Tuesday, August 05, 2008
(updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV)
It's certainly possible that once the FBI closes its investigation and then formally unveils its evidence -- which apparently will happen tomorrow -- a very convincing case will be made that Bruce Ivins perpetrated the anthrax attacks and did so alone. But what has been revealed thus far -- through the standard ritual of selected Government leaks which the establishment media, with some exceptions, just mindlessly re-prints no matter how frivolous -- is creating the opposite impression. The FBI's coordinated leaking is making their claim to have solved the anthrax case appear quite dubious, in some instances laughably so.
One glaring and important exception to the dynamic of uncritical media recitation is this morning's New York Times article by Scott Shane and Nicholas Wade, which evinces very strong skepticism over the FBI's case thus far and discloses facts that create more grounds for skepticism. Given everything that has happened over the last seven years -- not just with the anthrax attacks but with countless episodes of Government deceit and corruption -- it's astonishing (and more than a little disturbing) how many people are willing, even eager, to assume that the Government's accusations against Ivins are accurate even without seeing a shred of evidence to support those claims.
When you add on to that the magnitude of this case and the ample reasons for error and deceit -- it's the first lethal bioterrorism attack on the U.S., one which, according to the Government itself, originated at a U.S. Government facility, perpetrated by a U.S. Army scientist, that was then used by numerous factions inside the Government and out to ratchet up fear levels and falsely blame Iraq and/or Al Qaeda for the attacks and, thereafter, was blamed on someone who appears to have been completely innocent -- what minimally rational person would be willing to assume that the Government's uncorroborated, unexamined, untested claims are accurate? In today's Los Angeles Times, Gabriel Schoenfeld of Commentary wrote:
Whether Ivins is conclusively shown to be the perpetrator, or whether he was an innocent man hounded by intrusive surveillance and public humiliation into suicide, questions about the FBI's performance are piling up.This morning I interviewed Rep. Rush Holt, whose Central New Jersey district includes a mailbox where at least one of the anthrax letters was mailed, and who is also a trained physicist and Chairman of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel (the audio of the interview is here). Rep. Holt said:
The bureau's horrific track record before 9/11, and its single-minded focus on Hatfill after the anthrax attacks, raises the suspicion that, in the dramatic events of last week, we are glimpsing yet another monumental screw-up, one fully worthy of the FBI's inglorious recent past.
Having watched how [the FBI] collected evidence, I don't have a lot of confidence, and I think the burden is on them to satisfy me, and other members of Congress, that they've done this right. . . . The case seems to me at this point to be circumstantial, and again, without briefings from the FBI, it would be presumptuous of me to say. And it would be presumptuous of people in Central New Jersey to breathe a sigh of relief and say: "They got the murderer. He is no longer at-large." The people deserve better re-assurances than what they've been given.Those re-assurances simply aren't possible without a full-scale Congressional hearing or even an external Commission of the type that investigated the 9/11 attacks -- endowed with full subpoena power -- to examine all of the unresolved issues here, including the ABC/bentonite angle, a proposal which Rep. Holt said today he supports.
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Just to illustrate how utterly unreliable and often frivolous the Government-media leaking ritual has been, look at what happened yesterday. The AP's big, leaked scoop of the day to incriminate Ivins was this:
The top suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks was obsessed with a sorority that sat less than 100 yards away from a New Jersey mailbox where the toxin-laced letters were sent, authorities said today. . . .That's not exactly convincing evidence. Its primary purpose seems to be to make Ivins look creepy -- he harbored a decades-long obsession with a college sorority -- but at least one could argue it would be enough of a circumstantial link to be worth noting. But as it turns out, the leaked information wasn't even close to accurate. Shortly after that leak appeared, it transformed into this laughable claim in an updated AP story:
The bizarre link to the sorority may indirectly explain one of the biggest mysteries in the case: why the anthrax was mailed from Princeton, 195 miles from the Army biological weapons lab the anthrax is believed to have been smuggled out of.
The mailbox just off the campus of Princeton University where the letters were mailed sits about 100 yards away from where the college's Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter stores its rush materials, initiation robes and other property. Sorority members do not live there, and the Kappa chapter at Princeton does not provide a house for the women.That would be quite an unusual and bizarre way for such an obsessive interest to express itself -- he used a mailbox in proximity not to a sorority house, which doesn't even exist on that campus at all, but was merely near a storage room the sorority uses to store some material. And, as the updated AP article then disclosed, there was zero basis for believing Ivins had anything to do with the Princeton sorority at all:
[The Princeton chapter's Sorority adviser Katherine Breckinridge] Graham said there was nothing to indicate that any of the sorority members had anything to do with Ivins.But even that pitifully thin reed was then reduced further still when that ever-vanishing leak made this appearance in this morning's New York Times article:
"Nothing odd went on," said Graham, an attorney and Kappa alumna.
