Anthrax–still a mess

So, after almost a week of intense media scrutiny and finger-pointing at USAMRIID scientist Bruce Ivins as the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax attacks, the FBI has now released its documents pertaining to the case, and declares that Ivins was indeed their man. However, a lot of unanswered questions remain–about the investigation itself, the whole mess surrounding the anthrax attacks and what they meant to the “war on terror,” and the science itself that linked the attack strain to Ivins’ lab. A few of the remaining issues are discussed below…

First, as Glenn Greenwald notes, there was a lot of inaccuracies reported about the anthrax itself in the weeks, months, and even years following the attacks. Some of this information came from “unidentified sources” who claimed to be in the know, and some of the misinformation supported the invasion of Iraq (as that country had been linked to the preparation of the anthrax spores early on).

This also goes to the credibility of the investigators, as Revere notes. With the shadow of Hatfill’s botched investigation looming over them, why was this one again tried in the media, and hinging partially on leaked reports of Ivins’ mental state and personality (claims which many close to him have denied). Isn’t this again what happened with Hatfill? Reports of how the investigation was conducted and the tactics used to intimidate Ivins’ friends and family also seem sketchy, though they’ve been defended as above-the-board.

Additionally, regarding the bacteria strain(s). Some reports have said that one damning piece of evidence was that a particular “admixture” of strains found in the attacks could have only come from Fort Detrick. The evidence for this seems to come partly from the growth characteristics of the strains (some small, some large colony morphologies) and from the finding of an inversion of one part of the genome. However, as Mike notes, that’s not necessarily evidence for a mixture of two strains (via TomJoe). So where does that leave us regarding the tie to Ivins’ strains? (Paging Steven?)

Revere also hits on something I’d not considered–what happened to Ivins’ body? He notes conflicting reports regarding Ivins’ autopsy (or lack thereof).

I really want to believe that they solved the case. Some of the victims (including Maureen Stevens, widow of Florida photographer Robert Stevens, the first victim–accept Ivins’ guilt, while other targets, such as former senator Tom Daschle, expressed skepticism. I haven’t begun to wade through all the evidence uploaded to the DOJ site yet, and maybe there’s something slam-dunk in there–but if there is, it’s certainly gotten much less media attention than the innuendo that’s been publicized thus far.

Comments

  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    August 7, 2008

    However, a lot of unanswered questions remain…
    and hinging partially on leaked reports of Ivins’ mental state and personality (claims which many close to him have denied)

    If Ivins was really that BSI, why was he allowed to continue working at a biological warfare lab with a top clearance and access to such nasty stuff?

  2. #2 Tara C. Smith
    August 7, 2008

    Exactly…and why did it take so long to ID him?

  3. #3 TomJoe
    August 7, 2008

    … why did it take so long to ID him?

    Because it took TIGR/JCVI too long to do the sequencing? Actually, I seriously hope the FBI didn’t contract this out to them … would they actually have acceptable “chain of custody” protocols in place?

  4. #4 Glen Davidson
    August 7, 2008

    Cross-posted from Mikethemadbiologist’s blog (would you want an IDist deciding guilt based on sequencing?):

    By the way, do we have any IDists complaining about the assumptions behind sequencing anthrax DNA?

    After all, the Designer might very well have chosen to give two different strains of anthrax the exact same DNA. Who knows, what with their whacky, whimsical, unpredictable Designer, who makes malaria for the fun of it?

    Since there’s absolutely nothing in principle to accept the results of sequencing within species as indicating that normal processes of heredity, mutation, and natural selection are operating, while denying the same type of processes being responsible across species, families, and phyla, they really ought to be against the “naturalistic assumptions behind anthrax sequencing.

    I just thought I’d reiterate how potentially threatening ID is, even to normal discovery processes in tracking down and prosecuting biological terrorists.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  5. #5 Tara C. Smith
    August 7, 2008

    Because it took TIGR/JCVI too long to do the sequencing? Actually, I seriously hope the FBI didn’t contract this out to them … would they actually have acceptable “chain of custody” protocols in place?

    Unsure about the latter part, but as Steven noted, very early on the investigation centered on Ft. Detrick–after all, that’s one reason Hatfill was investigated as a suspect. So if they also have a guy who actually *works* on anthrax (unlike Hatfill) and is as unstable as federal sources claim–and behaving strangely so early on–why did it take so long?

  6. #6 Pinko Punko
    August 7, 2008

    The leaks regarding Ivins essentially started after he died, which is about a week. If he was all they had, then the case is cold and there is nothing more they can really do. There is a huge difference in the way the Hatfill portion of the investigation was run (from the top and micromanaged) to the way the Ivins was run (we didn’t hear a word about it for years). I think the actual details are important here. We’re speculating quite a bit, but I think they have a weighty but entirely substantial case. The problem is the case was pretty cold by the time they go their act together. The case may or may not have risen to reasonable doubt, but we are looking at documents that are solely there to provide evidence of reasonable suspicion. Actually trying the case in court, which can never happen now, would have taken additional millions of dollars to weave together the story.

