desert project on anthrax
By JOAN LOWY
Last year, scientists at a secretly constructed laboratory in the Nevada desert manufactured simulated anthrax germs using off-the-shelf technology and over-the-counter equipment - a project that seems eerily prescient in light of the current germ attacks.
What they discovered is not encouraging: For about $1.6 million, a small group of microbiologists and engineers could grow enough anthrax to kill or injure thousands of people without detection by U.S. law-enforcement or intelligence agencies.
Defense officials said the project did not take the production process to its final conclusion and "weaponize'' the germ, but two biological weapons experts familiar with the project say the anthrax germs were in fact finely milled in particles of less than 5 microns - a key step in preparing anthrax for widespread dispersal.
Either way, the project's results tend to lend credence to arguments that the anthrax germs in the current attacks may have been produced domestically.
Last week, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the anthrax involved in the letter attacks could have been produced by a "Ph.D. microbiologist ... in a small, well-equipped microbiology lab,'' although some bioterrorism experts said that was understating the complexity of such an effort.
The desert program, parts of which remain classified, was officially named Biotechnology Activity Characterization by Unconventional Signatures, or Project BACUS for short. It was run primarily by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which was created by the Defense Department in 1998 to address biological, chemical and nuclear weapons proliferation issues.
Beginning in late 1999, scientists constructed a laboratory in the desert at the old Nevada Test Site, which had closed seven years earlier after an underground nuclear weapons testing moratorium went into effect. No germ warfare experts were involved in the experiment - only microbiologists and engineers with the kind of experience that might be commonly found in the pharmaceutical or pesticide industry.
Using equipment bought at hardware stores, through catalogues or from commercial suppliers - pipes, filters, a fermenter to grow the germs, an electric boiler to maintain the water supply and to sterilize the fermenter, a milling machine, and a biosafety box to control air flow - project participants set up a laboratory in an old recreation hall and barbershop.
Within weeks, they were able to produce significant quantities of bacillus thuringiensis and bacillus globigii, two germs that are closely related to anthrax, but are not harmful. For test purposes, it was effectively the same thing as producing anthrax for weaponization.
"We were growing simulants, but a terrorist could easily grow anthrax in a facility like this and produce enough quantity in covert delivery to kill, say, 10,000 people in a large city,'' said Jay Davis, the former head of the threat reduction agency who oversaw the project and is now a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
Project BACUS did not mill the germs to particles of less than five microns - the size necessary to cause inhalation anthrax, the most dangerous form of the disease - or coat the germ spores with a material to help them stay airborne and keep them from clumping, Davis said. That would be the normal procedure in a state-sponsored biological weapons program and which appears to be the case in the current anthrax attacks.
The reason for not fully weaponizing the anthrax was that defense officials did not want to violate the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the international treaty banning biological weapons production, Davis said.
Project BACUS "was designed so that if the Russians had found out about it, it would have withstood a challenge,'' Davis said. "That's why we didn't do the steps (to weaponize it.) Do you mill it? Do you prepare to disperse it? You can get into a legalistic argument that with a simulant you wouldn't violate the treaty, but most of us feel that's too close to the edge.''
However, two biological weapons experts familiar with the project told Scripps Howard News Service that the germs were finely milled. Also, the recently released book on biological weapons, "Germs,'' written by three New York Times reporters, says the project acquired a milling machine from a company in the Midwest.
Retired Air Force Col. Randall Larsen, director of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security and an instructor on homeland security at the National War College in Washington, recently showed Vice President Cheney of vial of finely milled, weaponized bacillus globigii at a recent briefing on bioterrorism.
Asked about the source of the weaponized germ, Larsen said it was given to him by "someone in government'' who made it "with equipment purchased over the Internet.''
"It could have come from that (Project BACUS). I just don't know enough. I just can't say if it did or not,'' Larsen said.
The project also did not attempt to develop a means to widely disperse anthrax spores - a key hurdle if terrorists were to try to kill large numbers of people with the bacteria, Davis said.
"The real question is not the amount, but how well they disperse it,'' Davis said. "The current anthrax going through the mail is the perfect example. People talk about grams killing thousands of people. Maybe a gram went through the mail, but it only made a few people sick. ... Hypothetically, the same amount that has caused the problem in Washington, if you had optimally dispersed it over a football game, would have caused a lot more infection simply because you would have had more people you could get at better.''
A key finding of the project was that the simulated anthrax laboratory didn't have any significant "signature'' - a sign that law-enforcement or intelligence agencies could look for to try to spot terrorists at work.
Sensors were placed around and away from the facilities. The project looked for similar kinds of things law-enforcement agencies look for when they are trying to find illegal drug dealers making methamphetamine - key purchases of materials or equipment and the presence of certain chemicals, sounds, odors or amounts of heat. Germ batches were produced in the winter of 1999 and the summer of 2000 to test for differences between seasons.
