Monday, August 11, 2008

Greg Cochran on Ivins Anthrax Case

Cochran has a lot of credibility in my book for thinking clearly. From what I've seen of the FBI evidence, they really did have the right guy this time (although there are still datapoints that puzzle me). Moreover, I think Cochran is right about the reasons why a crazy guy did what he did, when he did, and why he was allowed to work in a military lab in the first place.
But Cochran is always worth reading.
letters from Florida

We have no reason to believe that any letters containing anthrax were mailed from Florida. As far as we can tell, all were mailed from the same place in New Jersey. Of course a couple of letters were not preserved and we know of them only by their effects. The first letters were postmarked on Sept 18th, the second set on October 9. There were little physical defects in the letters that limited them to a few possible post offices in Maryland and Virginia, including one right next to Fort Detrick.

The second set of anthrax letters contained purer anthrax, but it looks as if they were not weaponized in any special way, no special coating or anything. A lot of outside people talked about that and eventually many people had the impression that it was known to be true: it looks as if that's all wrong. Some people were real students of this case had this clear in their minds a long time ago. In fact, if it didn't come from some foreign military program, and if it didn't come straight from an illegal US military program, it was certain _not_ to be highly weaponized.

The FBI understood that a foreign provenance (from some state with sophisticated military anthrax) was very unlikely, because infuriating the United States is suicidal, a lot like shooting Superman's dog. The Administration appears not to understand that suicidal attacks from small states are not in the cards.

The case evolved over time . In early days, the FBI came to the conclusions that it was probably someone connected to anthrax research, probably someone who didn't really intend to kill anyone. That was logical and now looks to be correct - but the pool of potential perps was moderately large. It looks as if the FBI stumbled onto a false positive, Hatfill, and fixated on him, as people will. He wasn't a perfect match, being a virologist rather than an anthrax guy. The FBI investigation may have been complicated by Ivin's role as a scientific adviser/helper: he lied. For example when they asked for a sample of his main anthrax culture, he gave them something else, as later determined. Anyhow, in principle even cultures that been separated for fairly small times should evolve small genetic differences. In 2002 you couldn't easily scan those differences: but our gene-sequencing tech was improving very rapidly. After two or three years, were were able to sequence the anthrax (a number of samples and potential matches) in sufficient detail to determine that a single substrain was responsible, the substrain in Ivin's lab. Others had access, but the FBI (it says) has eliminated them as suspects. For example people in distant places wouldn't have had those particular letters available. Or maybe you could show that they had an alibi for Sept 17th, etc.

It looks to me as if this significantly shrank the suspect pool. For example, they found that Hatfill had quit the lab before that particular culture was created, clearing him. I've seen some people out on the Internet saying that those advances in sequencing speed (by orders of magnitude) only made things easier and faster. Well, they don't understand: that quantitative speedup made a qualitative change in what could be done.

At this point it looks as they ruled out Hatfill scientifically by early 2005 but didn't stop harassing him until late 2006, when the head of the FBI replaced the leaders of the investigation and told the new boys to re-examine the case. Naturally, in a better world than our, the FBI should have dropped Hatfield as a suspect the _second_ that the scientific evidence ruled him out, but you know how most people cling to their pet theories even when _every_ piece of scientific evidence is against them. And they hate admitting that they're wrong. The FBI started looking at people connected to this particular anthrax culture, and of course it's in Ivins lab.

Nobody at Fort Detrick seems to have known that Ivins was deeply crazy (for example, he was talking to his shrink about poisoning some soccer player if she lost the game back in 2000 - enough to get the shrink to call in the cops). The FBI, pointed in a new direction, did all the FBI things and found that Ivins had been lying to them, gradually found that he was crazy as a bedbug. They found that he put in a bunch of unexplained and atypical late hours in the labs the weekend before the first batch of mailings, they found that he took Sept 17th off (which easily allows for a drive to Jersey and back): they found a similar clump of late hours before the second set of mailings. They could not prove that he'd been to New Jersey on the 17th, but as long as he didn't use a credit card for gas or get pulled over, there's no way that they could have. I've seen people wondering how he could manage to get anthrax in a spillproof container and then get it in sealed envelopes, but that's silly - the guy worked with anthrax every day. He knew how to handle it. And driving to New Jersey (about 200 miles each way) hardly requires a second conspirator, particularly since Ivins took almost all of Sept 17th off. He had the Columbus Day weekend for the later letters.

