In 4-Year Anthrax Hunt, F.B.I. Finds Itself
Stymied, and Sued
By SCOTT SHANE
Published: September 17, 2005
WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 - Richard L.
Lambert, the F.B.I. inspector in charge of the
investigation of the deadly anthrax letters of
2001, testified under oath for five hours last
month about the case.
Forum: National Security
But Mr. Lambert was not testifying in a
criminal trial. He and his teams of F.B.I.
agents and postal inspectors have not found
the culprit. Instead, he and six other F.B.I.
and Justice Department officials have been
forced to give depositions in a suit over news
media leaks filed by Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, the
former Army biodefense expert who was
under intensive scrutiny for months.
Four years after an unknown bioterrorist
dropped letters containing a couple of
teaspoons of powder in a mailbox in
Princeton, N.J., what began as the largest
criminal investigation in American history
appears to be stalled, say scientists and
former law enforcement officials who have
spoken with investigators.
The failure to solve the case that the
authorities call "Amerithrax" is a grave
disappointment for the Federal Bureau of
Investigation and the Postal Inspection
Service, the investigative arm of the Postal
Service. The letters were the first major
bioterrorist attack in American history and
killed five people, sickened 17 others,
temporarily crippled mail service and forced
the evacuation of federal buildings, including
Senate offices and the Supreme Court.
"They've done everything they can possibly
think of doing, and they're just not there yet,"
said Randall S. Murch of Virginia Tech, a
former scientist at the bureau who led the use
of laboratory tests to trace the origin of
microbes used in crimes. "You have to
understand that the pressure is enormous."
A former law enforcement official who keeps
up with several investigators said, "From the
people I've talked to, it's going nowhere." The
official, who spoke on condition of anonymity
because of sensitivity over leaks in the case,
said some agents still formally assigned to the
investigation were mostly working on other
cases, because "there's nothing for them to
For the director of the bureau, Robert S.
Mueller III, who started work in September
2001 just before the Sept. 11 attacks and the
anthrax letters, the case is a priority. He is
briefed on the investigation every Friday that
he is in Washington, Debra Weierman, a
spokeswoman for the bureau, said.
Ms. Weierman said 21 agents from the
bureau and nine postal inspectors were
assigned to the inquiry, a far cry from the
hundreds of the early months, but still a
major commitment. She said that
investigators had conducted more than 8,000
interviews and served 5,000 subpoenas and
that the case remained "intensely active."
The fact that Dr. Hatfill, who has not been
charged or cleared, has turned the tables on
the agents who he says have ruined his life
can only make this fourth anniversary more
frustrating for the authorities.
The two sets of anthrax-laced letters,
addressed to news media organizations and
Senators Tom Daschle of South Dakota and
Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, both
Democrats, were postmarked Sept. 18 and
Oct. 9, 2001.
Dr. Hatfill, 51, grew up in Illinois and trained
as a physician in Zimbabwe before conducting
medical research in South Africa. After
returning to the United States, he worked
from 1997 to 1999 at the Army Medical
Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at
Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md.
He was the focus of public attention from
anthrax investigators in 2002 and 2003, when
his apartment near the fort and places he had
lived or visited were searched. For months, he
was under 24-hour surveillance; one worker
from the Federal Bureau of Investigation ran
over his foot when the scientist tried to
Two years ago, Dr. Hatfill sued the bureau
and the Justice Department, saying leaks to
the news media about him and the public
description of him by Attorney General John
Ashcroft as a "person of interest" in the case
had destroyed his reputation.
He also has a suit pending against The New
York Times and a columnist for the paper,
Nicholas D. Kristof, saying Mr. Kristof
This summer, Judge Reggie B. Walton, of
Federal District Court in Washington, let Dr.
Hatfill's lawyers begin questioning people
about the reported leaks. According to a
lawyer for Dr. Hatfill, Thomas G. Connolly,
among the six people who have been deposed
so far are Mr. Lambert, the top investigator;
Brad Garrett, another longtime agent; and
Ms. Weierman, the spokeswoman.
Mr. Connolly said Van Harp, the former
assistant director in charge of the Washington
Field Office of the bureau, is scheduled for a
deposition next week and Mr. Ashcroft in
The big question is who in the government is
going to stand up and make this right by
publicly exonerating him and condemning
those who smeared him."
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The investigators at first pursued a possible
connection to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The
letters included photocopied notes referring
to the attacks and Islamist rhetoric.
The anthrax was the Ames strain, most
commonly used in American biodefense
research. Though agents have pursued leads
overseas, the F.B.I. has focused on the
possibility of a domestic criminal.
In addition to Dr. Hatfill, agents searched the
homes in November 2001 of two
Pakistani-born public health officials in
Chester, Pa., and in August 2004 of a doctor
in Wellsville, N.Y. Like Dr. Hatfill, the
physician, Dr. Kenneth M. Berry, lost his job
after the search and is fighting to have the
bureau publicly clear him, said a friend, the
Rev. K. Richard Helms.
"He's struggling," Mr. Helms said. "He needs
to get this clearance from the F.B.I. to get
work. Otherwise who's going to hire him?"
This year, in a sign that the investigators were
still trying to identify a suspect, they
contacted a former American intelligence
officer who in 2002 provided a tip about a
potential suspect. The officer, who insisted on
anonymity because he did not want to attract
attention, said he was summoned in February
to an office of the investigators near
Frederick, where he took a four-hour lie
detector test. He was told that he had passed
but has heard nothing more, he said.
Early in the investigation, agents tested the
paper, ink and tape from the letters; tried to
track the notes back to particular
photocopiers; and showed photographs of Dr.
Hatfill to people near the Princeton mailbox.
They used bloodhounds to try to match a
scent from the letters to suspects, including
Dr. Hatfill, though some dog handlers said the
technique was unreliable.
Eventually, the bureau called on 19
government, university and private
laboratories to test every quality of the
powder. A senior government scientist who
has been briefed on the case said a two-year
effort to compare tiny genetic mutations in
the mailed anthrax with hundreds of samples
of Ames anthrax from 16 laboratories has
"It was a very successful effort that allowed
investigators to narrow the scope of the
investigation," the scientist said, declining to
He insisted on remaining unidentified because
the information was classified.
In addition, chemists have tried to determine
the origin of water used to grow the bacteria,
while scientists at the Army's Dugway Proving
Ground in Utah spent months trying to
reproduce the powder to understand how it
was made. Each experiment has been carried
out with careful legal advice, because the
results may some day be presented in court,
the scientist said.
Just laboratory work is unlikely to solve the
case, scientists in the fast-developing field of
"The science can only take them so far,"
Richard O. Spertzel, a former United Nations
bioweapons inspector, said. "It can help to
narrow the field. But it won't identify the lab,
let alone the individual perpetrator."
Biodefense experts say solving the case, even
belatedly, is critical.
"If we can't catch this guy, I'm afraid it's
going to encourage others to try an attack,"
said David W. Siegrist, who studies
bioterrorist threats at the Potomac Institute
for Policy Studies outside Washington.
Claire M. Fraser, president of the Institute
for Genomic Research in Rockville, Md.,
which has helped he F.B.I., said she was
frustrated that the attacker was at large.
"If we solve this case, even if it takes five or
six years, it might provide some degree of
deterrence," Dr. Fraser said. "What
everyone's afraid of is another incident before
this one is solved."