STILL NO ARRESTS IN ANTHRAX PROBE



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22 Aug 2003

Source: Washington Post, August 4, 2002.

Still No Arrests in Anthrax Probe, but 'Progress' Is Noted

By Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post Staff Writer

Ten months after the worst biological warfare attacks in U.S. history, the FBI says it is making progress in the case, but there have been no arrests, and the trail of scientific evidence that has carried the investigation for most of this year appears to be petering out.

The FBI, generally with prior consent, has questioned and polygraphed several dozen scientists and biodefense specialists and has searched their homes in an effort to find the disaffected American loner who its profilers say is the most likely author of the attacks.

Interest heightened again last week when investigators used the first criminal search warrant in the case to revisit the Frederick apartment of Steven J. Hatfill, singling out the former Army researcher for the second time from a floating list of about 30 "persons of interest."

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III insisted that "we're making progress on the case," and law enforcement sources signaled that a second search, indeed, meant increased interest in Hatfill. But Hatfill was neither arrested nor implicated in the letter-borne anthrax attacks that killed five people and infected 13 others in October and November.

The FBI declined to discuss the case, but knowledgeable officials say investigators are continuing to focus their efforts on a lone American attacker with a scientific background sophisticated enough to culture, prepare and deliver weapons-quality anthrax spores.

"I feel myself that it's domestic," said Louisiana State University anthrax researcher Martin Hugh-Jones. "In the whole world, there are probably only 200 serious anthrax researchers, and of that number, less than half a dozen would have the skill and opportunity to make dry powders."

But others suggested that the universe of suspects may be much larger, while still others wondered why the attacks could not have originated overseas. "There is a clear focus on people in the [U.S.] bioweapons complex," said one knowledgeable source. "But I have not heard anything to say this is clearly the work of an American scientist."

Up to this point, most of the visible progress in the case has been provided by scientists, who sequenced the anthrax genome used to identify the attack spores as examples of the "Ames strain" of anthrax bacteria developed by the Army at Fort Detrick.

This, said one knowledgeable expert, "was no small feat," not only because no one had ever sequenced the genome before, but also because it gave the suspect spores a U.S. origin and differentiated them from more than 1,000 samples of other strains from around the world and 300 from North America alone.

Then, in a second technological tour de force, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory used radiocarbon dating -- most commonly applied to archaeological artifacts -- to determine that the anthrax spores had been cultured within the past two years.

But beyond these two achievements, scientists are doubtful that investigators could get much closer to the source of the attack spores. Most experts were willing to talk about the investigation on the condition that their names not be used.

One knowledgeable researcher said the next step in the genetic analysis is to "go to the labs" known to have obtained Ames samples from Fort Detrick and compare the genomes of their samples to those of the attack spores.

One law enforcement official confirmed that tests are still underway on the spores recovered from a letter to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). "There is still optimism that the science will narrow this thing down further," he said. But he acknowledged that "the science is only going to take us so far."

The problem for analysts is that while they can compare genetic material from different samples, or "isolates," of the Ames strain, they do not yet know how to interpret the mutations that can occur across generations of a bacterium, or even among different bacteria from the same lab and strain.

Still, further analysis can benefit the investigation by ruling out various laboratories as the source of the anthrax spores. "Most science is not about proving something," said a scientist familiar with the research. "It's about disproving something." In this context, the DNA evidence becomes "one piece of a larger picture," the scientist said. "The FBI can say that a suspect has been in a particular lab, and we can say that the analysis does not rule out this lab."

This sort of methodology has put scientists at odds with law enforcement officials, and especially with the public, who want to look at the evidence and see an arrow pointing at someone.

Scientists are more comfortable clearing away chaff until only one kernel remains, a messy process, researchers noted, since the study of anthrax's forensic possibilities is in its infancy. As the probe has proceeded, sharp differences have arisen among scientists over the meaning of some of the data.

Ken Alibek, a former deputy director of the Soviet bioweapons program who now runs an Alexandria biotechnology firm, suggested that growing and weaponizing the spores may not have been as difficult as investigators have portrayed them. He noted that one anti-government militant for several years has been selling copies of a self-published book that describes how to make a biological weapon. The methodology is "primitive," said Alibek. "But just because you have a sophisticated product doesn't mean the technique has to be sophisticated."

Alibek also questioned the view that the presence of silica in the spore mixture showed a sophisticated effort to keep the spores from picking up an electric charge, suggesting, instead, that "it could simply be the residue of silica gel to dry the spores."

Most of all, however, Alibek and others do not understand why the probe has consistently focused on a domestic lone terrorist, when nothing in the scientific analysis points necessarily in that direction.

"If it was Ames, it could be an insider, but my previous experience says we should be cautious," Alibek said. "If a foreign country was involved, they would never use the strain from their own country."

Thus far, the most intriguing suggestion of a foreign anthrax source emerged from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where a physician in June 2001 treated Sept. 11 hijacker Ahmed Ibrahim A. Al Haznawi for a lesion on his lower left leg.

In November, the doctor reexamined his notes and concluded that he may have been dealing with a case of cutaneous anthrax. He conferred with scientists at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, who submitted a memo to the FBI saying that the lesion was "completely consistent" with cutaneous anthrax.

The memo does not appear to have influenced investigators' thinking. Officials who have been briefed by the FBI said investigators are "not ruling out" a foreign source but are tilting sharply toward a domestic attacker because the anthrax strain is domestic and because the anthrax letters were mailed from New Jersey, pointing to a plot that was hatched and executed within the United States.

In particular, officials have concentrated on the corps of elite specialists working in biodefense. Besides academics and civilian biotech experts, these include government anthrax experts and scientists familiar with weaponizing biological pathogens.

"I was polygraphed," Alibek said. "Everybody who has knowledge about this was polygraphed." In fact, several scientists noted that many of the potential suspects are researchers involved either in the anthrax investigation or in stepped-up biodefense programs.

Hatfill, whose apartment was searched twice, has been hired at $150,000 per year to train first responders in biodefense in a Justice Department-funded program at Louisiana State University.

One group that has been little consulted, however, is the dwindling corps of retired scientists who worked in the offensive biological weapons program, which was shut down by President Richard M. Nixon in 1973.

"I still read the journals," said retired microbiologist Bill Walter, 76, of Lake Placid, Fla., who stays in touch with friends in the Frederick area and would like to help the FBI with the investigation.

"I read where they haven't left a stone unturned," said Walter, who has had no contact with the FBI. "There's about eight of us stones that are still unturned. It's a joke."

Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this article.