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Last Updated

04 Nov 2002

Source: Baltimore Sun, January 6, 2002.

Everyone has an anthrax theory

Bioterrorism riddle, $1.25 million reward stimulate interest

By Scott Shane, Sun Staff

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist at the State University of New York, thinks she has figured out a great deal about the person who mailed the anthrax that killed five people last fall.

"He had to be an insider in the U.S. biological defense program," she says. Not only that: He is a microbiologist. He probably lives near Washington. And for those who want details, she has laid her reasoning out on the Internet.

To Richard M. Smith, a computer security expert in Massachusetts, the nine-digit ZIP codes on the anthrax letters could be a crucial clue - as well as the ersatz return address, a made-up elementary school. If the attacker used the Internet to collect his information, Smith says, he might have left an electronic trail.

Orley R. Bourland Jr., a Fort Detrick retiree who once made anthrax for the Army, has hunted the Web to see whether the equipment needed to make the powder is widely available (yes) and consulted with colleagues to judge whether a person working alone could physically have performed the necessary tasks to do so (probably not).

In the absence of visible progress in the three-month FBI hunt for the anthrax-mailing terrorist, an informal army of detectives has joined the quest. Among them are distinguished scientists, eager amateurs, bounty hunters and conspiracy theorists of every stripe. Solving the mystery has become a game that anyone can play.

For encouragement, there's the $1.25 million reward offered jointly by the FBI and U.S. Postal Service for solving the case. Government sources say the prize will soon be upped to $2 million, a possible sign that investigators are stuck.

But the people who have become enthralled by the anthrax whodunit don't seem to have the money first in their minds.

A 'fascinating' mystery

"When this anthrax thing came up, I found it just fascinating," says Ed Lake of Racine, Wis., a 64-year-old retired computer system designer who writes screenplays. "All these facts were scattered all over the place. But no one was putting them together."

So Lake took on that job himself, putting together an extensive anthrax investigation Web site, which he updates and corrects as new evidence is reported.

"There are so many clues out there - so many odd things," Lake says. "It's 7 o'clock in the morning and I'm getting up, and suddenly an idea will hit me."

Rosenberg, 63, who has headed a biological weapons working group for the Federation of American Scientists since 1989, says she joined the chase partly because of her deep concern about the danger of biological terror.

"If news coverage and public awareness just fade away because they never catch the person responsible, I think that would be regrettable," she says. But that's just part of her motivation: "It really is interesting to try to put the clues together."

Getting the public involved

If there has been an onslaught of unofficial investigation, that might be partly because the FBI encouraged it. From early on, it solicited help from the public, adding a red button labeled "Submit a Tip" to the elaborate Web site it has dedicated to the "Amerithrax" investigation.

Along with a flag--draped logo, photos of the anthrax letters and sound files of FBI experts discussing the case, the Web site includes a lengthy handwriting and behavioral analysis of the perpetrator.

The proposed suspect is an adult male loner with scientific training, it says, who "is a non-confrontational person, at least in his public life. He lacks the personal skills necessary to confront others. ... He may hold grudges for a long time, vowing that he will get even with 'them' one day."

Never before has the FBI made public such extensive material on an unsolved case, spokeswoman Tracey Silberling said Friday. That is partly because of the new technical possibilities offered by the Internet, but mostly because of the nature of the anthrax probe, she said.

"In the interest of public safety and educating the public about the threat, we've made as much information as possible available," Silberling said. "We're also seeking the public's assistance by making information available that might ring a bell with someone."

Silberling said the bureau has received "hundreds of tips" from the public, but declined to say whether any have proved useful.

Flawed reporting

If the FBI's lack of evident progress has drawn criticism, so has the media coverage of the case, which has often been erratic.

Even the most respected news organizations have reported details about the mailed anthrax or the investigation that quickly proved unfounded.

On Dec. 19, for instance, ABC's World News Tonight led its broadcast with a story saying the FBI was investigating a scientist who had been fired twice by Battelle Memorial Institute, an Ohio-based government contractor. The story was picked up by wire services and printed in many newspapers, including The Sun.

But the next day the story was denied by U.S. officials, who noted that the accurate part - that a man twice fired by Battelle had made anthrax threats - had been published two months earlier in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The FBI determined that the man had no connection to the mailings, officials said.

ZIP code clues

With the FBI mostly mum and no certainty from the news media, citizens have felt emboldened to do their own work, invariably using the World Wide Web. Some have shown quite a knack.