It seems that although crazy people are not supposed to work on super-dangerous military stuff, the system expected them to either be obviously crazy or self-identify and ask for help. I can believe it - I certainly ran into a couple of mentally ill people in defense work. I believe that things are tighter in some other slots - for example, friends tell me that the Feds work really hard at having sane captains of missile submarines.

Out on the net, I've seen people saying that the case would have had trouble in court. For example, they say that the microbial forensics part is new and would have been effectively criticized by a defense attorney. Likely, since no lawyer, judge, or juror would understand any of it. Of course that's a lawyer argument - has nothing to do with facts or truth. We have colleagues saying that Ivins hadn't seemed like a crazed murderer to them. Well, I doubt if anyone on the suspect list _did_ seem a like a crazed murderer to their colleagues if they had, they'd have been fired and/or locked in the booby hatch a long time ago. But it had to be someone on the list, someone with access to this particular culture. Anyhow we know of plenty of examples of psychopaths who managed to hide it. Along the same lines, I've seen people ask how someone could be crazy enough to do this and sane enough to do it fairly carefully. I think they should ask the Unabomber: plenty smart ( math Ph.D. from Berkeley), very careful in his bomb-making, but quite crazy.

Next: people on the net don't like this explanation. Some want it to have been Iraq: but we know that's wrong, since they for sure didn't have that substrain of anthrax. And it never made any sense: they're not suicidal. Some want it to involve more than one person, but there's nothing in the case that requites more than one person, unless you think the skillsets of (A. knowing a lot about anthrax) and (B. being able to drive a car) are disjoint. It's worth remembering that mailing anthrax to people is crazy: craziness is rare, and it's easier to find one crazy person than two or more. Occam's razor says no.

And some want to blame the Administration: they must have cooked this up to jinn up support for the Iraq war. Well, it _did_ increase support for the invasion of Iraq, and for crap like Homeland Security. But that doesn't mean that the Administration did it, any more than they caused 9-11. It's my judgment that it would have very hard to do such a thing without someone leaking, and that the vast majority of people in the Administration would hate to do it: for one thing, it's a death penalty offense. Now I know that they're not above lying and forgery (some of them), and that they have next to no sense, support aggressive war, some are traitors, and that many high-ranking individuals, including the President, are for all practical purposes as dumb as a box of rocks, but I don't think the Administration-conspiracy angle makes any sense or has any likelihood.

I could listen to someone arguing that the FBI just randomly picked another guy to persecute after their Hatfill mistake, or maybe even made a more-defensible mistake of some kind, but I doubt it. I suspect that they were more careful after Hatfill, which can't have done the key investigator's careers any good, and I think they had much better evidence and, as it turns out, a much better suspect.

I think that 9-11 actually played a key causal role in this: I think it sent Ivins over the edge. Admittedly he was a lot closer to the edge than most of us, likely hanging on by his fingertips. I'll bet that he cooked the whole thing up between 9-11 and 9-17: he was the sort of guy who could do that. I don't think he intended to kill anyone, just to stoke anthrax research. 9-11 drove him crazy: but then it drove most of the country crazy. A good fraction of the country is _still_ crazy, unfortunately.

Gregory Cochran

"The presentation or 'gift' of the Holy Ghost simply confers upon a man the right to receive at any time, when he is worthy of it and desires it, the power and light of truth of the Holy Ghost, although he may often be left to his own spirit and judgment." --Joseph F. Smith (manual, p. 69)

Be pretty if you are,
Be witty if you can,
But be cheerful if it kills you.

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