  7. #7 TomJoe
    August 7, 2008

    In part, probably because they had tunnel vision once they set their eyes on Hatfill? I’m not sure when they finally decided that he wasn’t their man, but while they were focused on him, I doubt they even suspected anyone else. I don’t think this obsessive focus on one individual, contrary to the evidence, is something new to criminal investigations.

    Plus, we’re also probably assuming that this entire process would be handled expertly, logically, thoroughly, precisely, and timely … and if there has been any notion that I have been disabused of by this current Administration … that’s the one.

  8. #8 Pinko Punko
    August 7, 2008

    Just to add, from the LA Times- this is why it took so long:

    The forensic analysis of the anthrax sent in the mailings had long posed a challenge to the FBI, whose in-house scientists were not equipped to decipher the potential origin of the material. Some of the first analysis was performed by Ivins and other scientists at USAMRIID; such efforts also were attempted at Battelle, but technicians there rendered some of the material forensically useless by first sterilizing it with steam, scientists told The Times. A spokesman for Battelle, T.R. Massey, declined earlier this year to discuss Battelle’s role.

    They were not thinking the way we think about it. They were off on the Hatfill goose chase and likely were not up to snuff on the science. This is the huge failing of the investigation.

    The strain admixture stuff is odd. One of the warrants specifies that two of the letters shared identical B. subtilis contamination. Is this B. subtilis contaminant what is being discussed in the Times article, or do they mean another anthrax clone?

  9. #9 _Arthur
    August 9, 2008

    In one NYT op-ed, Dr. Gerry Andrew, who worked with and under Dr. Ivins for years, note certain points:

    Ivins and his team athe Ft Detrick were the ones who helped the FBI analyze the anthrax letters.

    He suggests that the anthrax strain in the Dashle letter may have contaminated the reference strain at Ft Detrick.

    I personally cannot bring myself to believe that a single second.
    1) Fort Detrick bacteriologists would have to be bumbling incompetents.
    2) Anthrax is a deadly pathogen; whatever your normal labs procedures are, precautions are increased fourfold when handling such materials.

    I thought it was a very weak argument, coming from a fellow biologist.

  10. #10 beebs
    August 9, 2008

    The letters were mailed two separate days at a postbox in Princeton.

    The FBI was not able to place Dr. Bruce Ivins at Princeton those days. I assume they had his credit card records for gasoline and whatnot.

  11. #11 _Arthur
    August 9, 2008

    The culprit could have asked a buddy to drop the letters in a distant mailbox.

    Of course, said buddy would have to had been a co-conspirator, or else he would have came back to whomever asked him that small favor: “Remember those letters in a ziplock bag that I posted for you at Princeton ?” …

    The FBI has already ruled that Ivins acted alone. So he must have been the one who mailed the letters. Q.E.D.

  12. #12 Kathryn Cramer
    August 11, 2008

    Interesting point, that matter of anthrax and “the War on Terror.” If Ivins is the answer to this whodunit, it seems that we have met the enemy and he is us.

  13. #13 Lab Lemming
    August 12, 2008

    There’s a timeline here:
    http://emptywheel.firedoglake.com/2008/08/06/anthrax-timeline-two/
    It took a bit over a year for them to determine the anthrax samples didn’t match after they finally got the correct ones, so the fact that he originally turned over ‘other’ anthrax for sequencing bought him a total of about 4 years before they figured it out.

    Why nothing happened between 05 and 07 is something that I don’t understand…

  14. #14 TomJoe
    August 12, 2008

    To some extent, I think we’re looking in the wrong place. I think the B. subtilis was a larger piece of the puzzle than we realize.

    It’s all about the contaminant …

  15. #15 eddie
    August 18, 2008
  16. #16 BioinfoTools
    September 4, 2008

    I haven’t time to look into this, but there is a recent commentary and editorial in Nature to the effect that the FBI intent to release the data used to resolve the anthrax “case” in peer-reviewed journals (Dance Nature 454(7208)928).

  17. #17 BioinfoTools
    September 4, 2008

    That should be issue 7207, sorry.

  18. #18 seo
    December 9, 2008

    naber dedim iyiyim dedi, nasilsin dedim kotu dedi!

  19. #19 nlp eğitimi
    July 9, 2011

    n part, probably because they had tunnel vision once they set their eyes on Hatfill? I’m not sure when they finally decided that he wasn’t their man, but while they were focused on him, I doubt they even suspected anyone else. I don’t think this obsessive focus on one individual, contrary to the evidence, is something new to criminal investigations.

    Plus, we’re also probably assuming that this entire process would be handled expertly, logically, thoroughly, precisely, and timely … and if there has been any notion that I have been disabused of by this current Administration … that’s the

  20. #20 nlp eğitimi
    July 15, 2011

    If Ivins was really that BSI, why was he allowed to continue working at a biological warfare lab with a top clearance and access to such nasty stuff

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