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Last Updated

09 Nov 2002

Source: Washington Post, December 21, 2001.

FBI Investigates Possible Financial Motive in Anthrax Attacks

By Susan Schmidt and Joby Warrick, Washington Post Staff Writers

The FBI is pursuing the possibility that financial gain was the motive behind the mailing of letters containing deadly anthrax bacteria and has conducted extensive interviews of personnel at two laboratories and possibly more, according to government officials.

Although investigators have not ruled out other possible motives, they have conducted dozens of interviews in at least two labs to determine whether potential profit from the sale of anthrax medications or cleanup efforts may have motivated the bioterrorist believed responsible for the attacks, the officials said.

The current line of inquiry represents a deepening interest in one possible motive for investigators, who have examined a range of scenarios since the anthrax attacks on media and government representatives began this fall. Authorities have probed whether foreign terrorists or homegrown extremists are responsible for the attacks but have come to favor the theory that the bioterrorism is likely the work of an individual operating in this country.

Investigators are still looking at a wide range of possible motives, including revenge and an attempt to implicate Iraq. Although authorities believe the person who mailed the anthrax spores may have some scientific expertise, they are not convinced the person necessarily produced it. The material could have been stolen, officials have said.

The focus on a profit motive may help explain why the FBI has yet to seek samples of anthrax spores from two foreign laboratories known to possess Ames-strain anthrax microbes that genetically match the material sent to Sens. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). Those labs are the Canadian armed forces' Defence Research Establishment Suffield (DRES) and Britain's Defence Science and Technology Laboratories at Porton Down.

Spokesmen for the two foreign laboratories said they have not been contacted by the FBI or asked for samples of their germ stocks. Neither lab ever processed the Ames strain of anthrax in the powdered form found in the two letters, which readily becomes airborne and is easily inhaled.

"Porton Down has received no request from the FBI for information on its security arrangements, but if we were contacted, we would cooperate fully," said Sue Ellison, spokeswoman for the British lab.

Kent Harding, chief scientist for DRES, said the institute has "only been contacted by media at this point."

But a senior law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there are reasons the FBI has not yet asked those labs for the samples. He said the bureau is looking at its most important leads first.

He also noted that it will be some time before there is anything meaningful to compare with samples from other labs, because the anthrax spores in the Leahy letter are still undergoing chemical analysis. That process may take weeks to complete.

The letter to Leahy, found among quarantined mail, was unopened, leaving a substantial quantity of material inside for the FBI to test. The letter is seen as the FBI's best hope for forensic clues in the attacks that have killed five people and sickened 13.

A possible profit motive for the attacks has been the subject of speculation among scientists. Richard Ebright, a microbiologist with Rutgers University's Waksman Institute, said the list of possible scenarios and perpetrators would be quite long -- ranging from drug manufacturers to companies specializing in decontamination and cleanup.

"There are numerous mid-Atlantic regional links to all of these possibilities," said Ebright. "Doesn't narrow the field much, does it?"

DNA tests have confirmed that the spores used in the terrorist attacks are genetically identical to a strain obtained by researchers at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Md., in about 1980. The Army has acknowledged distributing the strain to five other agencies, and some of the strain was in turn shared with other researchers.

The five labs that received the Ames strain from USAMRIID are the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in central Utah; Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio; the University of New Mexico's Health Sciences Center in Albuquerque; the Canadian DRES; and Porton Down.

Battelle, a private contractor that has worked with the Pentagon in developing defenses against biological attacks, is one of several labs visited by FBI agents investigating the anthrax attacks. Katy Delaney, a Battelle spokeswoman, said the company has cooperated fully with the government's investigation.

FBI agents "have interviewed people on our staff," Delaney said, but she declined to provide information about the nature of the interviews or how many Battelle employees had been questioned. "I can say that we have continued to provide all of the information and material that has been requested by the government," Delaney said.

Battelle is a contractor at Dugway, which last week acknowledged making a powdered form of anthrax to use in testing sensors and other equipment used to defend against biological attacks.

In the past several weeks, the FBI has also learned that a CIA defensive biowarfare program has involved the use of Ames-strain anthrax. Investigators have been very interested in the CIA program, government officials said, including work done by private contractors in connection with it.

Investigators learned belatedly that the CIA possessed Ames-strain anthrax spores because the agency was not listed among 91 labs registered with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to handle various strains of anthrax bacteria. Before 1997, labs that possessed anthrax spores but did not transfer them to other labs were not required to register with the CDC. The FBI has been surprised to learn only anecdotally of some programs, such as the CIA's, which have the material.

The CIA program was designed to develop defenses to a vaccine-resistant strain of anthrax reportedly created by the former Soviet Union. CIA officials have said they are certain the anthrax used in the mailings did not come from their work, that none of it is missing and that the small amount in their possession was not milled into powder form.

Staff writers Steve Fainaru and Rick Weiss contributed to this report.