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Samples Provide Fewer Clues Than Earlier Thought to Help Solve 2001 Anthrax Attacks

Global Security Newswire

Nearly five years after the anthrax mail attacks in the United States, FBI investigators have disclosed that many previously reported details about the deadly bacteria were incorrect, the Washington Post reported today (see GSN, Sept. 16, 2005).

Most notably, the spores used were not produced from an unusual strain of anthrax, nor were they “weaponized” with any special additives or processing, according to law enforcement officials.

While no arrests have been made following the deaths of five people who were exposed to anthrax through the mail, the FBI remains upbeat that it will uncover the perpetrators.

“There is confidence the case will be solved,” said Joseph Persichini, acting assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office.

The bureau has recently assigned a new leader to its investigative team of 17 full-time agents and 10 postal inspectors, the Post reported.

The quality of the spores used in the attacks was high, but not military-grade, according to authorities. The anthrax was not milled to make smaller particles or treated to make it more lethal, they said.

“It wasn’t weaponized. It was just nicely cleaned up,” said one scientist. “Whoever did this was proud of their biology. They grew the spores, spun them down, cleaned up the debris. But there were not additives.”

In addition, the source strain of the anthrax used in the attacks was widely available and therefore offers few clues of its origin, according to the Post.

“It could have come from anywhere in the world,” said Sergei Popov, a former Soviet biological weapons scientist who now works at George Mason University.

The massive investigation has produced one “person of interest” who has denied any involvement. Steven Hatfill, a former Army scientist has never been charged (see GSN, April 12).

The lack of other publicly identified suspects, however, does not mean the investigation is dead, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters earlier this month.

“There are in my experience a lot of instances where we might know or have a good reason to believe who committed a criminal act, but we may not be able to prove it. So when you say something is not solved, you should not assume from the fact that there is no criminal prosecution we don’t have a good idea of what we think happened,” he said (Lengel/Warrick, Washington Post, Sept. 25).

One former FBI official disagreed, however.

“No matter what anybody says, if it is five years out, and we are not even seeing any smoke from the investigation, then I would say definitely that this case is cold right now,” said Christopher Hamilton, a former FBI counterterrorism official now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This thing is just sitting out there with nothing happening” (Eric Rosenberg, Hearst News, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Sept. 24).