Analysis of the Anthrax Attacks
by Barbara Hatch Rosenberg
Analysis of the Anthrax Attacks
Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, Federation of American Scientists
Commentary 5 February 2002: Is the FBI Dragging Its Feet?
Letter Chronology, Updated 31 January 2002
Notes on the Letters, 31 January 2002
Analysis of the Attacks, 17-31 January 2002
Appendix: Laboratories That Have Worked with the Ames Strain of Anthrax
FBI Letter to ASM Members, 29 January 02
Article in Salon, 8 February 02
Article in Trenton Times, 19 February 02
AP Article, 25 February 02
I. Commentary: Is the FBI Dragging Its Feet?
February 5, 2002
For more than three months now the FBI has known that the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks is American. This conclusion must have been based on the perpetrator’s evident connection to the US biodefense program. In addition to this signpost, the perpetrator has left multiple, blatant clues, seemingly on purpose: second letters, addressed similarly to the anthrax letters and containing powder, sent to most (and possibly all) the anthrax recipients; similar letters sent to several other media organizations; even a letter, addressed to the Military Police at the Quantico Marine Base, accusing a former USAMRIID scientist (with whom the anonymous writer says he once worked) of having bioterrorist intentions. Almost all the letters were mailed before there were any reports of anthrax letters or of hoax letters sent to media (see "Analysis of the Anthrax Attacks" below for a chronology and discussion of the available data). The postal addresses and dates of these letters map out an itinerary of the perpetrator(s) and indicate certain connections, which taken together must single out the perpetrator from the other likely suspects.
This evidence permits a more refined estimate of the perpetrator’s motives. He must be angry at some biodefense agency or component, and he is driven to demonstrate, in a spectacular way, his capabilities and the government’s inability to respond. He is cocksure that he can get away with it. Does he know something that he believes to be sufficiently damaging to the United States to make him untouchable by the FBI?
The perpetrator is surely too smart to believe that either the FBI’s ludicrous recent actions or the White House protestations of ignorance mean that the authorities are not on to him. Blanketing Central New Jersey with fliers showing handwriting that was obviously disguised can’t possibly evoke useful information, nor can letters to 32,000 American microbiologists, 31,800 of whom live in a different world from the perpetrator. This is no way to instill public confidence in the competence of the FBI. The press is increasingly questioning the situation, and other scientists have independently raised similar issues (see, for example, "In Search of the Anthrax Attacker" http://www.redflagsweekly.com/nassanthrax3.html). Most importantly, the apparent lack of action is sending a dangerous message to potential bioterrorists.
II. Letter Chronology
Updated January, 31 2002
Four letters with anthrax have been found, and a fifth (to AMI) was apparently discarded after opening. In addition, at least three of the five anthrax recipients also received "hoax" letters containing an innocuous powder; and several different media offices received similar hoax letters. Some of the hoax letters were mailed BEFORE the first anthrax case (in Florida) was reported, and all but one hoax letter were mailed BEFORE there were any reports of anthrax letters or hoax letters. Therefore the hoax letters targeting media are not simply a copycat phenomenon. The envelopes on most or all of the hoax letters were addressed in block capitals similar to the addresses on the anthrax envielopes, even though they were mailed before the anthrax envelopes became known. A photograph of one hoax letter (to St. Petersburg Times) has been published, and descriptions or comparisons of others have been reported. If analysis confirms that the hoax letters were sent by the anthrax perpetrator, their postmarks will indicate his itinerary (or the assistance of an accomplice)—see chronology below.
At least three hoax letters, known to have been mailed from St. Petersburg, are similar in many ways to each other and to the anthrax letters: addresses written in similar block capitals, tone of letters, unconvincing misspellings. Were the enclosed letters also xeroxed? no fingerprints? stamps not licked? Are the other hoax letters similar?
Furthermore, an anonymous letter accusing a former USAMRIID scientist of plotting terrorism was sent to police BEFORE any anthrax letters or disease were reported. The letter contains evidence that the anonymous writer had probably worked at USAMRIID. This letter may also come from the anthrax perpetrator.
DATE LOCATION EVENT
Sept. 18, 2001 Trenton Mailed anthrax letters to NBC and NY Post (and probably to National Enquirer).
Sept. 20 St. Petersburg Mailed hoax letter to NBC and possibly to NY Post** [& Natl. Enq.?]
Sept. 19-25 NBC received & opened anthrax letter (brown granular sandy); not recognized as dangerous.
Sept. 25 NBC received & opened hoax letter.
late Sept. place? Mailed letter to Quantico Marine Base accusing Dr. Asaad, former USAMRIID scientist, of being a terrorist.
Oct. 4 First report of anthrax case (in Florida).
Oct. 5 Death of first anthrax victim (in Florida)
Oct. 5 St. Petersburg Mailed hoax letters to J. Miller at NY Times and H. Troxler at St. Petersburg Times.
Oct. ~5-9 place? Mailed hoax letters to CBS (DC), Fox News and possibly to NY Post**
Oct. 9 Troxler (St. Petersburg Times) opened hoax letter.
Oct. 9 Trenton Mailed anthrax letters to Daschle and Leahy.
Oct. 12 Miller at NYT opened hoax letter.
Oct. 12-13 First reports of any letters to media.
Oct. 13 NBC anthrax case and both suspicious letters first reported. (FBI had previously overlooked events at NBC.)
Oct. 13 CBS News (D.C.) received envelope with powder visible on outside.
Oct. 8-13 Fox News received hoax letter.
Oct. 15 Daschle's Hart office opened anthrax letter.
Oct. 19 NY Post anthrax case diagnosed and letter with anthrax found unopened in mailroom. Employee remembers opening a similarly-addressed (hoax) letter**, earlier.
late Nov. UK Mailed hoax letter to Daschle office in Capitol.
