The anthrax was recently made. It was not an old sample stolen
long ago but was recently grown and weaponized.
IN MAIL WAS NEWLY MADE
By DAVID JOHNSTON and WILLIAM J. BROAD
WASHINGTON, June 22 --
Scientists have determined that the anthrax powder sent through
the mail last fall was fresh, made no more than two years before
it was sent, senior government officials said. The new
finding has concerned investigators, who say it indicates that
whoever sent the anthrax could make more and strike again.
Establishing the age of the anthrax that
killed five people has strengthened the theory that the person
behind the mailings has a direct and current connection to a microbiology
laboratory and may have used relatively new equipment. "We're
still looking for someone who fits the criteria of training, knowledge,
education, experience and skill," a government official said.
The new finding casts serious
doubt on another theory that had complicated the so far fruitless
investigation: that the culprit had stolen or somehow obtained
an old laboratory sample of powdered anthrax, from a strain first
identified in 1981.
The dating of the anthrax as recent suggests
that the person who mailed it prepared the germs on his own and
has the ability to make more without relying on old material,
possibly taken from the small supplies of anthrax that the government
keeps for testing new kinds of defenses against dangerous microbes.
"It's modern," one official said.
"It was grown, and therefore it can be grown again and again."
Officials said the F.B.I. determined
that the anthrax was fresh by radiocarbon dating,
a standard means of estimating the age of biological samples.
It measures how much radioactive carbon a living thing has lost
since it died or, in the case of anthrax spores, since they went
into suspended animation.
The new forensic evidence about the anthrax,
a germ of domestic origin usually referred to as the Ames strain,
has been closely held among investigators. Laboratory experts
and senior investigators will meet this coming week with the F.B.I.
director, Robert S. Mueller III, to discuss the evidence in the
case. Among the topics will be the results of months of sophisticated
studies conducted on the anthrax contained in the letter sent
on Oct. 9, 2001, to Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.
Even though they are making progress in
the science of anthrax, officials acknowledge that they have no
prime suspect and have not narrowed the list of possible subjects,
which in fact appears to be expanding. Investigators have a list
of about 50 people, which is updated periodically as possible
subjects are added or deleted.
The Leahy letter letter, which investigators
say holds new promise in their search, was the only one of the
four letters recovered in the case that contained enough anthrax
to permit extensive scientific testing. The sample retrieved from
the envelope addressed to Mr. Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary
Committee, at his Senate office address contained as much material
as a sugar packet and weighed about a gram.
Along with earlier tests that showed the
anthrax was an extremely fine powder that hung dangerously in
the air, the scientific studies represent the leading edge of
an investigation that has expanded far beyond the F.B.I.'s investigative
norms. No active criminal case has a higher priority. The inquiry
has consumed millions of dollars and vast amounts of manpower.
The anthrax case offers a glimpse into
what may be the future of criminal investigation on a vast scale
in an age of biological and other sophisticated forms of terrorism.
The F.B.I. has collected huge amounts of personal information
on hundreds of thousands of American citizens, combining it with
a scientific arm that has moved far ahead of the Bunsen burners,
fingerprints and microscopes of conventional forensic sleuthing.
The F.B.I. and the Postal Service, its
partner in the case, have turned to experts beyond their own laboratories.
A new high-level containment laboratory to hold deadly germs and
a backup unit have been built at the Army's biodefense research
facility at Fort Detrick, Md.
Scientists at laboratories in Massachusetts,
Ohio, Utah and elsewhere have invented new protocols and tests
to probe the molecular structure of the anthrax a task
complicated by the possibility that the culprit could be among
the microbiologists assisting the F.B.I.
Officials say every investigative
technique available to the F.B.I. has been used in the case, including
round-the-clock surveillances, eavesdropping and searches conducted
under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Agents have conducted
5,000 interviews and served more than 1,700 grand jury subpoenas.
Hundreds of people have been
polygraphed. Investigators have compiled minute-by-minute chronologies
of the lives of some subjects, examining their whereabouts when
the letters were sent. Forty of the
F.B.I.'s 56 field offices and many of its 44 overseas legal attachés
have been asked to help. The F.B.I. has established 112 separate
databases to store information about the case.
The scale of the investigation
and the lack of progress in finding a suspect have prompted a
number of people to criticize the F.B.I.'s approach to the case.
These people, many of them science experts, have
prodded the bureau to move more aggressively, unsuccessfully pushing
it to narrow its focus.
So far, even the offer of a $2.5 million
reward has failed to produce a breakthrough lead even though
in one case last fall, investigators said they were convinced
they had their culprit. They passed the word of a pending arrest
up the chain of command to President Bush, but their hopes were
dashed when their quarry proved innocent. "We just can't
seem to catch a break," one government official said.
One group under scrutiny is the biopesticide
industry, a group of eight primary companies that has produced
a list of about 80 people who remain under investigation. Another
group is the biopharmaceutical industry, a larger sector of more
than 100 companies, which has produced a list of about 200 possible
subjects. Finally, public and private laboratories with anthrax
inventories or production capability account for another group
of about 50 people who are under suspicion.
Again and again the FBI was forced to turn away from the most likely
culprets, the US bioweapons programs or the CIA.