Science Briefing on the Anthrax Investigation
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I am Vahid Majidi, the Assistant Director responsible for the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate. I would like to start today’s session with a brief opening statement and define the scope of our roundtable discussion.
After nearly seven years of investigation we have developed a body of powerful evidence that allows us to conclude that we have identified the origin and the perpetrator of the 2001 bacillus anthracis mailings.
The attribution process and identification of a specific perpetrator relies on the confluence of intelligence, investigative, and forensic information. It is the forensic information that determined the source of the 2001 bacillus anthracis mailings to be derived from a unique pool of spore preparations known as RMR-1029 that was maintained at U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, Fort Detrick, Maryland (USAMRIID). While there were countless investigative hours spent narrowing the field of suspects, we are here today to focus on the scientific aspects of this case.
First of all, let me dispel some frequently repeated erroneous information. For example:
The FBI began this complex investigation by coordinating analyses of the spore powders contained in the 2001 bacillus anthracis mailings. We enlisted the help of many biodefense experts to assist our examinations, including those who had previously developed tests to differentiate strains of bacillus anthracis and identify the spores in the letters as the “Ames strain.”
Other analytical strategies were employed to target the chemical and elemental profiles of the spore powders. Specific techniques included scanning and transmission electron microscopy, energy dispersive X-ray analysis, carbon-dating by accelerator mass spectrometry, and inductively coupled plasma-optical emission and mass spectrometry.
Additional scientists from the Department of Defense and the Centers for Disease Control examined the spore materials and it was determined that there were many phenotypic variants within the samples.
With generous support by both the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and other government agencies, FBI scientists worked with The Institute for Genomic Research to determine if genetic mutations were responsible for the altered appearance of the variants found in the bacillus anthracis letters. Several genetic mutants were discovered in these studies.
FBI microbiologists contracted the assistance of several laboratories to develop highly specific assays to detect four specific genetic mutations found in the bacillus anthracis letters.
The mutation detection assays were validated and used by the FBI Laboratory to examine the repository of bacillus anthracis Ames that was collected through the course of the investigation.
This unprecedented scientific approach allowed the FBI to identify potential sources of the bacillus anthracis used to produce the 2001 spore powders.
Through a comprehensive analytical approach, the investigators were provided with validated scientific data which linked the material used in the 2001 attacks to material from USAMRIID identified as RMR-1029.
It is important to emphasize that the science used in this case is highly validated and well accepted throughout the scientific community. The novelty is in the application of these techniques for forensic microbiology.
Today, I am very confident that the significant lessons learned from the 2001 bacillus anthracis case have been rigorously evaluated by the FBI and appropriate actions have been taken to safeguard the American public. The FBI Laboratory has revolutionized the approach to nontraditional forensic samples and has developed robust capabilities to collect and examine evidence containing biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear materials. We have developed a strong partnership with the U.S. government laboratory complex, public health system, private industry and academia to significantly enhance our capabilities dealing with future investigations. The creation of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate is another example of the FBI’s progressive approach focusing on prevention as well as investigation of all issues involving chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials.
Please note that there were many dedicated individuals, including prosecutors, scientists, investigators, analysts, and support personnel that worked on this case.
Finally, I am asking you to understand that this is the first step toward broader dissemination of the scientific information surrounding this case. Additional information will be available through peer reviewed publications and I ask you to please respect the integrity of this process. In fact, several research projects related to the FBI’s investigation have already resulted in peer reviewed publications and we will provide you with that list. Additional publications will be available for peer review as more information from the investigation is released.
Before we open the floor for questions and answers session, we would like to introduce you to our distinguished panel. Today, we have with us a small group of individuals representing the large cadre of non-Bureau scientists that helped us chart and navigate our scientific path through this unprecedented case. In the near future, after we work through each non-disclosure agreement and privacy issues, we will release the names of those key individuals who tirelessly worked with us on the 2001 bacillus anthracis mailings.
To my left is the current FBI Laboratory Director, Dr. Chris Hassell. Dr. Hassell will introduce our panel members.
Professor Paul Keim
Dr. James Burans
Dr. Rita Colwell
Professor Claire Fraser-Liggett
Dr. Jacques Ravel
Dr. Joseph Michael