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Profile: Dugway Proving Ground
Dugway Proving Ground was a participant or observer in the following events:
In 1998, scientists at the US Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah begin to turn wet anthrax into powder. Supposedly, this is to test how to defend against biological attacks. A spokesperson claims the anthrax produced that year is of a different strain than the Ames strain used in the 2001 anthrax attacks, but will not say if anthrax produced in other years is of the same strain or not. Dugway has had the Ames strain since 1992. In 1999, top bioweapons scientist William Patrick tells a group of US military officers that in the spring of 1998 he taught personnel at Dugway how to turn wet anthrax into powder. He says: “We made about a pound of material in little less than a day. It’s a good product.” This anthrax production will remain secret until the media discovers it in December 2001 (see December 13, 2001). Some will argue that this production of anthrax is in violation of an international biological weapons treaty that the US signed while others will argue it is not. [New York Times, 12/13/2001]
The FBI allows the original batch of the Ames strain of anthrax to be destroyed, making tracing the type of anthrax used in the recent anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001) more difficult. The Ames strain actually originates from a dead cow in Texas, but Iowa State University in Ames has kept many vials of Ames and other anthrax strains collected over more than seven decades. This entire collection is destroyed. It is unclear who wanted the collection destroyed or why. The FBI learned the anthrax used in the attack letters was the Ames strain on October 5 (see October 5, 2001), but this will not be publicly confirmed until October 25. The FBI denies it approved the destruction and say they only did not oppose it, but university officials say the FBI gave explicit approval. [New York Times, 11/9/2001; South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 12/8/2001] The Ames strain is one of 89 known varieties of anthrax and is commonly used in US military research. The Washington Post will later report that “The [Ames strain identification], as compelling as a human fingerprint, shifted suspicion away from al-Qaeda and suggested another disturbing possibility: that the anthrax attacks were the work of an American bioweapons insider.” The identification of the Ames strain focuses much attention on two top US Army bioweapons laboratories in particular that have heavily used Ames: USAMRIID in Maryland and Dugway Proving Ground in Utah (see Late 2001). [Washington Post, 9/14/2003]
After investigators discover in mid-October 2001 that the anthrax used in the anthrax attacks comes from the Ames strain (see October 10-11, 2001), the FBI investigation largely discards theories that al-Qaeda or Iraq was behind the attacks and begins to focus on domestic suspects. Within weeks, FBI investigators draw up lists of thousands of suspects who have access to anthrax or the scientific knowledge to work with it. Much of the initial investigation focuses on the US military’s bioweapons program, and especially the two US Army bioweapons laboratories, USAMRIID (in Maryland) and the Dugway Proving Ground (in Utah) which have heavily used the Ames strain. Mark Smith, a veteran handwriting analyst, studies the anthrax letters and speculates that the suspect has worked for or had close ties to US military intelligence or the CIA. An FBI agent who is also a microbiologist is sent to the Dugway Proving Ground and spends weeks questioning more than 100 employees there. Scientists there are repeatedly asked who they think could have committed the attacks. Several people suggest Steven Hatfill. There is no actual evidence against Hatfill, but he is a larger than life figure with a curious background. The Washington Post will later comment: “Hatfill was not some mild-mannered, white-coated researcher who’d spent his career quietly immersed in scientific minutiae. With his thick black mustache, intense eyes and muscular, stocky build, he looked—and behaved—more like a character in a Hollywood action flick.” He is a serious scientist, but colleagues call him “flamboyant,” “raunchy,” and “abrasive.” He has worked with a number of US agencies, including the CIA, FBI, DIA, and Defense Department, on classified bioweapons projects. He has a mysterious background working and studying in South Africa and Zimbabwe for a number of years. For instance, a South African newspaper will report that he carried a gun into South African medical laboratories and boasted to colleagues that he had trained bodyguards for a white separatist leader. He is one of a core group of about 50 to 100 people that the FBI begins focusing on. [Washington Post, 9/14/2003]
Dugway Proving Ground. [Source: Public domain]The US Army responds to a journalistic investigation and confirms that it has been making weapons-grade anthrax in recent years, in violation of an international treaty. The US offensive biological weapons program was supposedly closed in 1969 when the US signed an international biological weapons treaty. In 1998, scientists at the US Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah turned small quantities of wet anthrax into powder (see Spring 1998 and After). This weaponized anthrax appears to be very similar or identical to the anthrax used in the recent attacks. Molecular biologist Barbara Hatch Rosenberg says: “This is very significant.… There’s never been an acknowledgment that any U.S. facility had weaponized anthrax.… The question is, could someone have gotten hold of a very small amount and used it in the letters?” Some argue that this production of anthrax is in violation of an international biological weapons treaty that the US signed while others argue it is not. It is believed about six scientists at Dugway have the expertise to make powdered anthrax. The FBI has intensively questioned those at Dugway who have worked with anthrax. [Baltimore Sun, 12/13/2001; New York Times, 12/13/2001]
