MD. POND DRAINED FOR CLUES IN ANTHRAX PROBE



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Last Updated

10 Jun 2003

Source: Washington Post, June 10, 2003

Md. Pond Drained for Clues in Anthrax Probe

FBI's 'Forensic Searches' Seek Clothing and Equipment

By David Snyder and Marilyn W. Thompson, Washington Post Staff Writers

The FBI began draining a spring-fed pond in rural Maryland yesterday, searching for additional clues to the attacker who killed five people with envelopes containing lethal anthrax bacteria in the fall of 2001.

Investigators this winter found a device that some authorities believe may have been used to prepare the letters. Now they are seeking equipment and clothing that might have been used to work with the anthrax bacteria, which was so highly aerosolized that it could have sickened or killed anyone who came in contact with it. They also plan to sift through sediment at the bottom of the pond to test for any trace of the lethal pathogen.

In a news release, the FBI's Washington field office said the bureau and the U.S. Postal Service are conducting "forensic searches" in the Frederick Municipal Forest, including draining one of about a dozen man-made ponds in the 7,000-acre public park a few miles outside the Frederick city limits.

"These searches are related to the investigation of the origin of the anthrax-laced letters mailed in September and October 2001, which resulted in five deaths and 17 illnesses," the release said. "To facilitate the search activity, one pond will be drained."

Law enforcement sources acknowledge privately that the effort is focused on Steven Hatfill, who has been labeled a "person of interest" in the investigation by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft.

In addition to the search of the pond, investigators have gathered information from around the world about Hatfill's movements and statements, while keeping him under months of 24-hour surveillance.

Agents have explored whether he had any involvement in the mailing of two anthrax hoax letters that were sent from abroad in late 2001.

No other person has been subjected to this level of scrutiny, law enforcement sources said.

Responding to news of the draining operation, Pat Clawson, Hatfill's spokesman, said yesterday: "Let them drain every pond in Maryland. We're confident this will further help establish Steve's innocence.

"Steve Hatfill was not involved in the anthrax attack in any way. If the FBI wants to spend a quarter million dollars of taxpayers' money only to find there's no evidence tying Steve Hatfill to the anthrax attack . . . then we will be pleased to hear them announce that there is nothing in the pond tying Steve to the attacks."

FBI sources acknowledge that the draining operation, expected to cost about $250,000, runs the risk of turning up nothing that will advance the 18-month-long investigation. But the effort shows the lengths to which the bureau is willing to go to develop evidence in the investigation of the lethal mailings to news media and the offices of Sens. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

In diving expeditions last winter, the FBI recovered a plastic or plexiglass box with holes in it that some authorities believe could have served as a makeshift protective glove box, allowing someone to safely manipulate anthrax microbes. Some FBI investigators also theorize that the envelopes may have been prepared after the perpetrator waded into the water with the box, using it as a natural protection from any spores that might have escaped.

Agents also discovered vials and gloves wrapped in plastic. Tests for the presence of anthrax bacteria on the equipment are continuing, after two rounds of tests produced conflicting results.

The FBI has obtained documents under grand jury subpoena and interviewed hundreds of people to construct an elaborate day-by-day timeline of Hatfill's activities, the sources said. Agents also have been working to coax many who knew and worked with Hatfill to come forward with information. One such person -- a business associate of Hatfill's -- led the FBI's anthrax team to explore the possibility that the anthrax was put into envelopes in or around the murky Frederick pond.

Clawson said yesterday that Hatfill visited a wooded area of Frederick with Boy Scouts several years ago, but did not know if it was the municipal park.

Yesterday, about a dozen workers in hard hats and bright orange safety vests labored at the pond, digging what appeared to be a drainage culvert in the southern end of the long, narrow body of water. From the vantage point of a helicopter a few hundred feet above, it was unclear where the water was being directed.

At the northern end, workers had set up a pump at the water's edge with black hose extending toward another nearby pond. The pump appeared to be set up to extract water and send it from one pond to the other.

In the woods near the pond, there was an electric generator the size of a very small car, and what appeared to be a large tent. Workers laid down a small gravel path leading from the main road to the pond.

The FBI did not close down large sections of road, as it did in December, but blocked off a narrow dirt road leading to the pond they were preparing to search. They also strung yellow crime-scene tape around the perimeter of an adjacent pond.

By mid-afternoon yesterday, there was no apparent drop in the pond's water level. The investigation at the pond will last three to four weeks, Frederick officials said. When the draining is complete, the FBI plans to "sift through" the mud at the bottom of the pond, city spokeswoman Nancy Poss said yesterday.

The pond is estimated to contain about 50,000 gallons of water, city officials said. It is about one acre in surface area, they said.

