Not so fast, Washington Post

An expert says we really have no idea where those anthrax spores came from.

Published October 26, 2001 11:23PM (EDT)

The Washington Post reported Thursday that the anthrax spores found in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office could have been created in the United States. Unnamed sources taking part in the investigation told the Post that the spores had been treated with a special kind of chemical additive that only three countries -- the former Soviet Union, Iraq and the United States -- are known to have developed. According to one government official "with direct knowledge of the investigation," the totality of the evidence suggests that the spores were not produced in Iraq or the former Soviet Union.

It would seem logical then, to assume that they were created in the U.S. But even if the Post's sources are correct -- in contradiction of other investigation officials who have said the spores were not weaponized -- can blame be so easily assigned? Are there other possibilities that might explain the presence of additives in the anthrax? Could foreign or homegrown terrorists, for example, have mixed in the additives from abroad according to a newly devised recipe?

Steven Block, a bioterrorism expert at Stanford University, discussed the latest developments with Salon.

What exactly defines weapons-grade anthrax and what's the significance of anthrax with an additive?

There are three or four things that go into making something "weapons grade." One refers to the size of the spores; the other refers to the homogeneity of the grind, how uniformly they're milled. A third thing would be the efficiency, the fraction of the spores that could be reactivated when contacted with heat and moisture. Not all spores will germinate. It's fine if you have the seed and it's well dispersed, but if the grass seed isn't very good, then it doesn't grow up right.

And finally, there's a fourth concern, which is "Was something added to deal with electrostatic charge?" If you want to make a fine powder that's aerially dispersed, it's necessary to neutralize the charges so they don't clump together [and sink to the ground rather than float into the air.]

Would it be possible for someone to get traditional anthrax and "weaponize" it at home or without the assistance of high-tech lab?

Yes. And rather than saying "There is an additive, there is in fact any number of additives that might be used in this context. The identity of the agent in the Russian formulation is secret, too. These are not the kinds of items that are publicly available. However, in the Iraq program, it was rumored that they used basically a silicaceous earth, a clay. It may have had some alumina [an oxide of aluminum] in it.

So presumably, when they look at this anthrax powder in some detail they'll discover one of several things -- one is that it's a formulation that's identical to something that's known to have been used in some country like ourselves or Russia, or they'll find that it's slightly different. And if it's identical to the one, for example, used here, then there are couple possibilities. One is that this is in fact some agent that was made previously, and the other possibility is that some agent is being made new according to the old recipe. There aren't many other possibilities.

If it's yet again different from something or slightly different, then that would tell you that it's either informed by the work of one of those countries or made by somebody more recently who is an expert in these things.

Where could you find this kind of clay? Is it easily accessible?

Well, the Iraqi formulation was based on a common ingredient that can be found in most countries on the planet. We're not talking about plutonium here. We're talking about silicaceous clay. It's your average clay. It's really common. There are any number of common chemicals -- and we're really talking common here, as common as dirt -- that in principle could be used to do the job. Now some might be better than others and some might preserve the spores better than others and some might be more readily ground than others. There are all sorts of considerations that come to play.

So would it only be state-sponsored if it fits one of the three recipes?

I wouldn't agree with that. State sponsorship suggests who sponsored it, but what this suggests is that whoever did it had some knowledge of what was necessary to add to these things to make them disperse. Where they gained that knowledge is an open guess. And that would depend on what knowledge it is that they've gained. [Government investigators] haven't given us information to tell us what knowledge they've gained. I don't know if they gained the knowledge of the Iraqi program, the Russian program, the Iraqi program, or if they just guessed it on their own or if they have some new formulation that's yet again different than anything else. We don't have information in the public domain to be able to assess it yet.

Could the anthrax have been stolen from leftover American stocks of weaponized anthrax?

American weaponized Anthrax was supposed to have been destroyed in the early '70s. Nixon ended our program in 1969, and between May 1971 and May 1972 we destroyed our stocks. It's conceivable that some small amount might have been set aside, but I don't know if that happened.

So the anthrax that labs are allowed to hold onto by law -- in order to create vaccines --is not a weaponized version, but rather the form that appears in nature?

They're cultures, right.

So you don't think there was a security breach of some sort?

No one knows what we're talking about here. All that's been leaked into the Washington Post is that there was something in with these spores, and that they were very finely milled. The rest of article is just about stuff that's already in the public domain, which is that the United States, Russia and Iraq all had programs to do this and all had their own ways of doing this. But there's no connection between these two parts.

How long does it take to test for this kind of information? Does the FBI have it and are they're just choosing not to give it to us?

I think they have it and they're just not giving it to us. The other thing is that they may have information about the strain that they're not telling us about. But they may have good reasons for not giving it to us. Maybe they don't want to tip their hand in the investigation. We'll see.

I don't know where the Washington Post got its information from and of course, the sources may or may not be right. We've been hearing a lot of rumors back and forth. First we heard someone announcing that this was weapons grade and professionally made and then we heard that was total nonsense. First we heard something from Daschle, then Tommy Thompson said it was ridiculous.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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