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11 Dec 2002

Source: U.S. News and World Report, April 15, 2002.

Many leads, many dead ends

Frustration inside the FBI's anthrax investigation: a so-far perfect crime

By Chitra Ragavan; Douglas Pasternak; Nell Boyce; David E. Kaplan; Nancy Shute   

Less than a sugar packet's worth of evidence, and not a whole lot of clues. That's what the Federal Bureau of Investigation's massive anthrax probe comes down to six months after a spurt of mystery mailings killed five people, sickened 17 others, paralyzed mail delivery, and terrified the nation. The FBI's aggressive -- and some declare flawed -- probe of the attacks has run into one dead end after another, causing frustration and disappointment. "As an investigation, it's a nightmare," one official tells U.S. News.

Whoever was behind last fall's anthrax attacks committed a so-far perfect crime. Five anthrax-laced letters were mailed to the Sun tabloid in Florida, the New York Post, television anchor Tom Brokaw, and Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The FBI has turned up no fingerprints, no match to the handwriting, no witnesses, and no source for the bacterium, Bacillus anthracis. It was so finely aerosolized that it floated through the fine weave of the envelopes, so lethal that it killed or sickened those who touched or inhaled it. Much of it dissipated or was lost, to the dismay of FBI investigators, leaving little beyond that sugar packet's worth -- the .871 grams extracted from the Leahy letter. Its DNA is now being sequenced in hopes of identifying its lab source, though whether that will ever point to the killer is uncertain.

This investigation has been a grind for the bureau, which has deployed hundreds of agents at a cost of millions of dollars. Agents, many with science degrees, have run a list of 80 questions past nearly 5,000 "persons of interest" -- including perhaps 600 thought to have specific expertise -- and pursued thousands of tips and leads to no avail. They've more than doubled the reward to $2.5 million. They've obtained subpoenas, conducted surveillance, searches, and polygraphs, done swabs and forensics tests, knocked on doors. Yet they say they have drawn a blank on the most basic questions: who, how, and why.

Curious cases. Investigators say they still don't understand the case of Kathy Nguyen, 61 (case 22), a New York hospital worker who suddenly developed symptoms in October and died from inhalation anthrax before she could be interviewed. Despite enormous effort by the FBI, how she became infected remains a mystery. More curious is the death of Ottilie Lundgren, 94 (case 23), of Oxford, Conn. Investigators took nearly 450 swabs of her house, her closet, her garden, her mailbox and other places. "That's a lot of swabbing to not come up with even one spore," says a federal investigator.

Recently, one Connecticut health official theorized that Lundgren may have become infected from bulk mail (that she ripped before tossing out) possibly sorted on the contaminated Trenton, N.J., postal machines that processed at least two of the anthrax letters. But U.S. Postal Inspector Dan Mahalko says bulk mail gets presorted by the sender and is merely routed via loading docks of the Postal Service. Perhaps another false lead.

So far, say senior FBI officials, they've found no motives. They are proceeding on gut sense that could be wrong, using a psychological profile that could be flawed. Was Osama bin Laden behind it? Investigators believe not but haven't ruled it out. Was it a foreign power like Iraq? Most likely not, they say, but they're still pursuing that possibility. Was it a neo-Nazi extremist or an abortion foe? They don't think so but don't rule it out either.

What the FBI thinks is this: Whoever sent the letters probably lived in or knew the Trenton area where several of the letters were mailed. The perpetrator probably is a single, older white male with a grudge against the U.S. government. He may be a full-fledged or amateur scientist, who may not have intended to kill. Agents think this is so because he had meticulously taped the edges of the envelopes and included warnings of lethality plus advice on antibiotic cures. They surmise that he may have acted to send a message that the federal government should invest more in biodefense -- or perhaps to somehow profit from that investment.

That theory has narrowed the massive scope of the FBI investigation. The bureau began with a daunting universe of more than 20,000 scientific labs including government defense facilities, biopesticide labs, and drug companies. The FBI says it is still interested in the possibility that, say, someone who knows how to make B. thuringiensis (a common grub- and beetle-killing organic pesticide) could also have made the killer anthrax bacterium. But they also are looking very closely at the government biodefense labs.

A confounding factor has been the scientific community's lax security practices in handling of pathogens, often traded informally at scientific conferences. Even the government's own U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Md., now both a source of expertise and one focus of the FBI investigation, has had repeated security breaches. And there were no records of which lab had what strain of anthrax. The FBI now has helped develop a database.

Lab work. The anthrax from the Leahy letter brought other challenges: so many tests to conduct but so little evidence. Scientists wanted to first irradiate the anthrax to destroy its virulence, to protect the investigators, but fretted that might skew the tests. So they experimented first on the pesticide B. thuringiensis because of its similarity to B. anthracis.

The next question was where to conduct the tests. The FBI lab expertise is in "human forensics," investigating conventional murders, says Mark Wheelis of the University of California-Davis, adding, "This is an entirely new area." FBI officials say they turned to premier federal labs for help and created a scientific advisory panel of 20 top scientists. But the FBI, often faulted for its secrecy, managed to anger and alienate many outside experts, especially in the biodefense community.

One of the FBI's strongest critics is Barbara Rosenberg of the Federation of American Scientists. She asserts that the FBI for months has known who did it, was foolish to cast such a wide net, waited too long without arresting a suspect, and has placed unrealistic hopes on the genetic testing. "It's a stalling mechanism," Rosenberg told U.S. News. "I suppose they don't want the suspects to think they're close on the trail." Rosenberg speculates that the FBI is hobbled by the secrecy involving the government's own biodefense programs. "I hope it's not because they are hesitant to point the finger at someone," she says. That infuriates investigators. "It's insulting anyone would suggest we are sitting on evidence," fumes one FBI official. "This is murder; five people are dead."

Rosenberg and some of her peers say they've named names to the FBI of who they think did it. The FBI says none has panned out (chemical analysis has shown the powder was not made using any known U.S. technique). Officials say Rosenberg is "misinformed and uninformed." The bureau also has pooh-poohed a recent memo written by two biodefense experts at Johns Hopkins University. They concluded that one of the hijackers who went to a Florida doctor last June seeking treatment of a "black lesion" or a "gash" -- the description varies -- probably suffered from cutaneous, or skin, anthrax. But the FBI says exhaustive testing for anthrax anywhere the hijackers were present came up empty.

In its investigation, the FBI has had other challenges. What if one of its scientific advisers is, in fact, the killer? Consider the story of William Patrick, patriarch of the nation's bioweapons program, owner of five patents for "weaponizing" anthrax. Patrick, who ran the offensive biological weapons program in the '60s at USAMRIID, says he wasn't approached until four months into the investigation. Feeling slighted, Patrick asked the FBI agent why it had taken so long. He says the agent replied, "Well, Mr. Patrick, you were a suspect." Patrick, 75, paused to digest that. "Well," he recalls telling the agent, "I suppose I was."