Jan. 03, 2002 Daschle's Capitol office opened hoax letter (delay in receipt due to irradiation of Capitol mail).
III. Notes on the Letters
January 31, 2002
Florida anthrax letter: postal traces show that a letter containing anthrax must have been sent to the National Enquirer at its previous address, then forwarded to the AMI office. This indicates that the perpetrator was not familiar with AMI and the Natl. Enquirer.
Florida hoax letter?: Possibly a hoax letter was discarded without notice, as the anthrax letter was. In addition, on approximately 4 Sept. AMI received a fan letter containing powder and a star of David, addressed to actress Jennifer Lopez c/o The Sun (one of the AMI tabloids). Because the anthrax letter was evidently addressed to the National Enquirer, not The Sun, the Sun letter is probably irrelevant.
Hoax letter to NY Post: was received and thrown out sometime before 19 Oct. It was addressed to the Editor in block capitals, similar to the anthrax letter received by the NY Post. The NY Post hoax letter could have been mailed on 5 Oct. from St. Petersburg, along with the hoax letters to the NY Times and St. Petersburg Times, or it could have been mailed earlier (eg, on 20 Sept., when the hoax letter was mailed to NBC). The anthrax letters to NBC and the NY Post had been mailed at the same time (18 Sept) and it is possible that the perpetrator mailed hoax letters on 20 Sept to all of those previously sent anthrax.
Hoax letter to NBC: letter contained talcum and was mailed from St. P on 20 Sept., two days after the anthrax letter was mailed to NBC from Trenton. Both letters contained threats to Israel.
Hoax letters to Judith Miller at the NY Times and Howard Troxler at the St. Petersburg Times: these were mailed on 5 Oct. from St. Petersburg and were similar in appearance and content to the NBC hoax letter mailed from St. P on 20 Sept. but not yet reported. The NY Times and St. P Times letters were in stamped, plain envelopes with no return address. A photo of the St. P. envelope was published in the St. P Times, showing great similarity to the printing on the anthrax letters (which had not yet been reported—in two cases—or mailed—in the other two cases). The NY Times letter contained talcum and threatened the Sears Tower in Chicago and President Bush. The St P Times letter contained what looked like sugar or salt and said "Howard Toxler...1st case of disease now blow away this dust so you can see how the real thing flys. Oklahoma-Ryder Truck! Skyway bridge-18 wheels."
Hoax letters to CBS News in Washington, DC and to Fox News: were received on or shortly before 13 Oct. No further information has been reported. They could have been mailed from St. Petersburg on 5 Oct., along with the NY Times and St. P Times letters; or from a place between St. Petersburg and Trenton between 5-9 Oct. Oct. On 12 Oct. an FBI official said they were investigating multiple mailed envelopes from St. Petersburg. The St. Petersburg Police Chief would not comment on whether that included other letters in addition to those sent NBC, NY Times and St. P Times.
Hoax letter to Senator Daschle: was received and opened by Sen. Daschle’s office in the Capitol on 3 Jan. 02, after a delay for irradiation. The letter was mailed from the UK. The envelope contained a powder and a threatening letter unlike those that were mailed with anthrax, according to the FBI. This letter was mailed much later than the others, sometime in late Nov., a month after the other hoax letters and the anthrax letters had been reported. Whether the letter was addressed in block printing, like the anthrax letters, has not been revealed.
Anonymous letter of accusation: contained a long, typed letter with good command of English language, displaying considerable knowledge of Dr. Assaad, his work at USAMRIID and his personal life and accusing Assaad of planning terrorism. The letter was shown by the FBI to Assaad and his lawyer. The FBI subsequently exhonorated Assaad. The letter, sent to the Marine base at Quantico, VA., asserts that the accuser formerly worked with Assaad. It was sent before any cases of anthrax were discovered.
IV. Analysis of the Source of the Anthrax Attacks
January 17-31, 2002
The Present Situation
The FBI has surely known for several months that the anthrax attack was an inside job. A government estimate for the number of scientists involved in the US anthrax program over the last five years is 200 people. According to a former defense scientist the number of defense scientists with hands-on anthrax experience and the necessary access is smaller, under 50. The FBI has received short lists of specific suspects with credible motives from a number of knowledgeable inside sources, and has found or been given clues (beyond those presented below) that could lead to incriminating evidence. By now the FBI must have a good idea of who the perpetrator is. There may be two factors accounting for the lack of public acknowledgement and the paucity of information being released: a fear that embarrassing details might become public, and a need for secrecy in order to acquire sufficient hard evidence to convict the perpetrator.
All letter samples contain the same strain of anthrax, corresponding to the AMES strain in the Northern Arizona University database (which has been used for identification). The Ames strain possessed by N. Arizona University is referred to herein as the “reference strain.” That strain was obtained by LSU from Porton Down (UK) in 1997 (the sample was marked “10-32” meaning no. 10 of 32 samples sent); Porton had gotten it from Fort Detrick. Fort Detrick got it from Texas A&M (but mistakenly attributed it to the USDA laboratory in Ames, Iowa) in 1981. Earlier anthrax isolates from Ames, Iowa have caused some confusion but they are no longer relevant to the situation, thanks to recent genetic analyses (see below).
Contrary to early speculation, there are no more than about 20 laboratories known to have the Ames strain. The names of 15 of these have been found in the open literature (see Appendix). Of these, probably only about four in the US might possibly have the capability for weaponizing anthrax. Those four include both US military laboratories and a government contractor.
Genetic analysis performed at Northern Arizona University on Ames strain samples from Fort Detrick (USAMRIID), Dugway Proving Ground, the UK defense establishment at Porton, Louisiana State University and Northern Arizona University has shown that all of these laboratories possess identical anthrax stocks that match the letter anthrax perfectly (in the limited analyses that have been done). All these stocks were originally derived from Fort Detrick’s 1980 Ames strain. USAMRIID acknowledges that it also provided Ames to the Canadian defense establishment at Suffield, the University of New Mexico, and Battelle Memorial Institute (a large contracting organization with laboratories and personnel in many locations including military laboratories).
