The Magazine

Remember Anthrax?

Despite the evidence, the FBI won't let go of its "lone American" theory.

Apr 29, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 32 • By DAVID TELL
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1) OVER THE PAST SIX MONTHS, have federal authorities altered their working theory of last fall's anthrax murders?

No, not much. On November 9 last year, even before the anthrax outbreak's fifth and final fatality had been recorded, the FBI called a press conference to unveil its "linguistic and behavioral assessment" of "the person" purportedly responsible. It was "highly probable, bordering on certainty," the Bureau announced, that a single "adult male" had prepared and mailed all the contaminated letters at issue. This man "probably has a scientific background," "may work in a laboratory," and is familiar with the area around Trenton, New Jersey--where the envelopes were postmarked. He suffers a pronounced psycho-social deformity: "He lacks the personal skills necessary to confront others" and "if he is involved in a personal relationship, it will likely be of a self-serving nature." Moreover, crucially, the suspect appears to be an American. "We're certainly looking in that direction right now, as far as someone being domestic," said James R. Fitzgerald, head of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit.

By the end of November, after an unopened anthrax letter addressed to Sen. Patrick Leahy was found in sequestered congressional mail, investigators were telling reporters on background that they might well be dealing with someone who has a particular animus against Democrats. His politics aside, the man's citizenship, at least, achieved a measure of official status by mid-December, when homeland security chief Tom Ridge, seconded by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, acknowledged that where once "some of us" had been "thinking more in terms of foreign sources," now "a lot of the information and a lot of the things they've been able to detect from the investigation and follow-up leads . . . they're looking more inward to a domestic source."

On January 29, confirming its impression of the domestic source's professional profile, the FBI sent a letter to all 40,000 members of the American Society for Microbiology which informed those scientists that it is "likely one or more of you know this individual." On February 26, the New York Times reported that what had once been a "pretty tight list" of investigative subjects in the world of microbiology--perhaps 100 U.S. laboratories and their employees--had been whittled down to a group of 35 to 50 "researchers or technicians" and then narrowed still further to maybe 18 or 20 people with the means and potential motive to send deadly bacteria through the mail.

Two weeks ago, numerous published reports suggested that the FBI has recently lost a fair bit of confidence in the focus of its investigation; the universe of potential suspects, "law enforcement sources" now say, actually numbers in the "thousands." Nevertheless, the government continues to expect that the one guilty man among those thousands will turn out to be an American biological researcher of some kind.

2) What makes them think he's an American?

The FBI has declined to explain its profiling rationale in any detail, and Tom Ridge's references to "follow-up leads" and other "things they've been able to detect" remain ambiguous. But a woman named Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, whom the Bureau has consulted, and whose analysis of the case mirrors its own in certain key respects, has tirelessly publicized the results of some ambitious amateur detective work.

Rosenberg is a research professor of environmental science at the State University of New York in Purchase. She also directs a working group on biological weapons verification for the Federation of American Scientists. And in a running "commentary" she has maintained on the federation's Internet site (www.fas.org/bwc/news/anthraxreport.htm), Rosenberg argues that "multiple, blatant clues" left "seemingly on purpose" all make clear that "the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks is American." First off, the letters in which his spores were wrapped warned recipients to take an antibiotic, establishing that he "did not aim to kill"--as would be the goal of a genuine al Qaeda operative--but sought simply "to create public fear." Furthermore, according to Rosenberg, the spores themselves were prepared following the "optimal U.S. process" secretly perfected decades ago by Army biowarfare specialists at Ft. Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. "The anthrax in the letters," Rosenberg flatly asserts, "was either made and weaponized in recent years in a U.S. government or contractor lab for biodefense purposes, or by the perpetrator on his own." Either way, last fall's bacteriological terrorism against the United States was undoubtedly "an inside job."