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26 Dec 2002

Source: Washington Post, December 23, 2001.

Perpetrator, Motive Remain Elusive in Anthrax Case

By Rick Weiss, Washington Post Staff Writer

In the three months since a Florida photo editor became the first to die in this fall's bioterrorist attacks, investigators have learned a lot about the anthrax bacterium.

They have developed better ways to find, grow, isolate and kill it. They have learned how it travels through the air in its dry powdered state, clings to paper, leaks from envelopes and lingers in air ducts. They have even determined the spores' precise genetic fingerprint and largely ascertained the powder's molecular composition.

What scientists and law enforcement officials have not been able to learn, despite all these details, is who processed, packaged and sent the deadly spores -- much less what the perpetrator's motive might be. It is a state of abject ignorance that seems incongruous with the many recent investigatory revelations. But if this country's millions of armchair Columbos feel frustrated and confused, experts said, they should not feel alone. The puzzle is simply maddeningly difficult. And at this point, at least, many of the clues do seem to contradict each other.

"It's humbling," said Jeffrey Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "And it's unsettling."

At times it has seemed that the attacks were designed to tease.

In the past week, DNA tests have shown that the spores used in the attacks belong not only to the Ames strain -- a strain cultivated for years by U.S. researchers and other scientists around the world -- but also to the exact sub-strain that's been the focus of research at the Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. It was a finding of provenance so irrefutable that a key scientist involved in the study said he had no doubt that "the original source" of the terrorist microbes "had to have been USAMRIID."

But that doesn't mean that a current or even former Army person was behind the attacks. No one knows exactly how many labs here or abroad may have gotten hold of that virulent sub-strain, either from the Army directly or from someone else who got it second- or third-hand from the Army.

"We just don't know how many hands it went through before it got to the ultimate user," said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a consultant to the government's investigation.

Experts also hold differing opinions on how difficult it is to process anthrax spores into a deadly, aerosolizable powder. So while it was recently revealed that a military base in Utah has quietly been making weapons-grade spore preparations from the Army's strain of the anthrax bacterium, no one knows whether others -- be they lone terrorists or state-sponsored weapons experts -- may be similarly adept at that black art.

William Patrick, who led the U.S. offensive biological warfare program at Fort Detrick until it was dismantled in 1969, said he would be surprised to learn that someone had made a fine aerosol of a more delicate bacterium, such as the one that causes tularemia, another agent of bioterror. Such fragile microbes do not hold up well when exposed to the most commonly available drying technologies. But the anthrax microbe is so hardy, he said, "it doesn't surprise me that someone out there has produced a very good anthrax powder. My fear is that he's sitting back now working madly to get the next supply."

But other experts disagree.

"I am skeptical that anyone can do this on their own," said Elisa D. Harris, a former National Security Council official who until recently was responsible for coordinating U.S. policy on chemical and biological defense and now is a research fellow at the University of Maryland. "Once the letter to [Senate Majority Leader Thomas A.] Daschle [D-S.D.] was opened, a number of us in bioproliferation said we think material of this quality certainly would have to have been produced by a national program or by a person with expertise from a national program."

Muddying the waters further are the apparent differences in quality among some of the batches sent through the mail. The spores sent to the New York Post were brown and clumpy. The letters to Daschle and to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) were of ultra-high quality. The sample that spilled in NBC's offices in New York appeared to have been something in between. Yet no one knows if all were derived from the same high-quality batch (perhaps with roots in a military program), differing in appearance only because some became damp, or if the variation in quality indicates that someone has made multiple batches, perhaps of increasing quality.

Ongoing analyses of the chemicals that were added to the Leahy letter spores may answer that question -- and should also allow scientists to compare the Leahy spore preparation to preparations made by the U.S. Army, Iraq and the former Soviet Union. But the FBI has said that those tests may not be complete for several weeks.

Meanwhile, experts disagree on whether a foreign power might be behind the attacks.

The FBI has created a psychological profile that pegs the perpetrator as a domestic loner, perhaps with microbiological skills gained from a scientific or military background.

But others are not so sure.

