"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
A commenter here on Friday noted what appears to be a rather glaring contradiction in the case against Bruce Ivins. In response to criticisms that the FBI’s case contains no evidence placing Ivins in New Jersey, where the anthrax letters were sent, The Washington Post published an article — headlined “New Details Show Anthrax Suspect Away On Key Day” — which, based on leaks from “government sources briefed on the case,” purported to describe evidence about Bruce Ivins’ whereabouts on September 17 — the day the FBI says the first batch of anthrax letters were mailed from a Princeton, New Jersey mailbox. The Post reported:
A partial log of Ivins’s work hours shows that he worked late in the lab on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 16, signing out at 9:52 p.m. after two hours and 15 minutes. The next morning, the sources said, he showed up as usual but stayed only briefly before taking leave hours. Authorities assume that he drove to Princeton immediately after that, dropping the letters in a mailbox on a well-traveled street across from the university campus. Ivins would have had to have left quickly to return for an appointment in the early evening, about 4 or 5 p.m.
The fastest one can drive from Frederick, Maryland to Princeton, New Jersey is 3 hours, which would mean that Ivins would have had to have dropped the anthrax letters in the New Jersey mailbox on September 17 by 1 p.m. or — at the latest — 2 p.m. in order to be able to attend a 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. meeting back at Ft. Detrick. But had he dropped the letters in the mailbox before 5:00 p.m. on September 17, the letters would have borne a September 17 postmark, rather than the September 18 postmark they bore (letters picked up from that Princeton mailbox before 5 p.m. bear the postmark from that day; letters picked up after 5 p.m. bear the postmark of the next day). That’s why the Search Warrant Affidavit (.pdf) released by the FBI on Friday said this (page 8):
If the Post‘s reporting about Ivins’ September 17 activities is accurate — that he “return[ed to Fort Detrick] for an appointment in the early evening, about 4 or 5 p.m.” — then that would constitute an alibi, not, as the Post breathlessly described it, “a key clue into how he could have pulled off an elaborate crime,” since any letter he mailed that way would have a September 17 — not a September 18 — postmark. Just compare the FBI’s own definition of “window of opportunity” to its September 17 timeline for Ivins to see how glaring that contradiction is.
In theory (and there is no evidence for this at all), Ivins could have left Fort Detrick that night after work and driven to New Jersey, but then the leaked information reported by the Post about Ivins’ September 17 morning “administrative leave” would be completely irrelevant, and according to the Post, that isn’t what the FBI believes occurred (“Authorities assume that he drove to Princeton immediately after” he took administrative leave in the morning). The FBI’s theory as to how and when Ivins traveled to New Jersey on September 17 and mailed the letters is simply impossible, given the statement in their own Probable Cause Affidavit as to “the window of opportunity” the anthrax attacker had to mail the letters in order to have them bear a September 18 postmark. Marcy Wheeler and Larisa Alexandrovna have now noted the same discrepancy. That is a pretty enormous contradiction in the FBI’s case.
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The FBI’s total failure to point to a shred of evidence placing Ivins in New Jersey on either of the two days the anthrax letters were sent is a very conspicuous deficiency in its case. It’s possible that Ivins was able to travel to Princeton on two occasions in three weeks without leaving the slightest trace of having done so (not a credit card purchase, ATM withdrawal, unusual gas purchases, nothing), but that relies on a depiction of Ivins as a cunning and extremely foresightful criminal, an image squarely at odds with most of the FBI’s circumstantial evidence that suggests Ivins was actually quite careless, even reckless, in how he perpetrated this crime (spending unusual amounts of time in his lab before the attacks despite knowing that there would be a paper trail; taking an “administrative leave” from work to go mail the anthrax letters rather than just doing it on the weekend when no paper trail of his absence would be created; using his own anthrax strain rather than any of the other strains to which he had access at Fort Detrick; keeping that strain in its same molecular form for years rather than altering it, etc.).
The FBI dumped a large number of uncorroborated conclusions at once on Wednesday, carefully assembled to create the most compelling case they could make, and many people — as intended — jumped to proclaim that it was convincing. But the more that case is digested and assessed, the more questions and the more skepticism seem to arise among virtually everyone.
The Washington Post Editorial page — the ultimate establishment organ — published its second Editorial yesterday calling for an independent investigation of the FBI’s case against Ivins and pointed out just some of the numerous, critical holes in that case:
The case is admittedly circumstantial, and questions have been raised about the reliability of the FBI’s scientific evidence, the inability to tie Mr. Ivins to the handwritten notes included with the mailed anthrax, the process by which the FBI excluded as suspects others who had access to the anthrax, and more.
