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Last Updated

25 Aug 2003

Source:  Financial Times (London) September 17, 2002.

Anthrax hunt conspires to dent confidence

By Edward Alden

A year ago on Wednesday the first anthrax-laced letters were mailed in the US, igniting something close to panic among Americans facing their first terrorist attack with biological weapons.

The two letters, dropped into a postbox in New Jersey, were headed for the New York Post and for Tom Brokaw, the anchor at NBC News. Over the next months Americans would don masks to open their mail and rush to fill prescriptions of the antibiotic Cipro as additional letters went to other news organisations and to Democratic political leaders.

By the time the letters stopped, 18 people were infected and five dead. The Washington DC mail sorting facility, where two postal workers died of anthrax exposure, has yet to reopen.

But after a year of investigation, US officials seem little closer to identifying the perpetrator. Their failure has generated a host of conspiracy theories and produced an ideological battle over whether the US has more to fear from Islamic extremists abroad or rightwing zealots at home.

Conservative groups argue that a foreign government most probably sponsored the attack, and continue to point to Iraq as the only country with the means and the motive to carry it out.

Liberal opponents of bioweapons research say the attack was almost certainly an inside job, probably launched by a disgruntled US weapons researcher intent on warning the country of the dangers of a foreign biological attack.

The speculation has been encouraged by the huge holes that remain in the investigation. So far, the only progress has been technical. Scientists consulted by the government have identified the anthrax as coming from the Ames strain. This strain - developed from natural sources in the US - was first used in American bioweapons research in the early 1980s and is probably available to weapons researchers in the UK, Canada and Israel as well.

In addition, the letters sent last year to Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, the Senate Democrats, contained highly refined, dry powder anthrax that could be easily inhaled.

Producing such lethal anthrax required advanced knowledge, equipment and working conditions, according to a recent summary prepared by Milton Leitenberg, a bioterrorism expert at the University of Maryland. But such conclusions have done little to narrow the range of suspects.

"I've heard nothing that has changed my mind," says Richard O. Spertzel, the former head of biological weapons inspections for the United Nations inspections team in Iraq, who is persuaded the anthrax attack involved active state support. "You could not possibly make that quality of product in a clandestine fashion. It's not the sort of thing you can do in your garage or in your basement."

He said the "floundering" of the investigation - which has focused largely on domestic suspects - is because investigators are "looking in the wrong place". That argument has received a steady drumbeat of support from conservative publications such as the Weekly Standard and the National Review, anxious to finger Iraq and bolster the US argument for ousting Saddam Hussein.

On the other side, a group of mostly liberal scientists has pushed the notion that the perpetrator came from within the US weapons establishment.

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist at the State University of New York, first promoted the theory that the letters were the work of a disgruntled insider determined to demonstrate his own expertise while warning the country of the threat of a bio-attack.

FBI investigators, too, have focused on domestic suspects, saying that psychological profiles and the characteristics of the anthrax indicate it was probably cooked up by a US biodefence scientist. Fewer than 50 researchers fit that profile.

Last month those suspicions converged on Steven Hatfill, a 48-year-old former researcher at the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Maryland, which works with the Ames strain of anthrax. Mr Hatfill, identified by the FBI only as a "person of interest" before they raided his apartment last month, appeared to fit Ms Rosenberg's theory precisely. But Mr Hatfill has vigorously maintained his innocence against what he charges is a public smear campaign launched by ideological opponents.

"This assassination of my character appears to be part of a government-run effort to show the American people that it is proceeding vigorously and successfully with the anthrax investigation," said Mr Hatfill last month.

Underlying all the accusations, however, lies the much bigger question of how the US should be defending itself against future biological attacks by terrorists, when it still knows so little about who launched the last.

Since the anthrax scare, Washington has approved more than $6bn (6.2bn) in new spending, much of which will go to defensive research on bioweapons. The National Institutes of Health, for instance, plans to double the number of facilities it has to study the most dangerous pathogens.

If the threat is from abroad, the new money should indeed help the US strengthen its defences against attack. But if the threat is at home, argues Eileen Choffnes of the National Academy of Sciences, the money will simply expand the number of people with access to deadly germs and the knowledge of how to use them. "This," she says, "is a recipe for disaster."