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Last Updated

27 Dec 2002

Source: Newsweek, April 8, 2002.


A Sophisticated Strain of Anthrax

by Mark Hosenball, John Barry and Daniel Klaidman

Last fall FBI profilers announced that the person who sent deadly anthrax-laced letters to news organizations and Capitol Hill was probably a grudge-bearing, sociopathic male laboratory nerd with knowledge of the geography of Trenton, N.J. But a new scientific analysis sent to top government officials suggests the anthrax attacker may be a scientific whiz so smart that he succeeded in making a “weaponized” form of the bacterium more sophisticated than any previously known.

Government sources tell NEWSWEEK that the secret new analysis shows anthrax found in a letter addressed to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy was ground to a microscopic fineness not achieved by U.S. biological-weapons experts. The Leahy anthrax -- mailed in an envelope that was recovered unopened from a Washington post office last November -- also was coated with a chemical compound unknown to experts who have worked in the field for years; the coating matches no known anthrax samples ever recovered from biological-weapons producers anywhere in the world, including Iraq and the former Soviet Union. The combination of the intense milling of the bacteria and the unusual coating produced an anthrax powder so fine and fluffy that individually coated anthrax spores were found in the Leahy envelope, something that U.S. bioweapons experts had never seen.

Hopes that the anthrax genetic code would point to its lab of origin are fading. Insiders now say that the Leahy strain traces back to an anthrax epidemic in Texas cattle in the 1970s, samples from which were very widely distributed (see "The Ames Strain"). The new chemical findings are so puzzling that sources now fear the FBI’s already slow-moving investigation could be set back still further. Using psychological profiles and earlier scientific analyses, the FBI had begun to focus on the possibility that the anthrax letters might have been sent out by a disgruntled scientist or technician who once worked on a U.S. government biological-weapons program. Court records indicate that over the last several years, budget cuts and layoffs at Fort Detrick, the Frederick, Md., Army base which houses the U.S. government’s main germ-weapons lab, produced a platoon of disgruntled former employees with microbiological expertise and possible grievances against the government. But investigators question whether any laid-off U.S. government scientist is able enough -- and has access to the right equipment -- to produce the unusual substance found in the Leahy letter.

One alternative to the theory that the anthrax was produced by a brilliant loner is that it came from a team of scientists with access to sophisticated labs -- the kind of team and labs that could be assembled only by a government. U.S. investigators can’t rule out the possibility that a foreign government, perhaps Iraq but more likely the former U.S.S.R., could have put together such a team. They have no leads on its possible existence, however. Another possibility is that an American scientific psycho bought the anthrax from a foreign government team. But there is no evidence to back this theory, either.