Not much history to guide inquiries

Complex probe hunts clues on global, microscopic levels

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 17, 2001|By Scott Shane and Michael James | Scott Shane and Michael James,SUN STAFF

As the government hunts for the perpetrators of the first deadly anthrax attack in history, investigators are using everything from old-fashioned shoe-leather police work to cutting-edge DNA testing to break the case.

An army of criminal sleuths, postal inspectors, microbiologists, psychologists and spies has been unleashed in a frantic quest for answers to critical questions: Was the anthrax mailed to Florida, New York, Washington and possibly Nevada as part of a single, coordinated assault, or might there be more than one attacker?

Was the anthrax mailed by the terrorist group responsible for the Sept. 11 hijackings, a hostile foreign government or a lone American nut?

And, possibly most important: Are the germs that have so far killed one person and sickened several others a precursor of more and possibly far bigger anthrax attacks?

"It's an incredibly difficult and complex investigation on so many levels," said Lee Colwell, who served as deputy chief of the FBI during the 1980s. "And on top of it all, you have to do the investigation during a state of national panic."

The unprecedented nature of the attacks and the rarity of human anthrax cases mean there's not much history to guide the investigators' inquiries.

Their only hard evidence is skimpy: envelopes mailed from Trenton, N.J., to NBC News in New York and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office in Washington and the notes and powder inside; samples of anthrax taken from a tabloid newspaper office and a postal facility in Boca Raton, Fla., where the letter that evidently carried the germs was thrown away and incinerated; and anthrax cultured from the skin infection of a 7-month-old child, the son of an ABC News producer in New York. Tests for anthrax on pornographic pictures in a letter returned from Malaysia to a Microsoft office in Reno, Nev., have been contradictory and are continuing.

Meanwhile, countless anthrax hoaxes and scares consume valuable time. But they can't be ignored - the next call about yet another envelope with powder might prove the key to the investigation.

While the investigation is secret, people familiar with the investigation or with its likely techniques give a detailed picture of its extraordinary variety and sweep.

At the global level, National Security Agency analysts are combing their files of intercepted phone calls and e-mails from recent months for any mention of such words as anthrax, NBC or Daschle. Researchers at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center are poring over top-secret records on the attempts to acquire dangerous germs by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror group and by the 17 countries known to have bioweapons programs.

On the streets of Trenton and Boca Raton, FBI agents are hunting for clues as to who might have seen someone preparing or mailing suspicious letters. Others are following up on tips about people with grudges against the targets who might have scientific training or access to labs; the terrorist would have needed equipment to handle the dangerous bacteria without self-contamination. Investigators questioning hundreds of people detained after Sept. 11 in the United States and abroad have added anthrax to their interrogations.

At the microscopic level, biologists are studying anthrax samples collected from the envelopes or their victims, looking for clues to their source. They are checking for antibiotic resistance, often found in varieties developed for weapons. In the powder, they will look for traces of the growth medium in which the bacteria were cultured, since it might indicate a particular manufacturer and help narrow the source.

Perhaps most important, they are conducting state-of-the-art genetic tests to find the DNA fingerprint of the bacteria used in the attacks. The work is being done at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and a lab at Northern Arizona University.

At Los Alamos, a team led by Paul J. Jackson has accumulated a "library" of genetic material from more than 1,200 distinct strains of Bacillus anthracis, the anthrax bacteria. Most are from animal disease outbreaks, but the collection includes samples from a 1979 outbreak in Russia and from United Nations inspections of Iraq's bioweapons facilities, lab spokeswoman Nancy Ambrosiano said.

Jackson's lab uses sophisticated methods to break out fragments of the bacteria's DNA and identify a strain's unique genetic signature. A few years ago, such fingerprinting allowed the lab to match anthrax from an outbreak in Australia to a strain previously found in a certain region of India. Investigators were puzzled - until they found shipping records showing cattle had been shipped 140 years earlier from that part of India to Australia.

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