Excluding the three academic institutions, two of which are intimately involved in the investigation, and the two foreign defense laboratories, places the focus on USAMRIID, Dugway and Battelle as the source of the Ames strain for the letters.
The complete sequence has been determined for the genomes of both the anthrax used in the Florida attack and the Ames reference strain to which it corresponds. This work was done under government contract by the Institute for Genetic Research, a private non-profit organization. The results have not been made public but they are in government hands and there has been no retraction of the oft-repeated official statement that the letter anthrax matches the Ames reference strain.
Analysis of trace contaminants in the letter anthrax has probably been carried out but not reported. The results could indicate whether the anthrax was grown in liquid medium (and what kind of medium), or on petri dishes; the latter would likely rule out large-scale preparation. It has been estimated that the perpetrator used a total of about 10g in the letters.
"Weaponization" is used here to mean preparation of the form of anthrax found in the Daschle letter: fine particles, very narrow size range, treated to eliminate static charge so it won’t clump and will float in the air. The weaponization process used was extraordinarily effective. The particles have a narrow size range (1.5-3 microns diameter), typical of the optimal US process.
The extraordinary concentration (one trillion spores per gram) and purity of the letter anthrax is believed to be characteristic of material made by the optimal US process.
The optimal US weaponization process is secret—Bill Patrick, its inventor, holds five secret patents on the process and says it involves a combination of chemicals . There is no evidence that any other country possesses the formula.
Under the microscope, the letter anthrax appears to be unmilled. Milled anthrax spores are identifiable because they contain debris. The optimal US process does not use milling.
The Daschle sample contains a special form of silica used in the US process. It does not contain bentonite (used by the Iraqis).
A “coating” on the spores in the letter sample, indicative of the secret US process, has been observed.
The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, DC has studied the sample using an energy dispersive X-ray specroscope, which can detect the presence of extremely tiny quantities of chemicals; traces of several chemicals have been found (but not reported, presumably for security reasons).
All the letters probably contained the same material. The clumping of the anthrax in the two letters mailed on Sept 18 (to NBC and the NY Post) probably resulted from the letters getting wet in the course of mail processing or delivery, according to Army scientists. This conclusion is strengthened by the similarity of the Florida anthrax (the first to be observed, probably also mailed on Sept 18) to that in the Daschle letter, mailed Oct 9.
The letter anthrax was made after 1980 (when the Ames strain used was obtained) using a process similar to the secret, optimal US process. If the anthrax was weaponized by the perpetrator himself, there may be some differences from anthrax weaponized by the government, depending on the availability of materials to the perpetrator and the conditions of preparation.
Scientists formerly at USAMRIID say that it would have been easy for a scientist working with anthrax to remove a sample of the Ames strain from the lab. Only a miniscule amount would be needed, and security has been lax.
On the other hand, experts believe that it would be extremely difficult to steal 10g of weaponized anthrax from a government lab. Thus, the perpetrator very likely grew and weaponized the letter anthrax himself.
There was only one week between Sept 11 and Sept 18, when the first two letters (and probably another letter, never found, to AMI) were postmarked. This suggests that the anthrax was already in hand, and the attack largely planned, before Sept 11.
A classified report dated February, 1999 discusses responses to an anthrax attack through the mail. The report, precipitated by a series of false anthrax mailings, was written by William Patrick, inventor of the US weaponization process, under a CIA contract to SAIC. The report describes what the US military could do and what a terrorist might be able to achieve. According to the NY Times (12 Dec. 01) the report predicted about 2.5g of anthrax per envelope (the Daschle letter contained 2g) and assumed a poorer quality of anthrax than that found in the Daschle letter. If the perpetrator had access to the materials and information necessary for the attack, he must have had security clearance or other means for accessing classified information, and may therefore have seen the report and used it as a model for the attack.
An anonymous letter was sent to police, apparently in September, accusing an Egyptian-born American scientist who had been laid off by USAMRIID of being a terrorist. The FBI questioned and released the accused scientist as innocent. Details of the letter have not been released. Could this letter have been sent by the perpetrator (who would likely have known about the USAMRIID lay-offs) to cover his traces?
The perpetrator did not aim to kill but to create public fear. The letters warned of anthrax or the need to take antibiotics, making it possible for those who handled the letters to protect themselves; and it is unlikely that the perpetrator would have anticipated that the rough treatment of mail in letter sorters, etc, would force anthrax spores through the pores of the envelopes (which were taped to keep the anthrax inside) and infect postal workers and others.
The perpetrator was probably ready before Sept. 11 and simply took advantage of the likelihood that Sept. 11 would throw suspicion on Muslim terrorists. Was the perpetrator trying to push the US toward some retaliatory military action?
The perpetrator must have realized in advance that the anthrax attack would result in the strengthening of US defense and response capabilities. This is not likely to have been a goal of anti-American terrorists, who would also be unlikely to warn the victims in advance. Perhaps the perpetrator stood to gain in some way from increased funding and recognition for biodefense programs. Financial beneficiaries would include the BioPort Corp., the source of the US anthrax vaccine, and other potential vaccine contractors.
Expert analysts for the FBI believe that the letters were written by a Westerner, not a Middle Easterner or Muslim, although the text was clearly intended to imply the latter.
The choice of a variety of media as targets seems to have been cleverly designed to ensure a broad spectrum of publicity about the attacks. The choice of Senators Daschle and Leahy suggests that the perpetrator may lean to the political right and may have some specific grudge against those Senators.
The perpetrator successfully covered every personal trace when he prepared and mailed the letters, which suggests that he had forensic training or experience.
