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As Long as We Remember...

August 27, 2008

White Powder and 007

Norman M. Covert

Frederick is the epicenter of those who would terrorize the nation with envelopes and little white powder, if one believes the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Count me among the naysayers, who number more than a roomful.


The government mobilized its team of Double-oh (uh-oh!) secret agents seven years ago to identify a villainous mad scientist, who, without genuine motive or opportunity, single handedly:


– Used a Bio-Containment Level Three lab suite at Fort Detrick’s U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), to develop a highly bred, weapons-grade strain of Bacillus anthracis (a scientific achievement not accomplished before, except perhaps in the biological warfare laboratories of the former Soviet Union).


– Manipulated this super bacillus with a silica coating and a slight electrical charge so that, when opened in the containment cabinet, each particle repelled others in a brilliant display.


– Ensured each particle was no more than five microns in size so that it would penetrate the fabric of a normal No. 10 paper envelope, a product sold by the U.S. Postal Service in the District of Columbia, Northern Virginia, West Virginia and Central Maryland.


– Managed to remove the material from the laboratory with it already placed in at least one envelope, also likely encased in an impermeable container, which would be obscured from the security guard.


– Managed to avoid leaving any evidence on his clothing, his two automobiles and van, his house, garage, office and other personal items despite the extremely “dirty” potential of the dry agent.


– Managed, in a fashion unknown to the Department of Homeland Security and the “Double-Ohs,” to have the envelopes placed in a mailbox in Princeton, NJ, with a note in a handwriting that cannot be identified with any known person.


– Managed to obscure this cutting edge science from a host of colleagues for the entire development period – a major feat in itself!


– Simultaneously he managed to significantly improve an old anthrax vaccine to protect our troops during Operation Desert Storm; then was a key developer of the new recombinant DNA based anthrax vaccine that was undergoing efficacy trials at USAMRIID.


One would imagine that Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Ian Fleming’s ubiquitous villain, is the perpetrator of this almost perfect crime, not the latest unfortunate person postulated as the perpetrator of the “Amerithrax” attacks in October and November 2001.


Several “suspects” have been identified in the investigation and for each it has resulted in personal and professional ruin. Only Dr. Steven Hatfill has managed any compensation for the FBI’s bull-in-a-china-shop investigation – about $5.7 million of which his lawyers may realize the majority. Dr. Hatfill’s career is in ruins.


And now, the late Dr. Bruce Ivins, apparently dead of an overdose of medicine, is accused. The FBI says its “creative application” of science led it to identify the DNA of the culprit B. anthracis as being on a beaker in Dr. Ivins' lab. The evidence does not indicate what implicates Dr. Ivins, except that it was identified as “his” beaker in “his” lab.


Dr. Ivins and more than one hundred researchers, assistants, veterinarians and others have used the lab for its work on the vaccines. They dirtied the lab in analyzing the envelopes and contents, which had been mailed to the Florida editorial office of a weekly tabloid newspaper, NBC News in New York City and the office of Sen. Tom Daschle (D., SD) in Washington.


Scientists at Fort Detrick would love to get their hands on this scientific breakthrough. The FBI says it will ultimately publish peer reviewed papers on it. The bench work probably would constitute a boon to the team at Fort Detrick, which has labored since 1980 to develop an improved medical countermeasure against B. anthracis.


“Alas!” or, “Hark!” whatever the better exclamation, the arrival of envelopes containing “white powder” at Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign offices in Denver, CO, and Manchester, NH, last week sounded a familiar note.


The FBI’s hazardous materials team felt early on that the powder was not dangerous. No explanation was provided on how, when, or where the powder was analyzed. The Denver Post reported an inmate of the local jail was the culprit, saying he was a “regular threatening letter writer.”


It would seem certain that microbiologists at USAMRIID would be reluctant if asked to analyze either of these latest envelopes. “Perhaps” the envelopes came from the West Seventh Street Post Office in Frederick, and, too, consider the FBI has “creative application” of science.


Cinematic research verifies that just when James Bond is sure he’s liquidated Blofeld, the SPECTRE No. 1 pops up again.


Dr. Ivins is no fictional character and it’s certain that his death is probably another bad ending for flawed investigative work by the G-Men.


I’m sorry for Diane Ivins, the family and his colleagues.


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