THE ANTHRAX PROBE RANGES FAR AND WIDE 



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Last Updated

06 Nov 2002

Source: Wall Street Journal, December 11, 2001.

The Anthrax Probe Ranges Far and Wide As Investigators Scour Tips, Trash for Leads

By MARK SCHOOFS, GARY FIELDS and MAUREEN TKACIK, Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Thanksgiving was a busy day in the anthrax manhunt. Trying to solve the mystery of 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren's death from the bacterium, law-enforcement agents fanned out around her Connecticut home, interrupting turkey dinners to search for clues.

In Seymour, Conn., they wanted to know whether Kevin Cox had seen anything suspicious around Ms. Lundgren's house, where he mowed the lawn. The Fritz family was just sitting down to their traditional dinner at Fritz's Snack Bar -- a favorite of Ms. Lundgren's -- when agents came and swabbed the tabletops.

And John Criscuolo was about to serve dinner for 24 when eight police cars pulled up. Mr. Criscuolo never knew Ms. Lundgren, but he did hire the same Odd Couple cleaning service, whose owners had told agents they might have dumped her vacuum bag in Mr. Criscuolo's trash. Agents combed the garbage for an hour, but failed to find the bag. They even ran anthrax tests on a dead stray cat in the area. But the results came back negative.

As the Thanksgiving visits show, investigators are casting an enormous net as they press forward with one of the most extraordinary manhunts in U.S. history. Agents have pursued thousands of leads, ranging from gumshoe interviews to sophisticated laboratory tests of the anthrax itself to computerized analyses of about 800,000 people who entered the country shortly before the tainted letters were mailed. In one tantalizing clue, a person familiar with the investigation said Monday that one of the letters mailed along with the anthrax was of a size not normally found in the U.S.

Yet the very breadth of their search shows just how far they may still be from solving the crime. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the lead agency, says several hundred agents are working the case, with help from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and state and local police, among others. The FBI members have divided into three teams, working in parallel. One is pursuing the theory that the mailer is a Unabomber-type lone wolf. Another team is investigating whether the mailings are the work of a home-grown terrorist group, and the third is checking out whether the anthrax represents a strike by a foreign organization or state. A portrait of the investigation, code-named "Amerithrax," emerges from dozens of interviews with law-enforcement agents, scientists and people who have been questioned by authorities.

The Envelopes and Letters

The best clues are hard to trace: the anthrax powder itself, four handwritten envelopes and four letters, all photocopies of originals authorities don't have.

The letters to Sen. Tom Daschle, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post have already been examined, and they didn't contain the sender's fingerprints or DNA.

One clue was contained in the missive to the New York Post: The letter, which read in part, "Death to America," wasn't printed on a paper size normally found in the U.S., says an FBI official familiar with the matter. An FBI spokesman declined to elaborate. Erich Speckin, who runs a private forensic laboratory in Okemos, Mich., says the height-to-width ratio was approximately 1.41 to 1, according to a photo released by the FBI. He says that ratio is common for business letters in Europe and elsewhere but rare in the U.S. That could suggest that the mailer is from another country or has traveled outside the U.S.

Law-enforcement officials say they have gleaned few other useful clues from the first three letters. They were able to discover the brand of tape the mailer used to close the envelope, but it was a common one used by millions of people. They won't reveal the brand. The ink used to address the envelopes was also common. And the envelopes themselves were pre-stamped versions issued by the Postal Service in January of this year, but they are sold at post-office counters and vending machines around the country. Some are also bought in bulk by companies. There is no way to tell where the perpetrator obtained those used to deliver anthrax.

Officials are also scrutinizing the photocopied letters. Analyzing the toner and the "feeder marks from the grippers that pull in the paper" can narrow down the type of copier used, says Gideon Epstein. He worked as a document examiner for many years with the Army crime lab and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and founded the Immigration and Naturalization Service's forensic document laboratory. He says that document experts will also look for "what we call trash marks -- scratches on glass, defects in the drum. These are very individual, so they may tie copies to a particular machine." FBI officials acknowledge examining the documents for these clues, but won't reveal what they've found.

Handwriting and Hate Mail

The handwriting on the envelopes and the letters has also undergone intense scrutiny. About 10 days after the Daschle letter was discovered, a copy of it was sent to the Secret Service to run the letter through its Forensic Information System for Handwriting, or FISH. The Secret Service digitized the Daschle letter and envelope, placing it in a system that includes the digital images of thousands of threatening letters that have been sent over the years to presidents and other officials. In addition to matching handwriting, FISH also compares syntax.

