& World 4/15/02
leads, many dead ends
By Chitra Ragavan
Less than a sugar packet's worth of evidence, and not a whole lot of clues. That's what the Federal Bureau of Investigation's massive anthrax probe comes down to six months after a spurt of mystery mailings killed five people, sickened 17 others, paralyzed mail delivery, and terrified the nation. The FBI's aggressive–and some declare flawed–probe of the attacks has run into one dead end after another, causing frustration and disappointment. "As an investigation, it's a nightmare," one official tells U.S. News.
Whoever was behind last fall's anthrax attacks committed a so-far perfect crime. Five anthrax-laced letters were mailed to the Sun tabloid in Florida, the New York Post, television anchor Tom Brokaw, and Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The FBI has turned up no fingerprints, no match to the handwriting, no witnesses, and no source for the bacterium, Bacillus anthracis. It was so finely aerosolized that it floated through the fine weave of the envelopes, so lethal that it killed or sickened those who touched or inhaled it. Much of it dissipated or was lost, to the dismay of FBI investigators, leaving little beyond that sugar packet's worth–the .871 grams extracted from the Leahy letter. Its DNA is now being sequenced in hopes of identifying its lab source, though whether that will ever point to the killer is uncertain.
This investigation has been a grind for the bureau, which has deployed hundreds of agents at a cost of millions of dollars. Agents, many with science degrees, have run a list of 80 questions past nearly 5,000 "persons of interest"–including perhaps 600 thought to have specific expertise – and pursued thousands of tips and leads to no avail. They've more than doubled the reward to $2.5 million. They've obtained subpoenas, conducted surveillance, searches, and polygraphs, done swabs and forensics tests, knocked on doors. Yet they say they have drawn a blank on the most basic questions: who, how, and why.
Curious cases. Investigators say they still don't understand the case of Kathy Nguyen, 61, a New York hospital worker who suddenly developed symptoms in October and died from inhalation anthrax before she could be interviewed. Despite enormous effort by the FBI, how she became infected remains a mystery. More curious is the death of Ottilie Lundgren, 94, of Oxford, Conn. Investigators took nearly 450 swabs of her house, her closet, her garden, her mailbox and other places. "That's a lot of swabbing to not come up with even one spore," says a federal investigator.
Recently, one Connecticut health official theorized that Lundgren may have become infected from bulk mail (that she ripped before tossing out) possibly sorted on the contaminated Trenton, N.J., postal machines that processed at least two of the anthrax letters. But U.S. Postal Inspector Dan Mahalko says bulk mail gets presorted by the sender and is merely routed via loading docks of the Postal Service. Perhaps another false lead.
So far, say senior FBI officials, they've found no motives. They are proceeding on gut sense that could be wrong, using a psychological profile that could be flawed. Was Osama bin Laden behind it? Investigators believe not but haven't ruled it out. Was it a foreign power like Iraq? Most likely not, they say, but they're still pursuing that possibility. Was it a neo-Nazi extremist or an abortion foe? They don't think so but don't rule it out either.
What the FBI thinks is this: Whoever sent the letters probably lived in or knew the Trenton area where several of the letters were mailed. The perpetrator probably is a single, older white male with a grudge against the U.S. government. He may be a full-fledged or amateur scientist, who may not have intended to kill. Agents think this is so because he had meticulously taped the edges of the envelopes and included warnings of lethality plus advice on antibiotic cures. They surmise that he may have acted to send a message that the federal government should invest more in biodefense–or perhaps to somehow profit from that investment.
That theory has narrowed the massive scope of the FBI investigation. The bureau began with a daunting universe of more than 20,000 scientific labs including government defense facilities, biopesticide labs, and drug companies. The FBI says it is still interested in the possibility that, say, someone who knows how to make B. thuringiensis (a common grub- and beetle-killing organic pesticide) could also have made the killer anthrax bacterium. But they also are looking very closely at the government biodefense labs.
A confounding factor has been the scientific community's lax security practices in handling of pathogens, often traded informally at scientific conferences. Even the government's own U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Md., now both a source of expertise and one focus of the FBI investigation, has had repeated security breaches. And there were no records of which lab had what strain of anthrax. The FBI now has helped develop a database.
Lab work. The anthrax from the Leahy letter brought other challenges: so many tests to conduct but so little evidence. Scientists wanted to first irradiate the anthrax to destroy its virulence, to protect the investigators, but fretted that might skew the tests. So they experimented first on the pesticide B. thuringiensis because of its similarity to B. anthracis.