The NYT today has an excellent Op-Ed from a microbiologist (the former Chief of Fort Detrick’s bacteriology division) pointing out the numerous deficiencies in the FBI’s scientific assertions. Critically, that Op-Ed describes the properties of the high-grade anthrax sent to Sen. Daschle and then notes: “It is extremely improbable that this type of preparation could ever have been produced at Fort Detrick, certainly not of the grade and quality found in that envelope.”
The transcript of my interview with Dr. Gigi Gronvall of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh’s Medical Center — in which she points out the complete lack of scientific data presented in the FBI’s public case and explores the numerous other private and public institutions around the world engaged in high-level anthrax research — is now available here. A senior epidemiologist who posts at ScienceBlogs has raised several other significant deficiencies in the FBI’s scientific case — here and here — while a microbiologist and evolutionary biologist at the same site has expressed extreme doubt about one of the FBI’s key molecular claims, here. Are there any scientists anywhere who find the FBI’s claims impressive or convincing?
For those inclined to place faith in the FBI’s professed claims of “confidence” as coming from a trustworthy and admirable institution — the same way people placed faith in the Honorable Colin Powell’s quite similar one-sided, selective disclosure of evidence before the U.N. in 2003 — this ought to serve as a reminder of the foolishness of doing so, from ABC News’ World News Tonight, October 22, 2002:
PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS
(Off Camera) We have an exclusive report tonight about the anthrax attacks. It has been a year since the anthrax letters were sent to a number of media organizations and politicians. And as you may recall, five people died.
(Voice Over)The FBI tells ABC News it is very confident that it has found the person responsible.
PETER JENNINGS (CONTINUED)
(Off Camera) ABC’s Brian Ross is here. Brian? Same case, same individual.
BRIAN ROSS, ABC NEWS
(Off Camera) That’s right, Peter, Steven Hatfill. And while there’s no direct evidence, authorities say they are building what they describe as a growing case of circumstantial evidence.
There are so many people with motives far more substantial than Ivins’ to perpetrate an anthrax attack of this sort, and so many places other than Fort Detrick where this anthrax could have been produced (if it could have been produced by Ivins at Fort Detrick at all). An independent investigation by a body with meaningful subpoena power and an aggressive and respected investigator (and an accompanying law making it a felony to provide misleading information to, or to withhold information from, that body) is imperative. Is there anyone at this point who disagrees with that?
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Beginning tomorrow, August 11, I’ll be on vacation and thus, absent some highly unanticipated event, won’t be blogging for the week (until August 18). The Radio Show podcasts, however, will be posted here this week as scheduled — Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 2:00 p.m. EST [at least one of those segments will entail a discussion of Friday's Accountability Money Bomb, along with the short-term and longer-term plans for Accountability Now. Friday's Money Bomb raised in excess of $150,000 (and counting), bringing the total raised around these civil liberties and Constitutional issues, when combined with the Blue America FISA/telecom immunity funds raised in the last couple months, to more than $500,000].
Glenn Greenwald: I’m joined today by Doctor Gigi Gronvall, who’s an immunologist with the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. She’s also an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, and the associate editor of the quarterly journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism. Thanks very much for joining me today.
Dr. Gigi Gronvall: Thank you very much.
Greenwald: Now, I want to begin by asking you about a Washington Post article this morning, which actually quotes the director of your Center, Tara O’Toole, as follows, and I’m first reading from the article. Quote: “Bioweapons experts said they were unimpressed by the government’s description of the DNA link between the anthrax in the letters and spores in a flask in Ivins’ lab. Quote – “There is not enough scientific evidence to make an evaluation of the science the FBI used in this investigation” – end quote – said Tara O’Toole, who heads the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh.” Do you agree with that assessment, and if you do can you talk about why?
Gronvall: In the documents that the FBI released, they basically made assertions about the conclusions of the science that they had done. But they didn’t actually present it for analysis. So, it’s hard to say whether or not the science, to evaluation the science when really none was put out there to evaluate. It was an assertion that they had made this link. But there was no data. I think that is what she was getting at. There are a couple of issues. Even the way the science was done – I’m sure the science was done very well – but then it’s the conclusions from what the data tells you and how that leads to assertions in the investigation. I think scientists would like to see the data, then they would know the uncertainties in the data, what other issues there are, and can the assertions that the FBI, do they rest on some solid data? Can they make those assertions based on the data they have?