There were no matches.

At the same time the Secret Service was running the letter through its computers, the FBI and the Capitol Police were doing the same with their databases of hate mail. The Capitol Police -- which archives thousands of "unusual or inappropriate" communications sent to members of Congress -- is still examining them by hand, says Captain David Callaway, head of the Capitol Police's investigations division.

The Profile

To shake loose a tip, the FBI released a behavioral profile of the mailer, developed by a team of profilers from the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Va. When members of the unit sat down to analyze the mailer, their first problem was to find an appropriate category for the anthrax mailings. Was it a crime like serial murder, or was it more like sending hoax letters to abortion clinics? "We operate using typologies," explains Kevin Kelm, a profiler for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who works with the unit stationed at Quantico. But, he says, "how many anthrax letters have ever been sent?"

They decided the mailings were closest to bombings, partly because bombers kill from afar without actually being present -- and some, like Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, send their murderous explosives through the mail.

Another key: Bombers tend to have higher-than-average IQs and tend to be technically oriented, taking great interest in how their bombs are prepared, according to a 121-page study co-authored by Mr. Kelm and reviewed by the team that profiled the anthrax mailer. According to the profile, the mailer may hold a grudge against the intended recipients of his letters but may be nonconfrontational and perhaps even reclusive.

Investigators are considering incorporating this profile into an unusual version of the traditional "wanted" poster. In place of a photograph, agents of the Postal Inspection Service may display samples of the perpetrator's handwriting and details from the profile. The flyers would likely be mailed to every postal customer around Trenton, N.J., because the anthrax letters were postmarked there and investigators believe the mailer is familiar with that area.

The Leahy Letter

Top anthrax experts have clashed over one of the most basic questions: Who would have the ability to make the lethal powder? Richard Spertzel, a former U.S. military germ-warfare researcher who later worked as a United Nations bioweapons inspector, argued in congressional testimony that the anthrax material was likely produced by a government program because the anthrax in the Daschle letter had extremely pure spores and very small particles, signs of sophisticated equipment and knowledge.

Former Soviet bioweapons specialist Kenneth Alibek countered that making the powder wasn't especially demanding. "It could be a technician working at one of the hospitals or one of the companies or somebody who worked many years before in the field," he said during the hearing.

Similar disagreements have raged within the FBI. Last month the Bureau announced that the anthrax could have been produced with equipment costing as little as $2,500. But a senior law-enforcement official working the case says bluntly, "I don't believe that, and I told them I didn't believe it."

It is very difficult to ascertain how the anthrax powder was made. For example, the powder is extremely pure, but the method used to wash it is almost impossible to determine, says a scientist familiar with the investigation. The tiny amount of material in the first three letters makes the task even tougher.

That's where the letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy could come in handy. Discovered amid more than 600 bags of quarantined mail, the letter was carefully opened last week to preserve as much anthrax as possible. Monday, after having been decontaminated, it was sent to the FBI lab.

The relatively large amount of anthrax in the Leahy letter offers the best chance to resolve some of these disputes. Van Harp, the special agent in charge of the Washington, D.C., field office and the person leading the Bureau's anthrax investigation, publicly announced that the FBI has enlisted "some of the best minds available" to advise it on what tests to run.

The FBI has declined to name its advisors, but one member of that group, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the tests will focus on three broad areas: the biological traits of the anthrax spores, such as genetic identifiers; the chemical components of the powder, such as any drying agents or any traces of media used to grow the bacteria; and the physical properties of the powder, such as its electrostatic charge.

"There just won't be a smoking gun," cautioned this member of the FBI's advisory team.

The Bureau is also considering unorthodox approaches submitted by other agencies. Mitchell Cohen, director of the division of bacterial and mycotic diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says that the CDC has a method to detect traces of bacteria besides anthrax in the powder. Conceivably, he says, that could provide clues about where the anthrax was produced or mailed from, especially if investigators found a bacterial species or strain that was prevalent only in some regions of the world.

Another test may help more. The Institute for Genomic Research, a private, not-for-profit research organization in Rockville, Md., has sequenced more than 99% of the DNA of the terror strain of the anthrax. By comparing that strain to those in other labs -- which a senior law-enforcement official says authorities plan to do -- investigators may be able to narrow down the labs from which the mailer got his stock of anthrax.

Labs and Pesticides

Whoever created the weapon had to have access to the Ames strain of anthrax. And because the Ames strain is quite rare in nature, according to Paul Keim, a professor at Northern Arizona University who is an expert on anthrax strains, that means the mailer almost certainly obtained it from a laboratory.