Years ago, he had visited Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority houses at universities in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, an obsession growing out of a romance with a sorority sister in his own college days at the University of Cincinnati -- although someone who knew him well said the last such visit was in 1981.Within less than 24 hours, we went from "a New Jersey mailbox used to send the anthrax was less than 100 yards away from a sorority for which Ivins harbored an intense life-long obsession" to "the mailbox was near a storage closet used by a sorority that Ivins used to frequent 27 years ago and by a specific chapter that Ivins appeared to have absolutely nothing to do with."
And then there is the Hatfill-like leaking of scurrilous information about Ivins, including the fact that he had -- as the NYT put it today -- "a history of alcohol abuse, had for years maintained a post office box under an assumed name that he used to receive pornographic pictures of blindfolded women." Leaving aside the fact that alcohol abuse and pornography consumption aren't exactly clues marking someone as the anthrax killer, how bad could his "alcohol abuse" have been if he continued to maintain Government clearance to work at a U.S. Army facility with the nation's most dangerous pathogens?
And what had originally been leaked as the sinister-sounding claim that Ivins maintained "a post office box under an assumed name" transformed into the much more innocuous revelation that he did so in order to surreptitiously receive porn -- behavior that isn't exactly unusual given that "revenues for the world pornography industry hit an estimated $97 billion in 2006, overshadowing the revenues of the top technology companies -- the likes of Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and Apple -- combined." Bruce Ivins isn't the only American male surreptitiously using pornography, to understate the case drastically. The FBI's need to demonize Ivins as a creepy, porn-loving drunk suggests that their actual evidence is far from convincing.
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The leaked "scientific" evidence is no better. If anything, it's worse. The Washington Post today reports -- all based on anonymous leaks -- that "key to the probe" is the fact that Ivins "borrowed from a bioweapons lab that fall freeze-drying equipment that allows scientists to quickly convert wet germ cultures into dry spores" and that "the drying device, known as a lyopholizer, could help investigators explain how he might have been able to send letters containing deadly anthrax spores to U.S. senators and news organizations." The article further claims that "the device was not commonly used by researchers at the Army's sprawling biodefense complex at Fort Detrick, Md."
But that appears to be completely false. Here is the abstract of a 1995 research report, for which Ivins was the lead scientist, reporting on discoveries made as part of their research into anthrax vaccines (h/t substantial). This is the method they described using:
The efficacy of several human anthrax vaccine candidates comprised of different adjuvants together with Bacillus anthracis protective antigen (PA) was evaluated in guinea pigs challenged by an aerosol of virulent B. anthracis spores. The most efficacious vaccines tested were formulated with PA plus monophosphoryl lipid A (MPL) in a squalenel lecithin/Tween 80 emulsion (SLT) and PA plus the saponin QS-21. The PA+MPL in SLT vaccine, which was lyophilized and then reconstituted before use, demonstrated strong protective immunogenicity, even after storage for 2 years at 4°C. The MPL component was required for maximum efficacy of the vaccine. Eliminating lyophilization of the vaccine did not diminish its protective efficacy. No significant alteration in efficacy was observed when PA was dialyzed against different buffers before preparation of vaccine. PA+MPL in SLT proved superior in efficacy to the licensed United States human anthrax vaccine in the guinea pig model.Clearly, Ivins' legitimate work researching anthrax vaccines entailed the use of a lyopholizer. As the commenter notes, "If you google 'lyophilize' and 'anthrax', most of the pages returned are about anthrax vaccines, which is what Dr. Ivins was working on at Ft. Detrick." Indeed, even the Post article -- while breathlessly touting the profound importance of Ivins' incriminating possession of a lyopholizer -- says this:
He did at least one project for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that would have given him reason to use the drying equipment, according to a former colleague in his lab.This morning I spoke with Dr. Luke D. Jasenosky of the Harvard School of Medicine's Immune Disease Institute. Dr. Jasenosky said that it is "very common" for someone engaged in the vaccine research of the type Ivins did to use a lyopholizer, and that he "would actually be surprised if they weren't using one."
The Post article goes to great lengths to stress how small and easily hidden this device is -- to imply that Ivins could have weaponized the anthrax without being detected -- but the FBI found out that Ivins had possession of a lyopholizer because of this:
Ivins had to go through a formal process to check out the lyopholizer, creating a record on which authorities are now relying.So he didn't exactly hide his acquisition and use of the device which, the FBI is now trying to suggest, he secretly used to convert wet spores into dry anthrax in order to perpetuate the anthrax attacks. Quite the opposite -- he obtained the device in exactly the way that regulations required, knowing that there would be a clear and easy paper trail reflecting that he obtained this device -- one which he obviously had legitimate reasons, on at least some occasions, to use in his work.
