No leading suspect emerges in anthrax probe, FBI reports

Agency denies focusing on former scientist at Fort Detrick lab

February 26, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The FBI said yesterday that it has not identified a leading suspect in its 5-month-old anthrax investigation, denying a published report.

"In our investigation we have interviewed hundreds of persons, in some instances more than once," said FBI spokeswoman Tracey Silberling. "It is not accurate, however, to say the FBI has identified a prime suspect."

She spoke in response to an article in The Washington Times yesterday, which reported that the FBI has "focused on" a scientist who previously worked at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the Times article had been "overreaching," adding that "unfortunately, there are still several suspects."

A law enforcement official who asked not to be named later said Fleischer's statement was not meant to imply that the field of possible suspects has been narrowed to a small number of people.

"The names and numbers are constantly changing," the official said. "People come up on the radar screen and they're checked out and they go off the radar screen."

The Sun reported Friday that in late January and early February, a team of FBI agents from the Washington, Baltimore and New York field offices spent several days at USAMRIID, the U.S. government top biodefense research center. They asked scientists about former colleagues who have come under suspicion in the search for the person who mailed anthrax-laced letters that killed five people and sickened 13 others last fall.

For example, at Fort Detrick, the FBI asked about a former scientist who returned a few years ago to take three biosafety cabinets that were being discarded. Such cabinets are used to work with dangerous germs, and some colleagues found the request unusual.

But the scientist told The Sun last week that the cabinets were for use in a classified Defense Department project. Yesterday, Fort Detrick spokesman Chuck Dasey confirmed that, saying the cabinets were "old and nonfunctional" and went to the Army's Special Forces Command to help train soldiers to recognize equipment that might be found in a bioweapons facility.

Even as agents have pursued specific tips about individuals, the bureau has continued to cast a wide net for tips. Last month the FBI and U.S. Postal Service distributed fliers in the area around Trenton, N.J., where the anthrax letters were mailed and appealed for information in an e-mail to 40,000 microbiologists.

The e-mail and fliers imply that the FBI is looking for an American with knowledge of anthrax, and Fleischer said yesterday, "All indications are that the source of the anthrax is domestic."

But the law enforcement official said no possibility, including a possible foreign source, has been ruled out.

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