The Anthrax Case: What the FBI Knows

13 June 2002
Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, PhD

On February 5 I raised the question "Is the FBI Dragging Its Feet?"  Nearly four months later, the question is more urgent than ever.  In the interim I have largely avoided commenting on the situation, not wishing to interfere with investigation of promising leads the FBI had received.  Now, however, nearly everyone who has followed the situation closely-knowledgeable biodefense insiders, investigative reporters (who have turned up a great many pertinent facts that have not yet been reported), and interested outsiders like myself--knows who a likely perpetrator is. The FBI continues to claim that it has no suspects and few clues, but it continues to focus on biodefense scientists with anthrax experience.

The Available Evidence

All the information below has been in the hands of the FBI for a long time.  Some of it-but perhaps not all-is widely known.  It has been necessary, for obvious reasons, to describe some pieces of evidence in attenuated form, and to omit some altogether.

1.  The Anthrax Strain-All the genetic evidence presently available points to the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) as the source of the Ames strain anthrax in the letters.  Additional analyses may implicate some additional laboratories (that were originally supplied with the Ames strain by USAMRIID) as possible sources.

[Why did the FBI wait until March before collecting samples from all laboratories possessing the Ames strain, and why have they still not been analysed?  Was it inefficiency or did the FBI have reason to believe from the start that USAMRIID was the source?]

2.  Properties and Composition of the Anthrax Samples-A biodefense insider who has hands-on experience in weaponizing anthrax says the Daschle sample corresponds to state-of-the-art US anthrax preparations.  A number of other inside experts concur.  The perpetrator may well be one of those who helped perfect the US technique.  No other country is known to have comparable capability.

3.  US Official Statements-Ever since late October, soon after the anthrax letters were first recognized (Oct. 12), US officials have stated their belief that the attack was domestic.

[Either that belief was based entirely on the nature of the anthrax, or something more, not yet revealed, was known early on by officials.  The longer the investigation drags on without results, the more plausible becomes the question of a possible cover-up.]

4.  The Pool of Possible Suspects-Biodefense scientists have estimated that there are between 50-100 persons with the necessary expertise and access to do the job.  Of these, most could probably be readily eliminated on the basis of circumstances, current immunization, personality, etc., leaving, in the estimation of knowledgeable experts, a likely pool no larger than 10.

[Why has the FBI continued to cast a very broad net?]

5.  The Likely Suspect--Early in the investigation, a number of inside experts (at least five that I know about) gave the FBI the name of one specific person as the most likely suspect.  That person fits the FBI profile in most respects.  He has the right skills, experience with anthrax, up-to-date anthrax vaccination, forensic training, and access to USAMRIID and its biological agents through 2001.

6.  The Anthrax Letters-According to experts the handwriting is disguised, the text is intentionally "foreign," the letters show evidence of forensic expertise.

[An FBI consultant who was asked to analyse the letters months ago has not yet been supplied with writing examples by possible suspects, for purposes of comparison.]

7. Relevant False-Anthrax (Hoax) Letters-Following the anthrax letters, at least three of the five anthrax letter targets (NBC, NY Post, Sen. Daschle) were sent letters similar in handwriting and text to the anthrax letters but containing an innocuous powder.  (It is possible that the other two targets (National Observer, Sen. Leahy) were also sent hoax letters that were lost because of mail complications.)  Additional, similar hoax letters were also sent to two other media:  the NY Times and the St. Petersburg Times.  All but one of these five hoax letters were mailed BEFORE anything was known about the anthrax letters.  The likelihood that the hoax letters were coincidental is therefore small.

[But these hoax letters were assigned to a separate FBI task force, presumably investigating a large number of other, mostly irrelevant hoax letters, rather than to the anthrax task force.  The anthrax document analyst has not yet been given all the relevant hoax letters.  Even an FBI agent on the anthrax case has been unable to access some possibly relevant hoax letters.]

