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Last Updated

08 Dec 2002

Source: USA Today, March 26, 2002


Ask the FBI: The anthrax investigation

Shortly after September 11, America was hit with an unfamiliar - and sometimes deadly - form of terrorism, as letters containing weaponized anthrax were opened in various locations across the country. The Hart Senate Office Building was closed after a staffer in Senator Tom Daschle's office opened one of the letters, leading to the closing and decontamination of the Hart Senate Office Building. Mail service was slowed and in some cases interrupted. And then - nothing. What ever happened to the FBI's search for the culprit(s)? What follows is a chat session organized by USA Today with Van A. Harp, Assistant Director in Charge of the Washington Field Office, about the latest news on the anthrax investigation.

Comment from Van A. Harp: Good afternoon. Welcome to today's chat. Let's get started.

Washington DC: do you think the person responsible for the letters is connected to the military labs or the us government contractors...

Van A. Harp: We haven't identified the person responsible. It would be premature and unfair to all the dedicated employees in the labs and government contractors to speculate.

Enon Valley, Pa. : Do you really believe that the return address on those envelopes was benign? I don't. The person who did this targeted those people not like terrorists that don't care who gets killed. This person probably has something to do with politics and the news and has a personal grudge against them.

Van A. Harp: Our behavioral experts have compiled a profile which includes the issue concerning the address. At this point, we believe there may have been some type of connection. However, we don't know the motive of the individual responsible. Unfortunately, we may not learn the motive until the individual is identified. Any motive described to the act of terrorism at this point would be speculative.

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia : Does the FBI have any evidence to support or refute the claims made by Jeremy Paxman on BBC's Newsnight? Did the FBI discover any evidence indicating possible CIA involvement in the DC Anthrax attacks?

Van A. Harp: I did not see the program. To answer the question about CIA involvement, the answer is emphatically, no.

New York, NY : What field offices are still assisting in this investigation? Are you the main office even though traces were in Florida and New Jersey and New York?

Van A. Harp: WFO is the lead office and virtually every office in the U.S. and abroad is, or has been, involved in some fashion.

Columbia, South Carolina: Thanks for the chance to ask- what is the connection to Tom Daschle, that you can share? Do you think it is perhaps connected to his gun control position that makes it harder for terrorist types to obtain illegal guns?

Van A. Harp: Similar to the earlier question about motive, I wish I knew why this was done. Any connection or rationale for the anthrax attacks at this point would be speculation.

Washington DC: Why is the Washington, DC FBI Field office in charge of the investigation? Thanks.

Van A. Harp: There were 2 postal workers killed in the Washington, D.C. area (case 15 and case 16) and 2 of the letters were directed to Capitol Hill. Agents assigned to WFO have substantial scientific background, which has assisted in the investigation.

Alexandria, VA : Are there Agents following up on leads about labs in Afghanistan?

Van A. Harp: We have been following developments from Afghanistan very closely in connection with our investigation.

Washington, D.C.: I'm not sure I understand why it's taking so long to find the perpetrator. How many people out there are qualified to handle weaponized anthrax like the kind sent around the country last year? And how many of them have grudges/motives?

Van A. Harp: Despite the passage of 6 months, we have made substantial progress into this investigation. This is the first time virulent anthrax has been used in this manner. The anthrax is extremely dangerous and as such, there are significant public health and safety issues relative to postal workers, the general public, and investigating Agents and officers. The scientific analyses and examinations are being conducted in a very methodical approach. Additionally, we have interviewed well over 5,000 individuals. So, it is not accurate to say that the investigation is taking a long time, rather we remain extremely careful because of the safety concerns and methodical in our examinations.

Valley Stream, NY: How much anthrax does it take to kill you?

Van A. Harp: It is still being researched, but this would be better addressed to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in Atlanta.

Freehold, N.J.: Has the FBI had any success so far in solving this case? Any clues, fingerprints, etc?

Van A. Harp: We have not identified the individual responsible. We have very limited forensic evidence, other than the anthrax itself.

Kansas City, Mo: news recently cited problem areas of terrorism as infiltration of shipping cannisters coming into the US. Can Anthrax be detected easily in or on the wharf areas of our country???

Van A. Harp: Anthrax can be detected easily if you know where to look.

