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Profile: Vahid Majidi
Vahid Majidi was a participant or observer in the following events:
“Suitcase nukes”—nuclear weapons that can fit inside a suitcase or duffel bag and be planted in buildings or football stadiums with relative ease—may be a staple of Hollywood movies, television shows such as Fox’s 24, and thriller novels, but in reality do not exist, says Vahid Majidi, the assistant director of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate. Nevertheless, the idea is so prevalent in the American conscious that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued warnings about “threats” from such devices, warnings repeated on the White House’s Web site (see May 2006). Officials such as Majidi say that any such device would be highly complex to produce, require significant upkeep and cost a small fortune. Majidi and other counterproliferation officials do not believe such a threat remains today. “The suitcase nuke is an exciting topic that really lends itself to movies,” Majidi says, but “No one has been able to truly identify the existence of these devices.” The real threat, say Majidi and other officials, is from less deadly and sophisticated devices assembled from stolen or black-market nuclear material. But governmental sources have played up the threat. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) once said in a hearing, “Perhaps the most likely threat is from a suitcase nuclear weapon in a rusty car on a dock in New York City.” And former representative Curt Weldon (R-PA) was known for carrying around a mock-up of a suitcase nuke made out of a briefcase, foil, and a pipe.
Origin of story - The story took hold in the public mind in the 1960s, based on information from Soviet defectors. The information leaked to the media, but no US officials ever actually saw such a Soviet-made suitcase device. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the US constructed a “backpack nuke,” called a Special Atomic Demolition Munition, to be used by two-man teams to destroy dams, tunnels, or bridges. These devices now only exist in museums. In 1997, retired general Alexander Lebed, the former national security chief of Russia, told reporters that Chechen rebels had portable nuclear devices. However, his story changed radically over time and Russian government officials said it was inaccurate, and he may have been misled by training mock-ups. Russian defector and former intelligence officer Stanislav Lunev wrote in 1998 that Russian agents had suitcase nukes inside the US in preparation for some future conflict. He testified before Congress, but never gave any specific information about such devices.
Technical problems - Colonel-General Viktor Yesin, former head of the Russian strategic rocket troops, said in 2004 that such suitcase nukes would be too expensive for most countries to produce and would not last more than several months because the nuclear core would decompose quickly. Laura Holgate of the Nuclear Threat Initiative says the biggest threat is from a terrorist cell that uses stolen nuclear material to improvise a device. Such a device would be, at its smallest, “[l]ike SUV-sized. Way bigger than a suitcase.” [Associated Press, 11/10/2007]
Entity Tags: Curt Weldon, Byron L. Dorgan, Alexander Lebed, Viktor Yesin, Vahid Majidi, Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Bush administration (43), Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Stanislav Lunev, Nuclear Threat Initiative, Laura Holgate
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline
Experts disagree if recently deceased anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins had the skills needed to make the anthrax used in the attacks.
Bioweapons Expert - “One bioweapons expert familiar with the FBI investigation” says Ivins did have this skills. This expert points out that Ivins worked with anthrax at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory, and regularly made sophisticated preparations of anthrax bacteria spores for use in animal tests. “You could make it in a week,” the expert says. “And you could leave USAMRIID with nothing more than a couple of vials. Bear in mind, they weren’t exactly doing body searches of scientists back then.”
Former Weapons Inspector - But others disagree. Richard Spertzel, a former UN weapons inspector who worked with Ivins at USAMRIID, says: “USAMRIID doesn’t deal with powdered anthrax.… I don’t think there’s anyone there who would have the foggiest idea how to do it. You would need to have the opportunity, the capability and the motivation, and he didn’t possess any of those.”
