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Last Updated

27 Nov 2002

Source: Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2002.


Scientists Weigh In With Deductions on Anthrax Killer

Terrorism: Their theories on the attacks range from a disgruntled researcher to a covert government project gone awry to right-wing extremists.


WASHINGTON -- Microbiologists, like nature, abhor a vacuum, and in the absence of an FBI arrest in last fall's anthrax attacks, some of the nation's top scientists are offering their own theories.

In memos making their way around the Internet and in hallway conversations at professional conferences, leading scientists -- many fearful that an unsolved case will only encourage other bioterrorists -- are applying their deductive reasoning to the anthrax-laced letters that killed five people and spread a new level of fear about biological warfare.

Their theories are full of intrigue: A disgruntled scientist. A covert government project gone awry. An accomplice to the Sept. 11 hijackers who stayed behind to mail the letters after their planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Right-wing extremists stockpiling the deadly material in anticipation of a visit from the Internal Revenue Service. "We all have our pet theories," said Jason Pate, a bioterrorism expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. "But none seems to fit the facts exactly."

The FBI has been working aggressively on the case, conducting thousands of interviews and hundreds of lab tests in consultation with some of the world's top scientific experts and in concert with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies.

Barbara H. Rosenberg, State U of NY

Some scientists applaud the effort -- crediting agents with catching on quickly to the complexities of microbiology. But others, led by Barbara Hatch Rosenberg of Purchase College, State University of New York, think the FBI has been, as she put it, "dragging its feet."

They are scornful of an FBI e-mail sent to 32,000 members of the American Society for Microbiology in January -- three months after the attacks stopped -- asking scientists for their help in locating the culprit, possibly a loner with access to an American lab. They wonder why the FBI outreach came so late, and so broadly, when the number of scientists with expertise and access to anthrax materials is probably closer to 200.

For its part, the FBI privately takes a dim view of the armchair speculation. Mindful of their own mistakes in accusing scientist Wen Ho Lee of spying in 1999 and Richard Jewell in the Atlanta Olympics bombing in 1996, the FBI is eager to get this one right.

But many of the scientists upset with the FBI are passionate campaigners against the dangers of biological weapons. They have devoted their careers to studying sarin gas, anthrax and chemical weapons -- and the cults and terrorists who might use them. They fear the anthrax killer might turn into another Unabomber, a malcontent who for 17 years intermittently used the U.S. mail to send bombs to academics and executives he deemed enemies. Every day that passes without an arrest, they think, sends a dangerous message to those who might consider using bioterrorism.

"A taboo was broken here," warned Rosenberg, a molecular biologist and professor of environmental science. "Someone else might think they could get away with this too."

Steven M. Block, Stanford U

Steven M. Block, professor of biological sciences and applied physics at Stanford University, agreed that the stakes are bigger than catching one culprit.

"The fundamental question here is, are we victims of our own anthrax, or our own expertise, or is this a further fallout from Al Qaeda?" he said. "It's a critical question. This is the first biological warfare of the 21st century, and our proper response to it -- morally, politically and in every other way -- depends on our understanding which it is."

Rosenberg began the scientific sleuthing in February when she posted an article on the Web site of the Federation of American Scientists,, for which she has directed a panel on bioweapons for the last 10 years. In the article, she writes that the anthrax discovered in the letters mailed to two U.S. senators was so refined that it contained 1 trillion spores per gram, characteristic of the "weaponized" anthrax made by U.S. defense labs.

Given the technical expertise required to produce that kind of anthrax, and the small universe of scientists with that knowledge, Rosenberg estimates that perhaps fewer than 40 people could be suspects.

She believes that the perpetrator is one of her own: a disgruntled American scientist.

"He must be angry at some biodefense agency," she writes. "He is driven to demonstrate, in a spectacular way, his capabilities and the government's inability to respond."

At the heart of her case is a conspiracy theory, a conviction that the slowness of the investigation can be explained only by some big secret that the government wants to keep hidden for as long as possible.

"He is cocksure that he can get away with it," she writes of the perpetrator. "Does he know something that he believes to be sufficiently damaging to the United States to make him untouchable by the FBI?"

The BBC cited Rosenberg in a news report this month suggesting that there could have been a secret government program to test the practicalities of sending anthrax through the mail. "Some very expert field person might have been asked to investigate the consequences of mailing anthrax and it would have been left to him to decide exactly how to carry it out," she said. "The result might have been a project gone badly awry if he decided to use it for his own purposes."

The FBI fumes at any suggestion it would deliberately sit on evidence, pointing out that it arrested one of its own, agent-turned-spy Robert Philip Hanssen, as soon as it learned of his betrayal.

Still, while not ruling out any theories, the FBI's own public profile of the anthrax killer sounds a lot like Rosenberg's.

In its e-mail January to microbiologists, the FBI asked them to be on the lookout for a loner. "The perpetrator might be described as 'standoffish' and likely prefers to work in isolation as opposed to a group/team setting. It is possible this person used off-hours in a laboratory or [borrowed] equipment to produce the anthrax."

But the evidence points in a different direction for two theorizing medical professionals: Tara O'Toole and Thomas V. Inglesby of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies.

Assessing a medical case in Florida, in which one of the Sept. 11 hijackers sought treatment for a leg wound in June, O'Toole and Inglesby concluded that the skin lesion might have been caused by anthrax. That was the conclusion too of the attending physician, Christos Tsonas of Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, but it was reached only after reviewing his notes taken while treating Ahmed Ibrahim A. Al Haznawi for what appeared to be a simple, if unusual, leg injury.

In a two-page memo for the FBI, O'Toole and Inglesby said the anthrax diagnosis was "the most probable and coherent interpretation of the data available."

The FBI says that there are no blood tests, cultures or pictures that would help resolve the Florida case. While it does not rule out any leads, the FBI leans toward the theory of a domestic terrorist. But O'Toole argues that to believe that someone other than the hijackers and their accomplices hatched the anthrax plot would be to accept a lot of coincidences.

Haznawi lived with other hijackers in Boca Raton, Fla., the same city where the first anthrax victim worked. Exposure to anthrax can cause black skin lesions like the one on Haznawi's leg. And Mohamed Atta, another hijacker, visited Belle Glade State Municipal Airport, north of Fort Lauderdale, to look at crop-dusting equipment, possibly as a conveyance for biological agents.

To analysts like Pate of the Monterey Institute, the improbability of so many coincidences "makes your eyebrows go up."

But Pate, manager of a terrorism task force at the institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies, has his own theory. He says American right-wing extremists are plausible suspects.

The anti-government cliques, wary of official agencies and with a fascination for biological agents, tend to stockpile such weapons, he said.

Pate's theory could explain the targets of the anthrax letters -- two liberal Democratic senators (Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont) and the news media (CBS, NBC and the New York Post) -- all hated by the fringe cults.

Some question whether the armchair sleuths have more than cursory knowledge of the case.

"I think that Barbara Hatch Rosenberg and Tara O'Toole may both be guilty of some degree of over-speculation," said one researcher who did not want to offend his colleagues by being named.

Still, given the similarities between the mind-set of scientists and detectives, the urge to speculate may be irresistible.

"Dr. Rosenberg thinks it's a disgruntled worker conspiracy. Drs. O'Toole and Inglesby think it's Sept. 11 accomplices. I think it's some right-wing extremists," Pate said. "But maybe it's a disgruntled right-wing extremist scientist accomplice."