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Last Updated

02 Jan 2003

Source: Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2002.


Anthrax Probe Was Complicated By Muddled Information, FBI Says


WASHINGTON -- Last October, the public daily anthrax briefings here got steadily more confusing, with experts variously calling the strain mailed to media and government offices either "a very potent form" or "a common variety."

It is now apparent that information coming into the Federal Bureau of Investigation was no less muddled. So, even though they were desperate for clues that would quickly lead to a suspect, investigators decided then to re-evaluate everything they had been told and build their scientific case from scratch.

"We just figured we'd better take it slow," said an investigator on the case. "We knew we didn't know much about anthrax , but as we worked with other agencies and scientists, we learned that we weren't alone in what we didn't know."

Since the manhunt started almost six months ago, the FBI has conducted 5,000 interviews, issued 1,300 subpoenas and amassed more than 100 computerized databases of potential suspects and leads, including detailed lists of people vaccinated against anthrax , visitors to certain Web sites and employees of public and private laboratories with access to anthrax . While daunting, this massive dragnet -- though fruitless so far -- turned out to be the easy part to carry out.

The harder part was figuring out how to analyze the anthrax powder, recovered from four tainted envelopes, in a way that might lead back to the culprit. The FBI had long been concerned about and planning for a bioterror attack, perhaps launched by plane or in a subway. But the bureau was blindsided by a stealth mail-based attack that left few clues. "None of the training exercises I participated in anticipated that type of delivery," said a top law-enforcement official on the case. "We had virtually no crime scene in the traditional sense. We only have the envelopes and the letters and the anthrax ."

The difficulty of analyzing that evidence, more than anything, is why the probe is taking so long, investigators say. Stung by criticism that the FBI has proceeded sluggishly and even incompetently on the investigation's crucial scientific front, two senior law-enforcement officials spoke to The Wall Street Journal last week and offered their view of the time-consuming complications the bureau has faced. The officials, who preferred to be unnamed, expressed confidence that they will catch the perpetrator, and stressed that much of their work is aimed at making sure their evidence will withstand withering courtroom scrutiny by what they assume would be a top-notch defense team.

While they aren't ruling out any possibility, the officials and most investigators working under them continue to believe the perpetrator is domestic and isn't tied to the Sept. 11 hijackers. FBI officials downplayed a report, which appeared in the New York Times Saturday, that hijacker Ahmed Alhaznawi sought treatment for what a panel of doctors has recently concluded was probably an anthrax skin infection. FBI spokesman John Collingwood said that lead, among others, was checked out last year, and solid evidence connecting the hijackers to the anthrax attacks hasn't been found.

The officials insisted they are making progress, despite the lack of leads. They have narrowed down which labs held the Ames strain of anthrax , the type used in the attacks. Though the FBI told Congress in November that it has no idea how many facilities held the strain, the law-enforcement officials said a comprehensive review of possible repositories is complete. From around 22,000 possible U.S. labs and researchers, "We've come up with what we think is a pretty tight list," one official said, describing it as fewer than 100 locations but declining to elaborate further.

The biggest problem was that nobody knew at the beginning how to analyze the murder weapon itself to narrow down the list of repositories it might have come from -- and therefore the list of suspects. "Every step we take, we're writing a new page in the book," one official said.

The FBI didn't even have an adequate storage facility for the anthrax collected from the letters and for comparative samples subpoenaed from known public and private repositories; it is still being built. As it became clear for the first time that just a few spores could be fatal, the FBI had to adopt extremely cautious safety procedures. And investigators mounted a national research effort to figure out how to analyze the most-pristine sample, the anthrax mailed to Sen. Patrick Leahy, when it arrived in their hands after four of the five anthrax-related deaths had already occurred.

The FBI convened a panel of about 20 experts from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Science Foundation, the national laboratories and other research groups. "They came up with a flowchart of all the different tests that should be attempted in order to find out how was it made, where was it made, how old is the sample -- all these questions," one of the law-enforcement officials said.

Once they settled on a battery of tests, FBI microbiologists developed surrogate samples of harmless bacteria to conduct dry runs. "All the analyses and protocols had to be vetted and proven to withstand the legal challenges that we could anticipate," one of the officials said. They even irradiated the harmless bacteria to see if that would confound the tests.

To conduct such sophisticated tests, the FBI had to use outside labs. That entailed another time-consuming process -- the bureaucratic minutiae of getting contracts and secrecy agreements signed. Involving outside scientists also raised the possibility that the FBI might send anthrax samples to the very person who mailed the letters -- a prospect that required cautionary measures the officials declined to specify.

Even the most obvious test, DNA analysis, had to be reworked because standard genetic tests discern strains but cannot differentiate between variations within the Ames strain. Investigators also are trying to identify the anthrax mixture's chemical and material composition though analyzing each minute and obscure element. "We're looking at cations, anions; we're looking at inorganic matter; we're looking at sugars, whether augurs are present," said one official. "We're doing high-resolution scanning electron microscopy and transmission-electron microscopy." Only recently have results from tests on the Leahy letter started to come back. One result: As in the other samples, no evidence of bentonite -- believed to have been used by the Iraqis in their preparation of anthrax -- has been found.

One test being conducted by a national laboratory determines the ratio of atomic isotopes in a particular element in the powder. The investigators said the ratio varies depending on where the element comes from; isotopic properties of hydrogen and oxygen in rainwater, for example, vary depending on the water's geographic location. Water particles likely are present in the anthrax concoction, but the investigators declined to identify the element in question.

As well as finding a way to store all the anthrax samples, investigators have had to guard against cross-contamination -- an important concern if the evidence is ever presented in court. The U.S. Army Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., has had to build two secure storage facilities, one a backup in case of a fire or other catastrophe. All this was being done while Fort Detrick was being inundated with more than 24,000 potential bioterrorism samples to analyze since Sept. 11, said John Ezzell, chief of Fort Detrick's Special Pathogens Testing Lab. Building secure facilities "takes resources, material, money and approval and authentication," says one of the law-enforcement officials.

To critics of the FBI's slow pace, none of this explains, for instance, why subpoenas to some labs that possess the Ames strain of anthrax went out only a month ago.

Dan Dodson of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers noted that while preparing to secure the evidence, authorities left countless samples in the hands of potential suspects who might be inclined to "muck it up" by adding "something to make the evidence point away from them." One of the law-enforcement officials said the FBI took steps to address that possibility, too, but wouldn't give details.