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FBI Denies Overestimating Anthrax Power

FBI Denies It Overestimated Potency of Anthrax Spores Used in Mailings That Killed 5 in 2001, By MICHAEL J. SNIFFEN, Associated Press

WASHINGTON Sep 28, 2006 (AP)— The FBI denied Thursday that it ever overestimated the potency of the anthrax spores used in mailings that killed five people in 2001.

The bureau also rejected a request for a classified briefing on the case from Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J. Citing media reports, Holt said Wednesday that the FBI should have determined in days, not years, that the anthrax was less sophisticated than initially believed.

Shortly after the attacks, media 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. Earlier this month, there were media reports that the FBI belatedly learned that those techniques were not used and the anthrax was not enhanced.

Bureau officials say the early reports of weaponized anthrax were misconceptions, and the more recent reports misunderstood how early the FBI was able to accurately analyze the spores.

"The FBI and its partners in this investigation have never been under any misconceptions about the character of the anthrax used in the attacks," Assistant FBI Director Eleni P. Kalisch wrote Holt on Thursday. "On the contrary, since the earliest months of this investigation, we have consulted with the world's foremost scientific experts on anthrax and relevant bio-forensic sciences, both inside and outside the FBI. While there may have been erroneous media reports about the character of the 2001 anthrax, the FBI's investigation has never been guided by such reports."

In a letter Wednesday to FBI Director Robert Mueller, Holt had requested a classified briefing on the investigation.

Kalisch rejected that request on two grounds:

Although Holt and other members of Congress got updates and briefings in 2002 and 2003, Kalisch said the FBI and Justice Department decided to stop briefing members of Congress after sensitive investigative information was reported in the media citing congressional sources.

Because this is a criminal investigation rather than an intelligence activity, a briefing of the House Intelligence Committee, of which Holt is a member, would be inappropriate, Kalisch wrote.

In an interview, Holt responded, "The inference that any member of the intelligence committee was the source of previous leaks is outrageous, irresponsible and without foundation."

The case "clearly falls within the purview of the intelligence committee," Holt added. "Our job is to see that the government functions well and in the anthrax investigation our government has not functioned well."

In 2001, anthrax contamination was found in mail facilities in and near Holt's central New Jersey district and in his office on Capitol Hill.

Holt had written Mueller that the FBI's delay in determining what kind of anthrax was used meant that "resources were diverted and countless agents wasted their time investigating a small pool of suspects, instead of the broader search we now know was needed."

The FBI has conducted 9,100 interviews and issued 6,000 subpoenas in the case.

Holt asked Mueller to have Douglas Beecher, a scientist in the FBI's Hazardous Materials Response Unit, testify before the House Intelligence Committee.

In April, Beecher wrote an article published in a scientific journal in August saying there was "a widely circulated misconception" that the anthrax spores were made using additives and sophisticated engineering akin to military weapons production.

The anthrax attacks, in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, killed five people across the country and sickened 17. There were five confirmed anthrax infections and two suspected cases in New Jersey but no fatalities.