Little Progress In FBI Probe of Anthrax Attacks

The offices of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) were among recipients of letters that contained anthrax spores. Legislative office buildings were later shut down.
The offices of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) were among recipients of letters that contained anthrax spores. Legislative office buildings were later shut down. (By Rick Bowmer -- Associated Press)
By Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 16, 2005

Four years after the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks, one of the most exhaustive investigations in FBI history has yielded no arrests and is showing signs of growing cold as officials have sharply reduced the number of agents on the case.

FBI agents and postal inspectors have pursued leads on four continents, conducted more than 8,000 interviews and carried out dozens of searches of houses, laboratories and other locations. They traveled to Afghanistan twice in the past 16 months to follow up on tips that proved fruitless, said law enforcement sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.

Within law enforcement circles, some say the investigation, which is referred to as the Amerithrax probe, is in urgent need of a big break.

In the past year, the number of FBI agents on the case has dropped from 31 to 21, authorities said. During the same time, the number of postal inspectors has fallen from 13 to nine. The reward remains the same: $2.5 million for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

FBI officials said yesterday that investigators are still working diligently to find whoever was responsible for the anthrax-bacteria-laced mailings, which killed five people, sickened 17 others and led to the temporary shutdown of the House, Senate and Supreme Court buildings and numerous postal facilities. They said they are getting assistance from forensics experts and scientific researchers from law enforcement agencies, the intelligence community, university laboratories and private corporations.

"This globe-spanning investigation remains intensely active and broadly focused," said Debbie Weierman, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington field office. "The FBI and U.S. Postal Inspection Service remain steadfastly committed to the 22 victims of the attacks and to bring to justice those responsible."

The investigation has been so expansive that authorities now are in the process of taking inventory. The FBI and postal inspectors have spent months piecing together a voluminous internal report that will review the scope of the investigation and explore issues including what has been the prevailing theory: The culprit is a U.S. scientist who had access to the high-grade anthrax and the knowledge of how to physically manipulate it and use it as a weapon. That theory emerged early in the investigation and remains viable today, authorities said.

The report will include the names of various people deemed to be "persons of interest" over the years, as well as updates on the scientific tests. Authorities long ago narrowed down the type of anthrax to a strain called Ames but have been unable to identify the lab of origin. Much attention has focused on the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, housed at Fort Detrick in the Frederick area.

Authorities hope that the report, which is to be completed soon and forwarded to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, will provide a concise road map of the probe and help determine its future direction.

Current and former law enforcement authorities said investigators and prosecutors often prepare such reports in complex, high-profile cases that go unresolved for years.

"It doesn't sound like they're close to cracking the case," said Eric H. Holder Jr., a Washington lawyer who was deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration.

The magnitude of the anthrax investigation has parallels to another marathon FBI probe: the 18-year search for the Unabomber, who killed three people and injured 23 others in mail-bomb attacks. Agents pored over 53,000 hotline tips, bomb parts and massive computer databases, but the breakthrough did not come until the Unabomber issued a public manifesto. The document led to the 1996 arrest of Theodore Kaczynski, whose brother recognized his thinking and tipped off the FBI.

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