The highly convenient way in which the U.S Government’s FBI has “closed the case” on the 2001 anthrax attacks will not wash with anyone who has read the excellent Dead Silence: Fear and Terror on the Anthrax Trail by Bob Coen and Eric Nadler. I’d be interested to hear what Messrs. Coen & Nadler make of the issue of whether or not the anthrax spores used in 2001 were weaponized, discussed here in USA Today:
Can science ever do away with bad ideas? Or do they just limp along forever?
Consider the federal investigators who have “formally concluded” their investigation into the 2001 anthrax killings, pointing again to the late anthrax vaccine researcher Bruce Ivins as the case’s culprit.
Whatever history’s verdict on Ivins, one brouhaha at the center of the case has already outlived him — the story of “weaponized” anthrax.
“One of my biggest frustrations with this has been showing people the data, and it doesn’t matter,” says researcher Joseph Michael of Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M. Michael has presented electron microscope results that show the 2001 attack anthrax wasn’t weaponized for two years, “but still the idea refuses to go away.”
The notion took hold in October of 2001, as the Hart senate office building faced closure due to anthrax contamination, when then-House minority leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., described some of the anthrax used in the attacks as “weapons-grade material.” The claim sparked a flurry of reports about the peculiar properties of the attack spores, their high quality and lightness, which hastened their spread through the building’s ventilation system.
Fears centered around silica, the chief ingredient in sand, which allows small bacterial spores to float more freely in the air, or aerosolize, if applied as a coating, a Cold War bioweapons technique studied at the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah.
In particular, a 2001 warning that silica had been purposely added to the attack anthrax came from virologist Peter Jahrling of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The warning was delivered to White House officials (reported in Robert Preston‘s 2002 book, The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story), after U.S. Armed Forces Institutes of Pathology X-ray results showed silica present in samples of the attack anthrax. The fear gained currency in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war‘s beginning, which centered around fears of bioweapons, as well as chemical and nuclear weapons.
“The spores in the Washington, D.C. letters were of exceptional purity,” says the Justice Department’s just-released investigation summary.
So, as part of the investigation, Michael and his colleagues looked at the attack spores using electron microscopes, which can see at fine enough resolution, on the nanometer scale, to spot exactly where the silica resided.In so doing they knocked down the notion the attack anthrax had been weaponized with a silicon coating. Instead, they found silicon that occurred naturally inside the spores.
“I believe I made an honest mistake,” Jahrling told The Los Angeles Times, in a 2008 response to this news, adding he was “overly impressed” by his initial views of the attack spores under the microscope.
Still the idea lives on, for example, in a January opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, that cited scientists who see the amount of silica in the attack spores as “blowing the FBI‘s case out of the water.” (The FBI argued the lab where Ivins worked didn’t have the facilities to weaponize the anthrax.)…
[continues in in USA Today]