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) finds that the source of the anthrax involved in the 2001 attacks was not established by the FBI’s science. This conclusion is in contrast to that of the Justice Department and the FBI, which have asserted unequivocally that RMR-1029, an anthrax flask linked to USAMRIID vaccine researcher and deceased alleged anthrax-killer Bruce Ivins, was the source of the anthrax used in the attacks. The NAS was contracted by the FBI in 2009, for nearly $880,000, to review the science underlying the FBI’s investigation. The NAS council did not review other types of evidence assembled by the FBI, did not have access to classified materials, and did not do its own research. In its report, it makes no judgments regarding the guilt or innocence of any parties, or judgments about the FBI’s conclusion that Ivins was the sole perpetrator. [Associated Press, 5/9/2009; Justice, 2/19/2010, pp. 28 PDF ; National Academy of Sciences, 2/15/2011; McClatchy-ProPublica-PBS Frontline, 10/11/2011] The primary conclusion of the NAS is that “it is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion about the origins of the anthrax… based solely on the available scientific evidence.” The NAS says there were “genetic similarities” between the samples from the letters and RMR-1029, but that “other possible explanations for the similarities—such as independent, parallel evolution—were not definitively explored during the investigation,” and “the data did not rule out other possible sources.” The NAS agrees with the FBI that “RMR-1029… was not the immediate source of spores used in the letters,” and that “one or more derivative growth steps would have been required to produce the anthrax in the attack letters.” The NAS says the FBI did correctly identify the anthrax as Ames strain. It also agrees with the FBI that there was no evidence that the silicon present in the samples had been added in order to weaponize the anthrax, but says that, based on the information made available to it, “one cannot rule out the intentional addition of a silicon-based substance to the New York Post letter, in a failed attempt to enhance dispersion.” Silicon had not been present in the anthrax in RMR-1029 and it is not a normal part of anthrax spores, though it may be incorporated if it is present in its environment as the spores develop. The reason for the presence of silicon (up to 10 percent by bulk mass in the New York Post sample, though this differed with the amount measured in the spores), as well as other elements such as tin, remains unresolved. [National Academy of Sciences, 2/15/2011] At a NAS press conference accompanying the report’s release, questions are raised regarding the amount of time needed to prepare the anthrax. Committee Chair Alice P. Gast responds, “There’s a lack of certainty in the time and effort it would take to make [the powders]… the FBI has not determined what method was used to create the powders.” In some situations several months might be required, but, according to Vice Chair David A. Relman, it would have been possible to complete the work in as little as two days. Regarding the low end of the estimate, Relman says: “There are a number of factors that would have to go into that calculation, including the skill set of the person or persons involved, the equipment and resources available, and the procedures and process selected. And, on that last point, that low end would rely upon the use of batch fermentation methods—liquid cultivation methods—which are available in a number of locations.” Co-workers of Ivins and other experts previously expressed doubts that Ivins had the skill, equipment, or opportunity to prepare the anthrax used, let alone do so in as short a time as the FBI has alleged (see August 1-10, 2008, August 3-18, 2008, August 5, 2008, August 9, 2008 and April 22, 2010). [National Academy of Sciences, 2/15/2011; ProPublica, 2/15/2011] In response to the NAS report, the FBI says in a press release that it was not the science alone that led it to conclude that Ivins was the sole perpetrator: “The FBI has long maintained that while science played a significant role, it was the totality of the investigative process that determined the outcome of the anthrax case. The scientific findings in this case provided investigators with valuable investigative leads that led to the identification of the late Dr. Bruce Ivins as the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks.” [Department of Justice, 2/15/2011] The FBI has claimed to have identified, and eliminated as suspects, 419 people at Fort Detrick and other locations, who either had access to the lab where Ivins worked or received samples from RMR-1029. However, the NAS finding that RMR-1029 has not been conclusively identified as the anthrax source indicates the pool of suspects may be wider than just those with links to RMR-1029. The NAS press release notes that, in October 2010, a draft version of the NAS report underwent a “required FBI security review,” and following that the FBI asked to submit materials to NAS that it had not previously provided. The NAS says: “Included in the new materials were results of analyses performed on environmental samples collected from an overseas site. Those analyses yielded inconsistent evidence of the Ames strain of B. anthracis in some samples. The committee recommends further review of the investigation of overseas environmental samples and of classified investigations carried out by the FBI and Department of Justice.” [National Academy of Sciences, 2/15/2011]
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