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Last Updated

20 Aug 2003

Source: New York Times, July 12, 2002.


The Anthrax Files


When someone expert in bio-warfare mailed anthrax last fall, it may not have been the first time he had struck.

So while the F.B.I. has been unbelievably lethargic in its investigation so far, any year now it will re-examine the package that arrived on April 24, 1997, at the B'nai B'rith headquarters in Washington D.C. The package contained a petri dish mislabeled "anthracks."

The dish did not contain anthrax. But a Navy lab determined that it was bacillus cereus, a very close, non-toxic cousin of anthrax used by the U.S. Defense Department.

Anybody able to obtain bacillus cereus knew how to spell "anthrax." An echo of that deliberate misspelling came last fall when the anthrax letters suggested taking "penacilin."

The choice of B'nai B'rith probably was meant to suggest Arab terrorists, because the building had once been the target of an assault by Muslim gunmen. In the same way, F.B.I. profilers are convinced that the real anthrax attacks last year were conducted by an American scientist trying to pin the blame on Arabs.

In a column on July 2 I wrote about "Mr. Z," an American bio-defense insider who intrigues investigators and whose career has been spent in the shadowy world of counterterror and intelligence. He denies any involvement in the anthrax attacks.

On the date that the perpetrator chose for the B'nai B'rith attack, a terrorism seminar was under way in the Washington area and Mr. Z seemed peeved that neither he nor any other bio-defense expert had been included as a speaker. The next day, Mr. Z sent a letter to the organizer saying that he was "rather concerned" at the omission and added: "As was evidenced in downtown Washington D.C. a few hours later, this topic is vital to the security of the United States. I am tremendously interested in becoming more involved in this area... ."

Over the next couple of years, Mr. Z used the B'nai B'rith attack to underscore the importance of his field and his own status within it. "Remember B'nai B'rith," he noted at one point. In examples he gave of how anthrax attacks might happen, he had a penchant for dropping Arab names.

The F.B.I. must be on top of the B'nai B'rith episode, right? Well, it was told about it months ago. But B'nai B'rith says it hasn't been asked about the incident by the F.B.I.

The authorities seem equally oblivious to another round of intriguing anthrax hoaxes in February 1999. As with last fall's anthrax letters, a handful of envelopes with almost identical messages were sent to a combination of media and government targets including The Washington Post, NBC's Atlanta office, a post office in Columbus, Ga. (next to Fort Benning, an Army base), and the Old Executive Office Building in Washington (where Mr. Z had given a briefing three months earlier).

I found a local policeman in Columbus willing to dig out his file on that 1999 anthrax hoax. There are several similarities with last fall's mailing. For example, one page of the 1999 letter says, in big, bold capitals: "WARNING: THIS BUILDING AND EVERYTHING IN IT HAS BEEN EXPOSED TO ANTHRAX. CALL 911 NOW AND SECURE THE BUILDING. OTHERWISE THE GERM WILL SPREAD."

Last fall's letters are also in bold capitals and use similar language patterns.

In contrast to the 1997 package with fake anthrax gelatin, the 1999 letters each contained a teaspoon of fake anthrax powder (roughly the same amount as of real anthrax in 2001). That's interesting because as of 1997, U.S. bio-defense scientists were working basically only with wet anthrax, while by 1999 some had experimented with making powders.

For example, Mr. Z apparently learned about powders during those two years. His 1999 résumé adds something missing from the 1997 version: "working knowledge of wet and dry BW [biological warfare] agents, large-scale production of bacterial, rickettsial and viral BW pathogens and toxins."

Two outside consultants used by the F.B.I. to examine documents in the anthrax case, Don Foster and Mark Smith, both say they have not been shown the 1997 or 1999 hoax letters. The 1999 envelopes carried stamps, which may have been licked.

It would be fascinating to know whose DNA that is. Perhaps when the F.B.I. is finished defending itself from charges of lethargy, it will check.