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Last Updated

30 Sep 2003

Source:  USA Today, September 30, 2003

FBI fails to re-create anthrax production

By Toni Locy, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON Two years after the nation's deadly anthrax attacks, the FBI still has not been able to re-create the process the killer used to produce the substance sent through the U.S. mail, a top FBI official said Monday.

But Michael Mason, the new assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington field office, said testing has helped investigators "narrow" some aspects of the investigation and convinced them that the culprit has special expertise.

"We would not have that if reverse engineering had completely failed to provide us with any information or valuable leads," Mason said.

The FBI had hoped that by now, "reverse engineering," working backward from the end result to determine how something was made, would have re-created the process used to produce the anthrax.

In doing so, agents had hoped for clues to identify the killer.

The investigation began after anthrax-laden letters were sent to media outlets and two U.S. senators in September and October 2001.

Five people died and 17 others were sickened in the attacks. Thousands of people were placed on antibiotics.

Scientists said Monday that it is unclear what Mason's revelation means. They say much depends on whether the FBI is attempting an identical re-creation.

"It is so important that we sort through this," says Dave Franz, former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. "We don't want people to think they can do this to us anytime they want."

The FBI is continuing efforts to re-create the anthrax. "If a couple of leads come out of it, it's worthwhile," an FBI official said Monday.

Mason said he has made some "refinements" to the investigation but has not changed its direction. He said leaks to the media about the inquiry, particularly about scientist Steven Hatfill, have been damaging to the investigation.

Last year, Attorney General John Ashcroft identified Hatfill, 48, a former researcher at the institute at Fort Detrick, as "a person of interest" in the investigation.

Mason said he understood that when confronted by a reporter with Hatfill's name, Ashcroft used the term. But, Mason said, "there is absolutely zero value in coming forward with persons of interest up to the point we indict the person."