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Chasing the Anthrax Killer

The recent suicide of the government scientist who is suspected of being behind the 2001 anthrax terrorism brings up the question of what FBI investigators, who were about to close in on him, have been doing all this time. It turns out that they worked for almost seven years in secret.

Most people did not know that the work in Ray Goehner's materials characterization department at Sandia National Laboratories was contributing important information to the FBI?s investigation of letters containing bacillus anthracis, the spores that cause the disease anthrax. The spores were mailed in the fall of 2001 to several news media offices and to two U.S. senators. Five people were killed.

Sandia's work demonstrated to the FBI that the form of bacillus anthracis contained in those letters was not a weaponized form, a form of the bacteria prepared to disperse more readily. The possibility of a weaponized form was of great concern to investigators, says Joseph Michael, the principal investigator for the project. This information was crucial in ruling out state-sponsored terrorism.

In fall of 2001, the FBI considered how to best investigate the anthrax letters. The agency convened two blue ribbon exploratory panels, and Sandia's name came up during both panels for its expertise in electron and ion microscopies and microanalysis over the range of length scales from millimeters down to nanometers. The first spore material from the letters arrived at Sandia in February of 2002.

Sandia faced some uncertainty in working on this type of investigation. Researchers there signed nondisclosure agreements and agreed to make themselves available to government agencies on short notice when called to give information. The investigators received samples from the letter delivered to the New York Post, to former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), and to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Researcher Paul Kotula says, "The spores we examined lacked that fuzzy outer coating that would indicate that they?d been weaponized." When bacillus anthracis spores are weaponized, the spores are coated with silica nanoparticles that look almost like lint under the microscope. The "lint" makes the particles "bouncier" and less likely to clump and fall to the ground. That makes the spores easier to breath in and thus able to do more damage. Weaponization of the spores would have been an indicator of state sponsored terrorism.

Joseph Michael, another scientist who worked on the project, was recently released from his nondisclosure agreement and flown to Washington, D.C., to participate in press conferences at FBI Headquarters along with several members of research teams who'd been asked to examine other aspects of the anthrax case.

Art credit: freeimages.co.uk

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