Anthrax case homes in on unusual suspect

The FBI narrows list of people it wants to interview to 30 scientists at two army labs.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The FBI has someone in mind. He is a loner, a science nerd with access to a sophisticated lab. He has a reason to be peeved, and he's familiar with the Trenton, N.J., area. This Unabomber-like person, officials say, mailed the anthrax-laced letters last fall that resulted in five deaths.

Narrowing its nine-month search in the past two weeks, the FBI has closed in on two government labs that work with anthrax, and to several scientists who have the expertise, the access, and possibly the motive to carry out the worst bioweapons attack against this country.

A government official says they are now focused "more heavily than other places" on the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) – the Pentagon's primary biodefense research center – and the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. He says the FBI has narrowed the list of people it's "interested in interviewing" to some 30 people – all US-based biological warfare experts.

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Jerrold Post, professor of psychiatry at The George Washington University and a former personality profiler for the CIA, says the FBI's personality sketch sounds quite accurate. But he says the perpetrator's characteristics are also what make this case so difficult to solve.

If it's a group, Dr. Post says, it's much easier to track – there are financial transactions, phone calls, and often paper trails of some sort. But when it's one troubled individual – like the Unabomber, who killed three people and injured 23 more over a 17-year period – it's very difficult to catch him unless he trips himself up (as by publishing his manifesto in a newspaper that his brother read). Everything points to "someone with technical expertise and ability," Post says.

Casting a wide net

The FBI has questioned several biodefense experts recently, and searched several private homes – with their owners' permission. They've interviewed one former USAMRIID virologist four times and searched his home twice. And they are currently administering polygraph tests to more than 200 former and current employees of these two government labs which store quantities of anthrax spores.

The government official says this is just really "a lot of tedious spade-work."

A massive sleuthing effort

But this wearisome gumshoe effort has, in fact, become the FBI's second-largest inquiry – just behind the Sept. 11 hijackings investigation. The bureau has asked most of its field offices and overseas staff to help. So far, agents have interviewed some 5,000 people, issued 1,700 grand jury subpoenas, polygraphed hundreds of people, and created 112 databases just for this case. The bottom line hasn't been tallied, but both dollars and man-hours are up in the high millions. Still, it's not clear when the FBI will make an arrest. And its effort – sometimes called plodding – is coming under attack.

"I have been puzzled by the slow pace," says Jonathan Tucker, director of the chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation program at the Washington-based Monterey Institute. "It is hard to know if it is because [the FBI has] never done anything like this before and are on a steep learning curve, or if it's merely incompetence, or if something more nefarious is going on within the intelligence community."

Dr. Tucker is referring to charges lodged by several biodefense insiders, but especially those by the outspoken Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, chair of the Federation of American Scientists Working Group on Biological Weapons.

Controversial claims

She claims the FBI has long had genetic evidence that points to the USAMRIID as the source of the Ames strain of anthrax sent in the letters. Dr. Rosenberg, who says she's talked with the Senate Judiciary Committee staff, as well as FBI officials, says that early in the investigation, several biodefense insiders told the FBI that there were only 50 to 100 people "with the necessary expertise and access to do the job. Of these, most could probably be readily eliminated ... leaving, in the estimation of knowledgeable experts, a likely pool no larger than 10."

"Yet they've been casting a very broad net," she says. "It makes no sense."

She points out that the FBI did not open the envelope with the anthrax intact that was sent in October to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont until December, and didn't collect anthrax strains from labs for comparisons until March. The testing of those samples is still not complete.

Even so, the government official says they have not ruled anything out – including someone who doesn't fit the profile, such as a foreigner, or someone who doesn't work at a biodefense lab. The FBI may be reluctant to press its case to the DOJ until it has an airtight case (remember Richard Jewell and the Atlanta Olympics as well as Wen Ho Lee).

"The FBI will need enough solid evidence to bring to the DOJ [Department of Justice]. It's the DOJ that issues warrants – when they think the FBI has enough to go on," says Peter Crooks, a retired FBI official who specialized in counterterrorism.

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