ANTHRAX TERROR REMAINS A MYSTERY
09 Jan 2003
Source: CNN, March 27, 2002
Anthrax terror remains a mystery
From Susan Candiotti, CNN
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Almost six months after anthrax letters began turning up in the mail, the mystery of who sent those deadly missives and why persists.
There has been some progress. Authorities have narrowed to about two dozen the number of labs believed capable of making the deadly spores.
Scientists also have learned the anthrax spores that filled letters to Sens. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, were even purer than investigators thought.
The anthrax's purity and potency makes it highly unlikely the killer could have made and treated the spores in a makeshift setting, according to officials involved in the massive investigation.
"There are only so many people, so many places that this can be done," said Van Harp, the assistant FBI director leading the anthrax investigation.
The culprit, Harp said, knew what he or she was doing.
"Contrary to what was initially out there at the beginning of the investigation, this anthrax, we do not believe, was made up in a garage or a bathtub," Harp said.
Five people died of the inhaled form of anthrax and 13 others suffered anthrax infections.
Four letters were recovered in connection with the incidents, and authorities believe at least one other letter -- never found -- passed through the postal system and led to the October 5, 2001, death of a photo editor in Florida, the first fatality.
In addition to those sent to the two Senate offices, anthrax-laced letters were sent to the New York Post and NBC News.
The anthrax incidents -- which subsided after the November death of an elderly widow in Connecticut (case 23) -- prompted significant changes in how the U.S. Postal Service handles and treats the mail, including the installation of new cleaning equipment and irradiation of mail sent to Congress.
The anthrax deaths underscored the fact that even the most powerful nation on Earth was not immune to bioterrorism and raised the question of whether the United States has a domestic terrorist within its midst.
Roughly 5,000 interviews have yielded no suspect, but the FBI maintains it will find the person responsible for the fatal letters.
"Quite possibly, we've already interviewed the person once ... but we're going to get back to him if we did," Harp said.
The FBI has said it believes the person responsible for the anthrax mailings has "technical knowledge" and "has or had legitimate access to select biological agents at some time."
One of the labs capable of producing anthrax spores is the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
"When you think of where did anthrax possibly come from, you have to think of our laboratory," said Maj. Gen. John Parker, who until his retirement last week oversaw the team of scientists at the lab assigned to the FBI case.
Over the years, Fort Detrick shared its anthrax with others labs for research purposes. In the 1990s, there was a series of security lapses.
It also has a long history of training highly skilled scientists, leading some to suggest the spores or even the anthrax killer might be associated with the lab.
Barbara Rosenberg, a microbiologist with the State University of New York at Purchase, accuses the FBI of stalling to protect government secrets.
"There may be embarrassing information connected with the entire event and there may not be real enthusiasm about bringing this information out to the public," she said.
The FBI hotly rejects such suggestions.
"Those are uninformed ... outsiders," Harp said.
No connection to Sept. 11
When the anthrax letters began turning up in the mail, many observers speculated that they might somehow be connected to international terrorists -- coming so soon after the September 11 attacks.
But after searching evidence left behind by the September 11 hijackers, the FBI says there is absolutely no evidence linking them to the anthrax attacks. The letters contained the message: "Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great."
In the end, science may hold the key to the killer.
"Once the science half is done, I think we're going to solve this investigation," said the FBI's Harp.
CNN Congressional Correspondent Kate Snow contributed to this report.