Boonton, NJ: How many people were killed or injured from anthrax?

Van A. Harp: Five dead and seventeen injured.

Glensfalls, NY: what are you doing to prevent anthrax to be mailed?

Van A. Harp: This would be best addressed to the U.S. Postal Service. However, we are working very closely with postal inspection and they have taken substantial steps to address this issue.

Houston Texas: If you had to make an educated guess today where the anthrax was from , and taking into consideration the new findings in Afghanistan of labs possibly capable of producing anthrax, does it seem more likely now that the anthrax did come from al qaeda sources rather than our own domestic terrorist?

Van A. Harp: Based on our investigation to date, we have developed several theories regarding the anthrax origin. However, we are not ruling anything in or out.

Baltimore county, Maryland : On the letters addressed to Mr. Brokaw and The Editor of the New York Post, The assailant advised them to take penicillin. Does this indicate some medical knowledge, attention to the news, or indicate he may have accessed the center for disease control and read the treatment for the first anthrax case?

Van A. Harp: We are exploring all possible leads, from every piece of information including your observations.

Baltimore county, Maryland: I believe I heard on the news or read in the newspaper that there was an anthrax contaminated letter mailed from abroad. Where did it come from and who was it addressed to?

Van A. Harp: At this point, that is inaccurate, although there have been thousands of hoaxes. For your information, the US Postal Service and the FBI are aggressively pursuing those hoaxes and there have been at least 74 individuals arrested.

Ann Arbor, MI: Hi Agent Harp; I've been seeing sporadic press reports of anthrax issues being linked to foreign terrorist groups: -medical reports of a hijacker that may have had lesions like cutaneous anthrax. -anthrax infrastructures in Afghanistan. Sure, all scenarios are on the table, but how will the FBI limit the possibilities between a foreign- vs. domestic-born source for the Fall anthrax attacks? Best, Phil Hanna

Van A. Harp: Part of our investigation involves a significant effort into the scientific analysis of the anthrax. Upon completion of that effort, along with the thousands of interviews, we hope to be able to identify the exact source.

Regarding the hijacker who some believe may have had anthrax, exhaustive testing did not support that anthrax was present anywhere the hijackers had been.

Washington DC: How close is the FBI to finding out who mailed the letters?

Van A. Harp: We have made substantial progress in our investigation, but unfortunately we have not identified the perpetrator. I'm confident that in the long run, we will be able to do so.

Arlington, VA: Are you the FBI's lead investigator for the Anthrax case?

Van A. Harp: The investigative team from WFO is leading the investigation.

Salt Lake City, Utah: Were the anthrax attacks linked to the terrorism on Sept 11, 2001?

Van A. Harp: We have no information connecting the anthrax attack to September 11.

Baltimore county, Maryland: I noticed the locations of the victims contaminated with anthrax. Is it significant that those locations are the nation's capital and seaports? (Washington D.C. ,Florida, New York, New Jersey)

Van A. Harp: We have looked at those connections and have developed several theories about their relative significance.

New York: way back, a scientist for you did a behavior profile about who could have been sending the letters...has that profile changed since so much time has passed?

Van A. Harp: Not substantially.

Arlington, VA : Hello. How are special Agents protected from getting anthrax when they were/are investigating. Do Agents take precautions when going into suspect homes in case there are traces of anthrax? thank you

Van A. Harp: They all wear PPG - Personal Protective Gear.

Virginia : Is there new information since the 1 million reward was offered?

Van A. Harp: The reward was increased approximately one month ago, to $2.5 million, and we are still soliciting public support and information. It may be the final piece to the puzzle.

Trenton, NJ : Good morning sir, How do allegations and cases like this effect the scientific community? Does the FBI have well-developed outreach in these groups?

Van A. Harp: We've received excellent support from the scientific community. We have, in the past, had very good liaison, but this investigation shows we should expand that even.

New York, NY: I noticed in a previous answer you said this is a unique investigation. Can you even compare it to anything you have done before?

Van A. Harp: This has been an unprecedented, and unparalleled investigation. Our investigators are writing a new page of a new book each day.

Comment from Van A. Harp: I'm sorry I have run out of time. Because of the interest, I would like to continue at a later date. We will post it on the website in the near future. Thanks for your interest.