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.
The anthrax attacks took place just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Spore-laden letters were mailed in pre-stamped envelopes in September and October of 2001 to the offices of then-Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) as well as media outlets in Florida and New York.
Two District postal workers, a Florida photojournalist, a New York hospital worker and an elderly Connecticut woman died. At least 17 post offices and public office buildings were contaminated. Including cleanup costs, an FBI document put the damage in excess of $1 billion.
Over the years, officials have publicly identified only one "person of interest," and that was in August 2002: Steven J. Hatfill, a physician and bioterrorism expert who worked at Fort Detrick from 1997 to 1999. Hatfill, who has not been charged, has denied any involvement and filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department and then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft.
"He remains innocent today as he was four years ago," said Thomas G. Connolly, Hatfill's attorney. "They were getting enormous pressure, and a way to alleviate the pressure was to offer someone up, and that person happened to be Dr. Hatfill. That caused enormous harm to Dr. Hatfill. It didn't advance their investigation one iota."
Investigators have issued more than 5,000 subpoenas and conducted interviews and research throughout the United States as well as in Europe, Asia and Africa. Two years ago, the FBI spent about $250,000 and three weeks draining a pond in Frederick, acting on a theory that someone might have discarded materials there. The pond yielded nothing useful, authorities said.
In the past year, investigators have tried to follow up on and eliminate as many leads as possible. In case the matter ever goes to trial, they want to be able to counter any defense assertions that they failed to explore alternative scenarios or suspects, sources have said.
Authorities received information, for example, from at least one detainee at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that there was an anthrax storage facility in the Kabul area, sources said. Because the deadly letters contained the Ames anthrax spores, manufactured in the United States, authorities entertained the possibility that they had been removed from a U.S. lab and transported overseas.
Agents checked the Kabul area in May 2004 but came up empty, sources said. In November, on additional information, agents spent weeks searching an area in the Kandahar mountains, several hundred miles outside of Kabul, but found nothing, sources said.
Meanwhile, in the United States, FBI agents and scientists have been working to match the gene sequence of the mailed anthrax spores to a specific laboratory. They remain particularly interested in such laboratories as Fort Detrick, Louisiana State University and Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
An article published in May in a journal of the American Society of Microbiology and written by a number of scientists, including Bruce Budowle of the FBI laboratory in Quantico, suggested that scientists had still not pinpointed the lab of origin. "Grand leaps in sequencing technology to increase speed, to reduce costs and to maximize efficiency for forensic analysis are needed," the article said.
Clare Fraser, president of the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, one of the authors of the article, said of the science: "It's breaking new ground. There's still a lot of work to be done. But I don't think it's impossible to pinpoint."
Even if the test is successful, some scientists and law enforcement authorities caution, it may be of limited benefit because the nation's labs kept poor records of anthrax stocks and of those who passed through the facilities.
In light of the obstacles facing investigators, some relatives of the victims are wondering if the anthrax case will ever be solved. "It's been out there too long. I don't think they're going to find out" who did it, said Thomas L. Morris III of Suitland, whose father, D.C. postal worker Thomas Morris Jr., died of inhalation anthrax in October 2001.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.