- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2002

More than seven months after anthrax bacteria killed the first of five victims, the government has yet to make an arrest in the case although authorities, armed with a new genetic fingerprint of the lethal virus, promise that progress is being made.
The new genetic fingerprint, outlined by the Maryland-based Institute for Genomic Research, is expected to allow investigators to compare the anthrax bacteria found in letters sent last year with strains maintained at various labs nationwide.
The results of those comparisons could be used to eliminate some of the labs to determine the bacteria's specific source, although that process is expected to be lengthy.
The FBI-led inquiry continues to focus on a handful of potential suspects, likely including a current or former U.S. scientist, perhaps a prominent one. But authorities denied reports earlier this year that the investigation had focused on an ex-scientist at a government laboratory.
Law enforcement officials and biochemical experts told The Washington Times in February that the FBI investigation had targeted an unidentified scientist after extensive interviews with more than 300 persons associated with the government's anthrax program.
They said the scientist was identified from a pool of 50 researchers known to have the technical ability to produce the sophisticated weapons-grade anthrax strain found in the letters sent to Florida, New York, Connecticut and Washington, D.C.
"I think this was done by someone with years of laboratory experience, not somebody who downloaded a recipe off the Internet and stirred it up with a wooden spoon," said Dr. David Franz, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq and scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases.
Dr. Franz, who now works for the Southern Research Institute, a defense contractor, said attaining the high concentration of spores found in the anthrax letters sent last year to the Senate would have required a "high level of laboratory experience but not necessarily a high degree of laboratory infrastructure."
"The relatively small quantity of anthrax-powder that was recovered by authorities indicates that someone with a makeshift laboratory if they really knew what they were doing could have made this concentration of anthrax," he said.
Dr. Franz declined to speculate on the specific origin of the anthrax, but noted that in addition to scientists in the United States, there are many others around the world, including some in Iraq, with the skills to create a high concentration of spores.
However, many biological weapons experts and law enforcement authorities believe the culprit worked at a U.S. bioweapons facility.
Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a microbiologist at State University of New York who heads the biological arms-control panel for the Federation of American Scientists, said the FBI had been working on a "short list of suspects" for some time, and agents had narrowed the list to "a particular person a member of the biochemical community."
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said investigators have not narrowed the case to a single suspect and had not identified which of the nation's research laboratories may have been the source of the anthrax.
The FBI has consistently maintained that the anthrax investigation is on track, and that thousands of leads have been pursued by a task force of investigators under the direction of FBI Assistant Director Van Harp, who heads the bureau's Washington field office, and Chief Postal Inspector Kenneth C. Weaver.
The anthrax used in the attacks has been identified as the Ames strain, first isolated in a Texas cow in 1981 and eventually used as the nation's scientific standard. Hundreds of labs eventually received samples and, over time, the samples developed individual mutations.
Dr. Franz said that there are "very few" laboratories capable of producing the dry powder form of anthrax used in the attacks, but that one of the complexities of tracing the strains' origin is that biological agents generally are far more difficult to keep track of than chemical or radiological agents.
"The thing about biological agents when compared to radiological agents is that someone could steal just enough biological agent to fit under their fingernail and you won't know it's gone until they come back a month later with a whole truck load of it," he said. "If someone steals enough radiological or chemical agent to hurt people, its absence will be immediately noticed."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide