When anthrax first turned up in letters to
journalists and members of Congress last October, much of the public, still
shaken from the September 11 attacks, naturally assumed that the perpetrator was
an outside terrorist gr oup like al-Qaeda. But as investigators have honed in on
domestic facilities and possibly even domestic suspects, the FBI faces a
difficult test. Suppose the attacks were an inside job -- by, say, one of the
U.S. Army's own biowarfare scientists. What scientific authorities could the FBI
turn to if it's effectively investigating the very labs that do its testing?
The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at
Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, for example, is charged with running
diagnostic tests on the anthrax found in letters sent to Senators Tom Daschle and
Patrick Leahy. And while FBI sources say they're happy with USAMRIID's level of
cooperation, there's no getting around the fact that some of that lab's
employee s, former employees, and contract workers belong to the FBI's pool of
potential suspects. After all, they know how to grow and weaponize anthrax, and
they have access to spores.
"There are really only a few places weapons-grade anthrax could have come
from, including Dugway [Army Proving Grounds in Utah], Fort Detrick, and other
labs contracted by the military," said David Fidler, a University of Indiana law
professor who has written about the legal implications of biological toerrorism.
"In a way, you have one arm of the executive branch investigating another. And
the FBI doesn't have the built-in competencies to conduct an investigation alone
which is based on public health principles and science."
In fact, the FBI has hir ed some 20 expert consultants to assist with the
anthrax investigation, and most of them belong to the government bio-defense
establishment. One measure of how very close the investigators are to the
investigated is the fact that in March, those consultan ts were asked to take
polygraph tests. "Did you do it?" the experts were reportedly asked, and, "Do you
know who did it?" Likewise, even as some FBI investigators set up shop at
USAMRIID, working side by side with scientists to trace the source of the
ant hrax, another FBI team descended on Fort Detrick in February to question lab
employees about suspicious activity they might have seen -- and to administer
polygraph tests to those with access to suites where anthrax and other deadly
germs are handled.
According to one USAMRIID scientist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity,
all of the lab's current employees have been cleared. But sources close to the
investigation suggest that the FBI also has taken an interest in former USAMRIID
scientists. As employees of other government agencies and contracting firms, such
former laboratory employees might have continued access to military bio-defense
But here the FBI has hit a particularly baffling roadblock. The bureeau's
investigators are not confident that other government agencies, such as the CIA
and the Department of Defense, have let them in on the full range of bio-defense
work they have commissioned. And this lack of full disclosure may not just be a
matter o f stonewalling, one former FBI investigator suggested. Rather, FBI
investigators may not have the top level security clearances that would allow CIA
or Pentagon officials to disclose all they know. The result is an almost comical
impasse of mutual distrus t and bureaucratic red tape. If the FBI can't
investigate the U.S. bio-defense establishment, who can?
It's an increasingly important question, given the apparent direction of the
FBI's probe. The FBI is particularly interested in U.S. military bio-de fense
laboratories, well-placed sources suggest, because the anthrax in the letters was
processed into a finely spored, chemically fluffed, aerosolized dry powder -- a
form consistent with that used to test American defenses against biological
weapons. Sc ientists who have seen photos of the spores also remark on their
extraordinary degree of concentration. At more than a trillion spores per gram,
the powder's potency surpasses what was achieved at the height of the U.S.
offensive biological weapons progra m, which ended in 1970. But given the secrecy
that surrounds such research, investigators may not yet know what innovations the
U.S. government has made in chemically processing germ weapons since the program
officially ended. It wxasn't until last December, in fact, that the U.S. Army
admitted to making small amounts of the lethal, dry, powder form of anthrax for
testing purposes out at Dugway since the 1990s. Preliminary reports suggest that
the anthrax in the Leahy letter was pro cessed using methods and chemicals
different from those of known government biowarfare programs. But could there be
programs the FBI doesn't know about?
For all that, and despite its public insistence that it has not zeroed in on a
suspect or ruled an ything out, the FBI does appear to be making progress on the
case. And from the look of it, that progress is taking the investigation to the
bio-defense establishment's doorstep. The investigation's "office of origin"
remains the FBI's Washington field of fice, but sources say that in the last
month, the bureau has stepped up activity at its field office in Baltimore,
Maryland. Moreover, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, an interagency body that
specializes in tracking domestic terrorists, has also been mobi lized on the
anthrax case -- yet another indication that investigators may believe the
perpetrator was not international but homegrown.
Identifying the lab from which the anthrax in the letters originated will
supply one major piece of the puzzle. But investigators point out that this
information is far from sufficient. Indeed, the classic criminal investigator's
questions -- who had not just the weapon, but the motive and the opportunity? --
will most likely be addressed by thoe gumshoe special agents out in the field
questioning people, gathering testimony, and testing hypotheses. Already
investigators have identified the Xerox machine used to photocopy the letters
sent to Democratic senators, NBC, and the New York Post last fall, a
source close to the investigation said. The machine is "publicly accessible" and
is in New Jersey, but in what town or what facility was not disclosed.
The question of motive remains perhaps the most perplexing. What do the
letters, whic h advised recipients to take "penacilin" and deliberately
disseminated a noncontagious germ, reveal about the perpetrator's intentions?
Some sources speculate that the perpetrator could be a biowarfare expert out to
prove that the United States needs to t ake more seriously its vulnerability to
biological attack. "This is not about killing five Americans," mused Clint Van
Zandt, a former FBI profiler who worked on the Ted Kaczsynski "Unabomber" and
Timothy McVeigh cases. "This is about sending a message. W hen we find this person
and say, 'But, man, you are a serial killer,' the guy is going to say, 'Hey look,
this threat has been there for a long time. I simply took advantage of September
11 to get your attention. I caused this country to prepare for the next big
incident of the twenty-first century. Without me, tens of thousands would die.'"
It's a message the U.S. bio-defense community overwhelmingly endorses, whether
or not the anthrax perpetrator sprang from its ranks.