FBI asks for help tracking anthrax

Public input sought in struggling probe

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

November 03, 2001|By Gail Gibson and Jonathan Bor | Gail Gibson and Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The head of the FBI issued a plea yesterday for the public's help in finding out who was behind anthrax attacks that have left four people dead, a sign that investigators are far from solving the case and containing the public health threat.

Federal agents have conducted more than 2,000 interviews and tracked more than 1,000 tips, including about 100 leads overseas. But authorities still can't identify the perpetrators or say what motivated the attacks.

President Bush asked yesterday for the public's patience - "We're doing everything we can to find out all the facts," he said - while FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III asked for help.

Mueller asked people to closely study the handwriting on the three anthrax-tainted letters made public by the bureau two weeks ago. He again dangled the government's $1 million reward, first offered Oct. 18.

"So far, we have not received as many tips or leads under that program as we would like," Mueller said at a White House news conference. He said he would urge, "in the strongest terms possible, every American to join us in tracking down those responsible for using anthrax to murder Americans."

Yesterday, federal officials officially confirmed the 17th case of anthrax infection, a New York Post worker who contracted the less serious skin form of the disease. Since the anthrax attacks began last month with letters to media outlets and Capitol Hill, four Americans have died and 13 others have been sickened.

Authorities also announced that they have tracked a New Jersey accountant's case of skin anthrax to a trace of the bacteria in a mail bin at her office. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told the Associated Press that finding suggests the 51-year-old woman contracted the infection through her mail. Authorities have speculated that her mail was contaminated during processing at a nearby Postal Service center.

"It's a good sign," Thompson said, noting the discovery eased concerns the woman had been exposed some other way.

Other traces of anthrax were reported at several locations overseas, including Pakistan and India, but authorities urged caution in assuming that the bioterror assault had moved overseas. Further testing was necessary, they said, noting that suspicious powders previously reported abroad had proved harmless.

In New York, dozens of criminal and medical investigators still were searching for clues to explain how Kathy T. Nguyen, a 61-year-old hospital worker, was infected with inhalation anthrax.

Dr. Bradley Perkins, an anthrax expert with the CDC, said investigators are trying to track Nguyen's travels in the two weeks before her death Wednesday and are testing places she visited.

"We do not have any good clues to date," said Perkins, calling her case "enigmatic at this point." He said investigators are hampered by the fact that Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who lived alone, had no family and few friends who knew her activities.

Nguyen's death has mystified authorities because she had no obvious ties to the postal system, the government or news media, the targets of earlier attacks.

Mueller said that investigators' strongest leads have been in New Jersey. Three anthrax letters were postmarked from Trenton - one to Senator Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office and one each to the New York offices of NBC television and the New York Post.

Evidence gathered so far "puts us at mail boxes in Trenton ... and it expands beyond there," he said.

"Some of the leads may well take us overseas," Mueller said. "But the thrust of the investigation is where those letters were mailed, and trying to track back from those mailboxes to the individual who is responsible for putting those letters, with the anthrax, into those mailboxes."

Mueller said investigators have not yet determined whether the source of the anthrax was domestic or foreign.

Thompson said he is bracing for the discovery of more anthrax letters in the truckloads of decontaminated mail intended for the U.S. Capitol and other federal offices.

While the pace of new cases has slowed, health officials said that the scare may not have peaked. In a briefing yesterday, Perkins of the CDC said the anthrax cases are not like most epidemics.

"This is quite different - a criminal activity that public health officials cannot anticipate," Perkins said.

There were some signs of progress toward returning to normality yesterday. The Supreme Court justices returned to work in their regular building after traces of anthrax in the mailroom forced them to meet in a nearby courthouse for most of the week.

And cleanup efforts were beginning in the Senate Hart Office Building, where the Daschle letter was sent and spores were found in several locations. Workers taped plastic sheeting over windows and doors to seal the building in preparation for fumigation, probably with chlorine dioxide gas.

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