The FBI might drain a pond in the woods near Frederick in hopes of finding physical evidence to help identify the person who mailed anthrax-laced letters that killed five people and sickened at least 17 others in 2001, Frederick Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty said last night.
She spoke in response to news reports yesterday that FBI investigators found anthrax spores and other evidence in their search of ponds in the area northwest of Frederick during December and January.
CNN reported that traces of anthrax were found on one unidentified object taken from a pond. The network said the amount was so small that CNN's source did not know if it was possible to determine whether it was the Ames strain of anthrax used in the attacks.
In addition, The Washington Post, citing anonymous sources, reported yesterday that divers retrieved a "clear box" with holes that could accommodate protective biological safety gloves, as well as vials wrapped in plastic.
Scientists working with dangerous microbes often use a "glove box," a sealed container made of glass or clear plastic with glove ports fixed in place to allow the researcher to manipulate equipment without being directly exposed to the germs. Such equipment ranges from laboratory-size units of the kind used at the Army's biodefense center at Fort Detrick in Frederick to small, inexpensive "glove bags" made of flexible plastic that can be disposed of after a single use.
One person who has heard a description of the box allegedly found in the pond said last night that it was not a commercially manufactured glove box or glove bag, but rather a plastic tub with two holes in it. The source, who has spoken to FBI officials, said some investigators believe it might have been part of jury-rigged equipment used to load the anthrax spores into the envelopes later sent to two U.S. senators and several media organizations.
The Post reported that some investigators think the box might have been partially submerged in the water while the envelopes were loaded. That might have allowed the perpetrator to remove the envelopes sealed in plastic bags so that spores on the outside of the bags would wash away, and the equipment could be abandoned in the pond.
But if spores or equipment were found in a pond months ago, they evidently have not proven to be the breakthrough the FBI needs to link the crime to a suspect who can be charged in the attacks. The bureau has been under intense pressure to solve the 20-month-old case, partly because the poisoned letters contaminated scores of federal offices and postal facilities, causing huge disruption and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup costs.
Dougherty, the Frederick mayor, said the idea of draining one pond about an acre in size and up to 10 feet deep was first mentioned to city officials by the FBI more than six weeks ago, and investigators told the Frederick police chief yesterday no decision has been made.
As many as 100 FBI investigators conducted an intensive search in December and January in the Frederick watershed, a wild, hilly area northwest of the city and adjacent to Cunningham Falls State Park and Gambrill State Park. Agents blocked roads, set up portable laboratories and combed the forest for clues.
Divers also were deployed to break through thick ice - Dougherty said it was 8 degrees below zero one day - and retrieve dozens of objects from the bottoms of the ponds. The items were meticulously numbered, labeled and returned to FBI facilities to see if any might be equipment used and dumped by the anthrax mailer.
Yesterday's reports from CNN and the Post were the first indication that those searches produced potentially valuable evidence.
The FBI has been criticized by some conservative commentators for seeming to ignore the possibility that foreign terrorists or Iraq might have been responsible for the anthrax mailings. Some suggested the case might be solved by the discovery of biological weapons facilities in Iraq, but little evidence of recent Iraqi bioweapons activity has turned up.
Instead, FBI investigators have maintained their focus for more than a year on the theory that a rogue American scientist or technician mailed the letters. Scientists at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah have tried to reproduce the anthrax powder in the letters, concluding that it could have been made in a modest home laboratory with tabletop equipment.
FBI agents on the case have devoted huge resources to scrutinizing former Army biowarfare expert Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, 49, who worked at Fort Detrick from 1997 to 1999 and lived in Frederick until late last year.
Pat Clawson, a former television reporter and friend of Hatfill who acts as his spokesman, said last night Hatfill remains under constant surveillance by the FBI.
"The surveillance continues around the clock. It's outright harassment, with as many as eight FBI cars following Steve when he goes out" from his Washington apartment, Clawson said.
Clawson said Hatfill, who was fired from two biodefense-related jobs last year, remains unemployed and believes the FBI has pursued him only because it has made no progress in finding the real culprit.
"Steve Hatfill continues to deny that he had anything to do with the anthrax attacks," Clawson said. "I think it's immoral and un-American to continue to damage his reputation through a campaign of rumors and innuendoes."