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Last Updated

12 May 2003

Source: United Press International, May 11, 2003

One person may be behind anthrax attacks

By Dee Ann Divis and Nicholas M. Horrock, Washington Politics & Policy Desk

WASHINGTON, May 11 (UPI) -- One person, operating alone, could have placed anthrax in envelopes through tiny slits by using a hypodermic needle and a "glove box" or "glove bag" to protect himself or herself from contamination, United Press International has been told by a source knowledgeable of the case.

Five people died in the fall of 2001 after anthrax-laden letters were mailed to people in New York, Florida and Washington. One letter, mailed but not delivered to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was recovered unopened with anthrax still in it.

This spring, after a grueling 18-month investigation, the source told UPI that it is possible that one person with basic scientific knowledge and access to Ames strain anthrax could have carried out the anthrax attack.

"One person could absolutely do it," said the source who has insight into what the investigation has uncovered.

There has been significant debate over whether one person could have carried the attack. One of the key issues is that the anthrax found in the letters to Congress was "weaponized" -- dried and physically ground or "milled" into smaller pieces to make it linger in the air and more likely to be deeply inhaled and more deadly. Experts disagree over how complicated it would be to do that and the extent of manpower and equipment necessary to pull it off.

"There are several ways to dry it," explained the source. "One of the ways would be a lyophilizer -- it's piece of equipment that takes bacteria and dries it. It's a freeze-drier basically. (The anthrax) becomes a dry spore. At that point you have to contain it."

The container, the source suggested, would be a glove box. These are large sealed boxes that the researcher can see into. A scientist reaches into the box from the outside through holes that have gloves attached to them. The gloves extend into the box so the seal is never broken. There are also "glove bags" that operate in a similar way but are smaller and cheaper.

Milling could be done with a commercially available machine called a miller or even equipment as simple as a mortar and pestle.

"You would have to open up the containers inside the glove box and grind the spores with the mortar and pestle or some type of miller -- at that point it's going to float. It's going to go in the air," the source said. "It's going to act like gas. So you have to be able to contain it inside the glove box, collect it and put it inside the envelopes."

The powder could have been placed in the envelopes using a hypodermic needle said the source. Though the envelopes did not have holes from a needle this source said the anthrax could have been inserted through slits in the envelope. One envelope had a slit in it, the source said.

The Washington Post quoted two sources in its Sunday editions as saying that FBI searches had recovered a "clear box that could accommodate gloves to protect the user as he worked. Also recovered were vials wrapped in plastic."

The FBI has been conducting searches for traces of anthrax and pieces of equipment for months. Last Dec. 12, it began a search of several ponds in the Frederick, Md., watershed, 40 miles north of Washington, that lasted into January. The box was reportedly found in the ponds.

The paper said that "entering the water to manipulate virulent anthrax bacteria would provide some degree of protection from the finely ground spores, which disperse through the air and can live for decades. But expert opinions vary on whether spores from the containment equipment could later be in a natural body of water."

The paper said that the FBI has informed the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the City of Frederick that it will drain the pond on June 1, which would allow it to sift silt at the bottom.

The pond is in the Catoctin Mountains, not far from Frederick and Fort Detrick, a U.S. Army facility that has conducted experiments with Ames strain anthrax.

The site is also not far from the onetime apartment of Steven Hatfill, a medical doctor and former Army scientist at Fort Detrick. Attorney General John Ashcroft identified Hatfill as a "person of interest" to the FBI this case.

Hatfill has repeatedly said he had nothing to do with the anthrax attacks and many in the legal community said the FBI's repeating of his name without legal charges or any evidence is a violation of his rights.

In an interview with UPI last year, he said the bureau centered on him because he met the "profile" of the perpetrator that the bureau constructed. He said he had only been in the woods areas around Catoctin and Gambrill in working with young scouts.

Over the months, the bureau has searched Hatfill's apartment, his girlfriend's apartment and storage areas belonging to his parents without finding any trace of anthrax.

The investigation has been difficult for the FBI. Very early in the case it issued a profile of the type of person it thought could carry out this crime. It described a disgruntled, middle-aged white man with scientific training and experience working in government research labs. But legal critics argue that the description could fit dozens of people at Fort Detrick and other Army facilities or former bio-terrorism experts.

Ask why the case has taken so long, one source told UPI: "Because they have to build a good strong case in court.

"A lot of the case is circumstantial so -- why you wait is to put together a case with the attorney's office. It is the U.S. Attorney's Office that makes the decision to either indict the case or not indict it."

Pat Clawson, a spokesman for Hatfill told UPI the FBI was wrong to bring up Hatfill's name in connection with the case at this point.

"The truth of the matter is that Steve Hatfill had nothing to do with the anthrax attacks. ... If the FBI had any evidence they should charge him. They should charge him or clear him. To destroy his life and career with a pattern of leaks and innuendo is really immoral and un-American."