November 9, 2001, Friday
A NATION CHALLENGED: THE INQUIRY
Experts See F.B.I. Missteps Hampering Anthrax Inquiry
This article was reported and written by
William J. Broad, David Johnston, Judith Miller and Paul Zielbauer. (NYT)
The federal inquiry into the anthrax attacks has
stumbled in several areas and may have missed opportunities to gather
valuable evidence as criminal investigators have been unable to fully
grasp the scientific complexities of the case.
Government officials, scientists and
investigators said the Federal Bureau of Investigation's initial
unfamiliarity with the intricacies of anthrax had contributed to a series
of missteps and other possible errors.
The F.B.I. came under withering criticism
this week in Congress for the lack of progress in the investigation, and
bureau officials acknowledged in interviews that they had been forced to
turn to outside experts for advice on how to investigate the most serious
bioterrorism attack in the nation's history. But they said the inquiry
was following a logical strategy.
In a plan announced yesterday by Attorney
General John Ashcroft, the bureau, and other parts of the Justice
Department, would be revamped to better prevent terror attacks, and the
government would use new powers to tap lawyer-client conversations with
defendants in terrorist cases. [Page B1.]
Several experts, including some on whom the
F.B.I. has relied, said the anthrax investigation had taken some wrong
Shortly after the first case of anthrax
arose, the F.B.I. said it had no objection to the destruction of a
collection of anthrax samples at Iowa State University, but some
scientists involved in the investigation now say that collection may have
contained genetic clues valuable to the inquiry.
Criminal investigators have not visited
many of the companies, laboratories and academic institutions with the
equipment or capability to make the kind of highly potent anthrax sent in
a letter to Senator Tom Daschle, the majority leader. Where investigators
have conducted interviews, they often seemed to ask general questions
unlikely to elicit new evidence, several laboratory directors said.
Just this week, more than a month after the
first death from inhalation anthrax, the F.B.I. issued a subpoena asking
laboratories for the names of all workers and researchers who had been
vaccinated against anthrax. And the F.B.I. is only now establishing
electronic bulletin boards to allow members of scientific groups to
interact with criminal investigators working the case.
''The bureau was caught almost as unaware
and unprepared as the public was for these events,'' said Bill Tobin, a
former forensic metallurgist who worked for the F.B.I. crime laboratory
in Washington. ''It's just unrealistic to ask 7,000 agents to overnight
become sufficiently knowledgeable about bioterrorist agents and possible
means of theft of those items and how they might be disseminated lethally
to an American populace.''
There is no reason to believe that any of
the investigators' actions contributed to their inability to identify
clear leads in the anthrax attacks that have killed four people and led
to the treatment of thousands of others.
John Collingwood, the F.B.I.'s spokesman,
said last night: ''We have a plan and are proceeding based in large part
on what the people we are consulting with told us would be the most
productive places to begin. We reached out to scientists and public
health officials on the best way to proceed.''
Asked about the course of the bureau's
investigation, a senior F.B.I. official who spoke on condition of
anonymity said: ''This is a learning curve for everybody. Every single
day, if not hourly, we're all learning something about this. If you take
several weeks back, the learning curve, we were all behind it.''
Last month, after consulting with the
F.B.I., Iowa State University in Ames destroyed anthrax spores collected
over more than seven decades and kept in more than 100 vials. A variant
of the so-called Ames strain had been implicated in the death of a
Florida man from inhalation anthrax, and the university was nervous about
Now, a dispute has arisen, with scientists
in and out of government saying the rush to destroy the spores may have
eliminated crucial evidence about the anthrax in the letters sent to
Congress and the news media.
