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Last Updated

22 Aug 2003

Source: USA Today, August 8, 2002.

Anthrax probe proceeding with increased vigor

By Kevin Johnson and Toni Locy

WASHINGTON -- A week after FBI agents investigating the anthrax attacks searched the apartment of a former government scientist for the second time, U.S. authorities are not close to making an arrest, U.S. Attorney John Ashcroft said in an interview with USA TODAY.

Ashcroft, in his broadest public comments on what has been a frustrating investigation into last fall's anthrax attacks, said the probe was proceeding with perhaps more intensity than ever. But he said that a "conclusion" is not imminent.

"Progress is being made," Ashcroft said in his fifth-floor suite at the Justice Department. "But until you cross the thresholds of information that will provide the basis for action, it may be that the progress doesn't mean a lot."

Since anthrax-laden letters that were mailed to government and media offices led to the deaths of five people, infected 22 others and contaminated several government buildings, FBI agents have pursued thousands of leads. They have been particularly interested in 30 to 40 U.S.-based scientists who have had access to labs where anthrax is kept and who have expertise in handling the deadly bacteria.

Last week, the FBI returned to the Maryland apartment of Steven Hatfill, 48, a former Army scientist at Fort Detrick, Md. Hatfill, who has a doctorate in molecular biology, was described by Ashcroft only as "a person of interest" in the probe.

Investigators first searched Hatfill's property in June, with his consent. They found no trace of anthrax at the apartment or in a Florida storage unit Hatfill had rented. When investigators returned last week, they had a warrant authorizing a search of the apartment and trash bins.

Shortly after the second search, Hatfill was suspended for 30 days with pay from his new job at Louisiana State University's Academy for Counter-terrorism Education, a Justice Department-funded program that trains emergency workers.

Hatfill could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But his attorneys said they are outraged by how law enforcement and the media are treating him.

Hatfill has hired lawyer Victor Glasberg of Alexandria, Va., to explore possible civil lawsuits to "address the flurry of defamatory publicity." The scientist also has hired criminal defense lawyer Jonathan Shapiro, also of Alexandria.

In a letter to a U.S. prosecutor last week, Glasberg complained that Hatfill had offered to cooperate with the FBI in a second search, and questioned why agents used a warrant.

Shapiro was scheduled to meet Wednesday with prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office here. But that plan changed after reporters gathered outside the office. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney said the meeting was not held there and declined to say whether it was held elsewhere. Shapiro did not return calls to his office.

Hatfill is a physician, a pilot and has trained to be a bioweapons inspector in Iraq.

In 1999, Hatfill, while working for a McLean, Va., defense contractor, commissioned a study that described a hypothetical anthrax attack using the public mail. The study was done by his mentor, William Patrick III, a former bioweapons expert at Fort Detrick who is viewed as the "father" of a process for making a sophisticated form of anthrax.

Hatfill attended medical school in Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe, and was there in 1979 and 1980 when the largest outbreak of human anthrax cases occurred. About 10,000 cases were reported. Most of them were the skin, or cutaneous, form of infection, which is not as deadly as inhalation anthrax. Inhalation anthrax was cited in the deaths in the U.S. attacks.

In Rhodesia, Hatfill lived near a school named Greendale. "Greendale School" was the phony return address on the tainted letters sent last year to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The first search of Hatfill's apartment occurred within days of a meeting between Senate staff members and Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a biologist at Purchase College of the State University of New York. She has criticized the FBI for not solving the anthrax mystery. She has done extensive critiques of the probe and has accused the FBI of covering for the CIA, which she maintains is protecting the anthrax culprit.

According to her critiques, the suspect knows many of the U.S. government's bioweapons secrets. In one posted on the Internet, Rosenberg says that at least five "inside experts" had told the FBI that one person was "the most likely suspect." Rosenberg does not name Hatfill in her writings, but she has told authorities that she is referring to him. Rosenberg did not respond to requests for comment.

Rosenberg sought the Capitol Hill meeting with staff members representing Leahy, Daschle and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, according to people familiar with the meeting. Leahy asked Van Harp, the head of the FBI's Washington field office, to sit in.

Law enforcement sources say the anthrax probe has been especially difficult because the pool of potential suspects is the same group of scientists upon whom the FBI is relying for expertise in identifying the bacteria type used in the attacks. Often, after a scientist passes a polygraph, the FBI asks the scientist to join the investigation team.

"My own view is that the work is very arduous, and it has not abated," Ashcroft said. "It's fair to say that it's as intense as it ever was, if not more intense. But we're not in a position to announce an outcome."