Greenwald: So, given the current state of what it is that they released, is it fair to say that a scientist would be essentially incapable of assessing one way or the other whether the conclusions asserted by the FBI are in fact valid or subject to questions or criticisms or flaws in the reasoning?
Gronvall: Yeah, I think on a broad level – they didn’t present anything so it’s really hard to comment on it. You can develop a list of questions about it, but broadly, it’s hard to poke holes at something that hasn’t been offered.
Greenwald: Right. Now, one of their principal claims that’s presented in conclusive fashion, is that there’s a strain of anthrax that was sent in all of the letters, which is RMR-1029, that they say is identical to the strain of anthrax that was used in a particular flask under Doctor Ivins’ control at Fort Detrick. Can you talk to whether it’s possible, given the current state of science and molecular analysis, to pinpoint an anthrax strain, not just to a particular flask, but in a way that eliminates the possibility that that same strain exists in other places?
Gronvall: Right. This is a good example of what I’m trying to say. The way the science is done – I’m sure – it’s amazing, right? This is something that couldn’t have been done 10 years ago, where you could find out that exactly that strain is duplicated in different places. You just wouldn’t have the complete knowledge that you could today. But what that doesn’t tell you is, does that exact strain exist in other places they didn’t check? What is the level of uncertainty? What are the other – without knowing what the mutations were in this RMR-1029 and without knowing what sort of expensive testing they did, of other strains, it’s hard to say that this is it, this is the only one.
The science may have been done well, but how it was used – because science is basically a tool to help you answer these questions in this case. Is the assertion valid? Even if that flask, the anthrax in that flask matches what was in the letters, does that mean it doesn’t also match a field somewhere in Texas? You have to show that data to both include other possible leads, and also exclude a whole bunch.
Greenwald: Right. Do you agree, at least based on what the FBI has thus far unveiled, that there’s nothing in what they’ve disclosed that suggests how they’ve done that or even whether they’ve done that?
Gronvall: Right. Right. That is true.
Greenwald: I want to ask you a question specifically about anthrax, and perhaps it’s beyond the camp of your expertise and maybe it isn’t. But one of the things has been so striking from the beginning of the entire anthrax episode is that, although there’s been some conflicting reports about what exactly the grade of anthrax that was sent, there’s been a consensus, I think, that the anthrax that was sent, especially to Senators Daschle and Leahy, were dangerous and alarming, because they were prepared in such a way as to enable them to be airborne. And that, in fact, some of the scientists from the FBI and elsewhere have said that what was so alarming about it was that it was actually difficult to even examine it under the microscope, because it would essentially disperse so quickly. Now, regardless of whether it was weaponized, or aerosolized, or whatever the strain was, given the properties that have been described by virtually everybody who has examined this, is it possible that you could work with anthrax of the that type without having spores on your clothes, on, in the immediate environment of wherever it is that you’re working with the anthrax?
Gronvall: You know, there’s so many what-if’s here. Just to get to your first point, basically how was it prepared and was it weaponized, and if it was or wasn’t, what was done to it, how dangerous, how floaty really was it. It’s really hard to say without directly being in the investigation, and they didn’t report any of that. Whether it would be possible to work with it if it was extremely volatile, extremely airborne and floaty as it’s been described without getting it on you and on other things. They didn’t present what they tested and if they found anything, although one would presume if they found something they would say so.
I think the bigger question at least from my perspective in the science policy realm, is how difficult was it to do. Did they reverse engineer this process? And learn what exactly did it take to make this anthrax, and was it difficult? Did it require special equipment? I don’t really consider a lyophilizer to be special equipment. And this has really big implications for the threat of bioterrorism. Bruce Ivins did not have training in weapons labs back when the US was making biological weapons. He worked in research and if he was able to make a very very good weapon, then that has implications for how another person could pull off this kind of attack.
Greenwald: I just want to follow up on what you just alluded to with regards to research programs that used to exist in the United States for the production of actual biological weapons. One of the areas that I think has been new to a lot of people who have been looking into this anthrax matter, and I know it’s been new to me, is actually how sprawling anthrax research is beyond just what takes place at Fort Detrick. There’s the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah that’s a US Army facility, and then there’s a whole kind of private network of anthrax research that takes place at corporations that are fairly secretive like Battelle Laboratories and other places.