Martin Hugh-Jones, an anthrax expert at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, said the FBI returned to his lab in mid-November for a two-and-a-half-hour interview asking him for the "name, rank and serial number" of everyone who had visited the facility in the last five years. Previously, the FBI had subpoenaed records going back a few months.

Because of the training required, the anthrax mailer "had a mentor, and we're going to find him," says a senior law-enforcement official. Dr. Hugh-Jones agrees and says the international community of anthrax researchers is tightly knit. "We know this guy," says Dr. Hugh-Jones. "One of us knows him."

Professor Keim has estimated that fewer than 20 U.S. labs probably possess the Ames strain. Not so, counters the senior law-enforcement official. "More labs than you think" could have acquired the Ames strain, said this official, who points to how freely scientists share microbes. He says scientists have been known to bring anthrax to conferences in "a test tube in their pocket."

Of course, whoever made the anthrax in the letters had to have mastered not just the biology of Bacillus anthracis, as the bacterium which causes anthrax is formally called, but also the technique of transforming it into a powder. That's done by people who deploy germ warfare against insects.

A relative of anthrax is Bacillus thuringiensis, or BT. It produces a toxin that kills certain agricultural pests, such as the cotton bollworm. Often formulated as a powder, pesticide BT has particles that are much larger than those of the anthrax in the tainted letters, because pesticides have to fall through the air to coat the leaves of crops.

But military bioweapons experts have used BT and similar nonlethal bacilli as a stand-in for anthrax when ironing out production and manufacturing. David Franz, who runs the Chemical and Biological Defense Division of the Southern Research Institute and who headed three United Nations inspections in Iraq, believes the Iraqis used BT as dummy anthrax. UN inspectors found powderized BT at Iraq's Al Hakam plant. The particles turned out to be as small as one to five microns in size, similar to the dimensions of the anthrax spores mailed in the United States, says Dr. Franz, adding that the BT was missing the gene for the toxin that kills bugs, rendering it totally useless as an insecticide.

Dr. Franz, who stresses he isn't pointing the finger at Iraq because "anyone could have made this," speculates that the anthrax mailer could be "someone who is a good technician who worked with BT or other species that don't cause disease." He says the mailer could have "just worked and worked until he got it right, and then switched to anthracis."

Has the FBI been investigating the BT theory? In response, a senior agent snaps, "Thuringienis -- how do you think I knew the name?"

An executive at one of the nation's largest BT insecticide producers, who asked that neither he nor his company be named, says, "We're working with the FBI." An executive from a much smaller company located not far from Trenton, who also asked for anonymity, says the FBI monitored an equipment auction the company held recently.

Army Scientists

Recently, public suspicion has been rising that the mailer might have been connected to the U.S. Army. On Saturday, Senator Daschle was asked if the mailer had a military background. "I think as we look at all the possibilities, that one has the greatest degree of credibility right now," Mr. Daschle said.

FBI officials say that a military connection is merely one avenue the Bureau is following. The FBI has subpoenaed a list of everyone at the U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., who had access to anthrax, according to a senior employee, who said he had been questioned by law-enforcement agents. "There are people who left here under less-than-the-best circumstances who are being investigated -- where did they go and what are they doing?"

This person stressed that other military labs had access to anthrax, including Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, which he describes a particularly bleak and isolated place. "They work with anthrax there, and they have one hell of a turnover. It's 17 miles of just open desert from the main gate to the main lab," he said. Having to work there could fill employees with anger and resentment. "It's like going to a penitentiary," he said.

The Americans who probably know the most about making biological weapons are aging researchers who worked on the military's offensive germ-warfare program. Before it was ended by President Richard Nixon in 1969, that program produced powdered anthrax.

Interviews with more than half a dozen former American bioweapons experts, including senior people from that program, reveal that none of them have yet been interviewed by the FBI.

"I don't want to appear arrogant," says William Patrick III, who used to be a high-level researcher in the biological-weapons program at Ft. Detrick, but "I don't think anyone knows more about anthrax powder in this country." Mr. Patrick, who now works as a consultant and says he would charge the government for his advice, says he attended one advisory meeting with the FBI but hasn't been asked for suggestions on how to test the Leahy letter.

FBI spokesman Mike Kortan says agents have talked to some of the people in this group, and adds: "The investigative strategy is based in part on consultation with top experts, and any suggestion that a group of key individuals has been overlooked is simply not true."

-- Antonio Regalado and Jerry Markon contributed to this article.