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Last Updated

01 Dec 2002

Source: Newsday, July 23, 2002.

A Lack of Teamwork

Clash of agencies hampered inquiry into anthrax mystery

By Laurie Garrett, Staff Writer

Though many theories have surfaced about the source of the anthrax mailings last fall, and even the names of possible suspects, the FBI isn't close to solving the mystery, according to White House sources. And top intelligence officials say the FBI investigation, though vigorous, is foundering.

FBI insiders who spoke on condition they not be identified acknowledged that the agency is operating under "many hypotheses.” They say the investigation, however, is proceeding in a methodical fashion.

Others describe a probe troubled by confusion and lack of coordination between criminal and public health investigators since the Oct. 4 anthrax death of American Media photo editor Robert Stevens (case 5) in Boca Raton, Fla. Subsequent mailings killed four more people and sickened 18 others in New York, Washington, D.C., New Jersey and Connecticut.

"The problem goes back to the very first days in Florida,” one intelligence source said. "That's when everything started going wrong.”

Under fire for failing to take seriously clues leading up to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the FBI is officially close-mouthed about the anthrax investigation. But FBI sources told Newsday that when the obvious avenues of investigation -- such as fingerprints or analysis of the envelopes -- failed to pan out this winter, the bureau decided to go back to the basics. Teams of agents asked themselves what it would take to make and mail anthrax powder, creating lists of necessary skills and equipment.

The equipment list has led to thousands of interviews and inquiries regarding such things as purchase orders for glove box devices and biohazard suits that protect scientists while they work on deadly substances. The inventory of the skills needed to commit the crimes led to the names of hundreds of people who theoretically could manufacture powder of the caliber found in the letter opened Oct. 15 by a staffer for Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Dozens of theories as to who was responsible have appeared in the media since last fall, mostly relying on information from non-FBI sources. FBI insiders, however, say no published account has correctly disclosed the investigation's leading hypotheses. The insiders refuse to indicate how the search may be narrowing. Has the FBI ruled out foreign powers or terrorist groups? Does the bureau believe a Unabomber-like lone operative is responsible?

A peek inside the investigation came in a Jan. 29 mass mailing from the FBI to microbiologists, which said: "This person is experienced working in a laboratory. Based on his or her selection of the Ames strain of Bacillus anthracis one would expect that this individual has or had legitimate access to select biological agents at one time. This person has the technical knowledge and/or expertise to produce a highly refined and deadly product. This person has exhibited a clear, rational thought process and appears to be very organized in the production and mailing of these letters. The perpetrator might be described as ‘standoffish' and likely prefers to work in isolation as opposed to a group/team setting.”

Most recently the media focus has been on scientists who work or once worked at former U.S. bioweapons development sites at Fort Detrick, Md., and the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. It has been theorized that these scientists would have the skills, equipment and motivation to carry out anthrax attacks.

Nearly all published accounts of that theory cite the same source: Barbara Hatch Rosenberg of the Federation of American Scientists, a microbiologist and lifelong advocate of controlling biological weapons.

Rosenberg's assertions have been roundly denounced, publicly and privately, by prominent public health officials and former military personnel. Dr. Tara O'Toole, who directs the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies at Johns Hopkins University, the most influential bioterrorism think tank in the world, has publicly dismissed the theory that the perpetrator is a disgruntled military scientist.

In June, FBI agents searched the home of one individual pointed to by Rosenberg, former private sector biodefense researcher Steven J. Hatfill, a microbiologist. Rosenberg has never fingered Hatfill by name -- she refers to the suspected scientist sometimes as ‘Mr. Z' in her writings, but her descriptions of Mr. Z closely resemble Hatfill. "I just have decided never to use names,” Rosenberg said.

Hatfill, according to the FBI, eagerly agreed to the search of his home last month in hopes of clearing his name. Hatfill no longer responds to media queries. Sources inside the FBI say he is merely one "of hundreds” of people agents are looking at.

Dr. David Franz, who ran the Fort Detrick top-security laboratory during the 1990s, scoffs at the idea that any of his former employees or contractors could have carried out the attacks. He said no one from the FBI has questioned him about individuals who had worked for him there, or about anything else.

Several sources connected with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, located inside Fort Detrick, argue that their facility would not have been the proper place to obtain samples of the Ames strain of anthrax -- the type used last fall. That's because the Army had long used a different strain, known as Velum, which originated in England, and only a small amount of the Ames strain was stored there.

