More thoughts on the GAO report on Amerithrax and the DOJ FBI Bruce Ivins Theory

September 2, 2014

The FBI at one point asked Patricia Fellows (I believe) or someone else or both how long it takes to check the animals during an animal challenge.  Challenge is their term for subjecting the animals to anthrax and then seeing how many die how quickly. They check the cages each night and remove the dead ones.  

It is important to remove the dead animals promptly because animals that die of the anthrax challenge may have gotten some other disease while weakened or may produce and release anthrax to the other animals.  This would result in the experiment not having the right statistics.  So to avoid that, the animals have to be checked by someone and removed if dead.  

This takes 2 to 3 hours per night, I forget the exact figure.  But it explains Bruce Ivins time. The animal check is done at the same time each night as I recall as part of the protocol.  The times Bruce Ivins was in the lab were at the same time each day, at least for the most part.  For the weekend of September 14 to 16 2001, that was around 8 PM as I recall.

The protocol of checking the animals each night at the same time is not the time for doing lab steps in growing and drying anthrax.  The lab steps of preparation do not come at 24 hour intervals.  Instead, a person would go into the lab more often if trying to grow and dry anthrax in a weekend.  In particular, during the growth time, they would go in to check if enough growth had happened, e.g. by taking a sample of fluid, centrifuging it, and then trying to do some test for whether spores had grown.

The person doing it appears to have added additives as well.  These don’t seem to make sense if one is trying to do it in a weekend and has never used such additives before. The additives used, silicon, etc. were never used by Ivins before in any growing he was involved in.  Nor has any document been found that he had access to that suggests these additives.

If Ivins tried to grow and dry it in a weekend, he would have started it Friday night, September 14, 2001, and then on Saturday night, September 15, 2001 had to stop it, centrifuge the growth solution and then try to dry it, perhaps by leaving it out over night.

We know Ivins had no lyophilizer that weekend as a machine and to make a make shift one on the fly was not possible it would appear given the times he was in the lab.  It would take time to make and then to take apart.

There is the issue of a speed vac, but that also would have taken time to use for that quantity of anthrax. It has been said by biologists that it was not of sufficient capacity for the anthrax amount at issue.  Even if somehow it was stretched to, it would have led the person doing it to come in early Sunday morning and done drying.

A more sensible plan for a weekend growth would be to let it grow from Friday night to Sunday morning, then come in, centrifuge and if using a speed vac, then spend the day speed vacing it.  So the person would be in the lab all day Sunday.

The time records show, going by memory, that Ivins didn’t come in until 8 PM Sunday night on Sunday.  That doesn’t fit with growing, drying and letter prepping anthrax.  No one comes in at 8 PM Sunday to finish that job.  You would come in early in the day to get started, particularly if you are trying to dry wet powder for mailing.

Also recall, the strange additives added like silicon.  Someone managing such a process would keep on it, instead of just waiting until 8 PM Sunday night.

The fact that the FBI asked how long to do the animal checks shows they had this information before Ivins died.  They didn’t continue the investigation later and find it, they ended the investigation then.  So they already knew about the animal checks by Ivins and had asked how long they take to find out if they explained his time in the lab. They did.  The FBI did that years earlier.

However, the DOJ prosecutors may not have known that.  They may have jumped on the Ivins theory to close the case after he died. They may not have known the FBI had already checked into the animal checks and resolved that those explained Ivin’s time in the lab.  A prosecutor unfamiliar with this history might then have decided Ivins did it as a way to close the case. Later DXer or others tracked down that the FBI had already investigated the animal check times and thus had resolved that Ivins did not do it.

The government also published a paper showing that growing anthrax simulants is highly variable in time and yield. So that to produce the amounts of anthrax at issue, would not be something Ivins would think he could do in a weekend.  The government likely used that paper and the animal checks to rule out Ivins years before he died.  But the prosecutor(s) may not have known all that so they just jumped on the suicide to close the case.

The government released a paper in 2004 on simulant growth runs.

See my comments, Old Atlantic at

The following search brings up hits of my discussion of this paper.

Eventually, Ed Lake abandoned the idea the anthrax was grown that weekend and he came up with a plates in the trash hypothesis.  However, this doesn’t explain the silicon and other additives added to the anthrax that was mailed.  Ed Lake’s idea was that discarded plates grew anthrax by happenstance and that Ivins harvested these. This would not involve the silicon additives being added.  So the plates in the trash argument does not explain the additives found in the mailings.

Once one rejects the growth and dry in a weekend idea, one rejects Ivins. That is likely what happened with the FBI. They likely released the above paper in 2004 as part of preparing a case against Hatfill. They would introduce the above paper as evidence to show that Ivins could not have grown the anthrax in the weekend as part of their prosecution of Hatfill.

Same with the animal checks.  The FBI had asked how long it took to do animal checks because they knew Ivins was in the lab at these critical times doing animal checks. The FBI was gathering evidence to rule out Ivins so they could prosecute Hatfill.

When Hatfill was dropped and Ivins committed suicide, the prosecutors, perhaps less familiar with this part of the investigation then leaped to the conclusion Ivins did it without knowing this history.  Then Dxer brought the animal checks to light and I found this simulant growth paper.

The simulant growth paper can be read by a non-biologist but it takes several readings over a period of time and looking up terms and ideas.  It took me a long time to get up the learning curve on it.  So the FBI may have done that but the prosecutors did not.  

That paper is key.  It is not some random paper on the Internet.  The paper supports later statements by biologists that growing the amount of anthrax involved would not have been possible in a weekend given the equipment available to Ivins, or perhaps any equipment at all in that period of time and then to dry it.

One of the most important takeaways from this is that the times Ivins was in the lab correspond to the check the animals at the same time of day protocol.  This is not the way you try to do a rush job of growing a lot of anthrax, drying it and preparing multiple letters in a weekend.  If you were doing that you would come in more often and check the growth and the drying.

For example, if Ivins stopped the growth on Saturday night and centrifuged and sort of spread out the wet powder to dry, then he would have come in Sunday morning to see if the powder had dried or if he needed to try to speed vac it for a few hours or heat it some other way to speed it up.  This is particularly true since just leaving wet anthrax powder out to dry as a way of drying it is not something Ivins would have practiced so he would need to check it Sunday morning September 16, 2001 and night just wait until 8 PM Sunday night with 2 hours of animal checks to do as well.

Remember, ivins was 55 years old at the time.  At that age, you don’t leave everything to do Sunday night and have 2 hours of animal checks to do Sunday night. He would have come in early Sunday morning to check how the drying was going, or the growth was going and switch to drying if he let it grow from Friday night to Sunday morning.  We know from the lab records, Ivins did not come in to the hot suite until Sunday night September 16, 2001 which is not what he would have done if he was trying to grow and dry anthrax in such a short period. Particularly, since he had no experience in drying anthrax to create anthrax powder.

The put it on Ivins approach looks like it was done by a high level administrator or busy prosecutor who did not know this level of detail or the investigation history.  So they made up a theory of growing and drying in a weekend without realizing that the times in the lab for the animal check protocol which Ivins followed from lab records of once a night did not correspond to the lab steps to grow and dry anthrax in a weekend.  Eventually, that was discovered by the work of Dxer, the above paper being found and the work of others to be easily rejected.

This is draft and preliminary. The above is hypotheses and speculation. Comments and corrections welcome. Please restate as questions. All other disclaimers apply.



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