The FBI hired a private engineering firm to oversee the pond drainage. City officials said that more than 300 soil, water and sediment tests have been conducted in connection with the pond investigation, and that the tests indicate no threat to the public health and safety of area residents.

Hatfill, trained as a medical doctor in South Africa, used embellished credentials to win a research appointment with a division of the National Institutes of Health. He was assigned in the late 1990s to conduct virology research in the laboratories of the U.S. Army Military Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick. In speaking engagements, he repeatedly warned that a bioterrorism attack was inevitable and that the federal government was poorly prepared.

Hatfill left USAMRIID in late 1999 to take a job with the McLean consulting firm Science Applications International Corp., working on bioterror training with the CIA, the Army Special Forces and other government clients. In August 2001, he lost his CIA clearance and was removed from his full-time position at SAIC after failing certain questions in a lie detector test about his experiences in South Africa, according to law enforcement sources and former colleagues.

The FBI began questioning Hatfill soon after the anthrax letters surfaced, law enforcement sources said. In early interviews, several of Hatfill's associates mentioned him as someone who should be contacted, according to the sources.

Hatfill left the United States in mid-November to take training to become a bioweapons inspector in Iraq as part of the United Nations' monitoring team.

The FBI interviewed Hatfill when he returned from the training in Britain. In early 2002, he took a polygraph test and told reporters that he had passed it. Law enforcement sources have described the results of the test as inconclusive.

To resolve its questions about Hatfill, the FBI has dispatched agents around the globe. William Sullivan, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, said the FBI is doing what it should do in a major criminal probe -- casting "a wide net with fine mesh and [bringing] back everything."

Two agents also spent several months in a Washington storage unit, poring over a mountain of forgotten videotape to locate footage of Hatfill's television appearance in 1998. In it, he discussed the likelihood of a biological attack, according to television host Armstrong Williams.

Williams said Hatfill, then an Army researcher, talked about an imminent bioterror threat and the public's vulnerability.

The FBI also has looked at several unresolved cases involving bioterrorism hoaxes, including a 1997 package sent to B'nai B'rith headquarters in Washington that contained a gelatinous material falsely labeled anthrax. Clawson, Hatfill's spokesman, has said Hatfill had no knowledge of the hoax.

FBI agents also scrutinized a number of hoax letters that surfaced at about the same time as the anthrax letters, the sources said.

Two of the hoax letters were mailed from Malaysia and London, where authorities have worked closely with the FBI to pursue their origins and determine whether they have any link to Hatfill or anyone connected to him, the sources said.

A mailing opened on Oct. 12, 2001, in a Reno, Nev., office of Microsoft Licensing Inc. bore a Malaysian postmark, and police in Kuala Lampur were promptly enlisted by the FBI to help track its source. Nevada officials have said the envelope contained a check that Microsoft had sent to a Malaysian vendor, along with a pornographic photo. The white powder inside the envelope tested positive for anthrax bacteria, but that finding was proved false in more elaborate tests conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In its investigation of the letter, the FBI has questioned Malaysian relatives and associates of Hatfill's girlfriend, who moved to the United States from that nation, the sources said. Her relatives in the northeastern United States also were interviewed.

The hoax letter mailed from London attracted the FBI's interest because of its timing, law enforcement sources said. The letter was mailed in mid-November to Daschle's office, where staffers were still recovering from the panic created by a letter containing real anthrax spores that was opened on Oct. 15, 2001.

Delivery of the hoax letter was delayed until early January 2002, because all U.S. Capitol mail then was shipped off-site to be irradiated as a protection against anthrax bacteria. The envelope contained a harmless talcum-like powder, authorities said.

At the time the letter was postmarked, Hatfill was in a London suburb to attend special classes in detecting biological agents for trainees in the U.N. weapons inspection program. Hatfill was accepted into the program in late 2000 after completing a five-week training program.

Working with British police, the FBI secured records of Hatfill's car rental at London Heathrow Airport and has tracked his movements before and after the training sessions. Clawson has said that Hatfill had nothing to do with mailing the hoax letter. He said Hatfill used the car only to drive to and from the airport and did not drive into London.

In recent months, FBI agents visited Insight magazine writer Timothy Maier in Washington to discuss an article on Hatfill published in January 1998, along with a photograph that shows Hatfill, clothed in a homemade protective suit and gas mask, demonstrating how someone could concoct bioagents in a home laboratory. The article has attracted intense interest since the 2001 letter attacks, and Maier said he was surprised that it took agents so long to question him about it.

Maier said two agents interviewed him about the photograph, which Hatfill had provided the magazine. Agents seemed interested in examining details in the photo, such as a tiny magnet on a refrigerator, in an attempt to pinpoint the location where Hatfill had set up a makeshift lab to demonstrate his theory.

Staff writer Allan Lengel contributed to this report.