The next question was where to conduct the tests. The FBI lab expertise is in "human forensics," investigating conventional murders, says Mark Wheelis of the University of California-Davis, adding, "This is an entirely new area." FBI officials say they turned to premier federal labs for help and created a scientific advisory panel of 20 top scientists. But the FBI, often faulted for its secrecy, managed to anger and alienate many outside experts, especially in the biodefense community.
One of the FBI's strongest critics is Barbara Rosenberg of the Federation of American Scientists. She asserts that the FBI for months has known who did it, was foolish to cast such a wide net, waited too long without arresting a suspect, and has placed unrealistic hopes on the genetic testing. "It's a stalling mechanism," Rosenberg told U.S. News. "I suppose they don't want the suspects to think they're close on the trail." Rosenberg speculates that the FBI is hobbled by the secrecy involving the government's own biodefense programs. "I hope it's not because they are hesitant to point the finger at someone," she says. That infuriates investigators. "It's insulting anyone would suggest we are sitting on evidence," fumes one FBI official. "This is murder; five people are dead."
Rosenberg and some of her peers say they've named names to the FBI of who they think did it. The FBI says none has panned out (chemical analysis has shown the powder was not made using any known U.S. technique). Officials say Rosenberg is "misinformed and uninformed." The bureau also has pooh-poohed a recent memo written by two biodefense experts at Johns Hopkins University. They concluded that one of the hijackers who went to a Florida doctor last June seeking treatment of a "black lesion" or a "gash"–the description varies–probably suffered from cutaneous, or skin, anthrax. But the FBI says exhaustive testing for anthrax anywhere the hijackers were present came up empty.
In its investigation, the FBI has had other challenges. What if one of its scientific advisers is, in fact, the killer? Consider the story of William Patrick, patriarch of the nation's bioweapons program, owner of five patents for "weaponizing" anthrax. Patrick, who ran the offensive biological weapons program in the '60s at USAMRIID, says he wasn't approached until four months into the investigation. Feeling slighted, Patrick asked the FBI agent why it had taken so long. He says the agent replied, "Well, Mr. Patrick, you were a suspect." Patrick, 75, paused to digest that. "Well," he recalls telling the agent, "I suppose I was."
– With Douglas Pasternak,
Nell Boyce, David E. Kaplan, and Nancy Shute
Anthrax-laced letters killed five people and sickened 17, caused widespread alarm, challenged the nation's public-health system, and left FBI agents hunting for clues.
Oct. 5: Robert Stevens, a photo editor at American Media in Boca Raton, Fla., dies of inhalation anthrax.
Oct. 12: NBC announced that an aide to news anchor Tom Brokaw has cutaneous (skin) anthrax caused by a letter sent to NBC from Trenton, N.J.
Oct. 15: A letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) from Trenton tests positive for anthrax. In New York, the infant son of an ABC employee tests positive for cutaneous anthrax after she brings him to work.
Oct. 18: An aide to CBS News anchor Dan Rather and a New Jersey letter carrier test positive for skin anthrax. A day later, the New York Post says an employee has skin anthrax. Another New Jersey postal worker tests positive for skin anthrax.
Oct. 21-23: Two Washington D.C., postal workers, Thomas Morris and Joseph Curseen, die of inhalation anthrax. A postal worker in Hamilton, N.J., is hospitalized.
Oct. 25-28: A U.S. State Department employee and a New Jersey postal worker are diagnosed as having inhalation anthrax.
Oct. 31: A New York woman, Kathy T. Nguyen, dies of inhalation anthrax.
Nov. 16: FBI finds an anthrax letter addressed to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that is similar to the one received by Daschle.
Nov. 21: Ottilie W. Lundgren, a 94-year-old retiree, dies of inhalation anthrax in Connecticut. She is the last known anthrax victim.
& World 8/26/02
Circle of suspicion
Is the 'evidence' against an undeclared anthrax suspect just coincidences and a colorful past??
BY NELL BOYCE
When Steven J. Hatfill went to a Baton Rouge, La., mall last week to pick up some shaving supplies, he was shocked when strangers asked for his autograph. His former neighbors in Frederick, Md., have reportedly rooted through his garbage, looking for artifacts to sell on eBay. After months as the object of a whispering campaign, the biodefense expert is now in the hot seat as an undeclared suspect in last fall's deadly anthrax letter attacks.
