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Last Updated

11 Nov 2002

Source: New York Times, June 23, 2002.

Anthrax in Mail Was Newly Made, Investigators Say


WASHINGTON, June 22 -- Scientists have determined that the anthrax powder sent through the mail last fall was fresh, made no more than two years before it was sent, senior government officials said. The new finding has concerned investigators, who say it indicates that whoever sent the anthrax could make more and strike again.

Establishing the age of the anthrax that killed five people has strengthened the theory that the person behind the mailings has a direct and current connection to a microbiology laboratory and may have used relatively new equipment. "We're still looking for someone who fits the criteria of training, knowledge, education, experience and skill," a government official said.

The new finding casts serious doubt on another theory that had complicated the so far fruitless investigation: that the culprit had stolen or somehow obtained an old laboratory sample of powdered anthrax, from a strain first identified in 1981.

The dating of the anthrax as recent suggests that the person who mailed it prepared the germs on his own and has the ability to make more without relying on old material, possibly taken from the small supplies of anthrax that the government keeps for testing new kinds of defenses against dangerous microbes.

"It's modern," one official said. "It was grown, and therefore it can be grown again and again."

Officials said the F.B.I. determined that the anthrax was fresh by radiocarbon dating, a standard means of estimating the age of biological samples. It measures how much radioactive carbon a living thing has lost since it died or, in the case of anthrax spores, since they went into suspended animation.

As the case now stands, investigators say they believe that the mailer, if ever caught, will fit the profile offered by F.B.I. behavioral scientists, who theorize that the anthrax killer is a male loner with a scientific bent and a grudge against society, a man who feels comfortable in the Trenton area, where the letters were postmarked. The investigators are uncertain whether the perpetrator is American or foreign.

The new forensic evidence about the anthrax, a germ of domestic origin usually referred to as the Ames strain, has been closely held among investigators. Laboratory experts and senior investigators will meet this coming week with the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, to discuss the evidence in the case. Among the topics will be the results of months of sophisticated studies conducted on the anthrax contained in the letter sent on Oct. 9, 2001, to Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.

Even though they are making progress in the science of anthrax, officials acknowledge that they have no prime suspect and have not narrowed the list of possible subjects, which in fact appears to be expanding. Investigators have a list of about 50 people, which is updated periodically as possible subjects are added or deleted.

The Leahy letter letter, which investigators say holds new promise in their search, was the only one of the four letters recovered in the case that contained enough anthrax to permit extensive scientific testing. The sample retrieved from the envelope addressed to Mr. Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, at his Senate office address contained as much material as a sugar packet and weighed about a gram.

Along with earlier tests that showed the anthrax was an extremely fine powder that hung dangerously in the air, the scientific studies represent the leading edge of an investigation that has expanded far beyond the F.B.I.'s investigative norms. No active criminal case has a higher priority. The inquiry has consumed millions of dollars and vast amounts of manpower.

Under heavy pressure from Congress and the Bush administration to produce results in the country's first case of deadly bioterrorism, Mr. Mueller has presided over what has expanded into the bureau's second-biggest case after the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The anthrax case offers a glimpse into what may be the future of criminal investigation on a vast scale in an age of biological and other sophisticated forms of terrorism. The F.B.I. has collected huge amounts of personal information on hundreds of thousands of American citizens, combining it with a scientific arm that has moved far ahead of the Bunsen burners, fingerprints and microscopes of conventional forensic sleuthing.

The F.B.I. and the Postal Service, its partner in the case, have turned to experts beyond their own laboratories. A new high-level containment laboratory to hold deadly germs and a backup unit have been built at the Army's biodefense research facility at Fort Detrick, Md.

Scientists at laboratories in Massachusetts, Ohio, Utah and elsewhere have invented new protocols and tests to probe the molecular structure of the anthrax — a task complicated by the possibility that the culprit could be among the microbiologists assisting the F.B.I.

Officials say every investigative technique available to the F.B.I. has been used in the case, including round-the-clock surveillances, eavesdropping and searches conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Agents have conducted 5,000 interviews and served more than 1,700 grand jury subpoenas.

Hundreds of people have been polygraphed. Investigators have compiled minute-by-minute chronologies of the lives of some subjects, examining their whereabouts when the letters were sent. Forty of the F.B.I.'s 56 field offices and many of its 44 overseas legal attachés have been asked to help. The F.B.I. has established 112 separate databases to store information about the case.

The scale of the investigation and the lack of progress in finding a suspect have prompted a number of people to criticize the F.B.I.'s approach to the case. These people, many of them science experts, have prodded the bureau to move more aggressively, unsuccessfully pushing it to narrow its focus.

So far, even the offer of a $2.5 million reward has failed to produce a breakthrough lead — even though in one case last fall, investigators said they were convinced they had their culprit. They passed the word of a pending arrest up the chain of command to President Bush, but their hopes were dashed when their quarry proved innocent. "We just can't seem to catch a break," one government official said.

One group under scrutiny is the biopesticide industry, a group of eight primary companies that has produced a list of about 80 people who remain under investigation. Another group is the biopharmaceutical industry, a larger sector of more than 100 companies, which has produced a list of about 200 possible subjects. Finally, public and private laboratories with anthrax inventories or production capability account for another group of about 50 people who are under suspicion.