Anthrax: From ‘Science’ to conspiracy

Posted in Bioterrorism at 9:54 am by George Smith

Yesterday, Science magazine published a news article entitled: “Silicon Mystery Endures in Solved Anthrax Case.”


“What about the silicon?” asks the piece.

That question has confounded investigators throughout the probe into the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, which the U.S. government formally concluded in February. Scientists inside and outside the government say there is clear evidence that the high levels of silicon found in the anthrax came not from anything added to “weaponize” the anthrax spores—as researchers had suggested early in the probe—but from the culture in which the spores were grown. That evidence may have settled the issue of whether the anthrax was weaponized, at least for scientists familiar with the case. But it raises a different question: Why did the mailed anthrax have such a high proportion of spores with a silicon signature in comparison to most other anthrax samples?

Whatever the answer turns out to be, it won’t change the FBI’s “conclusion that the attacks were the sole handiwork of now-deceased U.S. Army researcher Bruce Ivins.”

The magazine might also have added it won’t change the minds of those who simply don’t believe Ivins did it, or that he did not work alone, or that because the mailed anthrax was ‘weaponized’ Ivins could not have done it because he did not have the know-how, three beliefs, among others, which make up the hard kernel of anthrax case conspiracy theory.

Paradoxically, it was a news article in Science magazine in 2003 which bundled all the rumors of weaponization in one authoritative spot, laying the foundation for much of this.

Written by Gary Matsumoto and entitled “Anthrax Powder: State of the Art?”, it engaged in a speculation on how the mailed anthrax was weaponized.

It is here.

Near the top of the old article, one reads:

[One group of people] thinks that the powder mailed to the Senate (widely reported to be more refined than the one mailed to the TV networks in New York) was a diabolical advance in biological weapons technology. This diverse group includes scientists who specialize in biodefense for the Pentagon and other federal agencies, private-sector scientists who make small particles for use in pharmaceutical powders, and an electronics researcher [in Texas] …

The piece continued with an almost maniacal rumination on how things like “polymerized glass” or “Aerosil” had possibly been mixed with the anthrax in the crafting of a diabolical weapon.

Who could have done it? Battelle (or as it has been puckishly expressed, the Umbrella Corporation) or perhaps Dugway, the article implied, hastily adding “None of this argues that Battelle or any of its employees made the Senate anthrax powder.”

The FBI science exhibit on the Ivins case in 2008 attempted to put this to rest, delivering a set of facts Science magazine repeated again yesterday.

“We found no additives; no exogenous material on the outside of the spores,” said Joseph Michael, a materials scientist at Sandia National Laboratory in 2008. “We did have the opportunity to look at weaponized material to compare it to the letter material and they were very different. And [in] the weaponized material the additives appear on the outside of the spore. Again, in the letter materials the silicon and oxygen were co-located on the spore coat [which is] within the spore. In fact, we found some vegetative cells that were going through the sporulation process and the spore within the mother cell had this same signature.”

From Science, yesterday:

Examining the spores under a scanning electron microscope, [an Army group of] scientists detected silicon and oxygen and concluded that the spores had been coated with silica to make them float easily, enhancing their power to kill.

A more detailed analysis by Joseph Michael and Paul Kotula of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contradicted that conclusion. Studying individual spores with a transmission electron microscope, they found that the silicon was located within the spore coat, well inside the cell’s exosporium (outermost covering). By contrast, when they looked at surrogate spores weaponized with silica, the silicon was clearly outside the exosporium.

In 2008 it wasn’t enough to dampen the conspiracy theories. And one does not really expect anything to change now.

From the beginning of a Register story on the FBI exhibition in 2008:

The posting to the net of a transcript of the FBI’s briefing to the press on the science behind the anthrax case is remarkable for two things: first, for its explanation of the development of microbial forensics and the team of scientists behind it; and second, for the determination of some members of the press to run off on a conspiracy theory hinging upon whether or not the anthrax was ever weaponized.

As to the second part, the FBI and its team of independent scientists unequivocally said it wasn’t, after repeated badgering by one journalist – unnamed in the transcript – who insisted other scientists at Ft. Detrick and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology had determined the anthrax to be weaponized because silica was allegedly seen on the surface of the spores.

Dr Joseph Michael, a materials scientist at Sandia National Laboratories who had, with others, analyzed the anthrax powders in depth, flatly denied this. “They are mistaken,” the man replied to repeated questioning.

That journalist in question was the one who had written the news piece for Science in 2003.

1 Comment

  1. blog said,

    March 21, 2010 at 9:37 am

    Anthrax: From ‘Science’ to conspiracy…

    Last week, Science magazine published a news article entitled: “Silicon Mystery Endures in Solved Anthrax Case.” It’s here. “What about the silicon?” it muses, bringing up once again a curious element in the case, one which from the very start tri…