch fermentation methods—liquid cultivation methods—which are available in a number of locations.” Co-workers of Ivins and other experts previously expressed doubts that Ivins had the skill, equipment, or opportunity to prepare the anthrax used, let alone do so in as short a time as the FBI has alleged (see August 1-10, 2008, August 3-18, 2008, August 5, 2008, August 9, 2008 and April 22, 2010). (National Academy of Sciences 2/15/2011; Detzel 2/15/2011) In response to the NAS report, the FBI says in a press release that it was not the science alone that led it to conclude that Ivins was the sole perpetrator: “The FBI has long maintained that while science played a significant role, it was the totality of the investigative process that determined the outcome of the anthrax case. The scientific findings in this case provided investigators with valuable investigative leads that led to the identification of the late Dr. Bruce Ivins as the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks.” (Department of Justice 2/15/2011) The FBI has claimed to have identified, and eliminated as suspects, 419 people at Fort Detrick and other locations, who either had access to the lab where Ivins worked or received samples from RMR-1029. However, the NAS finding that RMR-1029 has not been conclusively identified as the anthrax source indicates the pool of suspects may be wider than just those with links to RMR-1029. The NAS press release notes that, in October 2010, a draft version of the NAS report underwent a “required FBI security review,” and following that the FBI asked to submit materials to NAS that it had not previously provided. The NAS says: “Included in the new materials were results of analyses performed on environmental samples collected from an overseas site.  Those analyses yielded inconsistent evidence of the Ames strain of B. anthracis in some samples.  The committee recommends further review of the investigation of overseas environmental samples and of classified investigations carried out by the FBI and Department of Justice.” (National Academy of Sciences 2/15/2011)


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