Everyone has an anthrax theory

Bioterrorism riddle, $1.25 million reward stimulate interest

January 06, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist at the State University of New York, thinks she has figured out a great deal about the person who mailed the anthrax that killed five people last fall.

"He had to be an insider in the U.S. biological defense program," she says. Not only that: He is a microbiologist. He probably lives near Washington. And for those who want details, she has laid her reasoning out on the Internet.

To Richard M. Smith, a computer security expert in Massachusetts, the nine-digit ZIP codes on the anthrax letters could be a crucial clue - as well as the ersatz return address, a made-up elementary school. If the attacker used the Internet to collect his information, Smith says, he might have left an electronic trail.

Orley R. Bourland Jr., a Fort Detrick retiree who once made anthrax for the Army, has hunted the Web to see whether the equipment needed to make the powder is widely available (yes) and consulted with colleagues to judge whether a person working alone could physically have performed the necessary tasks to do so (probably not).

In the absence of visible progress in the three-month FBI hunt for the anthrax-mailing terrorist, an informal army of detectives has joined the quest. Among them are distinguished scientists, eager amateurs, bounty hunters and conspiracy theorists of every stripe. Solving the mystery has become a game that anyone can play.

For encouragement, there's the $1.25 million reward offered jointly by the FBI and U.S. Postal Service for solving the case. Government sources say the prize will soon be upped to $2 million, a possible sign that investigators are stuck.

But the people who have become enthralled by the anthrax whodunit don't seem to have the money first in their minds.

A `fascinating' mystery

"When this anthrax thing came up, I found it just fascinating," says Ed Lakeof Racine, Wis., a 64-year-old retired computer system designer who writes screenplays. "All these facts were scattered all over the place. But no one was putting them together."

So Lake took on that job himself, putting together an extensive anthrax investigation Web site, which he updates and corrects as new evidence is reported.

"There are so many clues out there - so many odd things," Lake says. "It's 7 o'clock in the morning and I'm getting up, and suddenly an idea will hit me."

Rosenberg, 63, who has headed a biological weapons working group for the Federation of American Scientists since 1989, says she joined the chase partly because of her deep concern about the danger of biological terror.

"If news coverage and public awareness just fade away because they never catch the person responsible, I think that would be regrettable," she says. But that's just part of her motivation: "It really is interesting to try to put the clues together."

Getting the public involved

If there has been an onslaught of unofficial investigation, that might be partly because the FBI encouraged it. From early on, it solicited help from the public, adding a red button labeled "Submit a Tip" to the elaborate Web site it has dedicated to the "Amerithrax" investigation.

Along with a flag--draped logo, photos of the anthrax letters and sound files of FBI experts discussing the case, the Web site includes a lengthy handwriting and behavioral analysis of the perpetrator.

The proposed suspect is an adult male loner with scientific training, it says, who "is a non-confrontational person, at least in his public life. He lacks the personal skills necessary to confront others. ... He may hold grudges for a long time, vowing that he will get even with `them' one day."

Never before has the FBI made public such extensive material on an unsolved case, spokeswoman Tracey Silberling said Friday. That is partly because of the new technical possibilities offered by the Internet, but mostly because of the nature of the anthrax probe, she said.

"In the interest of public safety and educating the public about the threat, we've made as much information as possible available," Silberling said. "We're also seeking the public's assistance by making information available that might ring a bell with someone."

Silberling said the bureau has received "hundreds of tips" from the public, but declined to say whether any have proved useful.

Flawed reporting

If the FBI's lack of evident progress has drawn criticism, so has the media coverage of the case, which has often been erratic.

Even the most respected news organizations have reported details about the mailed anthrax or the investigation that quickly proved unfounded.

On Dec. 19, for instance, ABC's World News Tonight led its broadcast with a story saying the FBI was investigating a scientist who had been fired twice by Battelle Memorial Institute, an Ohio-based government contractor. The story was picked up by wire services and printed in many newspapers, including The Sun.

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