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Last Updated

02 Nov 2002

Source:  Washington Post, November 2, 2002.

FBI Secretly Trying to Re-Create Anthrax From Mail Attacks

By Dan Eggen and Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post Staff Writers

FBI investigators and federal scientists have been secretly working for months to replicate the type of anthrax used in last year's deadly mail attacks, as part of a previously undisclosed strategy designed to determine precisely how the spores were manufactured, officials said yesterday.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who revealed the experiments in remarks to reporters here, said that using such "reverse engineering" could help investigators narrow the list of possible suspects.

"We're replicating the way or ways it might be manufactured, but it is not an easy task," Mueller said. "We are going into new territory in some areas."

The ambitious strategy underscores the continued lack of information available to FBI investigators, who have not succeeded in identifying a culprit more than a year after the first letters containing deadly anthrax spores were mailed. The bacteria, accompanied by threatening notes, killed five people and infected 13 others in the fall of 2001. The incidents also disrupted the mail system and highlighted its vulnerability.

Mueller and other FBI officials declined to say whether investigators were using live anthrax bacteria in their work or whether scientists were culturing the experimental spores from scratch. The experiments began earlier this year and, according to one source familiar with the operation, are being carried out at Dugway Proving Ground, a top Pentagon bioweapons research center, in Utah.

The team involved in the tests includes representatives from several federal agencies, sources said. Jerome Hauer, head of the Office of Public Health Preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services, said an infectious disease specialist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is assigned to the FBI team.

C.J. Peters, former chief of the CDC's special pathogens branch, said the FBI approach is logical. "Very few people are experts at making anthrax" in a weaponized form, he said, and determining how the anthrax was treated could lead to one of them.

Some experts suggested that federal investigators, who have never coped with an anthrax agent as sophisticated as the material recovered from letters to Sens. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), may be feeling their way through the science to discover how difficult the agent would be to make.

"They'd probably want to look at several methods of doing it -- try to make it several different ways to reproduce the end result," said David Franz, head of the Chemical and Biological Defense Division of the Southern Research Institute and former commander of the the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), the nation's principal biodefense research center. "It doesn't seem like an unreasonable idea."

Richard Spertzel, chief biological inspector for the U.N. Special Commission to Iraq from 1994 to 1998, said securing the correct equipment and materials to replicate the anthrax would not be difficult, but getting the spores down to the proper size "is not going to be a simple matter, and it has to be done in containment conditions."

The attempt to manufacture identical anthrax spores is the latest in a series of ambitious efforts. Scientists announced in May that they had sequenced the anthrax genome used to identify the attack spores as examples of the "Ames strain" of anthrax bacteria developed by USAMRIID at Fort Detrick, Md. A month later, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory used radiocarbon dating to determine that the anthrax spores had been cultured within the past two years.

A possible profile of the attacker issued by the FBI last November described an angry, "lone individual" with some scientific background who could weaponize the anthrax spores in a basement laboratory for as little as $2,500 and was likely familiar with the area around Trenton, N.J. The FBI emphasized that there was no "direct or clear" link between the attacks and foreign terrorism.

More recently, investigators have said they were working with an evolving list of as many as 30 potential suspects. Attention has centered on medical doctor and virologist Steven J. Hatfill, a former U.S. Army scientist identified by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft as a "person of interest." Hatfill has vigorously denied any involvement in the attacks.

Mueller said yesterday that FBI profilers have not altered their initial assessment of the likely attacker, and said that "we have a number of individuals that we're looking at." But he also said that investigators have never ruled out any scenario, a reaction to criticism from some scientists that the FBI is too focused on a domestic loner and neglected the idea of state- or group-sponsored terrorism.

Investigators and experts have said the spores in the Daschle and Leahy letters were uniformly between 1 and 3 microns in size, and were coated with fine particles of frothy silica glass. The weaponized product was astonishingly pure -- 1 trillion spores per gram -- and so light that it simply floated into the air, ready to be inhaled, as soon as the envelope was opened.

There are several ways to mix anthrax spores with silica, ranging from shaking the two ingredients together in the biowarfare equivalent of a plastic bag to sophisticated processes such as a "spray dryer," in which a water-mixed slurry of spores and glass particles is squirted into an enclosed chamber and combined with superheated air.

William C. Patrick III, the former chief of product development for the U.S. Army's now-defunct bioweapons program, said the information available on the attack suggests a high-end production facility.

"Anthrax is relatively easy to grow; it doesn't require any special nutrients," Patrick said. "But having grown it, you have to dry it and keep it dry, and you have to have a pretty tight system. You need a minimum amount of equipment for that; you just can't go out in the woods and create this."

Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.