Even if the perpetrator did not make the anthrax himself, just filling the letters with it was a dangerous operation. The perpetrator therefore must have received the anthrax vaccine recently (it requires a yearly booster shot). The vaccine is in short supply and is not generally accessible, and vaccination records are undoubtedly available. The perpetrator also appears to have special expertise in evading contamination while handling weaponized anthrax.
Government Statements, Actions and Chronology
On 13 Jan. 02 Homeland Security Director Thomas Ridge said "the primary direction of the investigation is turned inward" toward domestic terrorists.
On 2 Dec. 01 a law enforcement official close to the federal investigation called the concept of a government insider, or someone in contact with an insider, “the most likely hypothesis…it’s definitely reasonable.” Another American official was quoted in the same article saying that, in addition to military laboratories, "there are other government and contractor facilities that do classified work with access to dangerous strains, but it’s highly likely that the material in the anthrax letters came from a person or persons who really had great expertise. We haven’t seen any other artifacts that point us elsewhere."
Secret or questionable biodefense projects tend to be given to the CIA, DOE or other agencies and contractors instead of to DOD, in order to maintain deniability (for example, only DOD programs have been reported by the US in the annual information exchange about biodefense activities, under the Biological Weapons Convention). Many contractor scientists work in government labs. A CIA spokesman says that CIA scientists work with other government agencies and contractors on the biodefense program.
Chronology: Analytical data on the anthrax in the letters became available to investigators in late October, 2001. The FBI then began questioning former government scientists. On 31 Oct. it was reported that the US rejected a UN resolution offered by France to condemn the anthrax attack, on the grounds that it could have been domestic terrorism. On 9 Nov. the FBI released a profile of the perpetrator as a lone, male domestic terrorist, obviously one with a scientific background and laboratory experience who could handle hazardous materials. In early Dec. the FBI said it was investigating government and contractor labs possessing the Ames strain, and individuals who had access to them. On 16 Dec. the FBI said it was focusing on a contractor that worked with the CIA. At about the same time the FBI said it was interested in non-military individuals who had received the anthrax vaccine.
John Bolton, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, said on 19 Nov. that “We don’t know…at the moment, in a way that we could make public, where the anthrax attacks came from.” Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, recipient of one of the anthrax letters and in frequent contact with investigators, said on 8 Dec. that the perpetrator was probably someone with a military background. Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said on 17 Dec. that it is increasingly "looking like it was a domestic source."
After a series of uncontrolled statements to the media, relevant experts have been asked to keep quiet and, in some cases, appear to have been asked to "correct" former statements.
Possible Portrait of the Anthrax Perpetrator
Insider in US biodefense, doctoral degree in a relevant branch of biology
Experienced and skilled in working with hazardous pathogens, including anthrax, and avoiding contamination
Works for a CIA contractor in Washington, DC area
Has up-to-date vaccination with anthrax vaccine
Has clearance for access to classified information
Worked in USAMRIID laboratory in the past, in some capacity, and has access now
Knows Bill Patrick and has probably learned a thing or two about weaponization from him, informally
Has had training or experience in covering evidence
May have had an UNSCOM connection
Has had a dispute with a government agency
Has a private location where the materials for the attack were accumulated and prepared
Worked on the letters alone or with peripheral encouragement and assistance
Fits FBI profile
Has the necessary expertise, access and a past history indicating appropriate capabilities and temperament
Has been questioned by FBI
A recent report by the Congressional General Accounting Office, as well as many recent statements by military and non-governmental experts in the BW field, holds that terrorists are unlikely to be able to mount a major biological attack without substantial assistance from a government sponsor. The recent anthrax attack was a minor one but nonetheless we now see that it was made possible by a sophisticated government program. It is reassuring to know that it was probably not perpetrated by a lone terrorist without state support.
It is not reassuring, however, to discover that secret US programs may have been the source of that support, and that security is so dangerously lax in military or defense contractor laboratories. US government insistence on pursuing and maintaining the secrecy of elaborate biological threat assessment activities is undermining the prohibitions of the Biological Weapons Convention and encouraging biological weapons proliferation in other countries, which in turn may support bioterrorist attacks on the American public. Future deterrence, and the peace of mind of the American people, require that the perpetrator must be publicly identified and brought to justice without delay.
LABORATORIES THAT HAVE WORKED WITH THE AMES STRAIN OF ANTHRAX
(Information obtained from open sources)
USAMRID # +
Dugway Proving Ground (Utah) # * +
Naval Research Medical Center/Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and other associated military labs (MD) #
Battelle Memorial Institute (Ohio; plus laboratories in many other locations) # * +
Duke University Medical School, Clinical Microbiology Lab (NC)
VA Medical Center, Durham (NC)
USDA laboratory and Iowa State College of Veterinary Medicine, Ames (Iowa)
LSU College of Veterinary Medicine * +
Northern Arizona State University (Arizona) * +
Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute (IL)
University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, Albuquerque (NM) * +
Chemical and Biological Defense Establishment, Porton Down (UK) * +
CAMR, Porton (UK) *
Defense Research Establishment, Suffield (CA) * +
BioPort Corp (MI)
In addition, CDC, NIH, Los Alamos and a few others may have the Ames strain; the Institute for Genomic Research (MD) says they have the Ames DNA but not the bacteria.
# indicates laboratories in the US that are estimated to be more likely than the others to have weaponization capabilities
* Obtained through a FOIA request by the Washington Post (article Nov 30, 01)
+ indicates acknowledged recipients of the Ames strain from USAMRIID
VI. Ancilary Materials From Other Sources
Particularly relevant quotations are bold-faced.
1. FBI Letter to Members of the American Society for Microbiology
January 29, 2002
FROM: Van Harp, Assistant Director, Washington Field Office
Federal Bureau of Investigation
On September 18, 2001, two copies of an identical letter were mailed in separate envelopes from Trenton, NJ, one to "Editor, New York Post" and the other to "Tom Brokaw, NBC TV." Each letter contained a significant quantity of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis.