8.  The London Hoax Letter-The exceptional hoax letter, to Senator Daschle, was mailed from London in mid-November.  This could be an important piece of evidence, depending on the whereabouts and activities of likely suspects at that time.

[Whether there has been any follow-up on this clue is not known.  At the least, however, there is ancillary evidence that has not been pursued.  Furthermore, the FBI has not given this letter to the anthrax letter analysts.]

9.  The Accusatory Letter-On Sept. 21, three days after the first anthrax mailing and before any letters or anthrax cases were in the news, an anonymous typed letter was mailed to Quantico accusing an Egyptian-American scientist, formerly of USAMRIID, of plotting biological terrorism.  The accused scientist was quickly exonerated by the FBI.  The letter's writer displayed familiarity with work at USAMRIID and claimed to have formerly worked with the accused scientist.

[This letter is not part of the anthrax investigation!  Because it was received before the anthrax attacks were known, it was assigned to the Sept. 11 investigation, and the anthrax investigators have displayed no interest in it.  But whether it was sent by the anthrax perpetrator, a colleague of his, or someone else, the letter may constitute a significant piece of evidence.  The odds are high that it was written by a Federal scientist.  Admittedly, an anonymous letter of accusation is not a capital offense; is the FBI therefore squeamish about investigating an official?]

10.  The Suspect's Home and Computer-The FBI was warned early on that the Suspect probably prepared the anthrax on his own and that he might have cultures or equipment at his home.  Moreover, his computer/copier/fax may have been used to make the photocopied letters that were mailed with the anthrax.

[Although there was a "reasonable indication of criminal activity" when the FBI was advised to search, they did not do so until months later, with the permission of the Suspect.]

11.  Preparation of Anthrax Simulant-Did the Suspect prepare and provide certain government officials with powdered spores of B. globigii, an anthrax simulant?

 [If so, did the FBI investigate the properties of this material and the place where it was prepared?]

12.  Remote Location-The Suspect had access to a conveniently-located but remote location where activities could have been conducted without risk of observation.  According to insider experts, there are methods by which the perpetrator alone could have made the anthrax and filled the letters in such a location.  Details of the methods have been communicated to the FBI.

Recent information obtained by the NY Times (3 May 02) that the NBC and NY Post anthrax samples contained vegetative cells suggests that the perpetrator made two anthrax preparations:  one of lower quality, made hurriedly after Sept. 11 and mailed on Sept. 18; and another, more refined, mailed on Oct. 9.  The finding that the tape used to seal all the letters came from the same roll indicates that the containment set-up used for making the anthrax and filling the letters must have remained accessible from before Sept. 18 until close to Oct. 9 (otherwise the roll used in the first instance would have been destroyed in decontaminating the first set-up).  This suggests the perpetrator had confidence in his clandestine arrangements.

There is also evidence,which can't be cited publicly at this time, that the Suspect knew in October that the remote site was contaminated with anthrax.

[Did the FBI search this site as soon as they learned about it?]

13.  The Suspect's Whereabouts-Where was he between Sept. 11 and Oct. 9?

[There is reason to doubt that the Suspect's employer/colleagues were asked about this before the facts had faded from memory.]

14.  Bioterror Scenarios-It has been part of the Suspect's job to devise bioterror scenarios.   Some of these are on record.  He is known to have acted out at least one of them (in hoax form), perhaps as part of an assignment to test responses.  Some hoax events that have never been solved, including several hoax-anthrax events, also correspond to his scenarios and are consistent with his whereabouts.

[Are any of these past hoaxes being investigated in the context of the anthrax investigation?  The lack of access by anthrax investigators to hoax information suggests that the answer is no.]

15.  Secret Projects-The Suspect worked at USAMRIID at one time, probably in a secret project, with access to top secret agents.  He has also had other interesting connections.

