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Last Updated

08 Apr 2003

Source: Insight on the News, April 15, 2003

Did the FBI Make Rush to Judgment?

By Timothy W. Maier

Five people dead, dozens of others injured and at least one more postal employee failing fast. Yet the FBI is no closer to solving the anthrax-letter attacks than it was when it began investigating them in October 2001. What's taking so long? The answer may be found in what critics say the authorities overlooked, bypassed or ruled out in a rush to wrap up a politically charged case.

"Lots of things just don't add up," says Neal Rawls, a security expert and author of Be Alert, Be Aware, Have a Plan. He believes the FBI rushed to judgment by ruling out the Sept. 11 terrorists as suspects in the attack. "This link was just disregarded," Rawls says. "This was just discounted. You can't discount it. If it looks like a duck, flaps like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck."

Certainly there was circumstantial evidence to suggest that at least some of the Sept. 11 hijackers might have played a role. Several of them rented an apartment from a real-estate agent married to Mike Irish, editor in chief of The Sun tabloid published by anthrax-targeted American Media Inc. and boss of photographer Bob Stevens (case 5), who died from anthrax exposure. At least four of the hijackers also tried to get government loans to finance their plots, including their leader, Mohammed Atta, who sought $650,000 to modify a crop duster, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture loan officer Johnelle Bryant. In June 2001, terrorist Ahmad al-Haznawi came to the emergency room at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with a dark lesion on his leg. Dr. Christos Tsonas has said the lesion was consistent with anthrax exposure. Experts at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies concluded at the time that the anthrax diagnosis by Tsonas "raises the possibility that the hijackers were handling anthrax and were perpetrators of the anthrax-letter attacks."

Despite these apparent coincidences, recently retired FBI Assistant Director John Collingwood disregarded the link. "This was fully investigated and widely vetted among multiple agencies several months ago," he said in a prepared statement. "Exhaustive testing did not support that anthrax was present anywhere the hijackers had been."

Instead the FBI has focused on one target - Steven Hatfill, a microbiologist and bioweapons expert. He never worked with anthrax but had associates who worked with the Ames anthrax strain. The Ames strain was laced into five letters and mailed to several media outlets and congressional offices in September and October 2001. Rawls still finds it troubling that the FBI turned from the hijacker connections to focus on Hatfill. "There could be a larger group connected to the hijackers out there," he says. "They could have fallen through the cracks in this investigation. Nobody has done anything like searching burn centers to see if there are similar injuries to [those] Haznawi sustained."

While the FBI appears bent on pinning the entire attack on one microbiologist, Rawls says it ought to ask itself this critical question: "After sending the anthrax-laced letters, how did the perp take off the biosuit? The anthrax spores are airborne. He needed help."

But snap decisions in the interest of political correctness are not uncommon from the FBI, which more than once has overlooked possible suspects in a rush to name a less likely suspect and turn down the heat. Six years ago, Richard Jewell was wrongfully accused in the 1996 Summer Olympics bombing case in Atlanta, which some claim helped alleged bomber Eric Rudolph escape.

Meanwhile, the 30 FBI agents on the anthrax special task force appear to be desperately in need of a break. They might just have received one. The G-men who have been asked to work full time chasing this perpetrator well could find some answers thousands of miles away from the crime scenes in documents seized by U.S. troops in northern Iraq at a suspected chemical plant. Such discoveries bolster President George W. Bush's claims that Iraq possesses chemical weapons and also could provide links tying Iraq to al-Qaeda.

And authorities are looking closely at anthrax-related documents found in an Afghanistan office that apparently came from the U.S. military, according to the New York Times. Such information certainly will be compared with recently revealed documentary evidence collected from handwritten notes and computer drives during the March 1 capture of alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Those records indicate al-Qaeda leaders had plans to obtain and use chemical weapons.

