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FBI unveils science of anthrax investigation
Date:8/21/2008

They have worked for almost seven years in secret.

Most people did not know that the work in Ray Goehner's materials characterization department at Sandia National Laboratories was contributing important information to the FBI's investigation of letters containing bacillus anthracis, the spores that cause the disease anthrax. The spores were mailed in the fall of 2001 to several news media offices and to two U.S. senators. Five people were killed.

Sandia's work demonstrated to the FBI that the form of bacillus anthracis contained in those letters was not a weaponized form, a form of the bacteria prepared to disperse more readily. The possibility of a weaponized form was of great concern to investigators, says Joseph Michael, the principal investigator for the project. This information was crucial in ruling out state-sponsored terrorism.

In fall of 2001, the FBI considered how to best investigate the anthrax letters. The agency convened two blue ribbon exploratory panels, and Sandia's name came up during both panels for its expertise in electron and ion microscopies and microanalysis over the range of length scales from millimeters down to nanometers. The first spore material from the letters arrived at Sandia in February of 2002.

Sandia faced some uncertainty in working on this type of investigation. Researchers signed nondisclosure agreements and agreed to make themselves available to government agencies on short notice when called to give information.

Joseph Michael, transmission electron microscopy (TEM) lab owner Paul Kotula, and a team of roughly a dozen others examined more than 200 samples in those six and a half years. They received samples from the letter delivered to the New York Post, to former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), and to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The samples looked different, in part because of how the samples were prepared, which made examination initially difficult.

When bacillus a
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Contact: Stephanie Holinka
slholin@sandia.gov
505-284-9227
DOE/Sandia National Laboratories
Source:Eurekalert  

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