Unnamed Former Colleague - An unnamed scientist who worked with Ivins says it was technically possible to make powdered anthrax at USAMRIID, but, “As well as we knew each other, and the way the labs were run, someone would discover what was going on, especially since dry spores were not something that we prepared or worked with.” [Washington Post, 8/3/2008]
Former Supervisor - Jeffrey Adamovicz, who had been Ivins’s supervisor in recent years, says that the anthrax sent to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) was “so concentrated and so consistent and so clean that I would assert that [Ivins] could not have done that part.” [McClatchy Newspapers, 8/7/2008]
USAMRIID Division Chief - Gerry Andrews, the chief of USAMRIID’s bacteriology division at USAMRIID from 1999 to 2003, says the anthrax in the Daschle letter was “a startlingly refined weapons-grade anthrax spore preparation, the likes of which had never been seen before by personnel at [USAMRIID]. It is extremely improbable that this type of preparation could ever have been produced [there], certainly not of the grade and quality found in that envelope” (see August 9, 2008).
FBI Scientist - On August 18, FBI scientist Vahid Majidi says, “It would have been easy to make these samples at USAMRIID.” He believes that one person could make the right amount of anthrax in three to seven days (see August 18, 2008). [US Department of Justice, 8/18/2008]
In his first public comments since the identification of recently deceased Bruce Ivins as the FBI’s prime suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001 and July 29, 2008), FBI Director Robert Muller tells reporters, “I do not apologize for any aspect of the investigation.” It is erroneous “to say there were mistakes.” [New York Times, 8/9/2008] Ten days later, FBI scientist Dr. Vahid Majidi, leading an FBI press briefing about the anthrax investigation (see August 18, 2008), will say, “Obviously, looking at it in hindsight, we would do things differently today.… And the amazing thing about this case that I would like to additionally point out is the amount of lessons learned. Were we perfect? Absolutely not. We’ve had missteps and those are the lessons learned…” [US Department of Justice, 8/18/2008]
Vahid Majidi. [Source: FBI]In the face of continued widespread doubt about the government’s case against deceased anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins (see August 12, 2008), the FBI holds a press conference presenting more of its scientific evidence against Ivins. A panel discussion of experts working with the FBI is headed by Dr. Vahid Majidi, the FBI’s assistant director for the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, and Dr. Chris Hassell, who heads the FBI’s laboratory. The others on the panel are Paul Keim, Dr. James Burans, Dr. Rita Colwell, Claire Fraser-Liggett, Jacques Ravel, and Dr. Joseph Michael. They are all scientists who assisted with the FBI investigation.
Majidi says, “[T]here were no additional additives combined with the [anthrax] to make them any more dispersible.” He adds, “The material we have is pure spores.”
Hassell says that over 60 scientists worked with the anthrax investigation, validating the data throughout the process. He also says that more than ten peer reviewed scientific articles will be published in the coming months about the science behind the investigation’s findings.
Michael explains that initial results showed that the anthrax spores contained silicon and oxygen. This led to erroneous conclusions that the anthrax had been weaponized with additives to make it more deadly. Later, more powerful microscope analysis showed that the silicon and oxygen were within the anthrax spores and not a layer outside the spores, indicating the anthrax was not weaponized.
Burans says the silicon and oxygen were natural occurrences in the spores and they would not have made the anthrax deadlier since they were not on the outside of the spores.
Asked if the silicon and oxygen could have been intentionally put in the anthrax by a person, an unnamed official replies, “The understanding of that process is not well understood.”
Majidi says scientists were unable to determine what equipment was used to turn wet anthrax into the dry powder used in the attacks.
Burans says that one reason why there was so much confusion about the weaponization of the anthrax is because so little is known about dry anthrax. Nearly all experimentation on anthrax is done using wet anthrax, because it is much safer to handle. He says: “to this day in our laboratories, we avoid at all costs working with [anthrax] in dried form. There’s no reason to.”
Majidi says scientists were able to make anthrax resembling the anthrax used in the attacks, and the anthrax they made behaved in the same way. However, they were not able to recreate the presence of silicon inside the spores. He says, “It would have been easy to make these samples at USAMRIID.” Burans adds that one person could make the amount of anthrax used in the letters in three to seven days. [US Department of Justice, 8/18/2008]
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