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Last Updated

29 Jun 2003

Source: USA Today, April 9, 2002.

'Thousands' could be anthrax suspects

By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON -- Potential suspects with the scientific expertise to carry out last year's deadly anthrax attacks are believed to number in the "thousands," far more than the dozens previously reported, a senior federal law enforcement official said Monday.

Continued study of samples of the deadly bacteria has convinced investigators that initial suspicions that the attacks that killed five Americans last fall were carried out by a disgruntled lab employee with limited scientific know-how now must be revised.

The sophisticated nature of the anthrax, especially a finely milled sample mailed to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., last November, has led investigators to focus on the laboratories capable of turning out such specimens.

There may be hundreds of such labs in the country, the FBI has concluded.

Federal authorities said Monday that the investigation remains focused in the USA, though they have not ruled out the possible involvement of a foreign laboratory or researchers.

Earlier this year, investigators believed that the anthrax attacks likely were carried out by a person of lesser professional expertise, perhaps a technician or researcher with access to the bacteria and only basic knowledge about how to handle it without infecting oneself.

For a time, investigators studied personnel records of present and former lab workers, searching for persons with a motive to mail the deadly powder.

Authorities say they do not expect the case to be solved soon.

Five Americans believed to have been exposed to anthrax-tainted mail in Florida, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut died after being infected last October and November. Another 22 recovered from anthrax infections.

Of the thousands who may possess the knowledge to handle the bacteria, authorities declined to say exactly how many have drawn closer scrutiny. Federal officials continue to say it is unlikely that the anthrax attacks were linked to the terrorist strikes on Sept. 11. The Leahy anthrax continues to receive special attention from investigators. It caused no injuries but was said to be potentially even more deadly than samples that were mailed a month earlier.