"What came out of it is that by the determinations that they were making (using sensors) it didn't have a significant signature that would send off alarms or surveillance of something like that,'' said Dr. Craig Smith, a member of the bioterrorism working group for the Infectious Disease Society of America and a former instructor at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the military's lead laboratory for medical aspects of biowarfare defense.
Project BACUS showed that it is "pretty easy to hide something if you were smart enough to get all the parts and the pieces and put it together,'' Smith said.
The threat reduction agency went public with Project BACUS on Sept. 4, exactly one week before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.
"We wish we had done it (the project) sooner, as always,'' Davis said. "You are caught in this dilemma of how do you invest against relatively rare, high-consequence events. We would be happiest if this investment had been a waste of money, but that is not the way it came out.''
sleuths offer clues to anthrax mailer
Scripps Howard News Service
The hunt for the anthrax mailer is drawing on the talents of a Shakespeare scholar, a professor of microbiology, a computer security expert, and even a Wisconsin screenwriter who styles himself "the fake detective."
Some of these amateur sleuths have talked to the FBI about their discoveries, but others are satisfied just to post their speculation and discoveries on Web sites, in hopes that it will trigger someone to recognize something familiar and claim the $2.5 million reward offered by the FBI and the U.S. Postal Service for information leading to an arrest.
Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a professor of molecular biology at the State University of New York and chair of the biological weapons panel at the Federation of American Scientists, says she has shared her ideas on who is the likely culprit with the FBI, and now posts updates regularly on the Internet. "I get a lot of calls _ some with very elaborate theories, although some people do not know the simple facts," she said. She believes the culprit is going to turn out to be a middle-aged American, who is a government insider with a doctoral degree in biology and knowledge of sophisticated U.S. bio-defense programs, which he would need to make the anthrax.
In order not be made sick from the bacteria, he must have an up-to-date vaccination, and may be employed by a government contractor in the Washington, D.C., area, she said. That's a small enough group that the FBI should be zeroing in on a possible suspect, and she believes the FBI has already interviewed the culprit.
"Whoever knows this knows an awful lot _ it's going to be very embarrassing information that's going to come out in a trial," she said.
Another academic who has provided information to FBI investigators is Donald Foster, a Shakespearean scholar at Vassar University in New York, where he works normally as a professor of English.
Foster, best known for publicly unmasking Newsweek columnist Joe Klein as the author of the anonymous "Primary Colors" novel of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, is the scholar who established that a 1612 funeral elegy should probably be attributed to Shakespeare. He also helped the FBI in the Unibomber investigation that led to the conviction of Theodore Kaczynski by analyzing his writings.
Foster noted that the anthrax mailer provided few words, "but every document supplies some useful information," he said. "What we've got so far is useful, but not very adequate to lead the investigators to the offender."
The FBI has figured out that the anthrax-laced letters to NBC News and the New York Post were Xeroxed copies. Even though there are deliberate deceptions in that letter, Foster said it provides information that it was either written by someone for whom English is a second language, or by someone who wanted to create that impression.
"The language and sentence structure is quite basic," Foster said.
Among the clues, the mailer used the date "09-11-01" at the top of his letters, which is the way Americans write their dates. European and other cultures put the day first before the month. But Americans wouldn't normally write 09, but just 9 for the month of September, and it's difficult to believe adding the 0 wasn't deliberate when the date of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon was broadcast everywhere as just plain 9/11. The 09 would be required to fill out the spaces on dates on U.S. immigration forms, Foster noted.
The other clues come in the return address, listed as Greendale School, Franklin Park, N.J., 00852, which does not exist. There is a Franklin Park, but it has a different zip code. Foster said there are four Greendale Schools in the United States, and two in Canada, both of which have been featured in news reports _ one burned down in an arson, and the other was the site of a sexual molestation incident. Kaczynski used to get the addresses he used from reading in the library at UCLA, Foster said.
Ed Lake, a retired screenwriter who lives in Racine, Wis., and likes mysteries, said he got involved in the anthrax investigation by trying to organize the clues given out by the FBI. After reaching his own conclusions, he decided to share them with the Internet.
Lake says he gets about 100 hits on his Web site each day, and has received help from others, including Massachusetts Internet computer consultant Richard Smith, who has compiled his own listing of anthrax investigation leads.
"I think it's domestic definitely," says Lake. "I think the motive was to scare the American public to find bio-weapons research," he said.
Lake's discovery was how the mailer used European-sized business letter paper to make the letters he sent, and he's come to the conclusion that at least two people are involved _ a bioweapons expert or an academic familiar with anthrax research, and someone who sent the letters.
Lake said he doesn't know if his research will produce a screenplay. "I need an ending. With a screenplay, you normally start with an ending and work back. I need an arrest."
