Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 10, 2011

Anthrax Uncertainty

Filed under: Biosecurity,Terrorist Threats & Attacks,WMD — by Arnold Bogis on October 10, 2011

An interesting article in today’s New York Times casts additional uncertainty regarding the true perpetrator of the anthrax attacks:

A decade after wisps of anthrax sent through the mail killed 5 people, sickened 17 others and terrorized the nation, biologists and chemists still disagree on whether federal investigators got the right man and whether the F.B.I.’s long inquiry brushed aside important clues.

Now, three scientists argue that distinctive chemicals found in the dried anthrax spores — including the unexpected presence of tin — point to a high degree of manufacturing skill, contrary to federal reassurances that the attack germs were unsophisticated. The scientists make their case in a coming issue of the Journal of Bioterrorism & Biodefense.

I do not have sufficient knowledge in biology or chemistry to provide an opinion on the veracity of these claims.  What I find interesting is that there is serious concern that the perpetrator(s) of biological attack may still be unknown after so many years.

The new paper raises the prospect — for the first time in a serious scientific forum — that the Army biodefense expert identified by the F.B.I. as the perpetrator, Bruce E. Ivins, had help in obtaining his germ weapons or conceivably was innocent of the crime.

Please read the article itself for details regarding conflicting explanations for substances (tin and silicon) found in the anthrax and the reasons they might point to a different conclusion than the one at which the F.B.I. arrived.  What I find interesting from a homeland security perspective is that the anthrax mailings likely rank in the top five of all domestic terrorist incidents and are the only ones still surrounded by so much uncertainty.  This is not a conspiratorial take on the event (a la Truthers) or a reflexive “blame Al Qaeda” response (which would not be so surprising given their perceived presence at almost every major event in the world these days), but serious scientific doubt concerning the evidence and conclusions.

Is this because of the particular facts regarding this case–a difficult to obtain but deadly substance utilized in a sub-optimal manner (if the desire was mass fatalities) with little indication of motivation or goal?

Or a harbinger of the general issues that will surround further terrorist or criminal utilization of biological materials that will be difficult to trace for goals that may or may not be publicly announced?

A one off or an event that revealed a potential framing of the risk of biological terrorism?

Update: I had no idea when I was writing this post that PBS’ Frontline was opening their new season with an investigation of the anthrax attacks.  I caught most of the episode and it includes a lot of interesting details.  You can review their collected wealth of additional information (and I believe eventually watch the entire episode) at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/anthrax-files/

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Comment by Donald Quixote

October 10, 2011 @ 7:00 pm

I think they call that an exceptional clearance, also known as dead men tell no tales.

What is an exceptional clearance?

In certain situations, law enforcement is not able to clear an offense known to them by making an arrest (see Cleared by Exceptional Means, p. 80). Often they have exhausted all leads and have done everything possible in order to clear a case. If agencies can
answer all of the following questions in the affirmative, they can clear the offense
exceptionally for the purpose of reporting to UCR.

1. Has the investigation definitely established the identity of the offender?

2. Is there enough information to support an arrest, charge, and turning over to the court for prosecution?

3. Is the exact location of the offender known so that the subject could be taken into custody now?

4. Is there some reason outside law enforcement control that precludes arresting, charging, and prosecuting the offender? (pp. 80-81).


Comment by William R. Cumming

October 11, 2011 @ 12:27 am

Anthrax is naturally occurring substance so dispersal agents are key to weaponization. Agree or disagree? Just the facts, Mam!

Comment by Alan Wolfe

October 11, 2011 @ 7:31 am

The only “uncertainty” here is that deliberately introduced by people who will never accept Ivins as the perpetrator, despite the significant amount of circumstantial evidence that all pointed to him. They can’t argue about the detective work or Ivins’ very peculiar behavior and his ready access to both material and equipment, so they try to fabricate doubt as to the forensic evidence involved.

The FBI had enough evidence to arrest and interrogate Ivins, he knew it, and so he panicked and took his life before the case could be resolved. The FBI got the right guy. Now all there is left are those who want to keep the case alive for their own personal interests, not for the sake of accuracy or closing the case.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 11, 2011 @ 9:35 am

I guess Alan you are including the NAS panel that reviewed the FBI work and criticized it?

Hoping your trust in the Bureau is not shattered by forthcoming film on “Hoover”!

Comment by Alan Wolfe

October 11, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

William, the NRC panel did not in fact discredit the FBI’s conclusions that Ivins was the man. All the report said was, “The scientific link between the letter material and flask number RMR-1029 is not as conclusive as stated in the DOJ Investigative Summary.”

So the FBI’s science was not as good as it could be. Hardly a damning counter-story.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

October 11, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

I’m not convinced a group of chemists and biologists really have a deep interest in keeping this particular case alive if they didn’t believe that the FBI got the science wrong. In their fields, getting into the paper isn’t very helpful–they’re not DC think tankers. Perhaps if one of them doesn’t already have tenure, then the journal article helps…but I’m sure they could have published on another topic.

It seems the FBI also had a lot of circumstantial evidence against Steven Hatfill…and well that didn’t work out so great either.

It might have helped the case against Ivins that he apparently was obsessed with a sorority that had a house nearby the mailbox from which anthrax letters were mailed. But if the science shows that the spores were advanced enough that in fact the FBI did not show that Ivins had access to the proper equipment or materials to make them (which doesn’t necessarily mean he is innocent, but that he may have had help), then that piece of information seems a bit more appropriate for Law & Order: SVU…

Comment by Arnold Bogis

October 11, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

I meant to include:
“So the FBI’s science was not as good as it could be. Hardly a damning counter-story.”

Considering the Hatfill saga, I don’t see how you can so quickly dismiss potentially bad science and embrace circumstantial evidence.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

October 12, 2011 @ 7:00 am

See, Arnold, there is a difference between “bad” science and “not good enough” science. The former would result in negating a theory, the latter is just a criticism of technique.

The failure of the NYT-referenced scientists is while they are (no doubt) good scientists, they don’t know anything about law enforcement. Yeah, Hatfill was a screwup, that happens, but you start with a theory, look at the suspects, figure out who looks good, narrow down the pool based on the evidence (which includes things other than forensics, like the source of the envelopes, the availability of the material, domestic vs foreign involvement, access to equipment, motive, opportunity, behavioral patterns, etc), and eventually the candidates fall out until there is one (or a few) left to look at.

That final guy was Ivins, and had he stuck around instead of panicking like a guilty person might, maybe we would have conclusive evidence. But I’ll tell you this much – until they caught the Unabomber, the mailbombs kept coming. And so have you seen any other anthrax letters since 2001?

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