Outside View: FBI behind the anthrax curve

By DR. LAWRENCE SELLIN, A UPI Outside View commentary  |  March 13, 2004 at 2:39 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter

WASHINGTON, March 13 (UPI) -- On Feb. 23, the Washington Times reported the FBI official in charge of the probe into the 2001 anthrax mailings said the investigation still has top priority among the bureau's unsolved cases but acknowledged the anthrax sender may never be caught.

"Despite our very, very, very best efforts, we still might not be able to bring it home," said Assistant Director Michael A. Mason, who heads the FBI's Washington field office investigating the case.

This is in stark contrast to the Nov. 17, 2001 comments of James Fitzgerald of the FBI Academy's Behavioral Analysis Unit, reported by CNN: "I'm very positive that before too long we'll have some real good information, and the investigation will lead us to the person who is responsible for this."

What went wrong?

Perhaps it had more than a little to do with the FBI's basic assumption, which stated that they were dealing with a single suspect who fits a profile similar to serial bombers like "Unabomber" Theodore Kaczynski.

Fitzgerald said his analysis of the anthrax-laced letters sent to Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post suggested that the anthrax mailer acted alone and may have used as little as $2,500 worth of lab equipment to produce the anthrax. The FBI also believes this person is not connected to those behind the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

How one can reach such conclusions based on the meager and, to some extent, contradictory nature of the content of the anthrax letters is difficult to guess. Unless, of course, you believe it must be a Kaczynski-like individual.

From this false assumption all the "logic" of the subsequent investigation flows.

The FBI produced a profile of the anthrax mailer who was described as a lone person living within the United States who had experience working in labs and was smart enough to produce a highly refined and deadly product.

If employed, he is likely to be in a position requiring little contact with the public or other employees. He may work in a laboratory. He is apparently comfortable working with an extremely hazardous material. He probably has a scientific background to some extent, or at least a strong interest in science.

He is a non-confrontational person, at least in his public life. He lacks the personal skills necessary to confront others. He chooses to confront his problems "long distance" and not face-to-face. He may hold grudges for a long time, vowing that he will get even with "them" one day and prefers being by himself more often than not.

In other words, Ted Kaczynski with germs.

This conclusion was presumably strengthened by the identification of the Ames strain of anthrax as the causative agent. The Ames strain came from an infected animal in Texas, cultured in Ames, Iowa, and found its way to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., in about 1980. Therefore, the culprit had to be someone in the United States.

All this invariably led to Stephen Hatfill, who, we soon learned, had worked at Fort Detrick, had a shady past involving Rhodesia and South Africa, behaved suspiciously and had a questionable résumé. Lacking sufficient evidence to name Hatfill as a suspect, the FBI anointed him with the freshly minted label of "person of interest."

But Hatfill is no Kaczynski.

During the last two years he has been called a lot of things, but few would describe him as a "non-confrontational person" and, given his extensive activities in the bioterrorism arena, not exactly a person who "prefers being by himself more often than not." So much for the profile. In any case, the FBI has not compiled a case against Hatfill sufficient to arrest him.

The most concrete result of the FBI's efforts will likely be a lawsuit against the U.S. government.

The folks at the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C., might have done well to examine that elephant standing in the middle of their living room -- al-Qaida. Unfortunately, accepting this alternative renders the profile and their investment in it irrelevant.

We are aware of al-Qaida's continuing efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. And the timing of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks and the anthrax letters is entirely consistent with a "second wave" theory.

But what about those letters from which Fitzgerald at the FBI deduced so much?

In one of the letters, the word "We" is used as in "We have this anthrax." The simplest explanation is a conspiracy, not a lone male. And the writing was certainly not done by a native English speaker. Sure, it could have been an "opportunist" as the FBI claims, covering his tracks by blaming it on some foreigners. But to what end? There has been no follow-up, no further demands. The opportunist theory also assumes that an individual perpetrator would be extremely well-prepared for a Sept. 11-like event and would be able to execute a complex attack in the span of one week.

