- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

After a long, clinical search for the terrorist who killed five persons by mailing anthrax-laced letters, the FBI appears to be zeroing in on a chief suspect. As Jerry Seper of The Washington Times reported this week, the FBI has focused much of its attention on a scientist who probably acquired the necessary access and expertise while working at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. That individual emerged after FBI investigators conducted more than 300 extensive interviews with individuals involved with the government's biological weapons program. According to Mr. Seper, the field of suspects narrowed even further after investigators determined that the guilty party had probably sent an anonymous letter falsely accusing Ayaad Assaad, an Egyptian-born scientist, of the mailings.

While the White House and the FBI have denied that there is a "prime" suspect, it seems hard to believe that the field has not narrowed to a few individuals. After all, the criminology and epidemiology investigations have seemed to parallel and, in some cases, complement one another: While FBI investigators have been picking apart the scanty evidence provided by the letters, scientists have been picking apart the anthrax bacterium that was put into the envelopes. In fact, collaborating teams of researchers at Northern Arizona University and the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville recently discovered a way to use tiny genetic differences to distinguish between otherwise virtually identical variants of the Ames strain of anthrax. Those differences might well point to the exact origin of the material used in the attacks.

Given those new techniques, it isn't surprising that the Justice Department just subpoenaed the Ames strain of anthrax from several laboratories. However, those subpoenas could have gone out four months ago, when FBI investigators determined the strain of anthrax used. While that might be a consequence of the difficulty of the investigation or the need to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, the FBI has had an unfortunate habit of foot-dragging during this probe. It's worth remembering that it took FBI investigators more than two weeks to act on an anthrax-laden letter that subsequently sickened an assistant to Tom Brokaw.

As Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a microbiologist at State University of New York and head of the arms-control panel for the Federation of American Scientists, told Mr. Seper, "It has taken a long time for the FBI to identify any suspects in this case, and I don't know why, considering that the person responsible for this comes from a very narrow list of people who have the necessary skill to do what was done." Still, if the identity of the anthrax attacker is not completely clear, the crime is manifestly clear. So is the punishment. Premeditated murder is a capital offense. Capital punishment is the only appropriate penalty.

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