[Has the FBI asked USAMRIID for his lab notebook from that period?  Did he have one?  Is there fear that the Suspect might divulge secret information, or even threaten to release a biological agent, if he were threatened with arrest?  Are DOD and CIA withholding information from the FBI about his relevant activities?  According to ABC News (Apr. 4) and The American Prospect (May 20), FBI investigators are concerned that the US military is not telling them all they need to know about secret biodefense programs.  There is also a rumor that DOD has conducted an internal investigation at USAMRIID to prevent leaks to the FBI.]

16.  Clique of Colleagues-The Suspect is part of a clique that includes high-level former USAMRIID scientists and high-level former FBI officials.  Some of these people may wish to conceal any suspicions they may have about the identity of the perpetrator, in order to protect programs and sensitive information.  This group very likely agreed with David Franz, former Commander of USAMRIID, when he said "I think a lot of good has come from it.  From a biological or a medical standpoint, we've now five people who have died, but we've put about $6 billion in our budget into defending against bioterrorism" (ABC News, 4 Apr. 02).

[By the end of May, not all of these people had been questioned by the FBI.  Will they be polygraphed?  Are the polygraph questions specific and tough?]

17.  Motivation-Late last summer the Suspect had a career setback that challenged his high ambitions and left him angry and depressed.  Quite possibly he interpreted the event as indicating lack of appreciation both for him and for the magnitude of the biological weapons threat.  Perhaps he decided to mount an anthrax attack that would kill few people, if any, but would wake up the country and prove that he was right.  Or perhaps the letters were actually an official assignment (after all, in the '60s DOD sprayed our own service men with nerve gas to test their protective equipment, according to Pentagon documents made public on May 23).

18.  Containment of the Suspect-Not long ago, actions were taken that could curtail the Suspect's career and separate him from sensitive matters; but there is also evidence for efforts by some officials to reverse the situation.

[Will the Suspect gradually fade from sight?  Has a deal been made?  Or will he be rehabilitated and rewarded for his service?  Will there be no prosecution, no public notice, no deterrence of similar acts by others in the future?]

19.  The FBI-The anthrax attack was a crime by an American against Americans.  Solving such crimes has been the FBI's mission.  Failure cannot be blamed on lack of foreign intelligence.

[In the face of hundreds of domestic anthrax hoaxes in recent years, the FBI told the Wall St. Journal (25 Mar. 02) that it was ready for other modes of bioattack, but never anticipated delivery by mail!  However, the FBI's behavioral analysis of the perpetrator, released in November 2001, indicated that he may have utilized the mail (without actual anthrax) for harassment on previous occasions.  Meanwhile, before Sept. 11 the Canadians carried out two studies of anthrax delivery by mail, and their results may have been available to Fort Detrick in advance of the attacks.]

The FBI has stated more than once that it insists upon 100% proof before making an arrest in this case-a very stringent requirement.  Why?   --Either the FBI is under pressure from DOD or CIA not to proceed because the Suspect knows too much and must be controlled forever from the moment of arrest;  [For the good of the country, is it really more important to hide      what he knows than to let justice be served?]
 --or the FBI is sympathetic to the views of the biodefense clique;
 --or the FBI really is as incompetent as it seems.

Fragmentation  of investigative activities and undue control of investigators by a less-informed hierarchy seem to be the hallmarks of the anthrax investigation.  This profoundly unscientific approach eliminates the cross-fertilization that can occur when seemingly isolated facts are brought together.  There has been a tendency to write off a direction of inquiry, or to swing radically in the opposite direction, on the basis of superficial results or incomplete data.  The likely outcome for the investigation is continued stalemate, marking time on the off-chance that an unknown informer will turn up with a smoking gun. Maybe time is not a factor in the typical FBI case, but in the anthrax case, rapid resolution is critical.  The significance of the anthrax attacks and our response to it cannot be overstated.  By breaking the taboo on the use of bioweapons, this event has engendered a future threat that could dwarf 9/11.