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A year later, clues on anthrax still few

Sun Staff

It began with an ugly red bump on the middle finger of Johanna Huden's right hand. Huden, an editorial assistant for the New York Post, thought it was an insect bite.

In retrospect, Huden's infection, which appeared about Sept. 21 last year, would turn out to be the first sign of the first major bioterrorist attack in U.S. history. Her job opening the Post's mail had put her in contact with spores of Bacillus anthracis leaking from a poisoned letter to the editor - making her what epidemiologists call the "index case" of the anthrax outbreak.

The attacks turned the daily mail into a lethal weapon, killing five people and sickening at least 17 others, some of whom suffer lingering fatigue and other ailments a year later. Scientists have discovered how little they really knew about anthrax, considered until recently chiefly a threat to cattle in Third World countries. And the federal government has begun to pour billions of dollars into defense against bioterror - though some critics wonder whether the boom in germ studies might actually make the country less safe.

But even as the anthrax attacks have set off a scientific gold rush, the extensive criminal investigation that began a year ago this week has failed to identify the perpetrator. Despite the combined resources of the FBI and the Postal Inspection Service, the investigation has been widely criticized for unaccountable delays and questionable investigative methods.

In November, investigators knocked down the door of a house in Chester, Pa., shared by the city's health commissioner and director of lead-poisoning prevention, and conducted a 13-hour search in biohazard gear. The two officials, Drs. Irshad and Masood Shaikh, and city accountant Asif Kazi, all Pakistani natives, were questioned at length by FBI agents. Nothing more has happened, but an FBI spokeswoman says the investigation of the Shaikh brothers and Kazi "is still ongoing."

More recently, investigators have wound up in a public standoff with biodefense expert Dr. Steven J. Hatfill. With agents following him around the clock and conducting much-publicized searches of his former Frederick apartment, Hatfill has mounted a counter-campaign, saying the pursuit has destroyed the career and reputation of an innocent man. The FBI still appears to be focused on Hatfill, but the bureau has never named him as a suspect or made public any evidence linking him to the attacks.

For Huden, whose cutaneous anthrax infection left only a mottled scar on her finger, the FBI's failure to solve the anthrax case is frustrating and alarming.

"It's shocking that with so many agents, they couldn't find what's going on right here on U.S. soil," she says. "There's no closure to it. You don't know who did it. You don't know if they could do it again."

'We don't have a clue'

Experts who have watched the investigation unfold are beginning to wonder if the attacker will ever be identified.

"A year later it appears that collectively we don't have a clue," says David Siegrist, who studies bioterrorism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va.

Richard H. Ebright, a biochemist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has followed the case closely and says it has been plagued by inexcusable delays and a reliance on dubious methods.

"The investigation appears to have had a very slow start and appeared for a long time to be off-track," he says. "The investigators did not make use of the scientific resources available."

For example, by accessing research databases, the investigators should have been able to identify in a matter of minutes most of the institutions that had used the Ames strain of anthrax that was used in the attacks, Ebright says. Yet subpoenas for samples of Ames anthrax weren't sent until February - and then their receipt was delayed further while a storage room was prepared at the Army's biodefense center at Fort Detrick in Frederick.

"They could have collected samples in days or weeks instead of six to eight months," he says.

Similarly, not until August did investigators find a contaminated mailbox in the Princeton, N.J., business district, after testing 600 mailboxes along the postal route where the anthrax letters were most likely to have been mailed. Ebright says that by his rough calculation, three technicians should have been able to test 600 mailboxes in about two weeks, leaving open the question of why it took 10 months. "It's incomprehensible," he says.

Steven M. Block, a Stanford University biophysicist, points out that investigators just returned to Florida last month to further trace anthrax spores in the tabloid newspaper building where the first person to die of inhalation anthrax, photo editor Robert Stevens, worked. The building had been sealed off since November.

"That could have been done six months ago," Block says. "They look more like Keystone Kops with every tick of the clock."

The lack of expertise with anthrax hampered investigators, who often had to make up their techniques as they went along. Certain angles that looked promising - such as genetic fingerprinting to trace the mailed anthrax back to a particular lab - turned out to be dead ends. But inexplicably, agents took months to speak with any of the two dozen living U.S. scientists who made anthrax in the nation's old biological weapons program, and some have not been interviewed to this day.

