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/