It is absolutely impossible that Bruce Ivins, accused of mailing anthrax and killing five people in 2001, could have created and cleaned up anthrax spores in the timeline and manner the FBI alleges, Ivins' former co-worker said Thursday.
The National Academy of Sciences brought in former USAMRIID microbacteriologist Henry Heine to explain spore preparation to the panel, which is tasked with investigating the science the FBI used to accuse Ivins, also a former microbacteriologist for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
And though Heine discussed only scientific methods and technologies before the panel, he said afterward he firmly believes Ivins did not and could not have grown and prepared the anthrax.
Heine told the panel that the most common way of growing bacteria at USAMRIID is in flasks. Based on the number of envelopes mailed out (eight to 10), the concentration of spores in the powder (10 to the 12th power spores per gram) and the number of grams of anthrax per envelope (1 to 2 grams), he calculated there were at least 10 to the 13th power anthrax spores in the attacks. Under ideal conditions, growing anthrax in a flask could produce only 10 to the 11th power spores -- one hundredth of the total needed.
"At absolute best, if he pushed it, he could have possibly done it in a year," Heine said of Ivins, after the meeting.
Heine refrained from talking too much about Ivins in front of the panel, simply telling them that the anthrax in question most likely would have been grown in a 100-liter fermenter.
Committee member Murray Johnston asked about the silicon found in the anthrax spores, which some have said is a sign the anthrax was professionally weaponized and others have said could have naturally wound up in the anthrax.
Heine replied that many antifoams added to anthrax to be put in a fermenter contain silicon. So if the anthrax was grown in a fermenter, then "you can achieve the kind of percentages (of silicon) found in the letters with this process."
But if the anthrax was grown in a flask, "you absolutely wouldn't expect it" to have picked up any silicon naturally.
The committee also asked Heine how the anthrax could have been dried into a powder. He replied that the FBI had asked him the same question in October 2001, and he said then and still thinks a lyophilizer would be the simplest way to dry large quantities of spores.
But "the idea of lyophilizing this actually scares the hell out of me, this material is so fine." It would have contaminated the whole room when the air and moisture was vacuumed out, he said.
He said the lyophilizer at USAMRIID was not in the containment area, and if it had been used to prepare anthrax there would have been a trail of dead animals and people leading investigators to it.
USAMRIID had a speed-vac that someone could have used, but that would dry only 30 to 40 milliliters at a time.
Heine told the FBI the only other way he could think to dry the anthrax would be to use acetone, which would pull out the water.
"I have no idea what that would do to the spores and whether they'd still be viable," he said, adding there would likely be evidence that acetone was used.
The NAS committee left after about half an hour of questioning Heine. Members already met twice to review FBI documents, and they expect a draft report to be ready by midsummer.
After the committee left, Heine expressed frustration that he had already told the FBI everything he just presented, but that no one had listened to him. FBI agents he dealt with were professional, he said, but some officials at the Department of Justice were extremely arrogant.
He said the whole investigation was filled with lies. Officials told different USAMRIID researchers their co-workers accused them of committing the attacks, just to see their reaction. They searched his vacation house and car without warrants.
They misled him about the questions they would ask him in front of a grand jury. And they tried to get him to seek a restraining order against Ivins, only days before he committed suicide, by saying Ivins had threatened to kill Heine during a group therapy session.
Heine is not the only one who does not believe Ivins was the real killer.
"At least among my closest colleagues, nobody believes Bruce did this," he said. He thinks the FBI went after Ivins because "personality-wise, he was the weakest link."
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