On October 9, 2001, two additional copies of a slightly different letter were mailed from Trenton, NJ, the first to "Senator (Tom) Daschle" and the second to "Senator (Patrick) Leahy." Each of these letters again contained Bacillus anthracis but of a better quality than the letters mailed to New York.
As a result of these mailings and the resulting bacterial infections, there are five innocent persons who are dead, including a ninety-four year old Connecticut Woman. Additional cases of cutaneous anthrax have infected numerous individuals including a seven month old baby in New York City.
I would like to appeal to the talented men and women of the American Society for Microbiology to assist the FBI in identifying the person who mailed these letters. It is very likely that one or more of you know this individual. A review of the information-to-date in this matter leads investigators to believe that a single person is most likely responsible for these mailings. This person is experienced working in a laboratory. Based on his or her selection of the Ames strain of Bacillus anthracis one would expect that this individual has or had legitimate access to select biological agents at some time. This person has the technical knowledge and/or expertise to produce a highly refined and deadly product. This person has exhibited a clear, rational thought process and appears to be very organized in the production and mailing of these letters. The perpetrator might be described as "stand-offish" and likely prefers to work in isolation as opposed to a group/team setting. It is possible this person used off-hours in a laboratory or may have even established an improvised or concealed facility comprised of sufficient equipment to produce the anthrax.
It is important to ensure that all relevant information, no matter how insignificant it may seem, is brought to the attention of the investigators in this case. If you believe that you have information that might assist in the identification of this individual, please contact the FBI via telephone at 1-800-CRIME TV (1-800-274-6388) or via email at the following website: Amerithrax@FBI.gov
There is also a $2.5 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible in this case.
[Note: The ASM cover letter, explaining the FBI request for the mailing, contains the following statement: "The action was criminal and not ideological."]
2. Salon Article
February 08, 2002
By Laura Rozen
Feb. 8, 2002 | WASHINGTON -- When Arthur O. Anderson, chief of clinical pathology at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), saw the anthrax sent to Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., last October, he was amazed.
"There was nothing there except spores," he told Salon. "Normally, if you take a crude preparation of anthrax spores, you see parts of degenerated bacteria. But this stuff was highly refined."
Another former Army lab scientist characterized the sample as "very, very good."
Anderson isn't drawing conclusions about where the anthrax came from -- perhaps in part because the subject is deeply sensitive at the U.S. Army's own biodefense lab, which could find itself at the center of the investigation. But conversations with dozens of scientists and experienced biodefense hands reveal a growing belief that last fall's anthrax letter culprit is most likely an experienced bioweapons scientist. And while Franz and others note that there are Iraqi and Russian scientists with the skills to pull off the complex anthrax-mail attack, many experts now believe the culprit worked at a U.S. bioweapons facility.
Only a few dozen individuals in the U.S. possess the expertise to produce the sophisticated anthrax specimen sent to Daschle, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and at least three media outlets last fall. There may be as many as 200 Russian scientists capable of such work, and perhaps 10 Iraqis. But certain clues have convinced many -- though not all -- bioweapons experts who've followed the FBI investigation closely that the anthrax in the letters most likely came from a U.S. lab. That's chiefly because Ames strain anthrax, the type used in the letters, has been distributed by USAMRIID to about 20 U.S labs since 1981. Of those, only four facilities are believed to have the ability to produce the highly lethal, dry powder form of the Ames strain anthrax the lethal letters contained.
But despite signs that this should narrow the list of anthrax suspects to a few dozen people, the FBI appears to be casting a wider net in its investigation, which seems to have made fairly limited progress since the first victim, American Media Inc. photo editor Bob Stevens, died of anthrax inhalation four months ago.
Just two weeks ago, for instance, the FBI blanketed New Jersey, where at least four of the anthrax letters were mailed from, with fliers asking anyone who might have any knowledge of the culprit to contact the Bureau. This week, a University of Illinois law professor said that his university was one of dozens that recently received FBI subpoenas demanding that they turn over all documents relating to anthrax. And last week, the American Society for Microbiology in Washington announced that, at the request of the FBI, it had e-mailed its 40,000 members asking for possible clues. A spokesman for the group said that while they happily complied, they found the FBI request a bit perplexing. "As we understand, it's not just microbiology needed to create [the anthrax that was in the letters]," said the microbiology society's spokesman, who asked not to be named. "You need the microbiology skills to grow it, but to process it, you need a totally different set of skills," such as advanced chemical engineering training, he said.
The wide net cast by the FBI also baffles many scientists and other weapons nonproliferation experts familiar with the anthrax investigation, who think federal authorities could make more progress identifying the anthrax attacker by focusing on a much narrower group.
"If you want to see the intersection of the two talents -- the microbiologic ability to obtain and safely grow lots of anthrax, and the industrial ability to turn it into a dry powder -- then that would suggest to me that the person did indeed have some experience with the biological warfare program," says C.J. Peters, who, as a doctor specializing in hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola, worked at USAMRIID from 1977 to 1990, and later at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He now heads a new center for biodefense at the University of Texas at Galveston.
"Frankly, I find it puzzling," says Elisa D. Harris, who served as director of nonproliferation issues at the National Security Council from 1993 until 2001, and is currently a resident scholar at the University of Maryland. "Given what's been reported about the nature and quality of the anthrax material in the Daschle and Leahy letters, that the material itself almost certainly originated in the U.S. biological weapons program, they ought to be able to narrow the investigation to a fairly limited number of facilities. That number is certainly less than 20. So I find it puzzling that the FBI has approached all 40,000 members of the American Society of Microbiologists. I don't understand why they seem to be casting the net so widely."
The FBI says it is pursuing all avenues.
