Tests point to domestic source behind anthrax letter attacks

Army reproductions hurt theories of foreign culprit

April 11, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Army scientists have reproduced the anthrax powder used in the 2001 mail attacks and concluded that it was made using simple methods, inexpensive equipment and limited expertise, according to government sources familiar with the work.

The findings reinforce the theory that has guided the FBI's 18-month-old investigation - that the mailed anthrax was probably produced by renegade scientists and not a military program such as Iraq's.

"It tends to support the idea that the anthrax came from a domestic source and probably not a state program," said David Siegrist, a bioterrorism expert at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. "It shows you can have a fairly sophisticated product with fairly rudimentary methods."

The new research, carried out at the Army's biodefense center at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, raises the disquieting possibility that al-Qaida and other terrorist groups could create lethal bioweapons without scientific or financial help from a state. The Bush administration had cited the possibility that Iraq might supply weapons to al-Qaida as a key reason for overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

"It would be better for our country if they'd concluded that [the mailed anthrax] had to have been made in a big facility with a lot of biowarfare experts," said David R. Franz, a former Army biodefense official and consultant on bioterrorism.

But Richard O. Spertzel, a biowarfare expert and former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, said he has heard that the Dugway research failed to match exactly the purity and small particle size of the mailed anthrax. Though he has no involvement in the case, he believes the FBI would be wrong to rule out Iraq or other states as the source of the deadly powder.

Van Harp, assistant FBI director in charge of the Washington Field Office, who oversees the anthrax investigation, declined to comment on what he called "uninformed speculation" about the anthrax research.

But Harp said 50 investigators are still working on what the bureau calls the Amerithrax case, backed by "a huge scientific effort."

"We're making progress," he said.

The anthrax-laced letters were mailed on Sept. 18 and Oct. 9, 2001, from a Princeton, N.J., mailbox and addressed to media organizations and two U.S. senators. The attack killed five people and sickened at least 17 others, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to clean up government offices and postal facilities.

FBI and Postal Inspection Service agents initially considered a link to the Sept. 11 hijackers or Iraq. But after genetic analysis showed the anthrax was derived from the Ames strain used in the U.S. military biodefense program, investigators concentrated their effort on a domestic source.

Agents interviewed and conducted polygraph tests on scores of employees at the U.S. military biodefense research centers at Fort Detrick in Frederick and at Dugway Proving Ground.

Since last summer, they have focused much of their effort on Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, a former Fort Detrick bioweapons expert, repeatedly searching his Frederick apartment. In December and January, the FBI launched an extensive search in woods and ponds outside Frederick, an effort sources said was aimed at finding discarded biological equipment or other evidence.

Meanwhile, the FBI's Amerithrax task force ordered an exhaustive battery of scientific tests on the anthrax. Outside scientists say researchers probably have used chemical analysis to trace the water and nutrients used to grow the anthrax to a particular geographic area.

As part of the scientific sleuthing, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III announced in November that investigators were trying to "reverse engineer" the mailed anthrax.

Several sources discussed the work with The Sun on condition of anonymity. One investigator said that with about a dozen samples completed, scientists have matched the mailed powder closely enough to conclude it was made with "a pretty small operation" that cost "no more than a few thousand dollars."

The perpetrator would have needed expertise in microbiology to separate the dormant anthrax spores from the living vegetative cells, to dry the spores without killing them and to mill the product, the source said.

But the methods used point more to a makeshift lab than a professional operation, the source said. One clue pointing away from a state program was the absence of any additive to neutralize the spores' electrical charge and make them float more freely.

Such additives or coatings, including glass-like silica, were routinely used in past U.S., Soviet and Iraqi bioweapons programs, and some accounts have suggested that silica was present in the mailed anthrax. But more thorough testing disproved that.

"Everybody was looking for a coating, but there wasn't one," the investigator said.

The government is retaining detailed data on the various anthrax samples produced, creating a reference library to help track the source of powder used in any future anthrax attack.

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