FBI Is Casting A Wider Net in Anthrax Attacks
Monday, September 25, 2006
Five years after the anthrax attacks that killed five people, the FBI is now convinced that the lethal powder sent to the Senate was far less sophisticated than originally believed, widening the pool of possible suspects in a frustratingly slow investigation.
The finding, which resulted from countless scientific tests at numerous laboratories, appears to undermine the widely held belief that the attack was carried out by a government scientist or someone with access to a U.S. biodefense lab.
What was initially described as a near-military-grade biological weapon was ultimately found to have had a more ordinary pedigree, containing no additives and no signs of special processing to make the anthrax bacteria more deadly, law enforcement officials confirmed. In addition, the strain of anthrax used in the attacks has turned out to be more common than was initially believed, the officials said.
As a result, after a very public focus on government scientists as the likely source of the attacks, the FBI is today casting a far wider net, as investigators face the daunting prospect of an almost endless list of possible suspects in scores of countries around the globe.
"There is no significant signature in the powder that points to a domestic source," said one scientist who has extensively studied the tan, talc-like material that paralyzed much of Washington in the deadliest bioterrorism attack in U.S. history.
The FBI says it remains optimistic that it will find whoever killed five people -- two of them from the Washington area -- in a series of bioterrorism-by-mail attacks that rocked a nation still in shock from the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes. The bureau has assigned fresh leadership to the case -- Special Agent Ed Montooth -- and retains a full-time investigative force of 17 agents and 10 postal inspectors. "There is confidence the case will be solved," said Joseph Persichini Jr., acting assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington field office.
The prevailing views about the anthrax powder, meanwhile, have been coalescing among a small group of scientists and FBI officials over several years but rarely have been discussed publicly. In interviews and a recently published scientific article, law enforcement authorities have acknowledged that much of the conventional wisdom about the attacks turned out to be wrong.
Specifically, law enforcement authorities have refuted the widely reported claim that the anthrax spores had been "weaponized" -- specially treated or processed to allow them to disperse more easily. They also have rejected reports that the powder was milled, or ground, to create finer particles that can penetrate deeply into the lungs. Such processing or additives might have suggested that the maker had access to the recipes of biological weapons made by the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.
In fact, the anthrax powder used in the 2001 attacks had no additives, writes Douglas J. Beecher, a scientist in the FBI laboratory's Hazardous Materials Response Unit, in an article in the science journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
"A widely circulated misconception is that the spores were produced using additives and sophisticated engineering supposedly akin to military weapons production," Beecher writes in the journal's August edition, in what is believed to be the most expansive public comment on the nature of the powder by any FBI official. "The idea is usually the basis for implying that the powders were inordinately dangerous compared to spores alone."
The FBI would not allow Beecher to be interviewed about his article. But other scientists familiar with the forensic investigation echoed his description. Whoever made the powder produced a deadly project of exceptional purity and quality -- up to a trillion spores per gram -- but used none of the tricks known to military bioweapons scientists to increase the lethality of the product. Officials stressed that the terrorist would have had to have considerable skills in microbiology and access to equipment.
"It wasn't weaponized. It was just nicely cleaned up," said one knowledgeable scientist who spoke on the condition he not be identified by name because the investigation is continuing. "Whoever did it was proud of their biology. They grew the spores, spun them down, cleaned up the debris. But there were no additives."