"We are continuing to investigate the source of the anthrax, and who might be responsible for sending it," an FBI spokesman told Salon. "That investigation is very thorough and very exhaustive and we have not ruled anything out. We have pursued thousands of leads."
Perhaps responding to a growing chorus of criticism, on Thursday unnamed FBI sources were quoted telling the Wall Street Journal that they are in fact zeroing in on U.S. weapons labs in their anthrax investigation. But the article also revealed a startling fact: The FBI has not yet subpoenaed employee records of the labs where Ames strain anthrax is worked with. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a biological arms control expert at the State University of New York at Purchase and chair of a bioweapons working group at the independent Federation of American Scientists, believes the FBI has intentionally dragged its heels on the weapons-lab angle, most likely for political reasons.
"For more than three months now the FBI has known that the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks is American," Rosenberg wrote to Salon on Tuesday. "This conclusion must have been based on the perpetrator's evident connection to the U.S. biodefense program."
Rosenberg has become convinced that the FBI knows who sent out the anthrax letters, but isn't arresting him, because he has been involved in secret biological weapons research that the U.S. does not want revealed. "This guy knows too much, and knows things the U.S. isn't very anxious to publicize," Rosenberg said in an interview. "Therefore, they don't want to get too close."
Other experts aren't ready to make that leap. Some suggest that the FBI may just be moving slowly and carefully to gather incriminating evidence that can stand up in court. Some blame simple incompetence. "Barbara says the FBI's been told to look for things, and they haven't," says Milton Leitenberg, a biological arms control expert at the University of Maryland. "I don't know. I think they [the FBI] are doing a half-assed job of it myself. But maybe other people would have done as bad a job, who knows."
But Jonathan A. King, a professor of microbiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he, too, is suspicious of the government's handling of the investigation.
"The first place one would have looked for the anthrax perpetrator is at the U.S. facilities where people have grants from the government to do biological defense research," King said in an interview. "But for months, there was no statement from any federal authorities naming these laboratories as under suspicion. It's extraordinary."
Although Rosenberg goes further than most experts in criticizing the FBI's anthrax investigation, her analysis of the case has become must reading for scientists and congressional staffers concerned about biodefense issues. (An FBI spokesman contacted by phone Thursday says the agency, too, is reading her work, but won't comment on it.) A microbiologist by training, Rosenberg worked as a cancer researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and as a professor of biochemistry at Cornell Medical College. A decade ago, she founded the Federation of American Scientists' biological and chemical weapons program, which she now heads.
In her analysis of the details known about the anthrax attacks to date, she has built a persuasive and disturbing case that the anthrax culprit is a deep insider to the U.S. government's biological weapons program. Her conclusion is based on a collection of facts that point to a smaller and smaller number of individuals who could have met all the criteria for producing, handling and sending out the anthrax letters. The perpetrator seemed to have advanced expertise and experience in biological weapons like anthrax, for instance, and access to the technology to produce and refine it. He or she (but most think it's a he) probably would have had to have access to the anthrax vaccine, which is not widely available, in order not to succumb to the disease himself -- which means records of anthrax vaccinations, which require a yearly booster shot, would be available to further help identify the person.
In addition, the perpetrator used a highly sophisticated, lethal powder form of the Ames strain of anthrax. Although the strain itself came into the possession of USAMRIID in 1981, and was distributed from there for research purposes to about 20 labs, only about four facilities in the U.S. are believed to have the capability for "weaponizing" dry anthrax -- which basically means refining or cultivating a pure sample whose spores are so tiny and uniform they can easily be inhaled into the lungs.
Even the FBI seems to acknowledge the anthrax suspect has technical expertise in biology. In the letter sent to the 40,000 members of the American Society for Microbiology, Van Harp, assistant director of the FBI's Washington field office, told recipients: "It is very likely that one or more of you know this individual. A review of the information to date in this matter leads investigators to believe that a single person is most likely responsible for these mailings. This person is experienced working in a laboratory. Based on his or her selection of the Ames strain of Bacillus anthracis, one would expect that this individual has or had legitimate access to select biological agents at some time.
"This person has the technical knowledge and/or expertise to produce a highly refined and deadly product," the letter continued. "This person has exhibited a clear, rational thought process and appears to be very organized in the production and mailing of these letters. The perpetrator might be described as 'stand-offish' and likely prefers to work in isolation as opposed to a group/team setting. It is possible this person used off-hours in a laboratory or may have even established an improvised or concealed facility comprised of sufficient equipment to produce the anthrax."
Rosenberg says the perpetrator has dangled plenty of clues in front of investigators. One of those clues, she says, is a letter sent to the military police at the Quantico, Va., Marine base (and forwarded to the FBI) in late September -- well before the public was aware that anthrax was being sent in the mail -- that tried to frame a former U.S. biowarfare researcher as a bioterrorist. That anonymous letter stated that the writer had worked with the man, Dr. Ayaad Assaad, and had details about him that only an insider would know (although some details in the letter turned out to be incorrect.) The FBI has cleared Assaad of any possible connection to the case, but Assaad himself has criticized the agency for not zeroing in on his accuser as a likely culprit, since that person seemed to have foreknowledge about the anthrax attacks.
"The perpetrator has left multiple, blatant clues, seemingly on purpose," Rosenberg writes. "Second letters, addressed similarly to the anthrax letters and containing [talc] powder ... The postal addresses and dates of these letters map out an itinerary of the perpetrator(s) ... which single out the perpetrator from the other likely suspects."
Rosenberg also says three senior U.S. biodefense officials have given the same name of a likely suspect to the FBI. She would not reveal that person's name, but said he is a former USAMRIID scientist, who she understands is working for a defense or CIA contractor in the Washington metropolitan area. Rosenberg says that the FBI has questioned the individual, along with many other former biodefense scientists.
