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Friday, December 01, 2006

Anthrax update

The recent murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko reminded me that I have for some weeks meant to post an update about the anthrax attacks of fall 2001. Like the more recent case, the killer(s) apparently used an unusual weapon to send a political message.

After five years, however, we still do not know who obtained and sent the anthrax that was mailed to various journalists and Senators. The Washington Post published a story updating the investigation on September 25, but the Hartford Courant scooped the Post on September 22 with a similar narrative:
Contrary to a widely held theory among anthrax experts, the killer needed no sophisticated equipment or intimate knowledge to produce the anthrax mailed to two U.S. congressmen, Douglas Beecher wrote recently in a trade magazine for microbiologists.

Anthrax experts and many media reports have long theorized that the killer would have needed to mix the deadly substance with an additive to aerosolize it - a feat most likely accomplished by a limited number of people with access to high-level labs such as those operated by the U.S. military.

The FBI official's apparent dismissal of that theory is chilling in that it greatly broadens the potential pool of suspects, experts who have followed the case say. Beecher also wrote that previous theories "may misguide research and preparedness efforts and generally distract from the magnitude of hazards posed by simple spore preparations."
Beecher is named as a microbiologist in the FBI's hazardous materials response unit, so his article is certainly worth noting. The FBI has said very little about the case for four years.

In any case, Beecher's article debunks the "widely circulated misconception...that the spores were produced using additives and sophisticated engineering supposedly akin to military weapon production."

However, the Courant also quoted "prominent anthrax expert, Louisiana State University Professor Martin Hugh Jones" saying that he still believed the anthrax was made in a sophisticated laboratory rather than a basement because of quality control issues and cost ($20,000 for the proper equipment).

The Post story quotes, anonymously, a scientist stating that the 2001 anthrax had no signature that "points to a domestic source." The so-called "Ames" strain long-linked to the attacks is widely available around the world, meaning that that this lineage alone means nothing.

It appears that the case is more of a mystery than ever. While some on the right have used this latest news to suggest that Iraq or al Qaeda could have been behind the attacks, this is pure speculation. The notion that the 9/11 hijackers were exposed to anthrax seems almost surreal -- and the evidence is anecdotal at best. Even then, there's no reason to believe that Mohamed Atta and crew could have made the anthrax.

The person who did make the anthrax cooked up a really pure form, so he or she is a good microbiologist, but the anthrax was not weaponized. Moreover, it could have come from anywhere in the world.

This news might make it harder to identify the killer, but it is probably good news overall in that there is now no evidence that a terrorist has access to militarized and extraordinarily lethal anthrax.

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