Never interviewed

"We could have given them a thorough background," says Bill Walter, 77, who was involved in the production of every batch of anthrax ever made at Fort Detrick. Now retired in Florida, he still has not been interviewed. "Why we weren't talked to the day after they found the first spores I can't understand."

There may be a reasonable explanation for the delays, but the FBI is not offering one. Chris Murray, spokesman for the bureau's Washington field office, which is leading the investigation, declined to comment on any of the criticisms. His boss, FBI Assistant Director Van Harp, did not return telephone calls.

The FBI quickly made public a profile of the perpetrator that seemed to combine self-evident traits ("He probably has a scientific background to some extent, or at least a strong interest in science") with others that seemed a stretch ("He lacks the personal skills necessary to confront others"). By contrast, the bureau has never made public the scientific analysis of the anthrax powder, which might permit outside experts to contribute valuable ideas about how, where and with what equipment the powder was prepared.

"With so little visible progress, I think an airing of the evidence might actually help them," Block says.

In the absence of authoritative information from the government, the anthrax attacks have become a sort of mirror for the political views of commentators.

For much of the investigation, the most influential outsider to comment on the investigation was Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a liberal biologist and arms control expert at the State University of New York who believes the United States may have conducted secret bioweapons research that violates the international Biological Weapons Convention. She suggested that the anthrax mailer was a U.S. scientist who had worked in secret government programs.

But by April, with no such suspect in public view, conservatives began to attack Rosenberg and wonder aloud whether she and the FBI were wrong that the mail terrorist was a lone American. The revelation that one of the Sept. 11 hijackers had sought treatment for a leg lesion resembling cutaneous anthrax reignited speculation that foreign terrorists might be to blame.

David Tell, opinion editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, ridiculed Rosenberg as a hapless amateur detective who had misled the FBI into ignoring the obvious: that perhaps the anthrax mailer was a radical Islamic terrorist, just as the notes in the envelopes ("Death to America ... Allah is great") seemed to indicate.

'Making the Iraq Case'

In the summer, that view began to be echoed by others who believe Iraq might be behind the attacks. They cited evidence from United Nations inspections years earlier demonstrating Iraq's interest in anthrax weapons and its capability to make them. In a Sept. 5 editorial titled "Making the Iraq Case," The Wall Street Journal complained that "the FBI persists in pursuing the yellow brick road theory of a lone madman laid out by Barbara Hatch Rosenberg" and urged the bureau to consider Iraq or al-Qaida.

Although FBI officials have said in their rare public statements that they haven't ruled anything out, the investigators seem still to be focused on the American-scientist scenario. That is implicit in their well-publicized pursuit of Hatfill, 48, whose now-vacant apartment they have searched three times; whose friends they have questioned; and whom they have followed with teams of agents, according to Hatfill and his attorney, Victor M. Glasberg.

In two emotional news conferences, Hatfill has portrayed himself as an innocent man hounded by an out-of-control Justice Department. But although his plea has drawn considerable public sympathy, the FBI appears to be undeterred. Investigators visited his former apartment last month, and his spokesman, Pat Clawson, says agents are still following Hatfill around.

Most experts who support the domestic-scientist theory of the anthrax attacks suggest a motive of twisted patriotism: that the attacker was a biodefense insider who hoped the letters would wake up the government and country to the menace of bioterror. By including notes saying "This is anthrax" and "Take penacilin" and by taping the seams of the envelopes, the theory goes, the perpetrator may have hoped to minimize the danger.

If that was the idea, it didn't save the five people who died. But the letters did galvanize the country, creating widespread awareness of the insidious danger posed by germ weapons. And the budget for biodefense has quadrupled, reaching $5.9 billion for the next fiscal year.

"The budget is going through the roof," says Block, the Stanford biophysicist. "It's wonderful. In my opinion, any money spent on vaccines and buttressing the public health system is well worth it," protecting not only against terrorists but other disease threats.

Others are not so sure. If, in fact, the terrorist was an American biodefense insider who got the anthrax from a laboratory, then multiplying the number of laboratories and people using deadly biological agents may only increase the danger, says Ebright, the Rutgers biochemist.

Solving the case might clarify the source of the threat - American insiders, al-Qaida agents or someone else. Meanwhile, at least one person able and willing to use anthrax as a weapon is still at large.

"If this guy was trying to make a point, by George, he's made his point," says the Potomac Institute's Siegrist. "But the person who did this is still out there and presumably capable of doing it again. He's committed mass murder and gotten away with it."

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