Interestingly, William C. Patrick III, the founder of the U.S. military's biological weapons program, and the man who taught the folks at the Army's Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah how to make dry anthrax (using a harmless anthrax substitute, though), is no longer willing to talk to the press. Contacted by Salon Thursday, Patrick said that he has been misquoted in the media, and doesn't wish to comment on the investigation anymore. Rosenberg believes that the anthrax perpetrator may know Patrick, because the attack resembles a classified study that Patrick wrote for a CIA contractor a couple of years ago, which tried to predict how an anthrax attack through the mail would work.
Based on all the evidence, Rosenberg sums up her conclusions this way: The perpetrator, she believes, is "angry at some biodefense agency or component, and he is driven to demonstrate, in a spectacular way, his capabilities and the government's inability to respond. He is cocksure that he can get away with it. Does he know something that he believes to be sufficiently damaging to the United States to make him untouchable by the FBI?"
But C.J. Peters, the former USAMRIID and CDC doctor, says the FBI's dragnet to date is just standard operating procedure, and he doubts that it's been a ploy to hide secret weapons research.
"The FBI throws the net as wide as they possibly can," Peters said. "They put hundreds of people on this case and turn the crank and look for little clues and putting A and B together. I could imagine that maybe, just maybe, there might be someone in the Defense Department who says, I don't want this to be traced back to Dugway [the Army proving grounds in Utah]. I could imagine a person thinking that. But I couldn't imagine that the FBI would care if it were traced back to Dugway. The FBI guy's thinking, 'Hey, man, I got them. I am going to be famous now. We are going to be heroes, we found it.' I don't believe it's a grand government-wide conspiracy." That said, Peters does have concerns about the FBI's ability to use the scientific information the physical anthrax provides.
"I'm not sure the FBI understands how to use the biological information," Peters added. "They think they are going to solve this the way they solve all other crimes. But it also seems possible to me they may be overlooking some helpful hints from the biology of the anthrax itself. I wonder if they are making full use of everything that's known about the biology." And while few other scientists admit to sharing Rosenberg's dark conclusions about why the FBI has been slow to solve the anthrax case, some believe that casting the net widely served multiple political purposes for the Bush administration.
"From the moment one saw that it was highly concentrated Ames strain anthrax, the first lead candidate should have been a U.S. laboratory with a military contract," says MIT's Jonathan King. "Instead, we heard no such public admission. Immediately they were talking about Iraq and al-Qaida, when the largest such facilities are in the U.S. That leads me to think two things: the U.S. government is covering up the fact that the most likely source of the anthrax was not al-Qaida, was not foreign terrorists, but was a home-grown individual. And secondly, it was turned into part of the anti-terrorist propaganda."
Indeed, while in the early days of the anthrax letter scare, U.S. political leaders said they were actively looking to see if there was a connection between the anthrax and Iraq and al-Qaida, those views are now in the minority. On Dec. 17, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that it is "increasingly looking like it was a domestic source." On Jan. 13, Homeland Defense Director Thomas Ridge told media, "the primary direction of the investigation is turned inward." Two weeks ago, at a New Jersey press conference, an FBI official said the investigation was focusing on a U.S. government scientist.
It would be easier to dismiss Rosenberg's fears of a high-level U.S. coverup as cloak-and-dagger paranoia if it weren't for the fact that U.S. bioweapons programs are so secretive and mysterious. There is growing evidence that the programs, which are governed by international law and are supposed to be under congressional oversight, are more widespread and ambitious than officials have admitted.
Many experts are still angry that the U.S. walked out of the Biological Weapons Convention conference this past July in Geneva, after the Bush administration rejected language that would have subjected signatory nations, including the U.S., to inspections to make sure they're not engaging in any prohibited offensive bioweapons development. "They [U.S. government officials] don't want the treaty to be tighter, and they don't want people coming here and investigating our facilities and stockpiles," says Meryl Nass, an MIT-trained physician who has long advocated for stricter arms control. "So it turns out that the U.S. did have this dry weaponized anthrax after all, and that was a big secret. But no one has really discussed the implications of this. They completely avoided the issue. But the rest of the biodefense establishment around the world knew exactly what it meant. They knew the U.S. had basically transgressed the weapons convention."
And even if the FBI isn't intentionally trying to protect bioweapons secrets from being revealed, some experts worry that the proliferation of bioweapons programs -- some of them still secret -- could be hampering the FBI's anthrax investigation.
"I think a number of us were surprised by some of the revelations" of secret bioweapons programs, says Elisa D. Harris, the former Clinton administration NSC official. Harris thinks it's possible the FBI itself is not aware of all of the biodefense work being contracted out by the U.S. government, because it is such a highly secretive and compartmentalized program.
Harris says she was shocked to read in the New York Times last September about biodefense research programs that she herself had not known about, although she had served for eight years in the White House as the point person for weapons of mass destruction nonproliferation issues.
On Sept. 4, 2001 -- just a week before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Times reported that from 1997-2000, the CIA conducted a program called Clear Vision, to build a model of a Soviet germ bomblet. The program was carried out at the West Jefferson, Ohio, labs of Battelle Memorial Institute, a defense and CIA contractor. In addition, the Times story reported, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon's intelligence arm, hired Battelle last year to create a type of genetically enhanced version of anthrax, a "superbug," to see if the anthrax vaccine currently in use by the Pentagon was effective against it. A second Pentagon program, called Bacchus, involved building a germ factory in the Nevada desert from scratch, but reportedly did not use real germs, but simulants that mimic their dispersal.
"I was only aware of one of those three programs," Harris says. "I was never told by the Defense Department about the other two. I was also not aware that since the early 1990s, the U.S. Army has apparently been producing small quantities of dry, very potent Ames strain anthrax."
