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U.S.: Investigators Still In The Dark About Anthrax Attacks

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S. investigators are still grappling with the task of piecing together the basic facts in their probe of the recent series of anthrax attacks -- who originally manufactured the deadly bacteria and who sent contaminated letters through the U.S. postal system. And with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft warning of the possibility of new terrorist acts, Americans are worried the anthrax scare may simply be the start of something far more frightening.

Washington, 30 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Americans, especially in the nation's capital, are feeling increasingly unnerved by the wave of anthrax-laced letters sent through the U.S. postal system. The bacteria in the letters has so far killed three people -- two of them in the Washington area -- and forced the U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court to close their offices or move their work to temporary quarters.

Nearly a month after the story first made headlines -- when a Florida man died from the most serious form of the disease, inhalation anthrax -- Americans appear more concerned about what they don't know about the anthrax attacks than by what they do know. In particular, there are fears the anthrax attacks may simply be a precursor to something much more frightening.

That fear was driven home yesterday when U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft -- citing intelligence data -- warned Americans to brace themselves for the possibility of more terrorist attacks striking the country in the coming days.

Who's behind the anthrax crisis? Many theories abound, with Saudi-born extremist Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorist network among the chief suspects. The U.S. blames bin Laden and Al-Qaeda for the 11 September terrorist attacks. And while U.S. President George W. Bush has said he has no firm evidence linking bin Laden to the anthrax scare, he has also said that it is certainly a possibility.

Others in Washington, however, are pointing fingers at Iraq. Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad is known to have developed anthrax for use in biological weapons. And United Nations weapons inspectors say Iraq has experimented with materials such as bentonite -- a clay-like substance that makes anthrax less likely to clump together and more prone to be inhaled into the lungs.

Still other theories see the hand of domestic terrorists at work in the anthrax scare. These theories recall the attack orchestrated by Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted and executed for blowing up a government building in Oklahoma in 1998, killing 168 people. The bombing was initially blamed on Islamic extremists.

Tom Ridge is the director of U.S. homeland security, a newly created cabinet-level post in the U.S. government. Ridge acknowledged at a White House news conference yesterday that Americans are starting to grow weary of this chorus of contradictory voices: "There are a lot of theories out there. We just need some facts to turn a theory into reality."

Slowly, however, investigators appear to be piecing together facts about the anthrax scare.

One question being asked is how the bacteria spread so quickly around the capital. Investigators say a particularly virulent anthrax-laced letter recently sent to Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle -- which prompted the temporary closure of Congress, as well as some Senate offices -- probably came in contact with other government mail sorted at a post office near Washington.

Two workers at that facility -- in Brentwood, Maryland -- have died from inhalation anthrax. And the mail that was "cross-contaminated" there is believed to have carried small traces of anthrax spores to mailrooms that handle mail for the Supreme Court and the departments of State, Justice and, possibly, Health.

Doctor Patrick Meehan, the head of emergency environmental services at the government Centers for Disease Control (CDC), had this to say about the theory that Daschle's letter infected other sites in Washington: "The Daschle letter probably went through the Brentwood facility, was processed by a machine, some aerosolization occurred of the spores, the people who were working in the facility were exposed to aerosolized spores and developed inhalation anthrax."

Ridge, for his part, said he believes "cross-contamination" likely occurred but added that nothing can be ruled out and that investigators are still hard at work: "The belief within the [Bush] administration is that we need to isolate all the mail that was on [Capitol] Hill to determine whether there was more than one letter. And that process is being done, and that's part of an investigation that the [Federal Bureau of Investigation] is running."

As for the original source of the spores themselves, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said recently that the anthrax could have been manufactured domestically or abroad. The U.S., Russia, and Iraq are the only countries known to have developed anthrax. Fleischer had this to say: "The analysis of the anthrax sent to Senator Daschle's office indicates that it could have been produced by a Ph.D [doctorate] microbiologist, that it could be derived at a small, well-equipped microbiology lab, and it does not rule out foreign sources."

But if officials don't know the source of the anthrax, they have determined its quality, which is generally considered to be highly processed and of weapons grade.

Major-General John Parker, head of the U.S. Army's medical research and material command center, made this observation about the letter sent to Senator Daschle, as well as a contaminated letter received a few weeks ago at the offices of "The New York Post" newspaper: "When you look at the two samples under the microscope, the Daschle sample is very pure and densely compacted with spores, and so is the 'New York Post' sample, but [it's] not quite as dense."

However, Parker rejected reports that the anthrax found in the Daschle letter contained bentonite, which -- if true -- would represent a significant link to Iraq. The presence of bentonite is considered to be a "signature" of Iraqi-produced anthrax. Instead, Meehan of the CDC said experts had found silica -- a drying agent -- but no aluminum, which must be present with bentonite. Parker had this to say: "In my opinion, it rules it [bentonite] out. If I can't find aluminum, I can't say it's bentonite."

"The Washington Post" has quoted unidentified government officials as saying they believe domestic terrorists are behind the anthrax scares. That article noted that U.S. white supremacists and Islamic extremists -- united in their hatred of Jewish people -- attended a meeting in Beirut earlier this year. The article cites Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, as pointing to the Beirut meeting and saying "some extremists are now globalized."

But other experts warn the investigation has made very little clear about the anthrax scares -- except the fact that the terrorists, whoever they are, are obviously in possession of high-grade anthrax.

Daniel Benjamin is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank. He says that, in the worst scenario, the anthrax-laced letters are just a test for something far more serious: "One possibility is that it is testing to see the efficacy of the pathogen. And that would be bad news if that is, in fact, what this is."

Benjamin says he believes bin Laden is likely not behind the anthrax scares, as the Al-Qaeda network prefers attacks that generate mass casualties.

Then again, as Benjamin himself suggested, the story may be far from over.

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