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Last Updated

18 Aug 2003

Source:  USA Today, June 24, 2002.

FBI mystified by anthrax attacks

By Ana Radelat, Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON -- More than eight months after the anthrax death of a photo editor in Florida touched off a national manhunt for the perpetrator, the FBI says it has no suspect and hopes the public will provide a missing clue.

The lack of apparent progress in the case has irritated several members of Congress.

"That anthrax killer is out there. We need to nab this person," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said on a talk show this weekend. The senator and some of her colleagues complain that the FBI is spending too much time reorganizing itself into an anti-terrorism bureaucracy and not enough finding the person behind attacks that killed five people, sickened 18 others, shut down Capitol Hill and paralyzed mail delivery.

Since Robert Stevens (case 5), a tabloid photo editor, died of anthrax Oct. 5, the FBI has questioned nearly 6,000 people and sought samples -- sometimes more than once -- from all laboratories known to have a certain type of anthrax known as the Ames strain.

But a breakthrough has been elusive.

Van Harp, head of the FBI's anthrax investigation, said the agency is "light years" away from where it was after Stevens died.

The agency had no experience solving this type of crime, he said. Clues are also few. The anthrax they've managed to collect from the attacks would fit into a sugar packet.

In addition, FBI handwriting experts say the brief notes contained in the anthrax-laden envelopes don't reveal much about their writer.

"With (Unabomber) Theodore Kaczynski, we had the luxury of having 39,000 words. This time, we only have 39," said James Fitzgerald, head of the FBI's behavioral analysis unit.

Fitzgerald and his colleagues have put together a profile of a likely suspect: a male loner with a scientific background who might work in a laboratory.

Harp and the rest of his team hope someone comes forward with the "small kernel of information that we need" to break the case -- just like Kaczynski's brother did. Harp hopes it will help that the reward for the tip that leads to an arrest in the case was doubled to $2.5 million.

"If anyone has any information on who did it, we welcome it," he said.

As part of the investigation, the FBI has set up a special lab at Fort Detrick, Md., a place that also is being investigated by the FBI because of repeated security breaches in the past 10 years. The bureau also has asked for help from dozens of scientists across the nation.

Martin Hugh-Jones, an epidemiologist with Louisiana State University, was one of them. The school has one of the labs that studied the Ames strain anthrax -- and Hugh-Jones said FBI agents swarmed the campus conducting interviews and collecting the names of former lab employees.

Hugh-Jones said he felt a key method used by investigators -- determining the rate of genetic mutations across generations of bacteria to try to find the lab of origin -- has proved inconclusive. He also cast doubt on a recent revelation that the anthrax spores involved in the attacks were made less than two years ago. The dating was reportedly done with radiocarbon analysis, which can only pinpoint the age of a substance within a couple of years, Hugh-Jones said.

Lawmakers are increasingly anxious about the pace of the probe.

Several weeks ago, Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., sent FBI Director Robert Mueller a list of questions about the status of the case, but his queries remain unanswered. Mueller may not be able to avoid congressional questioning though: Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D, who like Leahy was one of the congressional targets of the attacks, has asked Mueller to meet with him privately Thursday and fill him in.

Staffers from the offices of Leahy, Daschle and other senators have in the past two weeks met with Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a bioweapons expert from the State University of New York who has for months criticized the FBI for what she calls a fragmented, mismanaged and profoundly unscientific investigation. Rosenberg believes the FBI knows who's behind the attacks but is trying to develop an impossibly airtight case.

"Without a swift arrest, and the message it sends, the nation risks a future threat that could dwarf 9-11," Rosenberg warned in a critique prepared for the Web site of the Federation of American Scientists.

Eric Sterling, director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, said it's natural that the FBI is trying to avoid the mistakes it made when it unjustly accused Richard Jewell as the perpetrator of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing.

"It's a dangerous tactic to force law enforcement to act prematurely," Sterling said. "But while it's a mistake to pressure them, it is quite appropriate to ask, 'Are you making progress in this investigation?"'