New Angles Emerge in Anthrax Attacks of 2001

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The fifth anniversary of the anthrax attack is approaching, and little is known about who was responsible. But the FBI is convinced that the anthrax wasn't weapons-grade level, and authorities have widened their investigation, according to a report in The Washington Post.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

We're closing in on the fifth anniversary of the anthrax attacks, when envelopes containing deadly spores were sent through the mail. In the end, five people died. The FBI has said very little publicly about the investigation. And now, there's a new nugget to puzzle over. It comes at the end of a scientific paper being published by a scientist at the FBI lab. It suggests the anthrax spores did not require the work of a professional bioweapons expert.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: In October 2001, letters containing anthrax spores had turned up on Capitol Hill and at several news organizations. The spores did not just sit in the envelopes, they floated in the air like talcum powder. At that time, Major General John Parker from the U.S. Army Medical Research And Material Command at Fort Dietrich, Maryland, gave this testimony in Capitol Hill.

General JOHN PARKER (Army Medical Research and Medical Command): When we looked at the spores underneath a microscope, they're uniformed in size and highly concentrated, and highly pure. And these individual spores are very light. And if given some energy from say wind or clapping or motion of air in a room, they will drift in the air and then fall to the ground.

KESTENBAUM: The spores got everywhere. Clean up cost million of dollars. Some experts speculated that the spores had been weaponized, specially treated in some way to make them float, perhaps the work of a real pro. Some news stories suggested the spores had been coated with silica so they wouldn't stick to each other.

But this does not appear to be the case. At the end of last week, a Connecticut newspaper, The Hartford Current, reported on a scientific paper published by Douglas Beecher at the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia. In the last paragraphs of that paper Beecher writes, quote, “a widely circulated misconception is that the spores were produced using additives and sophisticated engineering supposedly akin to military weapon production.” Michael Stebbins is a biosecurity expert at the independent group The Federation of American Scientists. He says this means a long list of potential suspects.

Dr. MICHAEL STEBBINS (Federation of American Scientists): If they had been, quote, unquote, weaponized, it would certainly limit it to people who worked in the biodefense industry. But this is not something new, the FBI has certainly known this from early on in the investigation, that these spores were not coated. This is just the first public announcement of that information.

KESTENBAUM: The bureau declined to comment for this story. But the information is no surprise to Matthew Meselson, a molecular biologist at Harvard. In the months after the attack, the FBI invited him and some other researchers to look at electron microscope pictures of the spores.

Dr. MATTHEW MESELSON (Harvard): I spent about half a day there at the lab, at the field office, and all I saw was absolutely pure spores. I saw no evidence of any kind of silica nanopowder, and there's no question that if that had been there I would have seen it. It's very distinctive-looking stuff.

KESTENBAUM: Meselson says he thinks any competent microbiologist could have made and dried the spores, the instructions are in a textbook.

Dr. MESELSON: My belief is that if you get those spores pure, that they will fly on their own.

KESTENBAUM: After the attacks, the FBI became intensely interested in a biodefense expert named Steven Hatfill. Hatfill said he was innocent and he's now suing the FBI and the Department of Justice, claiming the investigation has ruined his reputation. Last week, the FBI issued a statement describing the investigation as one of the largest and most complex it had ever conducted. The statement said, quote, “the FBI's commitment to solving this case is undiminished.”

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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