The FBI is presumably leaking its most convincing evidence. If sorority obsessions, porn collections and lyopholizer usage are its most convincing, one shudders to imagine what its less convincing evidence is.
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All sorts of similar questions are raised by the onslaught of other FBI leaks. Dr. Jasenosky told me that he finds claims of some "ground-breaking" new DNA technique, or some "big breakthrough" to be "quite strange," given that what the news accounts have described is nothing more than an incremental extension of molecular analysis techniques that have existed for several years and which, at most, appear to have only enabled existing techniques to be conducted more rapidly. He further emphasized that even the most sophisticated DNA tests could never link anthrax to any particular scientist, and that no assessment of the FBI's assertions is possible without a thorough review of its underlying data. Dr. Meryl Nass said the same thing today: "Let me reiterate: No matter how good the microbial forensics may be, they can only, at best, link the anthrax to a particular strain and lab. They cannot link it to any individual."
And then there is the issue of Ivins' mental state. The New York Times reported today that part of the FBI investigation was so heavy-handed that it actually entailed showing gruesome photographs of the anthrax victims to Ivins' adult children, telling them that their father is the one who did that, while trying to entice them to turn on him with promises of a reward. As Rep. Holt indicated this morning, is it any wonder that any person -- guilty or not -- would experience severe psychological distress when targeted by the FBI that way? Moreover, this morning's Frederick News Post (doing some of the best reporting in the country on this case) reported that it was FBI agents who told Jean Duley to seek a protective order against Ivins -- the action that then created the record used by most media outlets to depict Ivins as a crazed psychopath.
No matter what the FBI says over the next week, or whenever it is that it finally gets around to stopping its manipulative leaks to its media friends and begins instead showing the public its evidence, a full-scale investigation is required here. Bruce Ivins may very well be the anthrax killer, having acted alone, but there is no rational basis for believing right now that he is.
UPDATE: The incomparably meticulous Marcy Wheeler has constructed a very helpful and typically well-documented timeline of key anthrax events, here.
One of the unanswered questions, even by the FBI's case, is why the targets of the anthrax attacks (Sen. Leahy, Sen. Daschle and Tom Brokaw, among others) were selected. Brad Friedman has obtained interesting evidence of Ivins' political leanings, including the fact that he was a registered Democrat who has voted in numerous Democratic primaries since 1996.
UPDATE II: The Boston Globe's Washington Bureau Chief, Peter Canellos, today examines the way in which the anthrax attacks were used to increase the nation's fear of Islamic radicals generally and Iraq specifically, and he writes:
When the anthrax attacks occurred, Iraq was immediately fingered by some experts and many neoconservative hawks as a possible source; ABC News quoted three unnamed government sources as saying the powder in the letters matched the type produced in Iraq.The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin notes that article and adds: "So who told ABC the powder looked Iraqi? Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald has been asking that question for days." How much longer will ABC News and Brian Ross be able to refuse to address these questions?
Even though most serious analysts were highly skeptical that the tainted letters came from Hussein, the mere possibility that Iraq could have maintained a stockpile of anthrax was enough to convince many people that it was a looming threat.
UPDATE III: If even the government-loving Time Magazine is now beginning tepidly to wonder "How Solid is the Anthrax Evidence?" -- and is even enumerating several important grounds for skepticism about the case against Ivins -- that's a very good indication of the that the FBI's claims are plagued by glaring holes.
UPDATE IV: One of the patents which Ivins (and others) obtained for an anthrax vaccine uses a lyophilizer in the final stages of preparation. Here's the patent -- filed in 2000 -- which, in several places, explains the patent holder's use of a lyophilizer ("The mixture was then lyophilized" -- "vials of lyophilized MPL/PA/emulsion were reconstituted in phosphate buffered saline (PBS)" -- "The concentrated sample was desalted again using the same buffer, frozen and finally lyophilized using a Speed-Vac").
Could The Washington Post's subservient, uncritical dissemination of the FBI's leak -- Ivins had a lyophilizer, which he had no reason to have! "The device was not commonly used by researchers at the Army's sprawling biodefense complex at Fort Detrick, Md" -- have been any shoddier? Do these "journalists" ever do anything other than go to Government sources, faithfully write down what they say, and then publish it in their articles without a single moment of thought or investigation? That's a rhetorical question.