Weaponization is just a Buzz Word
by
Ed Lake
(Feb. 19, 2003)
(Last revised Feb. 20, 2003)

"Weaponization" in the anthrax case is really just a buzz word, and buzz words are used mainly by people who don't want to bother explaining details about their cause or their area of expertise.  In the anthrax case, the term is primarily used by those who want to blame either some U.S. government weapons program or Iraq, and they use "weaponization" and "weaponized" when talking about the refined anthrax spores that were in the letters sent to Senators Daschle and Leahy.  Using such words is intended to conjure up images of a huge government project.

But look at the statistics:

2 deaths and 10 injuries resulted from the "unweaponized" anthrax in the media letters.

3 deaths and 7 injuries resulted from the "weaponized" anthrax in the Senate letters.

In reality, when the culprit sent anthrax through the mail, he used it as a weapon and thereby "weaponized" it.  And that applies to both mailings.

If you read spy thrillers, you know that you can use a pen or pencil or even your car keys as a weapon.  How easy is it to "weaponize" your car keys?  If you think about using them as a weapon, you have "weaponized" them.   It's that easy. If you think about running over your philandering husband with your Mercedes, you are "weaponizing" your Mercedes.

The germs of Bacillus anthrasis need to kill in order to survive.  Luckily, we have an immune system to help protect us from such things - as long as the amounts are relatively small, as is normal in Nature.  A healthy adult can inhale small quantities of spores without great risk of death.  People working with animal hides do it every day.

A much better term for what was done between the two mailings is that the unrefined anthrax was refined to make it more lethal.  The deadly element of anthrax was separated from the harmless debris of sporulation.  I.e., the deadly elements were concentrated so that they can more easily overcome human immune systems.

The word "weaponization" has no real value when it comes to understanding anything about the anthrax case - except that the attack anthrax was not modified to make vaccines and antibiotics ineffective.  Any real "weaponization" would have done that as the first objective.  When the object is to kill with a "weapon", you first make certain that it can penetrate the defenses of the person being attacked.

The anthrax spores in the Senators' letters were refined to near purity at about a trillion spores per gram.  This awes people who cannot conceive of any individual having the capability to create such material.  In this case "weaponization" has come to mean: a trillion spores per gram.

But, if theyíd use a different word - "separation" - things might look very different.  "Separation" is a word that has meaning, and it doesn't conjure up scary government projects.

SEPARATION

On the main page of this web site, in the Refining Section, five steps for producing the anthrax in the Senators' letters are listed:

1.  Germination - Causing the seed spores to develop into living germs.
2.  Vegetation -  Growing sufficient anthrax germs to provide what is needed for the mailings.
3.  Sporulation - Causing the anthrax germs to create spores.
4.  Separation - Separating the spores from the dead "mother germs" and other debris.
5.  Weaponization - Turning the spores into a superfine powder.

In many ways, separation is the easiest of these words to understand.  And it could be the "key" to truly understanding the anthrax case.

The size of an anthrax spore is determined by Nature.  An anthrax spore is approximately 1 micron in diameter.  At that size, if you can separate spores from the debris of sporulation, you automatically have a trillion spores per gram.  In theory, you donít even need the "weaponization" step to produce what was in the Senators' letters.

Spores are routinely purified by companies or individuals who do work involving analysis of spores (e.g., research on sporulation, germination, or spore properties) or production of spores (e.g., spore-based pesticides, spore-based vaccines, or spore-based weapons).

There are companies which manufacture pesticides and routinely create large quantities of spores of Bacillus thuringiensis (BT), which is nearly identical to Bacillus Anthrasis (anthrax) except that BT is virtually harmless to humans.  The knowledge isn't a government secret.

I asked a professor of microbiology how easy it is to separate spores from debris, and the response was:

"Purification of spores would not be part of a standard microbiology course, and would not be part of standard activities for most institutions (i.e., for institutions not working on analysis or production of spores).

"However, the requisite methods are published and require only standard skills and standard equipment (and readily could be carried out by persons with graduate training and/or technical employment in biochemistry, molecular biology, microbiology, or cell biology).

"Powder processing (milling, spray drying, etc.), if performed, would be performed after purification.   Powder processing would require specialized skills and specialized equipment."

The key phase in the last paragraph is: "if performed".  If separation achieved the desired result, powder processing wouldn't be necessary.   "Weaponization" becomes a meaningless term - or a term that merely describes motive.

VOLUME

When I argued this with True Believers who feel that Iraq was behind the mailings, their response was that producing a trillion spores would require at least a bathtub full of vegetating germs, and that would be extremely difficult to keep a secret in a busy lab or hide in a basement.

I asked a microbiologist about that.  The response was:

"For a broad range of bacterial species, ~1 liter of culture yields ~1 gram of cells.  With a sporulation efficiency of, say, 70% and a purification efficiency of, say, 70%, ~2 liters of culture would yield ~1 gram of spores.

"Several standard shaken-flask cultures, or a single standard fermenter run, would have sufficed to produce all the Amerithrax material."

In short, itís not an operation that requires a major government lab.  At no time during the growing process did the culprit need a container to hold more than a liter of material.  And the result of the sporulation step could have been the same dried material that was found in the media letters: unrefined anthrax that is approximately 90 percent dead germs, dead mother cells and dried nutrients, and 10 percent spores.