If the archive still existed, it would by
no means solve the mystery. But scientists said a precise match between
the anthrax that killed four people and a particular strain in the collection
might have offered hints as to when that bacteria had been isolated and,
perhaps, how widely it had been distributed to researchers. And that, in
turn, might have given investigators important clues to the killer's
Martin E. Hugh-Jones, an anthrax expert at
Louisiana State University who is aiding the federal investigation, said
the mystery is likely to persist. ''If those cultures were still alive,''
he said, they could have helped in ''clearing up the muddy history.''
Ronald M. Atlas, president-elect of the
American Society of Microbiology, the world's largest group of germ
professionals, based in Washington, said the legal implications could be
large. ''Potentially,'' he said, ''it loses evidence that would have been
useful'' in the criminal investigation.
The F.B.I. says it never explicitly
approved the destruction of the cultures, but never objected either.
A law enforcement official said that when
approached by the Ames laboratory about the destruction of its anthrax
inventory, the Omaha F.B.I. office consulted with the Miami F.B.I.
office, which was responsible for the initial anthrax case in Florida. He
said Miami investigators, after consulting with scientists, had advised
the Omaha office that the Ames strain was so widespread that it had no
investigative or evidentiary value. ''Based on that there were no
objections,'' to the destruction of the material by the Iowa laboratory,
the official said.
Several experts said the episode
underscored how the bureau traditionally has had trouble understanding
the language, and the demands, of science.
''There's a chasm between what's going on
in the courtroom and forensic arena,'' said Mr. Tobin, the former F.B.I.
scientist, who has criticized the bureau's investigative methods. The
flow of scientific data, he said, ''just doesn't seem to make it'' into
And a senior federal scientist familiar
with the germ investigation added: ''You're still dealing with the
mentality that says anthrax is anthrax is anthrax, and doesn't realize
that there are deeper signatures.''
Intertwined with the mystery of the Ames
strain's history is the question of whether it was used in America's
abandoned effort to develop anthrax as a weapon from 1943 to 1969, when
President Richard M. Nixon renounced germ warfare.
The scientific literature is contradictory.
A 1986 paper by Army researchers said the strain did not arise until
1980. But a paper in 2000 by Dr. Hugh-Jones, Paul J. Jackson of the Los
Alamos National Laboratory, Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University and
five other anthrax researchers asserted that the Ames strain had played a
central role in the biological warfare program in the United States.
If true, that could raise the question of
whether the perpetrators of the current crimes had learned of the
American recipe or even found and exploited lost anthrax stockpiles.
Caree Vander Linden, spokeswoman for the
Army's germ defense laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., said officials there
had not investigated whether the Ames strain was used in the old weapons
The Iowa State archive was destroyed on
Oct. 10 and 11, after relatively brief deliberations with the F.B.I.,
said Julie Johnson, an official in environmental and safety at Iowa
It is unclear if the F.B.I. understood that
Iowa State had destroyed many strains of anthrax or that the origins of
the Ames strain were cloudy. Larry Holmquist, a spokesman for the F.B.I.
in Omaha, which runs the bureau's Iowa operations, said the rationale for
the destruction was that the strain had been ''sent out to numerous
places'' around the globe in the past ''40 or 50 years.''
Tom Ridge, the White House director of
homeland security, confirmed publicly that the tainted letters contained
the Ames strain on Oct. 25, two weeks after the destruction.
Iowa State says it won destruction approval
not only from the F.B.I. but also from the federal Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, which are involved in the federal investigation.
James A. Roth, a microbiologist at the
College of Veterinary Medicine who presided over the destruction, said
the university's records on its anthrax strains were extremely limited
and that the labeling on the vials themselves was often cryptic, leaving
officials unsure exactly how many strains the university had.
Even so, ''we think they had all the
strains already,'' he said of the F.B.I. and the C.D.C.
The oldest strain in the collection dated
to 1928. If the Ames strain was similarly old, experts said, it is
conceivable that the potent germs were distributed far more widely than
conventional wisdom holds.
Since the destruction, Dr. Roth said, the
university has heard nothing from the bureau about anthrax. As for
whether the destroyed strains might have clarified the origins of Ames,
he said, ''now we'll never know.''