"The FBI seems to have prematurely ruled out the possibility of international involvement," said Jonathan Tucker of the Monterey Institute of International Studies and a former inspector with UNSCOM, the United Nations team that inspected Iraqi bioweapons arsenals. Among other failings, Tucker suggested, not enough attention is being focused on the initial attack on the Florida tabloid, whose offices are close to where suspected Sept. 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta and other hijackers were based. Atta is known to have made repeated inquiries about crop-dusters while he lived in Florida, suggesting an interest in biological agent dispersal.

Perhaps the most dramatic bit of speculation to have emerged from the investigation in recent weeks is the idea that the spores used in the attacks may have come from secret biowarfare programs run by either the Army or the CIA.

The Army's 800,000-acre Dugway Proving Ground, about 80 miles outside Salt Lake City, has a long history of biological and chemical warfare research and recently acknowledged that it has processed virulent anthrax spores into fine powders. Officials said the facility has made only small quantities of the deadly substance (they didn't say how much) and that it was all accounted for. Dugway officials said the preparations were for use in defensive studies that are legal under the provisions of the 1972 international Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, to which the United States is a signatory.

But Dugway's parsimonious acknowledgment served as a reminder that little is known about this nation's biowarfare programs.

"I don't think there is anyone in the U.S. government that has a complete understanding of the entire universe of classified and unclassified programs in this area," said Harris, the former NSC official. "What are we doing under the rubric of biodefense at military facilities and at contractor facilities? The revelations we've seen in the last week really raise some serious questions."

Nor is the Army alone in the field. The CIA, it turns out, has had a long-abiding interest in defensive research against anthrax and other biological warfare agents -- though it did not make even sketchy details of its program public until about a week ago.

In a brief statement released last week, the CIA said it "does not maintain any separate samples or stocks of agent at its own facilities," and that the terrorist spores "absolutely did not come" from CIA labs. But it also noted that, as with the Army, some of its work is conducted by outside contractors.

Among the contractors used by the Army and reportedly used by the CIA is Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus, Ohio, which has an entire division dedicated to perfecting aerosolization technologies. FBI agents have recently conducted numerous interviews with Battelle employees, law enforcement sources say.

Here again, the experts remain divided on the risks.

Alan Zelicoff, a bioweapons scientist who is familiar with the classified-research scene through his work at the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, discounted the possibility that a security breach at a secret program could have allowed weapons-grade anthrax to slip into a terrorist's hands. "I think this is a gigantic nonissue," he said.

But Philip Brachman, an anthrax expert at Emory University, said he was not sanguine. "Could someone have stolen some? We'd like to think it was top security, but we all know that no matter how tight that security is, there's often a way. That has to be of concern."

Despite all these lingering uncertainties, government officials and other experts said the anthrax attacks have taught the nation important lessons, and many improvements could be implemented without waiting for the perpetrator to be found.

Better tracking of shipments of dangerous pathogens, improved coordination among law enforcement and medical authorities, and a beefed-up public health infrastructure are just three that have already garnered lots of attention.

More generally, observers said, two overarching themes stand out. One is that just as biological systems are predictably unpredictable, mutating and adapting as they find the simplest solution to survival, so too when it comes to biological terrorism scientists must be prepared for the unexpected.

Scientists thought they knew a fair amount about how anthrax develops as a disease, how best to diagnose and treat it and how the spores behave in the environment. Much of that has proved false, especially in the context of the purified bacteria used in the attacks, which behave differently than they do in nature.

"Scientifically we've learned things that were absolutely 180 degrees different from the dogma when all this started," said CDC director Koplan. He and others stressed the importance of flexibility and open-mindedness among investigators as they chase the next terror-spawned outbreak.

The second lesson, some said, is that leaders must not underestimate the degree to which diseases in general, and epidemics in particular, frighten people -- and the importance of communicating useful information to reassure the public.

"Diseases tend to push our ancestral buttons," said the University of Minnesota's Osterholm. "And when there is a human perpetrator behind the disease, it not only pushes the buttons but it smashes them."

Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.