One popular theory suggests that it was a frustrated scientist trying to draw attention to the threat of bioterrorism or even profit from an increase in bioterrorism funding. That assumes quite a quantum leap in logic: to commit murder to achieve an altruistic goal or to commit murder and then depend on the vagaries of the grant funding process.

Yes, it's all a bit of a stretch, but it fits the profile.

Probably the most significant error the FBI committed was its cavalier dismissal of the cutaneous anthrax infection of Ahmed Al Haznawi, one of the hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in rural Pennsylvania.

On June 25, 2001, Al Haznawi was treated for a dark lesion on his leg that he said he developed after bumping into a suitcase two months earlier. Dr. Christos Tsonas, an emergency room physician at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., thought the injury was curious, but he cleaned it and prescribed an antibiotic for the infection.

In October 2001, after the first confirmed anthrax case, Tsonas was shown pictures of black anthrax lesions by experts at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies. It was concluded by these experts that for Al Haznawi's wound, anthrax was "the most probable and coherent interpretation of the data available."

Nevertheless, Assistant FBI Director John Collingwood played down the possible anthrax connection. "This was fully investigated and widely vetted among multiple agencies several months ago," he said in a written statement in March 2002. "Exhaustive testing did not support that anthrax was present anywhere the hijackers had been."

It is interesting to note that no anthrax was present anywhere Ottilie Lundgren of Oxford, Conn., and 61-year-old Kathy Nguyen of New York had been, both of whom died of inhalation anthrax.

Another clue related to the timeline of the anthrax attacks occurred in late August 2001. Gregg Chatterton, a pharmacist in Delray Beach, Fla., said he had told the FBI that two of the hijackers, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, came into the pharmacy looking for something to treat irritations on Atta's hands. According to Chatterton, both of Atta's hands were red from the wrists down including the palms. They weren't blistering -- they were simply red as if you had taken your hands and dunked them in a bucket of bleach or something. Marwan Al-Shehhi also needed something for "a cough."

This occurred immediately prior to the dates when all the hijackers bought their flight tickets, Aug. 24-31. The date of the attack was set for "9-11-01" as written in the anthrax letters. Was this the time the letters were prepared, and were Atta and his co-conspirators involved in their preparation and hand-off to the mailers?

Many people have been perplexed by the FBI's apparent focus on domestic terrorism, because the bulk of the evidence seems to point to a foreign connection. It is unlikely, however, that al-Qaida had the capability to produce such a high quality product. The FBI itself was unable to reproduce a similar product through back-engineering. Therefore, it had to come from another source.

The Ames anthrax used in the attack could have been pilfered from Fort Detrick, the British Biodefense Establishment at Porton Down or any one of about 20 other labs in possession of that particular strain. It is believed that the Soviet Union had the Ames strain, and Iraq and Russia continued to have high-level military meetings involving biological warfare at least into the mid-1990s.

Other countries with presumably active biological warfare programs such as North Korea or Iran are potential sources, among others. Given the relatively small amounts involved, sale through black market intermediaries remains a possibility.

Detailed analysis of the anthrax in the letters indicated that it was about two years old at the time of the attack. Did Iraq have such a capability within two years of the attack, or was it processed elsewhere? It makes sense that Saddam Hussein, wanting both revenge and to operate clandestinely, would choose a strain of U.S. military origin. A finished product could have been transferred to Iraq and passed to Mohammed Atta in April 2001 via an Iraqi Intelligence operation in Prague. Other routes into the United States could have been easily used at later dates. Was there more than one batch delivered?

For many, there is still no convincing published evidence supporting the hypothesis that a lone domestic terrorist was the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax attacks, while there is substantially more evidence pointing to a non-domestic source. The precise timing of the anthrax letters, first mailed within a week of 9/11, and the success of the perpetrators in eluding capture both suggest a sophisticated level of planning not usually associated with an opportunistic attack.


(Dr. Lawrence Sellin has conducted research involving the development of medical defenses against chemical and biological weapons. He has also served in military assignments dealing with weapons of mass destruction.)


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

Trending Stories