- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

More than 1,000 biological detectors are sniffing mail across the country for dangerous contamination as the hunt goes on for whoever put anthrax in letters and killed five persons just after the September 11 attacks.

An anthrax case in Florida, reported five years ago today, brought the first hint of what turned out to be contamination of mail that reached the District, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey and raised fears nationwide.

Last month, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said that agents are still working on the aging anthrax case, and he declared it “will be solved and the person or persons responsible will be brought to justice.”

“From the outset, we have been open to any and all theories, and the investigation continues on any and all theories,” Mr. Mueller said.

The U.S. Postal Service has taken action to prevent a repeat.

“We have fully deployed the fleet of bio-detection systems” on canceling machines at 271 mail-processing locations, Postal Vice President Tom Day said.

A modified version for larger, flat mail items will be put into service next year, he said.

Installation of the current system cost $800 million, provided by Congress, and the post office is spending about $70 million to operate it. That annual cost is expected to climb to $120 million.

The detectors check for anthrax and two other biological hazards, which Mr. Day declined to identify.

Among those killed in 2001 were two postal workers at the District’s Brentwood mail processing facility.

Mr. Day said that workers now are trained to look for suspicious packages and call in postal inspectors if they detect something unusual.

Last week, the FBI denied it had overestimated the potency of the anthrax spores used in the killings.

Shortly after the attacks, reports said the spores contained additives and had been subjected to sophisticated milling — both techniques used in anthrax-based weapons — to make them more lethal.

But bureau officials now say that the early reports of weapons-grade anthrax were misconceptions.

If the anthrax used was less sophisticated than originally thought, that opens a wider field of potential suspects.

Investigators are looking at a small number of people in the United States and abroad because they fit some criterion, such as access to anthrax, said one official who declined to be identified because authorities are reluctant to discuss the details of ongoing investigations.

Neither that official nor any others involved with the case would discuss the status of Steven Hatfill, the former Army scientist once described by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft as a “person of interest” in the case.

Mr. Hatfill has sued the government, saying that leaked statements about him damaged his career.

There are 17 FBI agents and 10 postal inspectors assigned to the case. Investigators have conducted more than 9,100 interviews, issued more than 6,000 grand jury subpoenas and completed 67 searches.

Despite the installation of the detectors, many postal workers contend not enough has been done, said William Burrus, president of the American Postal Workers Union.

The units that have been installed are effective, Mr. Burrus said, but not all mail is processed in postal facilities. He said some is prepared by large business mailers and dropped off for delivery.

The detectors have conducted more than 3 million tests, screening about 60 billion pieces of mail with no false alarms. Postal contractors and the Defense Department worked together to devise the system.

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