Sunday, December 22, 2013

Slight Diversion: Nothing to See Here,"Moving On..." and At the Ballet

Let It Snow Let It Snow Let It Snow...

Yesterday, we attended the ballet and a Science Café in Albuquerque.

The ballet was a reprise of "The Nutcracker in the Land of Enchantment" presented by Festival Ballet Albuquerque that we'd attended last year. It was really a delight, and in many ways a distinct improvement over the previous years' presentation in that it appeared to be more "finished", more securely designed, more cleanly danced, and so on. It also seemed that the choreography had been refined throughout. The orchestra was stupendous. I cannot say enough in praise of the Figueroa Music and Arts Project orchestra  which accompanied the work and which appeared to have doubled in size over last year's orchestra. They were marvelous. All in all, it was a delightful Holiday outing that we will probably make into one of our ongoing traditions of the Season in New Mexico. 

Prior to the ballet, however, we attended the final New Mexico PBS Science Café for the year at Los Poblanos. We love Los Poblanos. So does practically everyone else in Albuquerque and the region. For the Science Cafés, attendees are arriving earlier and earlier, to the point where it is becoming almost silly, crack of dawn silly. The staff tries to prepare, but they're usually in the midst of getting ready when the first wave arrives, hungry for Los Poblanos' highly regarded pastries and breakfast treats, and desperately in need of coffee. Well, yesterday, they didn't have the coffee ready when the first onslaught arrived, and there was a continuing Coffee Crisis that actually delayed the presentation for a good fifteen minutes while all those who didn't get any coffee to begin with were served. Oh my! Some wag said, "Well, if you're going to come to these things, you really oughta stop at Starbucks first!" Fun-knee.

But Coffee Crisis aside, the presentation was about the "Amerithrax" case -- you remember? -- back in September-October-November of 2001. Right after the 9/11 attacks. Yes, that one. Sandia Labs in Albuquerque played a fundamental role in identifying the strain of anthrax that was used in the "Amerithrax" attacks (so dubbed by the FBI), and so one of the participants in the identification process, whose name unfortunately escapes me at the moment (NOTE: It was Paul Kotula, warning! warning! warning! 41 page pdf), was on hand to discuss how they did it.

It was fascinating. More and more, he said, The Labs are getting away from nuclear weapons science and technology and into forensics, diseases, and atomic physics and research. He said that less than 40% of their work now involves nuclear weapons, and he expects that proportion to continue to decline, while The Labs diversify their activities. The "Amerithrax" case was an important instance of The Labs' diversification which helped spur a continuing forensics operation.

As we recall, the anthrax attacks took place shortly after the 9/11 incidents, while Congress was considering the PATRIOT Act, which just happened to be sitting on the shelf ready to go when those planes were flying into buildings in New York and DC and into the ground in Pennsylvania. It was  period of high governmental hysteria, and the anthrax attacks seemed tailored to increasing that hysteria to the maximum by targeting media and Senators who were reluctant to agree to the sweeping law enforcement and intelligence sector legal changes encompassed in the act, changes we're still living under and (as in the case of the Snowden Thing) still learning the meaning of.

Interestingly, the FBI apparently say that the motivation for the anthrax attacks had to do with forcing increases in government science lab budgets, nothing directly to do with the PATRIOT Act at all. I haven't read the FBI report that was finally generated after the suicide of the (second) Prime Suspect, Bruce Ivins, a scientist at the Ft. Detrick Lab in Maryland whose work with anthrax was well known and very highly regarded in the field. Of course, he was a weirdo who dressed funny and eventually killed himself, and that was one reason it was easy and convenient to pin the crime on him, after getting nowhere except in trouble for unwisely fingering Stephen Hatfill as the culprit. Oh my.

While it wasn't really a topic of discussion, as the presentation was essentially about how The Labs and a cadre of scientists were able to positively identify the strain of anthrax used in the attack down to the lab and the very flask it came from (Ivins' flask as it happens). But there are still significant mysteries, ones that likely will never be resolved, in part because the FBI has closed the case, and many of the loose ends have been left dangling.

For example, how did the anthrax used in the attacks acquire the molecular signatures of iron and tin between the time it was removed from the Ivins flask at Ft. Detrick and its use to cause injury, death and chaos during the period immediately after 9/11? Why was there no sign of anthrax contamination at Ivins' house, despite the fact that there had been a number of incidents of contamination at the lab where he worked? What was his motivation for the crime -- assuming he committed it? Was there anyone else who had access to the flask?

We were told with absolute certainty, however, that the anthrax used in the attacks was not weaponized, contrary to many of the media reports about it, reports mostly generated by a fundamental misunderstanding of what The Labs had actually found. Yes, well. That's often how it goes with media and science, but it seemed to me that the "weaponization" aspect of the anthrax was being promoted by the FBI right along with a number of their other (convenient) errors.

There are lots and lots of unanswered questions about the "Amerithrax" attacks, and we will probably not learn the truth of what happened in our lifetimes if ever. The key understanding, however, is that whoever perpetrated the attacks, and there are reasons to believe Ivins wasn't the one,  it most certainly was an inside job, a classic incident of domestic terrorism, used for perfectly political purposes, which increased hysteria within the government at a time of crisis and panic. These attacks -- which conveniently went on throughout the period of PATRIOT Act debate in the congress and media -- were almost immediately "forgotten" after the passage of the PATRIOT Act, and the FBI seemed to be dragging its feet investigating the matter. The FBI report referenced at the meeting yesterday -- people with questions about the attacks were referred to it repeatedly by Our Scientist -- was produced in 2009 or 2010 if I recall correctly, and it was subject to a good deal of questioning and ridicule at the time for its obvious gaps and misdirection.

As Our Scientist pointed out, the anthrax attack was a very ineffective way to commit terrorism, at least if you want to create maximum terror, death and damage among the public. He described in fairly graphic detail how he would have done it, were he to have been responsible for the attack. I thought this was a bit odd until I realized that the man who stands accused -- and posthumously convicted without trial -- was a peer and colleague of Our Scientist, though they were at different labs. Of course the attacks were obviously not intended to affect the public as much as they were intended to stampede the government and media into accepting the draconian measures in the PATRIOT Act, and these attacks were stunningly effective in accomplishing that end.

We're still living under the consequences... consequences we may never free ourselves from.

The Amerithrax attacks worked perfectly in that regard, could not have been better...

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