In a dramatic news conference last week, Hatfill faced the media glare–and glared right back. "I acknowledge the right of the authorities and the press to satisfy themselves as to whether I am the anthrax mailer," he said. "This does not, however, give them the right to smear me and gratuitously make a wasteland of my life."
Months ago, scientists in the close-knit biowarfare community began suggesting that a disgruntled ex-employee at Fort Detrick, the nation's premier biodefense lab, was the most likely perpetrator. The press pounced on Hatfill, who once worked at Fort Detrick, the minute FBI agents searched his Maryland apartment and a Florida storage facility in late June. On August 1, the FBI searched his apartment again, this time with a criminal search warrant (unnecessary, his lawyer says), and last week agents showed his photo around Princeton, N. J., where a mailbox tested positive for anthrax. So far, the FBI admits, the investigation has netted no direct evidence against Hatfill.
In spite of the embarrassing precedent of Richard Jewell, the Atlanta security guard falsely suspected of the 1996 Olympics bombing, the agency says it's not ready to clear Hatfill. Yet what's been fueling suspicions thus far may add up to no more than a colorful past and a few coincidences:
Hatfill was in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) during the civil war of the late 1970s, when the white government fought black insurgents. In 1979, an outbreak of the skin form of anthrax sickened some 10,000 people, mostly black farmers. Many in Zimbabwe believe it was a bioattack by the government, but Martin Hugh-Jones, an anthrax expert at Louisiana State University, doubts that: "There's just no evidence whatsoever." Michael John "Mac" McGuinness, who ran the Rhodesian government's counterterrorism operations, says they wouldn't have welcomed an American's help anyway. "We didn't trust foreigners with that sort of thing," he says.
After medical school in Zimbabwe, Hatfill went to study and work in South Africa, where the apartheid-era government had an infamous bioweapons program led by Wouter Basson. Another coincidence? Basson says the FBI contacted him to ask about Hatfill, and he'd never heard of him. He says Hatfill had no contact with South African special forces or intelligence.
In 1999, while working at a Virginia defense company called SAIC, Hatfill commissioned a classified report that included an anthrax-by-mail scenario. But Ben Haddad, an SAIC spokesperson, says the report has been "misconstrued" and "is not about sending anthrax through the mail." Most of it dealt with decontamination after large attacks.
Hatfill reportedly failed a polygraph exam and lost his security clearance in August 2001, which some speculate could have made him angry. His friend and spokesman, Patrick Clawson, says his clearance has been put on hold rather than revoked, and the polygraph result is under appeal. In March, Hatfill lost his SAIC job–he blames intrusive media inquiries.
Hatfill's unpublished novel describes a biological attack on Congress. But the terrorist in the novel uses plague, not anthrax, and disperses it with a sprayer, not by mail. "There's nothing similar to what has happened," says Hatfill's friend Roger Akers, who edited it.
The return address on anthrax letters sent to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy was "4th Grade, Greendale School." Greendale is a suburb of Harare, Zimbabwe's capital.
Bloodhounds that had sniffed gauze rubbed on the anthrax letters reportedly got excited in Hatfill's apartment. Could dogs really pick up any scent from a 10-month-old envelope that the terrorist likely handled with gloves? Drew La France of the National Police Bloodhound Association says a jury wouldn't convict on dogs alone: "Have bloodhounds made mistakes? Sure."
The anthrax suspect was rumored to have a country retreat where visitors were given the antibiotic Cipro. Hatfill's friends wonder if the story can be traced to a weekend last October at a vacation house in the Virginia mountains. The party guests naturally talked about the anthrax attacks. "I was joking with Steve at dinner. I said, 'We're all your friends. Why don't we have Cipro?' " remembers George Borsari, an attorney who owns the house. "He said, 'I can get it for you if you really want it, but you don't need it.' "
In November, Senator Daschle's office received a hoax letter much like the real one, postmarked in London. Hatfill was at a British biodefense institute that month but has said he wasn't in London.
Hatfill apparently cultivated a flamboyant, swashbuckling manner. "He's a good person to suspect because he's off the wall," says Ed Rybicki, a biologist at the University of Cape Town, where Hatfill pursued a master's degree. Another professor in South Africa recalls Hatfill as "very intelligent. Very driven. And very unconventional. . . . He talked a lot about guns when he would go out to the pub." He boasted of military exploits in places like Vietnam, although public records show only short military stints. He also claimed to have worked with a Rhodesian commando unit, but McGuinness says he had a minor, civilian role. Last week, Hatfill would say only: "I do not claim to have lived a perfect life."