It is unclear whether the FBI will consider these recent developments in relationship to the probe of the anthrax-letter crisis that shut down Washington two years ago. But Insight has learned the bureau is exploring the possibility that the attack was a test run for something bigger. By whom the bigger attack might be perpetrated, and when and where it might take place, apparently are mysteries to G-men who may be in over their heads when it comes to fighting organized terrorism. Another question might be whether the FBI has put together its best team to crack the anthrax case. Of the 30 task-force agents, some have less than one month of field experience.

Regardless, a recent visit to Insight by two FBI task-force agents - an experienced gang expert and a former environmental consultant - suggests the G-men are developing a psychological profile of Hatfill, who had warned this magazine in 1998 that terrorists might engage in a "test run" before unleashing an all-out anthrax assault upon the United States. At the time Hatfill, considered by many on the left to be a right-wing alarmist, was frustrated by the failure of the United States to prepare for a possible biological or chemical attack. He since has declined Insight's requests for a follow-up interview.

In 1998, to illustrate how easy it would be for a terrorist to produce anthrax, Hatfill donned a hazardous-materials suit at a makeshift lab in an undisclosed location and posed for a photographer as if he were making the deadly biological weapon. While Insight published that photo in 1998, it took nearly two years for the FBI to visit this magazine's office and inquire about the photo - which was in fact a National Institutes of Health file picture. The FBI had assumed that Insight photographers took the picture, even though the credit clearly was given on the photo caption.

So what is going on here? Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, chairman of the biological-arms control panel for the left-wing Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and a government adviser on biological weapons, supplied Hatfill's name to the G-men. Rosenberg claimed the FBI had a short list of suspects and said a genetic analysis conducted at Northern Arizona University concluded the strain could have come from one of three labs - U.S. Army Fort Detrick, U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground or the Battelle Memorial Institute. Hatfill, who worked at Fort Detrick, insists he is innocent. Rosenberg notes that Hatfill's mentor, Bill Patrick, invented weaponization of anthrax and holds five secret patents on it. Reportedly, no other country possesses the formula. In the meantime, Hatfill has threatened to sue Rosenberg and the Washington Times for publishing his name in connection with the attacks.

When Insight recently asked FBI agents if Hatfill remains a "person of interest," the agents responded, "Yes." Asked if it was good to be a person of interest, the agents shook their heads. They initially stated they had no DNA evidence from the anthrax-laced envelopes linking Hatfill to the crime, but then quickly said they had spoken too soon and could not confirm that assessment. They would not elaborate on the probe, and were interested primarily in the photo of Hatfill. In particular they sought to determine where the photo was shot, something which Insight reporters did not know. The agents also zeroed in on what appeared to be a postcard or some sort of handwritten letter attached by a magnet to a refrigerator in the photo.

In Insight's 1998 interview with Hatfill, the bioweapons expert said or did nothing to suggest he would commit a deadly act. His message was one he had been delivering at scientific and first-responder conferences: The United States is ill-prepared to handle an anthrax attack and needs to pay attention to homeland security.

Meanwhile, the motive behind the attack has been of significant interest to the FBI. In fact, this magazine has learned the FBI's field office in New York has received a letter and documents suggesting the anthrax task force take a hard look at who may have benefited both politically and financially from the anthrax-vaccination program approved under the Clinton administration to inoculate 2.4 million U.S. troops. The FBI has been looking hard for such motives, including interviewing Rosenberg, who posted her theory on the FAS Website (www.fas.org) under the title "Analysis of the Anthrax Attacks." She claims the perpetrator knew in advance that the attack would result in calls for strengthening U.S. defense and response capabilities: "This is not likely to have been a goal of anti-American terrorists, who also would be unlikely to warn the victims in advance" by telling them to get treatment and take penicillin. Rosenberg continues: "Perhaps the perpetrator stood to gain in some way from increased funding and recognition for biodefense programs. Financial beneficiaries would include the BioPort Corp., which is the source of the U.S. anthrax vaccine, and other potential contractors."

BioPort is the sole provider of the anthrax vaccine. The company is run by Faud El-Hibri, an ethnic Lebanese who now is a U.S. citizen. BioPort stands to profit by millions of dollars from the sale of the vaccine, which the company hopes to mass produce for the general public and sell overseas.

