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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spores May Have Had Soviet Additive

WASHINGTON -- The anthrax spores that contaminated the air in U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office had been treated with a chemical additive so sophisticated that only three regions -- the former Soviet Union, the United States and Iraq -- are thought to have been capable of making it, sources said.

Those regions are the only three known to have developed the kind of additives that enable anthrax spores to remain suspended in the air, making them more easily inhaled and therefore more deadly, experts said Wednesday. Each region used a different technique, suggesting that ongoing microscopic and chemical analyses may reveal more about the spores' provenance than did their genetic analysis, which is largely complete but reportedly has done little to narrow the field.

A U.S. government official with direct knowledge of the investigation said Wednesday that the totality of the evidence in hand suggests that it is unlikely that the spores were originally produced in the former Soviet Union or Iraq.

Even identifying the kind of coating may not solve the crucial question of who is perpetrating the terror, because little is known about how secure the stores of the three countries' stocks have been during the past few years.

Nonetheless, the conclusion that the spores were produced with military quality differs considerably from public comments made recently by officials close to the investigation, who have said the spores were not "weaponized" and were "garden variety." Those descriptions may be technically true, several experts said. But they obscure the basic and more important truth that the spores were treated with a sophisticated process, meaning the original source was almost certainly a state-sponsored laboratory. The finding strongly suggests that the anthrax spores in the U.S. mail attacks were not produced in a university or makeshift laboratory or simply gathered from natural sources. But it does not answer the question of whether a state-sponsored laboratory supplied the anthrax spores directly to terrorists or simply lost control of some stocks.

The presence of the high-grade additive was confirmed for the first time Wednesday by a government source familiar with the ongoing studies, which are being conducted by scientists at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick. Four other experts in anthrax weapons said they had no doubt that such an additive was in the Daschle letter.

"The evidence is patent on its face," said Alan Zelicoff, a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories' Center for National Security and Arms Control. "The amount of energy needed to disperse the spores [by merely opening an envelope] was trivial, which is virtually diagnostic of achieving the appropriate coating."

David Franz, formerly of USAMRIID and now at the Southern Research Institute in Birmingham, said, "In order for a formulation to do what the one in Daschle's office appears to have done -- be easily airborne -- it would require special treatment."

Genetic testing of the spores found in Daschle's office, at NBC offices in New York and in Florida found that the three samples were indistinguishable.

Such spores were mass-produced at a Pine Bluff, Arkansas, production facility. Production stocks were destroyed, but he said he did not know whether "seed stocks" from which new batches could be grown had also been destroyed.

The Russian program, which has been described in detail by Ken Alibek, who ran it for many years before moving to the United States to do biological research, required the production of much larger quantities of spores that were more heavily milled than the U.S. spores and used a different kind of freezing and coating process.

The Iraqi technique, uncovered by UN inspectors, was a novel one-step process that involved drying spores in the presence of aluminum-based clays or silica powders, said Richard Spertzel, who was part of a UN special commission that was to uncover and destroy Iraq's weapons after the Gulf War.

"If [U.S. investigators] can get a clue as to how the material in the Daschle letter was prepared, that might narrow the field," Spertzel said. "It may not pinpoint it, but it may narrow it."