The FBI has seized Hatfill's travel records and datebooks, and new clues may yet come to light. But if not, Hatfill may be no more than a larger-than-life man whose past seems to hint at dark secrets. In the world of bioweapons researchers, that's not so unusual. As one insider notes wryly: "There's a lot of strange people who work in biodefense."
With Rena Singer in Johannesburg and Mark Mazzetti, Angie Cannon, and Chitra Ragavan in Washington, D.C.
& World Report
September 25, 2006
I've criticized the Washington Post in the past for running lead stories on the front page that were not worthy of attention–particularly in the Monday paper, which is the recipient of a lot of stories that have been languishing on the in-type list for months. But today the Post led with a story that I think deserves the attention the paper has given it. "FBI Is Casting a Wider Net in Anthrax Attacks" is the headline. The story suggests that the FBI investigation of the anthrax attacks that occurred almost exactly five years ago–five years ago!–was pitifully incompetent. The first three paragraphs report that the initial laboratory tests of the anthrax were inaccurate. "Countless scientific tests at numerous laboratories" have shown that the anthrax was "far less sophisticated than originally believed" and undercut the FBI's theory that it must have come from a government scientist.
The sixth paragraph says that the FBI "has assigned fresh leadership to the case"–a sure sign that FBI leaders have concluded that the original investigation was botched. The story doesn't say when this reassignment was made. But it does tell us that the finding that the anthrax was not sophisticated was announced by an FBI scientist in the August issue of the science journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Presumably the article appeared sometime in July (how long has this story been on the in-type list?) and was written sometime before that.
Other interesting information comes from "one knowledgeable scientist who spoke on the condition that he not be identified by name because the investigation is continuing" and from unnamed "scientists":
Moreover, scientists say, the particular strain of anthrax used in the attacks has turned to out to be a less significant clue than first believed. The highly virulent Ames strain was first isolated in the United States and was the basis for the anthrax weapons formerly created by the United States. The use of the Ames strain in the 2001 attack was initially seen as a strong clue linking the terrorist to the U.S. biodefense network.
But the more the FBI investigated, the more ubiquitous the Ames strain seemed, appearing in labs around the world including nations of the former Soviet Union.
"Ames was available in the Soviet Union," said former Soviet bioweapons scientist Sergei Popov, now a biodefense expert at George Mason University. "It could have come from anywhere in the world."
It could have come from anywhere in the world. There's the real lead. As I recall earlier stories on the anthrax investigation, the FBI was focusing on U.S. scientists and especially on former Army scientist Steven Hatfill, who, as the Post notes, has never been charged and is now suing the Justice Department for leaks (notably to the New York Times's Nicholas Kristof) that damaged his reputation. The FBI evidently put great stock in a profile developed by one Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, who said the perpetrator was a CIA contact worker and an expert in biowarfare: the lone-scientist theory. The Post story doesn't mention this. Here's one description of the profile the FBI developed:
The FBI profile of the anthrax killer originally described an adult male with a science background who worked in a laboratory where he had access to anthrax. Profiles often change during an investigation, but the FBI refuses to discuss any revisions it may have made. Still, agents say they believe they are looking for one culprit. . . .
There is a finite number of people with the expertise to have produced the finely ground anthrax spores found in the letters. Agents have reduced that number to about 30 to 40 scientists.
It's pretty convenient to narrow down your list of suspects to "30 or 40 scientists." And evidently the FBI homed in on Hatfill, who seems like kind of a strange guy. But it also seems likely that the FBI's concentration on the profile suspects caused it to ignore or scant other possibilities–possibilities that have always seem likelier to me.
Those possibilities include some connection between the anthrax terrorists and the September 11 hijackers. Remember that a Florida doctor reported that he treated someone he thought was one of the September 11 hijackers for what he concluded, after the anthrax attacks, looked like anthrax-caused lesions. Remember that one of the anthrax packages was sent to the offices of a Florida publisher near the place where some of the hijackers lived. And remember that the anthrax arrived only days after September 11.
Match that last fact against the FBI profile. A lone scientist has been working to develop anthrax that he can send in envelopes–work that presumably takes many months if not many years. Then he just happens to have it ready in time to send the letters a few days after September 11. Seem likely? Not to me.