The F.B.I. has been pressing its
investigation in New Jersey, where the letters originated.
When two men from the F.B.I. and the New
Jersey State Police arrived last month at the Waksman Institute of
Microbiology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, scientists there saw it
as a natural step in the anthrax investigation.
Staffed with microbiologists familiar with
how the deadly bacteria grow and filled with the sophisticated laboratory
equipment involved, the institute, just 38 miles from the Trenton post
offices where the letters were postmarked, was a natural place for
investigators to ask detailed questions.
But the two investigators, escorted by the
university's head of security, asked the laboratory's director, Dr.
Joachim Messing, only a few general questions about growing bacteria and
never mentioned specifically what they were looking for. Finally, Dr.
Messing said, he felt obligated to volunteer that his laboratory did not
''I couldn't give you a clue what they were
after,'' Dr. Messing said in an interview this week. ''I asked the person
from the F.B.I. if he knows anything about bacteria, some very simple
questions, and it was very clear that he didn't have the background to
Tracking the F.B.I.'s investigation near
Trenton, and beyond, shows that agents seemed to have passed over some
potential opportunities for developing leads.
Though investigators are consulting some
members of professional organizations like the American Society for
Microbiology and the American College of Veterinary Microbiologists, the
F.B.I. is only now establishing an Internet bulletin board to permit
members of those groups to pass information to the bureau's leadership, a
senior F.B.I. official said.
''That's in the works,'' he said.
Top bureau officials also appeared to be
unaware of last month's international chemical and pharmaceutical
convention, ChemShow, in New York City, which attracted hundreds of
chemical and pharmaceutical equipment manufacturers, engineers and
''If they weren't crawling around that
show, they should have been,'' said Richard Barbini, a chemical engineer
and salesman for Arde Barinco Inc., in Norwood, N.J., a pharmaceutical
equipment maker. ''There's all kinds of people there from many different
countries, a lot of people who know a lot'' about what it takes to make
The senior F.B.I. official said he was not
sure if any agents had attended the show, and a bureau spokeswoman said
the agency would not comment on the matter.
In New Jersey, the F.B.I. has been in
regular contact with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New
Jersey in Newark, which works with infectious bacteria, but special
agents have yet to call bacteria experts at the university's Robert Wood
Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, said Michael A. Gallo, a professor
of environmental community medicine.
F.B.I. officials say that their
investigation is proceeding methodically in an uncharted area and that
questions will eventually be asked in all appropriate places.
Several microbiologists suggested that
agents should focus on companies that sell new and used laboratory
equipment that could reduce anthrax to the micron-size particles found in
the letter sent to Mr. Daschle's office last month. That equipment would
include either a jet mill or a spray dryer, each of which can be used to
reduce bacteria into ultrafine, inhalable powder.
Some companies that deal in that equipment
said F.B.I. agents had called seeking detailed information, while others
said they had been asked only general questions. Others said they had not
been called at all.
A sales official at Spray Drying Systems
Inc., of Randallstown, Md., a company that sells spray dryers, said the
company had not heard from investigators.
But agents from the Boston F.B.I. office
visited some companies, including Sturtevant Inc. in Hanover, Mass.,
which manufactures jet mills, said a company executive who asked that his
name not be used.
''He was asking very good questions,'' the
executive said of the agent.
Eventually, the executive said, he gave the
agent lists of his customers and competitors. ''There's dozens and dozens
and dozens of used equipment dealers out there,'' he said. ''Even the
F.B.I. doesn't have enough people to track down the number of machines
that are in commerce in the world.''
Though they are still compiling a complete
list of places anthrax is stored in this country, federal investigators
have already visited a number of laboratories, germ warehouses,
universities, government agencies and even veterinarians in their search
for clues in the anthrax attacks, one federal investigator involved in
the inquiry said.
