The White House yesterday disputed reports that the anthrax sent to the Senate contained bentonite, an additive that has been used in Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program.
“Based on the test results we have, no bentonite has been found,” White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said in an interview. “As always, there will be continuing tests.”
Mr. Stanzel was responding to reports by ABC News and others that bentonite had been detected in the anthrax that was mailed to the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat. The reports cited anonymous sources in the administration.
But White House press secretary Ari Fleischer later told the network that tests had found no bentonite, which is used to prevent anthrax particles from sticking together so they can become airborne. He also noted that the tests detected no aluminum, which would normally be present in bentonite-enhanced anthrax.
But even if bentonite is found in the anthrax, that would not necessarily mean it came from Saddam. In fact, some experts believe Iraq has developed a different strain of anthrax. And while bentonite has previously been used in Saddam’s biological weapons program, it has also been used elsewhere.
“Bentonite was used by the Iraqis in producing the anthrax that they produced,” said Dr. David Franz, former commander of the U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. “However, bentonite is found throughout the world. Bentonite is found in the United States. It’s found wherever there was ever an active volcano, probably.”
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” Mr. Franz added: “Bentonite is available from chemical companies, a number of them in the United States and throughout the world.”
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said the administration does not know whether there are still anthrax-laced letters at large.
“We’re asking people to be very careful,” Mr. Card said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We note that there are some 680 million letters a day that move through the Postal Service.”
Mr. Card, however, shed no light on whether the anthrax mailed to Mr. Daschle was produced domestically or abroad.
“The one thing I can say: It’s not naturally occurring,” he explained. “This anthrax has been milled. It may have additives to it. It is not something that you would find in a normal veterinarian’s office, where they deal with anthrax more regularly.”
He added: “And we don’t know the source of this. All of our scientists are working to try to find out what it is. But we’ve only had two very, very small samples that we have for analysis. And I just don’t think we have all the answers yet.”
On Friday, Mr. Fleischer said tests on the anthrax sent to Mr. Daschle proved that the poison could have been produced in a small laboratory by someone with a Ph.D. in microbiology. That expanded the possible perpetrators of the anthrax attacks to individuals or groups not linked to foreign governments.
The presence of bentonite would not shrink the list of possible perpetrators dramatically, although the specific strain of bentonite might provide clues to investigators.
“There are some interesting characteristics of bentonite,” Mr. Franz said. “It’s made up typically of silicon dioxide and some metal oxides. And they’re in various formulations and various ratios in bentonite from various parts of the world. So there’s possibly another clue.”
But he cautioned that even if investigators link the anthrax to a particular region of the world, that does not preclude the possibility that the anthrax was moved before being mailed to Mr. Daschle.
“It’s not like the bullet and rifling relationship in ballistic forensics,” Mr. Franz explained. “It’s not like when you have a bullet with the marks on it from a specific barrel, you’ve got a definitive answer. That’s not the way biology works.”
He added: “Even if we have definitive proof that we have bentonite in a sample from the Daschle letter, in my mind, that’s just another piece of the puzzle. It’s not the final piece of the puzzle.”
Meanwhile, speculation of Iraq’s involvement in the anthrax scare has prompted leading officials in Baghdad to lash out at the United States and its allies.
Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said in an interview to the Sunday Telegraph that his country expects to be attacked by the United States and Britain. He said that the Baghdad regime was aware of plans by Washington and London to strike “300 targets with 1,000 missiles.”
Mr. Aziz accused America and Britain of trying to remove Saddam under the pretext of waging war against terrorism.
“We know that they are preparing for such an attack,” he said. “We are watching what is being said and what is being done in the United States and in Britain, and we know that it is just a matter of time before such an attack.”