FBI RETRACING STEPS IN ANTHRAX INVESTIGATION
16 May 2004
The Hartford Courant, May 16,
By JACK DOLAN And DAVE ALTIMARI, Courant Staff Writers
While Justice Department officials publicly express hope that a scientific analysis of the anthrax used in the 2001 letter attacks will help them find the killer, FBI field agents have recently revisited old and long-ignored leads.
On Tuesday, agents interviewed former Army microbiologist Ayaad Assaad for 2½ hours. They asked detailed questions about his knowledge of drying anthrax into a fine powder like that used in the attacks, and took documents he offered them to show where he was when the first batch of letters was sent.
Assaad and his attorney both said the agents assured them on Tuesday that he is not a suspect.
FBI agents interviewed Assaad once before, on Oct. 3, 2001, after an anonymous letter warned that he might be "planning to mount a biological attack." But despite several offers to provide more information, Assaad had not been re-interviewed since the first suspicious anthrax infection came to light the next day.
Federal investigators also recently questioned a prominent, university-based anthrax researcher about discrepancies in records describing the quantities of anthrax in routine shipments to his lab from the Army's biodefense research facility in Frederick, Md.
The scientist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the paperwork problem was easily straightened out. But he was surprised by the questions, because the FBI has had his shipping logs for more than two years.
"My sense is they were trying to recheck everything and make sure they hadn't missed something before," the scientist said. "Clearly they are casting about for new leads or going back and looking for ones they may have missed."
From the outside, it is impossible to gauge how significant any one person questioned by the FBI is in the broader puzzle of the federal investigation into the anthrax mailings, which has been called the largest manhunt in bureau history. But the agency's careful retracing of steps in recent months suggests that investigators could be running low on fresh leads.
A former high-ranking member of the FBI's "Amerithrax" team, who retired last year, said he was aware of the warning letter about Assaad from the very beginning of the investigation. But the letter was one of hundreds of tips the bureau receives, and compared to other leads they were following, it wasn't viewed as a high priority.
FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman refused to comment on - or "give any guidance" about - the significance of last week's Assaad interview. Nor would she say how many other people have been quizzed about their alibis.
But she stressed that the anthrax investigation is wide-ranging. As of the two-year anniversary of the attack last October, there were 30 FBI agents and 18 postal inspectors working full time on the investigation, and a cumulative 80 "agent work years" had been invested in the case, Weierman said.
Investigators believe that 22 people contracted anthrax after exposure to contaminated mail in the fall of 2001. Among the five who died was 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren (Case 23) of Oxford.
In the first months of the investigation, FBI agents questioned dozens of current and former researchers from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., where Assaad once worked. They repeatedly asked who at USAMRIID had access to anthrax, and whether it would have been possible for someone to sneak the biological agent out of the facility.
But more recently, federal authorities have shifted their focus to the complicated process of breaking down the gene sequence of the anthrax used in the attack to see if it can be linked to stocks from a specific laboratory.
In late March, a judge accepted the FBI's promise of scientific progress as reason to postpone discovery in a civil suit brought against the Department of Justice by Steven J. Hatfill. The former USAMRIID scientist lost at least one job, and claims he has become unemployable, since U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft dubbed him a "person of interest" in the summer of 2002. Hatfill has not been charged.
During Tuesday's interview at his attorney's Thurmont, Md., office, Assaad gave the agents sign-in sheets bearing his signature from scientific conferences in Crystal City, Va., from Sept. 18 to Sept. 20, 2001. The first batch of anthrax-laced letters, which went to media offices in New York and Florida, were postmarked in Trenton, N.J., on Sept. 18.
Assaad said he brought the documentation to the interview because FBI agents asked more than a dozen of his co-workers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the same question about him during a day of interviews at their Crystal City offices on March 16. The agents did not speak to Assaad that day, even though he was at work.
"You guys have been asking my colleagues where I was at that time and if I've ever been to New Jersey. Let me put the issue to rest," Assaad said he told the agents as he handed them the rosters.
The agents - Aidan Garcia and Andrew J. Cordiner Jr. from the FBI's D.C. bureau, which is headquarters for the anthrax investigation - then asked Assaad if he would provide documentation covering the dates from Oct. 6 to Oct. 9, 2001, Assaad said. The more lethal letters sent to U.S. Senate offices were postmarked on Oct. 9.
Assaad said the agents also asked him what he knew about drying anthrax into a fine powder. He explained the process and said that it would be easy to do, but that he had never done it himself. He told them he had never worked with anthrax, and had never been vaccinated against the disease.
Many scientists believe it would have been suicidal to prepare the anthrax used in the attacks without being vaccinated first.
Assaad's attorney, Rosemary McDermott, said she became alarmed by the direction of the questioning and asked the agents if her client was a suspect in the anthrax attacks.
"They told me he was not a suspect, and that these were just routine questions," McDermott said.
In the March interviews at the EPA offices, agents asked 14 of Assaad's co-workers if they sent the anonymous letter warning that Assaad was a potential bioterrorist. Everyone denied writing the letter, according to EPA sources, all of whom stressed that the questioning was very low-key.
The timing of the warning letter has intrigued professional investigators and amateur Internet sleuths for years. It was mailed on Sept. 26, 2001, just days after the first batch of anthrax letters went out, but before their first effects became evident.
The Egyptian-born Assaad said that he believes the oddly prescient letter was no coincidence, and that the letter writer intended to use him as a scapegoat for the anthrax mailings, which began less than a month after Middle Eastern terrorists launched the attacks of Sept 11.
Assaad, who is an American citizen and has lived in the United States for decades, said he has contacted the FBI four times over the last 2½ years. He offered to tell them what he knows about his former USAMRIID colleagues, whom he suspects could be responsible for the anthrax mailings, but was rebuffed each time, he said.