An FBI spokesman said he knew of no effort tohamper the bureau's investigation. But whatever is stalling the investigation -- the forensic complexity of the case, bureaucratic resistance to FBI scrutiny, or a darker scenario of the sort Rosenberg describes -- Harris and others say it's now clear the U.S. biodefense program lacks proper oversight. And some experts even think it could take a congressional investigation to get to the bottom of what has stalled the anthrax investigation -- especially to answer questions about why the FBI didn't beat a quicker path to U.S. bioweapons labs.
"If it turns out that the anthrax that killed 5 people and injured a dozen and resulted in tens of thousands of people having to take antibiotics, if that anthrax came from the U.S. biodefense program, that just underscores the importance of the Congress looking into this program and getting a really comprehensive picture about what has been taking place.
"There has been no real serious oversight of the U.S. biological defense program for a very long time," Harris added. "And I think this is a good moment, given the impact of the anthrax attacks, for Congress to take responsibility."
[Note: This story has been corrected since it was first published.]
3. Trenton Times Article, February 19, 2002
by JOSEPH DEE, Staff Writer
PRINCETON BOROUGH -- An advocate for the control of biological weapons who has been gathering information about last autumn's anthrax attacks said yesterday the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a strong hunch about who mailed the deadly letters.
But the FBI might be "dragging its feet" in pressing charges because the suspect is a former government scientist familiar with "secret activities that the government would not like to see disclosed," said Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Chemical and Biological Weapons Program.
Rosenberg, who spoke to about 65 students, faculty members and others at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, said the FBI has known of the suspect since October and, according to her "government insider" sources, has interrogated him more than once.
The investigation into five anthrax-laced letters and several other hoax letters -- all mailed last fall, including several processed by Trenton Main Post Office in Hamilton -- was the focus of Rosenberg's talk. She also gave her thoughts about what the government should do to control biological weapons.
"There are a number of insiders -- government insiders -- who know people in the anthrax field who have a common suspect," Rosenberg said. "The FBI has questioned that person more than once, . . . so it looks as though the FBI is taking that person very seriously."
She said it is quite possible the suspect is a scientist who formerly worked at the U.S. government's military laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md.
Rosenberg said she has been gathering information from press reports, congressional hearings, Bush administration news conferences and government insiders she would not name.
During a brief question-and-answer session after her talk, one man wondered whether biological agents truly pose significant dangers to the public, given the limited number of deaths and illnesses caused by five anthrax-laced letters.
Without mentioning other biological agents that are far more deadly and contagious than anthrax, Rosenberg said the potential for a biological attack is "catastrophic."
Another man wondered if the FBI and other investigators might be focusing too narrowly on one scientist, saying, "New Jersey is the epicenter of the international pharmaceutical industry," and many people in those labs presumably have the skills to handle and refine anthrax.
"I think your argument would have been a good one earlier on, but I think that the results of the analyses (of the letters and the anthrax in them) show that access to classified information was essential," Rosenberg said. "And that rules out most of the people in the pharmaceutical industry. . . . It's possible, but they would have had to have access to the information," Rosenberg said.
Picking up the conversational thread, another man said, "People know a lot, and it's a question of what they choose to focus their knowledge on. Things are invented in parallel," he said.
-- -- --
She said the evidence points to a person who has experience handling anthrax; who has been vaccinated and has received annual booster shots; and who had access to classified government information about how to chemically treat the bacterial spores to keep them from clumping together, which allows them to remain airborne.
"We can draw a likely portrait of the perpetrator as a former Fort Detrick scientist who is now working for a contractor in the Washington, D.C., area," Rosenberg said. "He had reason for travel to Florida, New Jersey and the United Kingdom. . . . There is also the likelihood the perpetrator made the anthrax himself. He grew it, probably on a solid medium and weaponized it at a private location where he had accumulated the equipment and the material.
"We know that the FBI is looking at this person, and it's likely that he participated in the past in secret activities that the government would not like to see disclosed," Rosenberg said. "And this raises the question of whether the FBI may be dragging its feet somewhat and may not be so anxious to bring to public light the person who did this.
"I know that there are insiders, working for the government, who know this person and who are worried that it could happen that some kind of quiet deal is made that he just disappears from view," Rosenberg said.
"This, I think, would be a really serious outcome that would send a message to other potential terrorists, that (they) would think they could get away with it.
"So I hope that doesn't happen, and that is my motivation to continue to follow this and to try to encourage press coverage and pressure on the FBI to follow up and publicly prosecute the perpetrator."
-- -- --
She expressed disappointment that the U.S. government last July decided against signing an international biological weapons treaty that would ban nations from developing such weapons.
"It became clear from congressional testimony that the reason for this rejection was the need to protect our secret projects," Rosenberg said.
During the question-and-answer period, one woman said, "I'm not sure that I understood you completely, but it seems to me that the United States government has a double-standard," of wanting other nations to comply with a weapons ban but wanting freedom to pursue its own program.
"I'm totally shocked by this information," she said, sending a wave of laughter through the lecture hall.
"They make no bones about it," Rosenberg replied. "On many occasions they've argued that rules should be for the bad guys, not the good guys."
Rosenberg said she worries about an "enormous increase" in money in the Bush budget for research into bioterrorism agents. "There is already a rush for this funding," she said.
The number of researchers and labs ought to be tightly controlled, she said. Under the current budget proposal, however, she says the government will be spreading money around to "a lot more people and a lot more laboratories around the country from which bioterrorists can emerge, as one just did.
"By spreading around this access and this knowledge, we're asking for trouble."
4. AP Article, February 25, 2002
FBI Probing Several Anthrax Suspects
....White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said there are several suspects and the FBI has not narrowed that list down to one....President Bush wants the case resolved quickly, Fleischer said, but also wants the FBI to take its time and "build a case that would stand in court, that is thorough, that is conclusive." ...Fleischer said the source of the anthrax definitely was domestic, and the block handwriting on the letters seemed "chosen by design" to throw off investigators.