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16 Dec 2002

Source: Wall Street Journal, January 29, 2002.

FBI Sends E-Mail to 40,000 Scientists

Requesting Tips in Anthrax Probe


Hoping to invigorate its anthrax investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is sending out e-mail to more than 40,000 microbiologists, asking them for tips on who might have sent the anthrax letters in September and October.

"It is very likely that one or more of you know this individual," according to the FBI's query, due to go out Tuesday to the full membership of the American Society for Microbiology. The message goes on to describe traits from the FBI profile of the mailer, and to ask for "all relevant information, no matter how insignificant it may seem."

The FBI's appeal to the nation's biologists follows a similar effort previously directed at residents of southern New Jersey. Last week, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service unveiled a flier, complete with photographs of the four hand-addressed anthrax envelopes, and announced that they were sending the flier to every postal customer in Trenton, N.J., and Bucks County, Pa.

The FBI and Postal Inspection Service also doubled the reward to $2.5 million. Advo Inc., a large direct-mail company and the largest single private customer of the Postal Service, has put up $500,000 of the reward.

Raising the reward and asking for tips, current and former FBI investigators say, indicates the bureau hasn't closed in on a suspect. "We wouldn't be raising the amount of the reward if we had a suspect," one FBI official said.

Sending the e-mail to the nation's microbiologists reiterates the bureau's belief that "a single person is most likely responsible for these mailings." The e-mail message goes on to say, "The perpetrator might be described as "stand-offish" and likely prefers to work in isolation as opposed to a group/team setting. It is possible this person used off-hours in a laboratory or may have even established an improvised or concealed facility comprised of sufficient equipment to produce the anthrax ."

The American Society of Microbiology, the nation's largest life-sciences organization, has turned over its membership list to the FBI, prompting "irate messages from members that we would do that," said Abigail Salyers, the president of AMS and professor of microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Salyers said the FBI has subpoenaed the names of everyone at the University of Illinois who had ever worked with any bacillus, the bacterial family that includes Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax .

But Ronald Atlas, a professor of biology at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, who heads the ASM's bioterrorism task force, cautioned that the anthrax perpetrator could be from another discipline, such as chemical engineering. "They are trained to culture organisms as microbiologists do, and they know critical steps in drying and preparing" the bacterium into a powder.

The FBI hasn't asked the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, which has more than 50,000 members, to send out a similar message, said Sidney Sapakie, president of the institute.

-- Gary Fields contributed to this article.