A former Army colonel who worked on biodefense programs said the only site in the military research system that could make sense for a theft or production of anthrax powder is Dugway, where aerosol tests of bacterial powders are conducted. But, the colonel adamantly insisted, such tests are performed using only harmless bacteria.

Even as leads from Rosenberg and other outsiders draw disdain from FBI agents, the bureau itself has made some missteps, according to scientific and intelligence sources.

Six months ago, with its investigation apparently going nowhere, the FBI officially reached out to the American Society for Microbiology in a plea for any information that might help. Critics charge the FBI waited far too long to reach out to the scientific community and lacked the necessary internal expertise to pursue an aggressive sleuthing job inside the world of science without such guidance.

Rosenberg goes further in her criticism, when asked if the FBI was flubbing the investigation or deliberately resisting following all the leads.

"I suspect there's both,” she said. "The observations certainly are that there are things they have known about and haven't acted on. And it's hard to explain either as incredible incompetence or reluctance. The likely perpetrator is almost certainly somebody who knows things that they would think were better not to come out.”

On Thursday night, Oct. 4, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's chief of meningitis and special pathogens, Dr. Brad Perkins, had just nestled in for his daughter's piano recital when his cell phone rang. The CDC caller told Perkins a man employed at American Media Inc. in Boca Raton was hospitalized with inhalational anthrax (case 5). Fourteen hours later Perkins was in Florida leading a CDC investigation to determine how Stevens got infected with a remarkably rare microbe.

"Here you are, you're in Florida, you're down here where the terrorists trained, you just had 9/11,” Perkins recalled in an interview in his spartan office at the CDC. "It's easy to conclude it's bioterrorism. But my responsibility was to rule out that it was a sporadic, natural case. That was very much the local focus.”

Perkins took his team to the American Media building, where Stevens had worked. As they met with editors who knew Stevens, the phone rang: It was the hospital, informing American Media that Stevens, 63, had just died of anthrax poisoning.

"That was a fairly dramatic moment because we were sitting in a room with people who had known him,” Perkins said. "This was a universally loved guy. Everyone was just in utter disbelief. I saw him that morning. He was intubated [on ventilation support], critically ill, unable to speak. But I did not expect him to die that day.”

Stevens' Oct. 5 death brought grim urgency to a CDC investigation that spanned four states through which he had recently traveled. And it brought the world's media, numerous state and federal agencies and the White House into the picture. Perkins' job was to stay focused on leading a solid, scientific investigation. He and his small staff meticulously scoured Stevens' home and office, as well as the American Media mail room, swabbing for anthrax spores.

On Sunday, Oct. 7, Perkins got word from the CDC's anthrax laboratory that swabs collected from Stevens' computer keyboard and the mail room tested positive for Bacillus anthracis.

"At that point I decided to chemoprophylax [treat with antibiotics] people who worked in the building,” said Perkins, who placed thousands of American Media employees and recent visitors on ciprofloxacin antibiotics. In coming days, television shots of long lines of Floridians queued up to get nasal swabs and pills would spark difficulties in controlling public anxieties, as well as demand for antibiotics.

That October Sunday Perkins had more immediate problems. Discovery of anthrax spores inside the American Media building ruled out the possibility Stevens acquired his infection naturally. "At that point I urged [CDC director Dr. Jeffrey] Koplan to engage the FBI in what we now considered to be a criminal investigation,” he said.

The FBI had had a small, just-in-case presence in Florida since Stevens was stricken. Once Koplan called FBI director Robert Mueller, that changed. Hordes of agents poured in to what Perkins considered a site of disease contamination, but what FBI agents viewed as a crime scene.

By Monday afternoon Perkins found himself ominously recalling one of the bioterrorism exercises he had participated in, back in 1998 in New York City. In that scenario, a Manhattan building was deliberately contaminated with anthrax by terrorists and a New York Police Department official was asked what he would do.

"And he said he would bring in the tank,” Perkins said. "I said, ‘The tank?' And he said, ‘It's a show of force.'

"So I had been educated about this,” Perkins said. "But having said that, it wasn't particularly smooth or comfortable [in Florida]. It was actually easier when they [the FBI] were casually interested because it was clear who was in charge: public health. The bigger challenge was when it became a dual public health/criminal investigation.”

As hours ticked by, and it was learned a second American Media employee, mail room clerk Ernesto Blanco (case 7), 74, also was hospitalized with inhalational anthrax, tensions rose between Perkins and the FBI agent in charge in Florida. "I felt lives were on the line,” Perkins said. "And he felt some criminal was out there killing people, and he needed to find him. The worlds were completely different.”

