The Anthrax/Hatfill Files
By Nicholas Stix
Insight on the News
October 21, 2002
Media presentations of the investigation into the anthrax-letter attacks that last fall killed five people and sickened over a dozen others have been driven by theories, speculation and intense political partisanship. That situation has arisen due to various political forces' desire to kidnap the case in order to cause the U.S. biodefense program to be shut down, and due to a paucity of reliable, hard knowledge. The human mind hates a vacuum and ignorance is a most hospitable host to rampant speculation. Thus do we find ourselves no better informed on the one-year anniversary of the attacks than we were at the time.
With the help of anonymous FBI profilers and activist academics such as Dr. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, the American media have been wed to the notion that a disgruntled, white male loner from within the U.S. biowarfare-defense program at USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases) in Maryland stole the anthrax bacteria, secretly did the lab work all by himself and carried out the attacks, perhaps to warn the public of the dangers of bioterrorism. Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Shane has dubbed this the "bioevangelist" theory.
The anthrax found in the letters was of the Ames strain, which originated in an infected cow in Texas in 1981. Until a 1997 federal law mandated strict controls and record-keeping for the scientific use and sharing of toxic substances, the Ames strain was passed around the world by scientists via mutual cooperation, with virtually no controls or oversight.
While it is possible that a small sample of the anthrax used in the attack was stolen from a U.S. bioweapons lab and then subsequently grown into larger quantities, it is much more likely that the perpetrator obtained the anthrax from any of a multitude of foreign sources.
Dr. Paul Keim, a Northern Arizona University professor of microbiology, performed an exhaustive genetic analysis on a sample of the attack anthrax, comparing it to the same analysis of Ames anthrax samples held at U.S. bioweapons-defense installations. In Dr. Keim's study, published in the May 9, 2002, edition of Science magazine, he concluded that his results were unable to shed any light on the source of the anthrax — other than to conclude that its original source was the same 1981 Texas cow that was the source of the Ames anthrax samples at U.S. biowarfare-defense installations.
The notion that a single, renegade scientist secretly could have created the weapon has been shot down by Dr. Richard O. Spertzel, the former head of the biology section of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq. On Sept. 18, in London's Financial Times, Dr. Spertzel argued, "I've heard nothing that has changed my mind." Spertzel is persuaded the anthrax attack involved active state support: "You could not possibly make that quality of product in a clandestine fashion. It's not the sort of thing you can do in your garage or in your basement."
While some experts maintain that it would be possible for a determined individual — even a talented bench technician — to produce high-quality anthrax with one trillion spores per gram, it seems extremely unlikely that this could be done without attracting attention. A lone bioweaponeer with the requisite knowledge and skills still would have extreme difficulty transferring the process to the type of setup that could be made in a basement or remote location.
And the cost would run into the millions. The specific equipment used to produce weaponized anthrax — through the various steps of initial bioreaction through weaponization by chemical treatment, proper spore-size control and drying — likely would run to several hundred thousand dollars. Add to that sum the required ancillary equipment, including scanning electron microscopes, not to mention the multimillion dollar infrastructure.
Substituting cheaper equipment for the tools normally used by a skilled scientist would cause serious problems of "process transfer." The preceding term commonly is used in the chemical and engineering community to describe taking a manufacturing process from one site and starting it up at another site, sometimes using different equipment. It almost would be impossible to repeat the original lab process and produce the same high-quality product with a homemade set-up without hundreds of trial-and-error tests. And when the first reasonable-looking, pure anthrax powder was produced, it would be essential to test it. This only can be done by sacrificing hundreds of Rhesus monkeys — an activity that is unlikely to go unnoticed by the neighbors.
If Drs. Keim and Spertzel are correct, the authorities have wasted precious time and resources on a wild goose chase. Hopefully, the lost time has not ensured the escape from detection of the anthrax terrorists.