El-Hibri already has helped facilitate sales of the vaccine to Saudi Arabia, and his ties to the Middle East - particularly his friendship with the bin Laden family - have drawn scrutiny, although he has no known links to Osama bin Laden. El-Hibri purchased the anthrax facility from the state of Michigan without any national-security review of the application [see 1. "Why BioPort Got a Shot in the Arm," Sept. 20, 1999]. That may be because retired Adm. William Crowe Jr., chairman of President Bill Clinton's foreign-intelligence advisory board, sits on BioPort's board of directors.

Shortages of the vaccine and concern about long-term side effects such as aseptic meningitis, lupus, Guillain-Barr syndrome and bipolar disorder led Congress to halt the program in June 2001. Weighing in that decision was a series of scathing reviews by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as congressional hearings and General Accounting Office reports blasting BioPort's failure to upgrade its lab.

In August 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld resumed the vaccine program, but only on a limited basis, and the Pentagon kept secret which troops would be inoculated. A month later, CNN aired a report on BioPort's problems and various news organizations began running critical stories about the anthrax program, similar to Insight's 2-year-old investigative report [see "A Dose of Reality," Sept. 20, 1999]. That same month the undersecretary for acquisitions at the Pentagon was about to recommend terminating BioPort's contract for nonperformance, according to military sources. In October 2001 the first of several anthrax letters hit congressional offices in Washington and several news agencies. The tide had turned, and even a previously dubious public started requesting the vaccine to protect itself. There were no more congressional hearings. Previously outspoken critics such as Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, turned silent.

However, the allegations in the letter sent to the FBI's New York office and obtained by Insight did not accuse BioPort of wrongdoing, but asked the task force to consider the possibility that someone within the military may have had a motive for the attack. In particular, the letter points to the last anthrax epidemic, in 1957, at a wool-sorting mill in the northeastern United States, where the Army happened to be performing an anthrax-vaccine study. That epidemic resulted in several deaths. However, the data the military collected were used to license the current anthrax vaccine.

"I believe that the 1950s wool-mill studies require analysis as to the parallels with the latest anthrax epidemic," says the letter dated May 14, 2002. "A key question in addressing the parallels would involve looking closely at the strain of anthrax disease in the outbreak almost 50 years ago. Was it the Ames strain? Or was it a strain of the disease endemic to Asia where the hides being sorted and processed had originated? In short, was it a weaponized, laboratory, or domestic strain? This is a fundamental question that should be addressed by the FBI in order to exclude possible suspects."

The letter continues: "Almost 50 years later anthrax spores were once again unleashed by someone, and the FBI's profile implies it may be of military or weapons-grade origins. My concern is that the U.S. Army, with a history of medical experimentation, and a history of attempting to accomplish military objectives by all means available, may be involved in a direct or indirect means, with the ultimate objective of gaining approval for their vaccine manufacturer."

Military sources note that anthrax hoaxes began emerging as far back as the spring of 1997, when the FDA served the anthrax manufacturer, which was then the state of Michigan, a notice to revoke its license. These hoaxes increased in February 1998 with the announcement of congressional hearings on the vaccination issue and forced resignations from the Connecticut National Guard and a series of transfer requests.

The documents provided by the military sources identify microbiologists who are associates of Hatfill and state that the careers and credibility of these scientists are "directly tied to the success or failure of the anthrax vaccine." The letter suggests that these associates also were adamant supporters of the Pentagon's decision to inoculate the troops. "It is quite possible that a nonprofessional pseudo-'soldier of fortune' who had access to the concerns of high-level DoD [Department of Defense] officials may have taken the internal resistance to Rumsfeld as an unstated green light to ensure that the threat became real."

Military sources who provided the FBI with a detailed history of the anthrax program asked 10 months ago to meet with the anthrax task force but have yet to receive a phone call. Considering that it took nearly two years for the task force to visit Insight, they say they will continue to hold on to their story, documents and names of likely suspects until the G-men come knocking.

Timothy W. Maier is a writer for Insight.