September 25, 2006

WHY DO THEY CALL THEM INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES?:

FBI Is Casting A Wider Net in Anthrax Attacks (Allan Lengel and Joby Warrick, 9/25/06, Washington Post)

Five years after the anthrax attacks that killed five people, the FBI is now convinced that the lethal powder sent to the Senate was far less sophisticated than originally believed, widening the pool of possible suspects in a frustratingly slow investigation.

The finding, which resulted from countless scientific tests at numerous laboratories, appears to undermine the widely held belief that the attack was carried out by a government scientist or someone with access to a U.S. biodefense lab.

What was initially described as a near-military-grade biological weapon was ultimately found to have had a more ordinary pedigree, containing no additives and no signs of special processing to make the anthrax bacteria more deadly, law enforcement officials confirmed. In addition, the strain of anthrax used in the attacks has turned out to be more common than was initially believed, the officials said.

As a result, after a very public focus on government scientists as the likely source of the attacks, the FBI is today casting a far wider net, as investigators face the daunting prospect of an almost endless list of possible suspects in scores of countries around the globe. [...]

Specifically, law enforcement authorities have refuted the widely reported claim that the anthrax spores had been "weaponized" -- specially treated or processed to allow them to disperse more easily. They also have rejected reports that the powder was milled, or ground, to create finer particles that can penetrate deeply into the lungs. Such processing or additives might have suggested that the maker had access to the recipes of biological weapons made by the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.

In fact, the anthrax powder used in the 2001 attacks had no additives, writes Douglas J. Beecher, a scientist in the FBI laboratory's Hazardous Materials Response Unit, in an article in the science journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

"A widely circulated misconception is that the spores were produced using additives and sophisticated engineering supposedly akin to military weapons production," Beecher writes in the journal's August edition, in what is believed to be the most expansive public comment on the nature of the powder by any FBI official. "The idea is usually the basis for implying that the powders were inordinately dangerous compared to spores alone."

The FBI would not allow Beecher to be interviewed about his article. But other scientists familiar with the forensic investigation echoed his description. Whoever made the powder produced a deadly project of exceptional purity and quality -- up to a trillion spores per gram -- but used none of the tricks known to military bioweapons scientists to increase the lethality of the product. Officials stressed that the terrorist would have had to have considerable skills in microbiology and access to equipment.

"It wasn't weaponized. It was just nicely cleaned up," said one knowledgeable scientist who spoke on the condition he not be identified by name because the investigation is continuing. "Whoever did it was proud of their biology. They grew the spores, spun them down, cleaned up the debris. But there were no additives."

Moreover, scientists say, the particular strain of anthrax used in the attacks has turned to out to be a less significant clue than first believed. The highly virulent Ames strain was first isolated in the United States and was the basis for the anthrax weapons formerly created by the United States. The use of the Ames strain in the 2001 attack was initially seen as a strong clue linking the terrorist to the U.S. biodefense network.

But the more the FBI investigated, the more ubiquitous the Ames strain seemed, appearing in labs around the world including nations of the former Soviet Union.

"Ames was available in the Soviet Union," said former Soviet bioweapons scientist Sergei Popov, now a biodefense expert at George Mason University. "It could have come from anywhere in the world."

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 25, 2006 6:57 AM
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