Additive use could shift theory in anthrax case

FBI's interest in Hatfill seems to have dropped off

November 28, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Adding fuel to a debate that has simmered among scientists since the 2001 anthrax attacks, an article published today in Science magazine says that the deadly spores mailed to two U.S. senators contained sophisticated additives to make the powder float more freely in the air.

If confirmed, such a technical innovation might be an important clue in the seemingly stalled FBI investigation, narrowing the field of potential suspects to people with access to such additives and expertise in using them.

It would point away from an alternative possibility: that a person with modest scientific skills working alone in a home lab could have made the powder, which killed five people and sickened at least 17 others in October and November 2001.

The latter possibility appears to have been the leading theory guiding FBI agents who over the past 18 months have sunk huge amounts of manpower into investigating former Army biowarfare expert Dr. Steven J. Hatfill.

The FBI's interest in Hatfill, whom Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly identified last year as a "person of interest" in the anthrax case, seems to have dropped off. The once-obvious 24-hour surveillance of Hatfill, which was so intense that an FBI vehicle ran over Hatfill's foot in May, has disappeared over the past two months, said two people who spoke with Hatfill recently.

In August, Hatfill filed a lawsuit against Ashcroft and other top Justice Department and FBI officials accusing them of destroying his career with a campaign of leaks suggesting that he was the anthrax killer. The lawsuit said Hatfill had been targeted to cover up the FBI's failure to make significant progress toward solving the case.

In a reply filed Nov. 21, FBI agent Richard L. Lambert, who has headed the anthrax task force for the past year, said the "scope and complexity" of the investigation is "unprecedented in the FBI's 95-year history."

In a rare public description of the investigation, Lambert said the bureau "has expended 231,000 agent hours in the investigation of the anthrax attacks, the equivalent of 89 agent work years."

In a separate filing on Nov. 21, Justice Department lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton to delay action on Hatfill's claim that government leaks about him violated the Privacy Act. They said they will seek dismissal of the suit's other claims.

Describing the anthrax investigation as "intensely active," the 12 government lawyers say that allowing Hatfill to pursue his claim now would force the FBI to reveal "sensitive investigative information, including theories of the case, evidentiary discoveries, forensic methods, witness identities, and ... investigative initiatives."

The Science article, by free-lance writer Gary Matsumoto, addresses scientists' analysis of the tiny quantity of powder retrieved from letters addressed to Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont.

Matsumoto suggests that the spores were treated with two additives: silica, commonly added to industrial products to prevent clumping; and polymerized glass, a more exotic substance used to bind the silica to the spores.

Matsumoto writes that U.S. intelligence officials briefing experts from other NATO countries told them that the anthrax powder contained polymerized glass, which "leaves a thin glassy coating that helps bind the silica to particle surfaces."

But as the Science article notes, other scientists advising the FBI have concluded that the anthrax powder contained no additives. In a briefing on Capitol Hill late last year, Matsumoto writes, FBI scientist Dwight Adams suggested that the element silicon was naturally present in the spores and that no silica was added.

A similar dispute continues over experiments at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground to try to reproduce the powder in the letters using various kinds of equipment. The goal was to "reverse-engineer" the mailed anthrax to try to figure out how it was made.

Government sources familiar with the work told The Sun in April that the Dugway researchers felt they had succeeded in reproducing the powder and concluded that it was made with relatively inexpensive equipment and limited expertise.

Others familiar with the work, including former United Nations bioweapons inspector Richard O. Spertzel, said the powder made at Dugway did not float as freely as the powder mailed to the senators.

Whether changing scientific conclusions have reduced the FBI's focus on Hatfill is uncertain. Any change of strategy might have resulted from the arrival of a new assistant FBI director in charge of the Washington field office, which is running the anthrax investigation.

Michael A. Mason, a veteran agent who took the Washington job in July, said publicly in September that leaks about Hatfill had damaged the investigation. He said Ashcroft had discussed Hatfill in response to news media inquiries but that "there is absolutely zero value in coming forward with persons of interest up to the point we indict the person."

Hatfill's attorney, Thomas G. Connolly, declined to comment for this article. Attempts to reach a spokesman for the FBI investigation were unsuccessful. The FBI has routinely declined to answer questions about the case.

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