ANSWERS IN ANTHRAX PROBE STILL ELUSIVE



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Last Updated

25 Aug 2003

Source: The Miami Herald, September 10, 2002.

Answers in anthrax probe still elusive

Return to Boca a last-ditch effort

Nearly a year after the first man died from a series of anthrax-laced mailings, an army of frustrated federal sleuths has come full circle and is right back where it started -- inside the Boca Raton headquarters of the tabloid publishing giant American Media Inc.

Apparently no closer to an arrest than they were on Oct. 5 -- when Sun photo editor Bob Stevens (case 5) became the first of five to die from the posted spores -- some federal sources suggest the return to Boca is the equivalent of football's Hail Mary pass, a last-ditch effort in an extensive probe some insiders now compare to the hunt for Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski.

Few hold out much hope they will find the first elusive anthrax-laced letter inside the building that once published supermarket tabloids like The National Enquirer and Weekly World News.

And, sources say, even if they get lucky and do find the missing letter, no one can predict how it might help.

''It's a fair assessment,'' said one senior-level federal law enforcement source familiar with the investigation. ``I think many of us are resigned to the fact this could be another Unabomber case.

''The only way we may ever find this guy is if he says the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time,'' the source said. ``That could be next week. It could be eight years. It could be two decades.''

Hector Pesquera, special agent in charge of the Miami FBI office, declined to comment, an office spokesman said.

The investigation of the anthrax attacks has cost millions and historically, according to the FBI, it ranks second in intensity only to that of the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings.

REFINED THEORY

Nearly 2,000 subpoenas have been served, hundreds of polygraphs taken, new science has been developed. Agents throughout the country have attempted to trace every single prescription to antibiotics that could be used to immunize the culprit from anthrax infection. The result: A refined theory of the type of person they are looking for and a wide list of suspects that many in federal law enforcement believe might include the name of their man.

''There is a limited list of suspects,'' one federal source said. ``The thinking is the person could be on that list, and now it's a process of elimination.''

The size of the list changes, sources say. At its smallest it was fewer than 50.

Many of the people on it live in the United States. Many are disgruntled former government employees or people who had access to anthrax in private agricultural companies or universities. They are men with some level of scientific knowledge, perhaps even capable of developing anthrax bacteria on their own.

In recent weeks, the FBI has publicly confirmed the name of one person on that list -- Dr. Steven Hatfill, a germ warfare specialist who worked at the Army's biological weapons defense lab in Fort Detrick, Md., for two years ending in 1999. He lost his security clearance two months before the attacks, in part, because of inconsistencies in his résumé.

Hatfill has voluntarily submitted to two FBI searches of his home, and has offered to give blood samples and take lie-detector tests. Since the disclosure of his name as a ''person of interest'' by the FBI, Hatfill has gone on the offensive.

He held a news conference last month to declare his innocence. Earlier this month, Louisiana State University fired him after the federal government told the school it would bar him from working on U.S. programs.

Sources have acknowledged they have no physical evidence to suggest Hatfill is the anthrax attacker.

But scrutiny has closely followed former employees of two military facilities where the particular strain of anthrax, the Ames strain, was stored and researched -- Fort Detrick and the Dugway Proving Grounds in the Utah desert.

BEARING SIMILARITIES

The type of anthrax powder mailed to U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle last fall bears remarkable similarities to anthrax developed and stored in those facilities. But some within the academic community say the minute biological differences between the anthrax mailings and the military anthrax open a world of different possibilities.

''I don't think it's possible to say beyond a doubt that this anthrax came from those facilities,'' said Dr. Martin Hugh-Jones, a leading anthrax expert at LSU in Baton Rouge.

Federal authorities also base their prevailing theory that the attacker is domestic on their extensive and failed effort to link it to foreign bio-warfare research. There is no evidence that Iraq, or any other country considered hostile, ever obtained the Ames strain, government sources have told The New York Times.

LOOKING FOR LETTER

Late last month, the FBI announced its intentions to reenter the AMI headquarters in Boca Raton to once again look for the letter or letters that caused the death of Stevens and the near-death of his colleague, mailroom employee Ernesto Blanco (case 7).

Federal authorities theorize that because no anthrax spores were found in garbage receptacles that led out of the building, there is a strong likelihood it remains in the building, although, so far, the searches have yielded no smoking gun.

It is only by happenstance that federal authorities are able to conduct the search. The government released the building back to AMI last year with the proviso that it not be occupied until a thorough clean up approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

AMI executives have been trying to get rid of the building ever since, said company spokesman Gerald McKelvey. He said AMI was unable to find a private company willing or qualified for such a cleanup.

Hugh-Jones said he is not encouraged by the FBI's refocus on AMI after more than 10 months.

''Let me put it this way,'' the scientist said. ``Twenty years from now somebody is going to write a book that says their uncle said something about anthrax just before he shot himself in the head.

"And that is how we are going to solve the anthrax mystery.''