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Lethal Formula in Anthrax Mail Points to Labs of 3 Countries

Rick Weiss and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Service
Friday, October 26, 2001

WASHINGTON The anthrax spores that contaminated the air in the office of the
Senate majority leader, Thomas Daschle, had been treated with a chemical
additive so sophisticated that only three countries are thought to have been
capable of making it, sources said. The United States, the former Soviet
Union and Iraq are the only three countries known to have developed the kind
of additives that enable anthrax spores to remain suspended in the air,
making them more easily inhaled and therefore more deadly, experts said
Wednesday. Each of the countries used a different technique, suggesting that
microscopic and chemical analyses may reveal more about the spores'
provenance than did their genetic analysis, which is largely complete but
reportedly has done little to narrow the field.
A government official with direct knowledge of the investigation said that
the sum of the evidence in hand - involving not just the coatings, but also
genetic analysis of the bacteria and other intelligence - suggested it was
unlikely that the spores were originally produced in the former Soviet Union
or Iraq. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to
discuss the implications of that conclusion.
Even identifying the kind of coating may not solve the crucial question of
who is perpetrating the terror, because little is known about how secure the
stores of the three countries' stocks have been.
Nonetheless, the conclusion that the spores were produced with military
quality differs considerably from public comments made recently by officials
close to the investigation, who have said that the spores were not
"weaponized" and were "garden variety." Those descriptions may be
technically true, several experts said. But they obscure the basic and more
important truth that the spores had been treated with a sophisticated
process, meaning that the original source was almost certainly a
state-sponsored laboratory.
The finding strongly suggests that the anthrax spores in the U.S. mail
attacks were not produced in a university or makeshift laboratory or simply
gathered from natural sources. But it does not answer the question of
whether a state-sponsored laboratory supplied the anthrax to terrorists or
lost control of stocks.
The presence of the additive was confirmed for the first time by a
government source familiar with the studies, which are being conducted by
scientists at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in
Frederick, Maryland. Four other experts in anthrax weapons said they had no
doubt that such an additive was present, based on the high dispersal rate
from the letter to Mr. Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat.
"The evidence is patent on its face," said Alan Zelicoff, a scientist at
Sandia National Laboratories' Center for National Security and Arms Control.
"The amount of energy needed to disperse the spores by merely opening an
envelope, was trivial, which is virtually diagnostic of achieving the
appropriate coating."
Genetic testing of the spores found in Mr. Daschle's office, at NBC offices
in New York and in Florida found that the three samples were
The army studies on the spores used in the U.S. attacks involve examinations
using conventional microscopes and scanning electron microscopes, along with
complex chemical analyses.
Results of those tests have not been made public beyond a simple description
of how small the spore particles were in the Daschle letter. That particle
size is extremely small - a first requirement for making "weapons grade"
anthrax spores for warfare or terrorism. But more than that is needed to get
anthrax spores to drift easily in the air and spread widely without settling
quickly to the ground. That is because tiny particles tend to have
electrostatic charges. Those static electricity charges make the tiniest
particles clump together into heavier ones, which then settle to the ground.
One of the primary goals of bioweapons engineers since the 1960s had been to
figure out how to treat those tiny particles in ways that would neutralize
the charges. Properly processed, the tiny particles will remain separated
from one another and fly up and outward with virtually no effort.
In the United States, that problem was solved by Bill Patrick, who developed
the process at Fort Detrick as part of the U.S. biological weapons program
that ended in 1969. The process involved freeze-drying and chemical
processing and was achieved without having to grow vast quantities of spores
or mill them to terribly small dimensions, the experts said.
Spores were mass-produced at a Pine Bluff, Arkansas, facility, Mr. Patrick
said. Production stocks were destroyed, but he said he did not know whether
"seed stocks" from which new batches could be grown had also been destroyed.
Under the terms of an international treaty banning biological weapons, to
which the United States is a signatory, small amounts of biological weapons
can be produced to conduct defensive research.
The Russian program required the production of much larger quantities of
spores that were more heavily milled than the U.S. spores and used a
different kind of freezing and coating process.
The Iraqi technique, uncovered by United Nations inspectors, was a process
that involved drying spores in the presence of aluminum-based clays or
silica powders, said Richard Spertzel, a member of the UN Special Commission
team that was assigned to uncover and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass
destruction after the Gulf War.

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