One such sleuth is Smith, 48, who has earned a reputation in the computer world for helping to track down people who have loosed certain damaging computer viruses on the Internet.

In the anthrax case, in addition to analyzing the nine-digit ZIP codes, he has dissected the return address on the bacteria-laced letters mailed to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick J. Leahy: "4th GRADE, GREENDALE SCHOOL, FRANKLIN PARK, NJ 08852."

Smith found that while the school doesn't exist, the elements of the invented address all suggest familiarity with three adjacent small towns in New Jersey.

In addition to his own research, Smith has created "The Anthrax Conspiracy Theories Page," including links to the work of fellow detectives.

Interestingly, the most active unofficial investigators, including Rosenberg, Smith and Lake, have independently reached similar conclusions as to the motive behind the attacks.

'Bioevangelist' theory

They say the perpetrator is most likely someone with experience in the bioweapons arena who believed the U.S. government and public were oblivious to the magnitude of the potential threat from bioterrorists.

The person mailed the letters in the belief that only an actual attack would sound the necessary alarm, they say.

Such a scenario - call it "the bioevangelist theory" - would account for two pieces of evidence: the attacker's expertise about anthrax and the vague notes included in the letters vowing "Death to America" and declaring "Allah is Great."

Some Islamic scholars say that message was most likely written not by a Muslim militant, but by someone trying to sound like a Muslim militant.

That would fit the theory perfectly: A misguided American bioweapons expert trying to arouse the public might want to direct the blame at al-Qaida-style terrorists, who he believes pose the real threat.

"Somebody in the know says, 'This stuff is so dangerous, and we're not treating it with the right amount of concern,'" Smith says. "'So why don't I give a demonstration?'"

Rosenberg says such a notion was occasionally aired jokingly in the small circle of those who worried about biological terror prior to Sept. 11.

"There have been a number of occasions when we've said in frustration, 'What we need is a biological weapons attack to wake the country up,'" she says.

The public evidence - that the mailed anthrax was the Ames strain used in U.S. biodefense research, and that it was prepared with great expertise - points to a U.S. military or government contractor program, Rosenberg says.

"I think it's somebody who's got a screw loose," Rosenberg says. "But I think the existence of the U.S. [biodefense] program made it possible."

A wider conspiracy

Inevitably, among those outside the FBI at work on the anthrax case are some who believe the mailings are only a tiny part of a far, far broader conspiracy.

One vague theory that has been bandied about on the Web links the anthrax attacks to the recent deaths of five microbiologists, including a Harvard scientist who had worked with Ebola and other viruses and a defector from the Soviet biological weapons program.

But the Web postings do not even speculate as to how the deaths might be related.

"The problem is, people connect the dots too easily," says Smith, the ZIP code investigator. "There are maybe 100,000 microbiologists out there, so some of them are dying all the time."

A more detailed conspiracy has been outlined by Dr. Leonard G. Horowitz, a dentist who runs a small publishing company, Tetrahedron Publishing Group, in Sandpoint, Idaho.

Horowitz has bombarded reporters and government officials for weeks with lengthy e-mails that propose a financial motive for the attacks, such as sale of drugs and vaccines.

Among his favored culprits are Battelle, the defense and CIA contractor, and Bayer AG, the maker of Cipro, the antibiotic widely used to treat or prevent anthrax infection. (Both companies deny any connection to the attacks.)

Noting recent media reports discussing Battelle's anthrax research and speculating about a financial motive for the letters, Horowitz believes he is making progress.

"We've gotten a sense in our office that even though no one gives us credit, we are making a huge difference," he says.

Still, reports in what he calls the "slow-as-a-tortoise mainstream news media" have a long way to go to catch up with the spidery plot diagrammed on his Web site, which ties the anthrax as well as "AIDS genocide" and vaccines for smallpox and West Nile virus to a score of government and corporate conspirators.

Horowitz's anthrax theories might have been neglected by the media because he presents them on the same Web site where he hawks software for "computer-generated prayer" and numerous alternative cures, including "Body Oxygen" and "Clustered Water," which it calls "probably the greatest breakthrough in health science produce development this century."

Determined to be heard

But Horowitz, 49, who often notes his Harvard University master's degree in public health, says he will not be deterred until he exposes the "military-pharmaceutical industrialists."

"Even if I hadn't committed my whole life to saving lives through public health, it's my duty as an American," he says.