Gronvall: And then there’s all the universities as well.
Greenwald: Right. So, can you talk about whether the type of anthrax that has been variously described – and I know there’s some conflicts – what kind of the range of strain that has been described, that was, say, sent to Daschle and Leahy, which were considered the most dangerous. Whether there are other institutions both private and public, beyond Fort Detrick capable of producing that kind of anthrax and whether there’s research and other work undertaken there that would enable someone to have access to strains of that type?
Gronvall: That’s kind of what I was trying, what the FBI, if they don’t make public the details of how they think this anthrax was created, to make what into the envelopes, if they don’t make that public – and you can imagine why they would not want to – I hope that they do brief people who should know about it, it really does have an implication for the threat. It’s not just that anthrax is worked in all these companies here and laboratories here. Anthrax is found in laboratories all over the world. And it’s more, even outside of the laboratories. This strain found it’s way into a laboratory because it killed a cow in Texas. You can find anthrax in the soil in the US and many, many other places. So, it’s out there. It’s a question now of how difficult was it and there’s been a lot of conjecture about how difficult it was to create whatever the anthrax, whatever weaponization techniques, or none, went into those letters. It’s an important question because if it turns out that it was easy, then that adds a lot more urgency on the other side – how you respond to an anthrax attack. This is pretty limited in scope, and it was still extremely dangerous. It’s a vulnerability that we’re not prepared to address.
Gronvall: I know a lot of people, at least a lot of people I’ve talked to, feel, why are we working on this at all if it was this easy to make or if it’s could be used as a weapon, why is it in all these places? The fact is it’s everywhere, so if we don’t do research on this, if we don’t take measures to make ourselves prepared for an attack, it’s not going to go away, the threat is not going to go away if we’re not looking at it.
Greenwald: Well, just to follow up on that, to be a little more specific about what I have in mind. There’s a now overlooked story by Judy Miller among other New York Times reporters which was published on September 4th, 2001, a week before the 9/11 attacks, which is why it ultimately ended up getting lost, that you’re probably familiar with. But it grew out of her book on biological warfare. And what it reported was, and this is the first sentence, quote: “Over the past several years, the United States has embarked on a program of secret research on biological weapons that some of officials say test the limits of the global treaty banning such weapons,” and it goes on to describe the pentagon drew up plans to engineer genetically a more potent variant of the bacterium that causes anthrax and specifically lists Battelle and other places as a military contractor that has been selected to create the genetically altered anthrax. It just seems that we know so little about what this whole industry does, for reasons that you suggested earlier might be legitimate in terms of secrecy, but how far were we or are we skirting the limits of, or that line between research into vaccines and the manufacture of biological weapons, and how widespread is that research that kind of skirts that line?
Gronvall: Doing research on a vaccine does not have to cross any of those lines. But I think where it gets much more tricky and how it gets close to at least what I think Judy miller was talking about, in the passage you mentioned, is the threat assessment piece. I think there’s Project Bacchus that you’re referring to, which was a project to see if there were any signatures involved in making the biological weapons. And a group of people made a simulate – so they weren’t actually working with the anthrax, they were working with a sotillus, I think – and the conclusion was there wasn’t any unconventional signature for a biological weapons facility, nothing they could pinpoint the way that you can pinpoint a nuclear weapons program. So, threat assessment is a very complicated problem that requires a lot of oversight and requires a lot of checks and balances. That is the mission, one of the missions of NBACC, National Biodefense Analysis & Countermeasures and then there’s another ‘C’ in there somewhere (Transcriptionist’s note: ‘National Biodefense Analysis & Countermeasures Center’) but this piece of making a vaccine does not have to be secret. And a lot of work is published openly now in making vaccines or diagnostics and so – I don’t know how to answer your question but to say that it doesn’t have to be thus.
Greenwald: Right. Well, I think, the bottom line is that a lot of people seem to be rushing to try and conclude that the FBI’s case here is persuasive, and people can make their own assessments as to the circumstantial evidence, even though it’s still a very one-sided presentation, since nobody has been able to see that either. But I think it’s important to underscore that the scientific claims are nothing more than conclusions, and hopefully they’ll be pressured to disclose the underlying data so that people like you can dig in to it and tell us how valid or persuasive those conclusions really are since it lies at the heart of the FBI here is claiming.
So I want to really thank you for taking the time, it was really illuminating, and you’re appreciate your talking to me today.
Gronvall: Okay, thanks.
[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)