The FBI took over the American Media building, turning it into a command center and excluding the CDC. To defuse tensions, Perkins accepted an FBI agent into his inner staff, and dispatched a CDC epidemiologist to work alongside the FBI chief. But by Wednesday, five days after Stevens' death, communication between the two agencies all but broke down.

Perkins called his boss, Koplan. Within a couple of hours, "I got immediate, clear support from the highest levels of government that saving lives -- public health -- was the highest priority. And it came down from [Attorney General] John Ashcroft and [Health and Human Services Secretary] Tommy Thompson. The message was conveyed to the field by the director of the FBI, and that made things much better,” Perkins said, laughing heartily.

That day, Dr. James Hughes, director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, turned to one of the CDC's senior scientists, Dr. Mitch Cohen, director of the Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases. Hughes asked Cohen to fly Oct. 9 to Washington, setting up shop inside the FBI, to act as an interagency liaison. Cohen took off that day, having no idea that for three months he would live out of a suitcase.

Right away, Cohen spotted the culture clash that was halting communication between scientists and agents. "The goal is the same: Remove the risk,” he explained in an interview in Atlanta. "Public health wants the risk removed by identifying it and stopping transmission. Their view is that the goal is to identify the perpetrators, capture and prosecute them. Our standards are scientific. Theirs are to collect evidence ... ”

For the CDC and its local health counterparts, the "whodunit” aspects had to take a distant backseat to figuring out how to find infected people before they became fatally ill. From the FBI perspective, every single anthrax spore or piece of paper that might have been in a mailbag alongside the lethal letters was evidence. The scientists and agents were working in parallel universes, using not only different techniques, but even conflicting ways of thinking.

"What I observed is that on the public health side we would gather information to develop a hypothesis, and then test that hypothesis,” Cohen said. "Their work is to try to get every piece of information you possibly can and then see where it leads you.”

As Cohen and his counterparts came to appreciate the cultural differences between public health and law enforcement, communication improved. Eventually, their search for the perpetrator going nowhere, the FBI began soliciting scientific insights from physician/microbiologist Cohen.

"They told me there was only one physician working in the FBI, and that was in behavioral areas,” Cohen said. "They do have people with biology training in the hazardous materials area. But they really don't understand the scientific community. That was something we could help with.”

FBI insiders say that is an exaggeration: the bureau has many scientists on staff. Most are, however, in the forensics division. Perhaps more importantly, few, if any, biologists are located in the field offices, where the bulk of all investigation takes place.

Cohen was able to communicate a better sense of how to investigate biological weapons. He realized, for example, that the FBI thought it was possible to measure the weight of an anthrax sample, as one might a container of toxic chemicals, to tell if any of the sample were missing. Cohen explained that anthrax spores are living organisms that reproduce; the size of a sample from one day to the next simply isn't relevant.

After the FBI recognized its need to establish lines of communication with the scientific community and issued the Jan. 29 appeal to the American Society for Microbiology, the CDC came to also realize that its staff needed to better understand criminal investigations. This spring and summer, the agencies convened joint training sessions. And Cohen, who returned to Atlanta, has been replaced by another official in a permanent arrangement.

The FBI has tried to find clues in other scientific places. It has relied on Fort Detrick scientists to analyze the anthrax powder found in the various envelopes and samples, and it has contracted with outside academic labs to scrutinize the genetic fingerprints in the anthrax samples. Analysis of the powder has led to the conclusion that the assailant had a fair amount of scientific expertise.

Yet the culprit's scientific acumen, investigators, have noted, was lacking in one crucial area: how to mail spores to a target. The anthrax was placed inside standard envelopes in which microscopic spaces between paper fibers were far bigger than the minuscule anthrax spores. This virtually guaranteed spores would leak if the envelopes were aggressively shaken.

Analysis of the genetic fingerprint of the anthrax spores has, after months of study, yielded two significant clues. First, all of the samples are genetically identical. And second, the anthrax used was the standard Ames variety, the most widely used strain of the bacteria in basic science and vaccine labs throughout the United States.

Overall, observers say, the proposed Homeland Security Department would need to examine how bioterrorism investigations should be conducted. The FBI's mandate is criminal prosecution. Public health's mandate is contagion control. It is inevitable that the two pursuits will clash. And amid that clash, vital clues to the identity of the assailants may be lost.