FBI CRITICIZED FOR FAILING TO SOLVE ANTHRAX CASE



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Last Updated

25 Aug 2003

Source: Reuters, September 5, 2002.

FBI Criticized for Failing to Solve Anthrax Case

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Almost a year after the nation's worst biological weapon attack, the FBI has yet to figure out who sent anthrax-laced letters that killed five people, prompting criticism that its investigation is moving too slowly.

Federal law enforcement sources acknowledged they are not close to making an arrest in the investigation, which began less than a month after the Sept. 11 hijacked plane attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

FBI officials said they believe the person who mailed the letters to two U.S. senators and to the news media last autumn took advantage of the confusion after Sept. 11, but they do not believe the attacks were related to the hijacking plot.

Critics said the FBI waited too long to reach out to the scientific community, that it failed to follow up on some obvious leads and it may have unfairly focused attention on Dr. Steven Hatfill, a germ warfare expert who says he's innocent.

Hatfill is one of about 30 U.S.-based scientists the FBI considers a "person of interest" in its investigation, meaning they have the expertise, ability and wherewithal to produce the deadly bacteria.

Hatfill, whose apartment was searched twice by the FBI and was fired by Louisiana State University, said investigators singled him out because they were under pressure to show progress in the case.

"The assassination of my character appears to be part of a government effort to show the American people that it's proceeding vigorously with the investigation," he told a news conference on Aug. 25 outside his lawyer's office in Virginia.

One FBI critic has been Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist at the State University of New York at Purchase and the chairwoman of a biological weapons panel at the Federation of American Scientists. She said rapid resolution of the case was critical.

"The significance of the anthrax attacks and our response to it cannot be overstated," she said in an analysis posted on the Internet in June.

FUTURE THREAT COULD DWARF 9/11

"By breaking the taboo on the use of bioweapons, this event has engendered a future threat that could dwarf 9/11," Rosenberg said, adding that the FBI seemed to be "marking time on the off-chance that an unknown informer will turn up with a smoking gun."

Rosenberg said she has sent a new commentary about the anthrax attacks to the FBI, but would not make it available to others. She said she did not want to interfere with the proceeding investigation by making public statements.

Jonathan Tucker, a biological and chemical weapons specialist at the Washington-based Monterey Institute, questioned how the investigation has been handled.

"A lot of people are baffled by the way the investigation is going," he said. "There is growing bewilderment in Congress and among the public about where the investigation is headed."

Tucker questioned why the FBI appeared to focus attention on Hatfill, a former U.S. Army scientist, when it apparently did not have the evidence to indict him.

FBI officials said they want to avoid a repeat of the case of Richard Jewell, the former security guard who was initially identified as a suspect in the 1996 Olympics bombing in Atlanta, but who later was cleared of any involvement.

Tucker also questioned whether the FBI had been overly hasty early in the investigation in excluding the possibility of foreign involvement in the anthrax attacks.

FBI officials said they have no evidence linking the Sept. 11 hijackers with the anthrax attacks.

They dismissed the story of a Florida doctor who treated one of the hijacking suspects, Ahmed Alhaznawi, in June last year. The doctor said Alhaznawi had a lesion on his leg that was consistent with the skin version of anthrax.

The law enforcement sources said the investigation has been especially difficult because the pool of potential suspects is the same group of scientists upon whom the FBI has had to rely for expertise in identifying the bacteria used in the attacks.

They said scientific protocols had to be developed for testing the anthrax found in one of the letters.

The sources said there was a lack of physical evidence, such as fingerprints on the letters, or apparent eyewitnesses.

"It's not the movies or television. People expect the case to be solved in an hour or two hours. It doesn't always happen that way," one official said.

"Sometimes, it just takes months and months and months of searching and digging," one official said. "You are obviously dealing with someone who is very smart. Smart crooks are harder to catch than dumb crooks."