So far, he said, a range of government
agencies that maintain anthrax, including the National Institutes of
Health and the Food and Drug Administration, have been asked to account
for their specimens in detail, and to provide samples to compare with
those used in the bioterror attacks.
In addition, organizations like the New
Jersey Veterinary Medical Association and the New Jersey Pharmacists
Association, which has set up a hotline to the F.B.I. to report large
orders for anthrax vaccines, said that at least one of their members had
been contacted by the F.B.I.
And at the American Type Culture
Collection, a vast bioresource center that sells germs, based in
Virginia, Nancy Wysocki, a vice president, said the center had ''a very
close working relationship with many of the federal agencies, including
F.B.I. agents have also spoken to some
pharmaceutical companies, including some based in New Jersey, company
executives said. Some have been open with the bureau, others have asked,
for legal reasons, for agents to present a subpoena before they would
grant access to their files.
''We want to know what you have for
anthrax, we want to see the documentation, we want to know who has access
to it, where it's shipped from, who works with it, we want to know the
protocols,'' said a senior F.B.I. official. ''We're not going to leave these
facilities until every question is answered.''
Many university laboratories in New Jersey,
Pennsylvania and New York have not been contacted in the investigation.
''I haven't seen neither hide nor hair of
them,'' said Dr. John E. Lennox, a professor at Penn State University's
microbiology department, though anyone interested in producing anthrax
could find what they need in his laboratory. ''There isn't anything they
would require that isn't in my lab,'' he said.
But Dr. Sulie Chang, chairwoman of the
biology department at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, said F.B.I.
agents called her several weeks ago, saying that they were contacting
biology departments throughout the state.
Dr. Chang said they wanted to know if any
students had shown a sudden interest in anthrax. In fact, she said, a
student there had given a 15-minute presentation on the topic recently
and she gave the agents his name. She said she did not know whether they
Dispute Over Daschle Letter
The F.B.I. was confronted with differing
assessments of the anthrax found in the letter to Senator Daschle, a
dispute among experts that illustrates the government's slowly evolving
understanding of how to investigate an anthrax attack.
An initial analysis by the United States Army
Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, which specializes in
biodefense, found that the material was very pure, very concentrated and
highly dangerous. The Fort Detrick laboratory began studying the Daschle
letter on Oct. 15 and delivered its first assessment to the bureau that
night, a spokesman said.
Two days later, the F.B.I. sent a sample
for additional testing to Battelle, a military contractor in Ohio that
does secret work for the Pentagon and other government agencies.
Officials said the Army laboratory had
irradiated part of the anthrax spores before studying them, a safety
technique that leaves their aerodynamic and other characteristics
Apparently unaware that the Army laboratory
had irradiated the material, Battelle used a different method, officials
said, placing the anthrax in an autoclave and killing the spores with
intense pressure and steam. Two officials said that this produced a far
lower estimate of the concentration level and prompted Battelle
scientists to conclude that the material was more likely to clump
together, and thus less likely to waft through the air, than the Army
scientists had estimated.
Both laboratories delivered reports to the
F.B.I. on Oct. 22. One administration official said Fort Detrick found
that the Daschle anthrax contained as much as one trillion spores per
gram, much more than had been detected by Battelle.
Scientists quickly recognized that the
tests had been conducted differently and agreed that Battelle should do a
second study using irradiated material. A shipment was sent to Battelle
on Oct. 25, one official said, which subsequently produced estimates
similar to those of the Army scientists.
While the different findings created
intense controversy in scientific circles, senior law enforcement
officials said they had had virtually no effect on their conclusion that
the material was very dangerous or on what they had told senior
But officials said
senior officials at the Department of Health and Human Services were sufficiently
curious about the disagreement that they had asked the Army scientists to
discuss their findings in person on Oct. 23. Officials said this week
that the incident reflected how unaccustomed the bureau was to managing a
complicated investigation that turned on scientific analysis.