Letters carried fresh anthrax

Investigators say powder was made within 2 years

`It can be grown again and again'

List of possible suspects appears to be expanding

June 23, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Scientists have determined that the anthrax powder sent through the mail last fall was fresh, made no more than two years before it was sent, senior government officials said. The new finding has concerned investigators, who say it indicates that whoever sent the anthrax could make more and strike again.

Establishing the age of the anthrax that killed five people has strengthened the theory that the person behind the mailings has a direct and current connection to a microbiology laboratory and may have used relatively new equipment. "We're still looking for someone who fits the criteria of training, knowledge, education, experience and skill," a government official said.

The dating of the anthrax as recent suggests that the person who mailed it prepared the germs and has the ability to make more without relying on old material.

"It's modern," one official said. "It was grown, and therefore it can be grown again and again."

Officials said the FBI determined that the anthrax was fresh by radiocarbon dating, a standard means of estimating the age of biological samples. It measures how much radioactive carbon a living thing has lost since it died or, in the case of anthrax spores, since they went into suspended animation.

As the case now stands, investigators say they believe that the mailer, if ever caught, will fit the profile offered by FBI behavioral scientists: a male loner with a scientific bent and a grudge against society, a man who feels comfortable in the Trenton, N.J., area, where the letters were postmarked. The investigators are uncertain whether the perpetrator is American or foreign.

The new forensic evidence about the anthrax, usually referred to as the Ames strain, has been closely held among investigators. Laboratory experts and senior investigators will meet this week with FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to discuss the evidence in the case. Among the topics will be the results of months of sophisticated studies conducted on the anthrax contained in the letter sent Oct. 9 to Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont.

Even though they are making progress in the science of anthrax, officials acknowledge that they have no prime suspect and have not narrowed the list of possible suspects, which in fact appears to be expanding. Investigators have a list of about 50 people, which is updated periodically as possible subjects are added or deleted.

The Leahy letter, which investigators say holds new promise in their search, was the only one of the four letters recovered in the case that contained enough anthrax to permit extensive scientific testing. The sample retrieved from the envelope addressed to Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, at his Senate office address contained as much material as a sugar packet and weighed about a gram.

Along with earlier tests that showed the anthrax was an extremely fine powder that hung dangerously in the air, the scientific studies represent the leading edge of an investigation that has expanded far beyond the FBI's investigative norms. No active criminal case has a higher priority. The inquiry has consumed millions of dollars and vast amounts of manpower.

Under heavy pressure from Congress and the Bush administration to produce results in the country's first case of deadly bioterrorism, Mueller has presided over what has expanded into the bureau's second-biggest criminal case after the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The anthrax case offers a glimpse into what may be the future of criminal investigation on a vast scale in an age of biological and other sophisticated forms of terrorism.

The FBI has collected huge amounts of personal information on hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens, combining it with a scientific arm that has moved far ahead of the Bunsen burners, fingerprints and microscopes of conventional forensic sleuthing.

The FBI and the Postal Service, its partner in the case, have turned to experts beyond their own labs.

A new high-level containment lab to hold deadly germs and a backup unit have been built at the Army's biodefense research facility at Fort Detrick.

Scientists at labs in Massachusetts, Ohio, Utah and elsewhere have invented new protocols and tests to probe the molecular structure of the anthrax - a task complicated by the possibility that the culprit could be among the microbiologists assisting the FBI.

Officials say every investigative technique available to the FBI has been used in the case, including round-the-clock surveillance, eavesdropping and searches conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Agents have conducted 5,000 interviews and served more than 1,700 grand jury subpoenas.

Hundreds of people have been given polygraphs. Investigators have compiled minute-by-minute chronologies of the lives of some subjects, examining their whereabouts when the letters were sent.

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