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Last Updated

15 Jan 2003

Source: Washington Post, February 26, 2002.

FBI Still Lacks Identifiable Suspect in Anthrax Probe

Investigators Continue to Focus on People Connected to Labs That Had Strain Found in Letters

By Dan Eggen and Joby Warrick, Washington Post Staff Writers

The FBI has conducted anthrax tests in the homes, offices and vehicles of about a dozen people who have been investigated in the deadly anthrax mailings, but the individuals were cleared of suspicion after the tests came back negative, according to officials familiar with the government's probe.

The tests, which use swabs to detect the presence of anthrax spores, were conducted with the consent of those under investigation and did not require search warrants, authorities said.

Disclosure of the searches comes amid increasing concern on Capitol Hill and among some scientists over an apparent lack of progress in the FBI's anthrax probe, which has yielded no firm suspects despite thousands of interviews conducted since the deaths of five people last fall.

Investigators keep a running list of as many as 20 people who are under scrutiny at any time. But no individual has remained on the list for more than a month, and none has emerged as a solid suspect, authorities said.

"It's frustrating, because we don't have a target yet," said one official familiar with the case. "It's not stalled ... but there are no easy answers or instant gratification."

FBI investigators continue to focus particular attention on former and current employees at laboratories and research facilities that have had samples of the Ames strain of anthrax, which has been identified as the type contained in letters mailed last fall.

At one lab alone, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Md., FBI agents have conducted hundreds of interviews, officials said. One FBI agent now is assigned full time to USAMRIID to supervise a hastily formed reference library of anthrax strains.

Investigators have determined that fewer than 20 labs possessed live cultures of the Ames strain, and all but three of the labs are in the United States. The FBI last week dispatched agents to a Canadian defense lab with anthrax stocks. More visits are planned to research agencies in Britain and France.

Letters containing anthrax spores were mailed through a New Jersey postal distribution facility in September and October to Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the New York Post and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. Those letters, and at least one other suspected letter that was never recovered, have been linked to deaths in Connecticut, Florida, New York and Washington, D.C.

FBI profilers have said the culprit is likely an older man, a loner living in the United States who has substantial scientific and laboratory skills. He has no ties to organized terrorists but sought to use the Sept. 11 terror attacks as cover for the mailings, according to the profilers.

At least nine research institutions are assisting with the analysis of the lethal powder used in the anthrax attacks. Various experts are studying the genetic structure of the bacteria and looking for chemical and physical evidence that might help pinpoint where and how the powder was made.

Tests so far have shown a match between spores used in the attacks and a strain of anthrax used in U.S. biodefense research since the mid-1980s.

With no suspects in sight, the FBI has doubled its reward to $2.5 million, mailed fliers to 500,000 New Jersey residents appealing for help and sent letters requesting assistance to 40,000 members of the American Society for Microbiology.

But the FBI and outside scientists are only now beginning their analysis of the largest single repository of anthrax spores from the attacks: the contents of the Leahy letter, which was discovered Nov. 16 in a barrel of quarantined mail. Authorities say the highly sophisticated tests have been delayed to allow the design of elaborate protocols that will ensure that the analyses are scientifically accurate and legally defensible.

"You can't be in a hurry on this stuff," one official said yesterday.

Law enforcement officials said Army scientists are cooperating closely with investigators, although the relationship is awkward because USAMRIID employees are also regarded as potential suspects. "We are not blinded to the fact that someone in our midst could have been involved," one official said.

Speculation that the FBI may be close to cracking the case has increased in the past week, in large part because of the public comments of Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a professor at the State University of New York-Purchase and a prominent bioterrorism expert.

In a series of widely circulated commentaries for the Federation of American Scientists, Rosenberg has contended that the FBI likely knows the identity of the terrorist but is "dragging its feet," possibly because the suspect "knows something that he believes to be sufficiently damaging to the United States to make him untouchable by the FBI."

In a speech at Princeton University last week, Rosenberg said the FBI was focusing on a single scientist who had been fired twice from USAMRIID and was now working for a defense contractor in the Washington area. She said she learned of the suspect from law enforcement officials, whom she declined to name.

FBI officials over the last week have flatly discounted Rosenberg's claims, which were included in a Washington Times article yesterday reporting that a suspect had been identified. Numerous Bush administration officials, including White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, yesterday called the report erroneous and said the FBI was not close to identifying a suspect.

Law enforcement officials said they are working on myriad possibilities, and believe they are making progress in identifying potential suspects among hundreds of current and former employees of laboratories with Ames anthrax stores.

Some have been investigated because they had access to labs that possessed the Ames strain. Even a negative result on an anthrax swab test doesn't rule someone out entirely, sources said. "It just knocks them aside for now and gives us a level of confidence" that the person was not involved in the attacks, one official said.

Sources close to the investigation noted that people whose homes have been swabbed for anthrax live throughout the United States, including the Washington area.

Other names and leads have been received by the FBI through its Web site or through tips to field offices, officials said.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III is briefed on the case twice a day, authorities said. Agents are also nearly finished with an initial sweep of people associated with the U.S. biological defense program.