On the Net:
(Contact Lance Gay at gayl(at)shns.com
or visit SHNS on the Web at http://www.shns.com.)
argue new attacks probably likely
They say lack of arrests encourages copycat crimes
By Joan Lowy, Scripps Howard News
On Oct. 4, 2001, a nation still reeling from a horrific act of terrorism on U.S. soil awoke to a new nightmare -- bioterrorism -- as authorities in Florida announced the verification of a case of suspicious anthrax.
Over the next few weeks, deadly spores from anthrax-filled letters sent to the news media and the Senate killed five people, infected 18 others, forced the virtual shutdown of Congress, wreaked havoc on the U.S. Postal Service, sent thousands of panicked Americans scrambling for the antibiotic Cipro, and spurred the government to launch a massive expansion of biodefense programs.
One year later, no one has been arrested in the anthrax attacks and the FBI's investigation into the case appears to have stalled. Critics of the FBI probe fear that other would-be bioterrorists may be encouraged by the fact that the attacker has eluded authorities.
"A how-to message has been sent to future bioterrorists, and the only way to combat that is to show you can't get away with that," said Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a microbiologist at the State University of New York at Purchase and chair of the Federation of American Scientists' Chemical and Biological Arms Control Program. "We haven't done that, and that concerns me greatly."
In the immediate aftermath of the anthrax attacks, many experts insisted the letters were most likely the work of a terrorist group that had acquired the anthrax germ from a state-sponsored bioweapons program. The weaponized condition of the anthrax spores in the envelopes, they reasoned, indicated an attacker with sophisticated knowledge of anthrax, a complex set of skills, and access to specialized equipment.
The Islamic and anti-American rhetoric in the text of the letters -- dated Sept. 11, but not mailed until Sept. 18 from a postal box near Princeton, N.J. -- were clearly an attempt to tie the anthrax attacks to the 9/11 attacks.
However, the FBI investigation was soon narrowed to a search for a domestic perpetrator, most likely a lone individual in the biodefense field. The anthrax in the letters was identified as the Ames strain, which was originally isolated in the United States and adopted by the U.S. biodefense program in the late 1970s as the anthrax strain-of-choice, although it was also shared with Great Britain, Canada and Israel.
The spores in the letters were also coated with a chemical used in the U.S. biodefense program to keep them from clumping. Other state bioweapons programs tended to use a different chemical.
Criminal profilers say the wording of the anthrax messages appears to be the work of a native English speaker trying to throw suspicion on Islamic terrorists in an effort to disguise his identity.
Clint Van Zandt, a 25-year veteran of the FBI and a former supervisor of the agency's criminal profiling unit, sees parallels between the anthrax attacker and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
The anthrax attacker is "somebody cut out of a similar bolt of cloth who did it for purposes he thought were greater than himself," said Van Zandt, now a private consultant.
"Kaczynski tried to warn about the dangers of technology. McVeigh tried to warn about excesses on the part of government, and the anthrax sender, I believe, did it because he felt the United States was not responsive (to the threat of bioterrorism)."
Rosenberg also has postulated that the anthrax attacker was a disgruntled biodefense scientist trying to send a message about the threat of bioterrorism and the need to beef up America's biodefenses.
Rosenberg laid out her theory for key Senate staffers and the FBI at a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill in June. Rosenberg said she has never named any individual as a possible suspect, but after the meeting the FBI appeared to step up its investigation of Steven Hatfill, a former microbiologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., the government's principal biodefense laboratory. Hatfill's apartment has been searched three times and so have his girlfriend's apartment and a storage locker he keeps in Florida.
Hatfill has denied any involvement in the attacks. His supporters have accused the FBI of persecuting the scientist to deflect attention from the agency's lack of progress in the case.
Meanwhile, Congress has approved more than $6 billion in new biodefense research and preparedness since the attacks.
The rapid expansion of biodefense programs has some scientists questioning whether the government's response to bioterrorism will inadvertently increase the likelihood of future attacks by greatly boosting the number of researchers with access to dangerous pathogens and the skill to turn them into weapons.
The rapid expansion of research has not been accompanied by a corresponding tightening of security, said Richard Ebright, a microbiologist at Rutgers University.
Ebright said the only national restrictions on who can work with dangerous pathogens like anthrax are these: No illegal aliens, no citizens of countries that sponsor terrorism, no convicted felons, no admitted or convicted drug users, and no one who has been judged mentally incompetent or confined to a mental institution.
"This actually represents less vetting than required to operate a school bus in many parts of the country," Ebright said. The government has for decades imposed far greater security limitations on nuclear scientists, for example, than on scientists in the biodefense field.
In part, that's because in biodefense, the knowledge required to defend against dangerous germs is nearly the same as the knowledge required to turn them into deadly weapons, said David Heyman, director of science and security initiatives at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"If we're going to do a lot of
research which we haven't done in the past we need to have some sort of
self-governance mechanism or an oversight mechanism to make sure that research
that has clear national security implications doesn't fall into the wrong
hands or is compromised," Heyman said. "That doesn't exist today."
-- Joan Lowy's e-mail address is LowyJ@shns.com.