That made people wonder what form of anthrax the culprit had in his possession on 9-11.

TIMING

The fact that there was only a week between 9-11 and the first mailings always brings up that question: What did the culprit have in his possession on 9-11?  Did he have a test tube of frozen anthrax germs?  Did he have a few spores?  Did he have sporulated germs?

Logically, since he sent unrefined material to the media, thatís most likely what he had on 9-11: a flask of unrefined anthrax consisting of 90 percent debris and 10 percent spores.  He certainly could have had a supply of spores or frozen germs and simply rushed to produce the unrefined material.  It could have been done in a day or two.  But time was short, so it is most likely he just took what he already had and spooned it into the letters - one heaping teaspoonful for each of the five media letters.

Even at 10 percent spores, that means there were approximately 100 billion spores per media letter.  But the spores were mostly still inside the dead, dried mother germs - until the material was mashed and pounded and crunched as it went through the post office machinery.  And even then, most of the spores were still within the mother germs, which would greatly reduce their ability to float through the air.  That's why most of the anthrax cases from the first mailing were cutaneous.

Until the September 18 mailing, there were no statistics about how dangerous that concentrated sporulation material can be.  Now we know.  The unrefined anthrax in the September 18 mailing caused 2 deaths by inhalation anthrax and 10 injuries by cutaneous anthrax.

"BENCH SKILLS"

All this seems to point away from Dr. Hatfill as being the anthrax culprit.  Growing anthrax may be well within Dr. Hatfillís skills.  In fact, it is something that nut cases can do in their basements.  Aum Shinrikyo did it in 1993.  But when you get into forcing sporulation and the techniques of separation thatís a different ball game. When the FBI said that Dr. Hatfill didn't have the "bench skills" to make the Senators' anthrax, that is what they were probably talking about.

A person can learn all the theory he wants, and he can talk about making anthrax all he wants, but when it comes to going through the actual steps that were necessary, that's where the talkers are separated from the doers.

Dr. Hatfill apparently purchased a phony PhD certificate.  He's become infamous for not having done many things he said he had done.  He's talker.  He's also a bullshitter.  The anthrax culprit is someone who has significant "bench skills".  And, too, Dr. Hatfill worked with viruses.  Viruses don't sporulate.  There's no reason to believe he'd have all of the "bench skills" needed to force sporulation in living anthrax germs, much less to separate and refine the dried sporulation material to produce a batch of nearly 100 percent spores.

Except for the understanding that comes from showing how Dr. Hatfill could not have done it, discussing him is a waste of time.  But that doesnít prevent die-hard Dr. Hatfill theorists from insisting that he could have the skills.  One wrote me:

"I think you are reading WAY to much into the bench skills argument.  Most of Hatfill's 'expansive' CV relates to work in South Africa / Rhodesia prior to his NIH fellowship from 1995 to 1997 and his USAMRIID position from 1997 to 1999.  His applications for both positions clearly discuss training with Synthecon's bioreactors.  NIH Fellowship positions typically are 'hands on' and at USAMRIID Hatfill was Principle Investigator for a Universal Pathogen detection system using the Bioreactors, which were for viral and BACTERIAL pathogens."
He went on and on after this, but this first paragraph held most of his argument.  And clearly it says nothing about expertise in refining anthrax.  The arguer told me this was "trivial":
"With a little experience and the right formulas, growing and weaponizing anthrax is a pretty trivial task.  Where is the Ďdifficult partí?  Silica is readily available and any reasonably well equipped lab will have a light microscope, hood, incubator, centrifuge, filters, and a lyophilizer.  Growing bacteria is much easier than mamallian cells or viruses.  To do the mailings, the perpetrator just needed access to material, protocols for generating the end product, access to a modern molecular biology / bacteriology lab, and the will to carry out an act of bioterror."
And another expert joined in:
"I concur.  Production and purification of spores would require neither specialized skills nor specialized equipment (and would be  well within the grasp of persons with, say, six months of graduate study and/or technical experience in molecular biology or microbiology).  Powder processing might require specialized skills and specialized equipment--or might simply require specialized protocols."
We ended the debate there, because it was becoming an argument over the definition of the word "difficult", and I already had enough problems with the word "weaponization".

Besides, we all agreed that a lone scientist could have done it and probably did do it.  It was just debatable whether Dr. Hatfill had to the skills to do it, and we didn't know enough about Dr. Hatfill actual skills to say anything with authority.  And, even if he had the skills, did he have the means and opportunity?  I say no, but others are always ready to figure out ways that he might have.  And that is good enough for them to continue to believe.

 SUMMARY

So, when you stop just using buzz words like "weaponization" and start thinking about actual processes for turning anthrax germs into spores in a concentration of a trillion per gram, you begin to see how a lone scientist could have done it - and probably did do it.

William Patrick III said in an interview: "what concerns me are graduate students and professors in microbiology and chemical engineering who have a better appreciation of the finer points of detail. If they were to get disgruntled, I think they could, with a little trial and error, come up with a reasonably acceptable BW agent."

Anthrax spores of a trillion per gram is not something some untrained, radical could brew up in his garage or basement, but itís definitely something that a skilled microbiologist could easily produce.  And it is most definitely not something that could only be done as part of a huge government project.
 
 

Ed Lake
First draft: Feb. 19, 2003
Second draft: Feb. 20, 2003

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