If you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The FBI is a (mostly) domestic investigative agency, seeking evidence that can stand up in court. It seeks to narrow down lists of suspects, because that makes investigations much easier. The definitive comment comes from Sen. Charles Grassley, a frequent FBI critic, at the end of the Post article:
"If the FBI's investigation has become a cold case, then it's time for [FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III] to acknowledge that and take steps to deal with it," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a frequent critic of the FBI. "I'm concerned that the FBI may have spent too much time focusing [on] one theory of what happened and too little effort on the other possibilities."
I hope our foreign intelligence agencies have been trying to track the anthrax perpetrators down. My own guess–and it is only a guess–is that the anthrax came from some terrorist-supporting government that had been developing chemical weapons and was transmitted through al Qaeda terrorists. Why haven't we suffered more anthrax attacks since then? Perhaps because the perpetrators observed that the death toll was very low.
But that's not to say that the death toll from chemical or germ warfare must always be low. Three books that I have read recently have led me to the observation that the biggest killer in human history has not been war but disease. Jack Weatherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World points out how the Mongolian conquests resulted in a vast free-trade area across the Eurasian continent in the 13th and 14th centuries, roughly from 1250 to 1350–the age of Marco Polo. John Kelly's The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time notes that this helped to create a "friendly climate" for epidemic disease. He also points out that global warming beginning around 800 did so, too, but was otherwise benign. "Rather than producing catastrophe, as many current theorists of global warming predict, the warm weather produced abundance. England and Poland became wine-growing countries, and even the inhabitants of Greenland began experimenting with vineyards. More important, the warm weather turned marginal farmland into decent farmland, and decent farmland into good farmland." That led to a population increase, almost an explosion in the 12th and 13th centuries; meanwhile, the Mongolian empire and the trade routes across Eurasia opened up the avenue for bubonic plague, which killed perhaps one third of the people of Europe and some unknowably high percentage in India and China. Insulated from that plague were the peoples of the Americas, but as Charles Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus points out, they were vulnerable to the diseases brought by the Europeans who began arriving in 1492. (I've written about this book before.) Indeed, in most of North America the diseases arrived before the explorers and settlers. The English, French, and Spanish found an almost empty continent, but not long before it had been filled with people. The disease kill-off was enormous, though exactly how enormous we do not and probably cannot know.
Could disease–disease spread by terrorists–result in vast human kill-off again? Germs, by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William Broad, suggests we can't rule it out. It's something to think about, now that the FBI has conceded that the anthrax attacks of 2001 "could have come from anywhere in the world."
Posted at 06:14 PM by Michael Barone
Khalid Sheik Mohammed Confesses
The Pentagon has released a report on the confessions of captured al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
He claimed in hearings that began last Friday that he was responsible for planning 29 attacks, not all of which occurred. They include the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the attempt by Richard Reid to blow up a trans-Atlantic airliner, and assassination attempts on Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Pope John Paul II. I believe I also heard Shepard Smith mention on the air that KSM admitted responsibility for planning anthrax attacks; I don't see that on the Fox News website at this moment.
This is big news. KSM had been held at a secret CIA prison outside this country and then was transferred to Guantánamo. We have been hearing laments from various quarters about the poor chaps confined to CIA prisons and Gitmo and how they didn't have all the rights that criminal suspects and defendants have in the United States.
KSM's confession tells us what we are up against. Al Qaeda's leaders are monsters who have been plotting to bring great destruction on us. There is no reason to believe that those not captured aren't eager to continue doing so. Many of our leaders and people are ready to retreat out of Iraq and seem to suppose that doing so will leave us without major problems in the world. KSM's testimony ought to convince them that that's not true. And the monstrous nature of the attacks he has apparently admitted planning suggests that we really do need secret CIA prisons and Guantánamo. What we are facing is not domestic crime (which is the way the 1993 WTC bombing was treated) but the possibility of repeated attacks with whatever weapons these people can get their hands on.
The mention of anthrax–if it was mentioned–is particularly disturbing. I've blogged about this before and noted that the FBI says it hasn't the faintest idea who launched the anthrax attacks in the weeks just following September 11. Was al Qaeda involved? Or state-sponsored terrorists? If they were, why haven't there been more anthrax attacks? Is it because the sponsors were disappointed that the attacks didn't kill and terrorize more people? So far as I can tell, no one on our side has answers to these troubling questions.