Two Years Later, Anthrax Attack Culprit Still At Large and Cleanup Efforts Continue

WASHINGTON — Two years ago this month, the first reports emerged that people in the eastern United States had become infected with the biological warfare agent anthrax. By the end of November, the 2001 anthrax attacks killed five people in Connecticut, Florida, New York and Washington, and sickened 13 others.

Over the past year, the FBI has had little public success in tracking down those responsible for the anthrax attacks — to the point where a senior FBI official was reported late last month as suggesting that the case might be never be solved. While various U.S. agencies have launched the massive cleanup effort needed to decontaminate the various facilities that were tainted with anthrax, some of the victims still complain of lingering symptoms.

Investigation StalledLate last month, several newspapers reported on a set of surprising comments made by FBI Assistant Director Michael Mason, the newly appointed head of the bureau’s Washington field office (see GSN, Sept. 30). According to the Washington Post, Mason said he regretted that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft had publicly identified former Army biologist Steven Hatfill as a “person of interest in the case.”

Over the past two years, Hatfill has been the apparent public focus of the FBI investigation into the anthrax attacks. In early September, he filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department, claiming the department had violated his constitutional rights and damaged his reputation (see GSN, Sept. 2).

Former U.N. inspector Richard Spertzel, who has followed the anthrax investigation, told Global Security Newswire that he hoped Hatfill succeeded in his lawsuit against Justice.

“I sincerely hope Hatfill is able to collect big-time from his lawsuit. To have one’s life ruined on such flimsy reasons is criminal in nature,” Spertzel said. 

Mason was also reported late last month as having said that the FBI’s efforts to recreate the process used to produce the spores used in the attacks had been unsuccessful (see GSN, Nov. 4, 2002). Late last year, experts had praised the FBI’s decision to use this investigative tactic (see GSN, Nov. 11, 2002). While saying that the bureau had been unsuccessful in trying to recreate the process used to produce the anthrax spores, Mason also said that the effort had helped to narrow some aspects of the investigation, according to reports.

“We would not have that if reverse engineering had completely failed to provide us with any information or valuable leads,” Mason was quoted by USA Today as saying.

In addition this past year, another highly visible FBI investigative tactic also apparently resulted in failure, according to reports, when the bureau employed divers to search a forest pond near Frederick, Md. (see GSN, Jan. 28). The discovery of pieces of laboratory equipment within the pond led the FBI this summer to drain it in hopes of finding further evidence. The three-week, $250,000 effort, however, only resulted in the discovery of discarded items unrelated to the attacks, according to reports (see GSN, Aug. 1).

Assistant FBI Director Mason was also reported as having suggested that the anthrax investigation may never be solved — a view shared by some outside experts.

“Most informed folk I have spoken with are of the same opinion that a break is not likely soon or maybe ever,” Martin Hugh-Jones of the Pathological Sciences Department at Louisiana State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine told GSN.

Moving on …While the FBI has had little success in tracking down those responsible for the anthrax attacks, efforts over the past year to decontaminate the buildings contaminated with spores have had better results. 

In March, the U.S. Postal Service scored a success with the successful decontamination of the Brentwood Road mail-handling facility in Washington, D.C. after more than a year of work. A Postal Service spokesman told GSN in June that the Brentwood facility was expected to reopen by the end of November (see GSN, June 23).

Efforts have also begun to decontaminate several other facilities affected by the attacks, including a U.S. State Department offsite mail facility in Sterling, Va., and a Postal Service mail-handling center in New Jersey. In addition, plans are being prepared to decontaminate the first site contaminated during the attacks — the former headquarters of American Media Inc in Boca Raton, Fla. That building has remained sealed since the discovery of the first two reported anthrax cases — AMI employees Bob Stevens, who died of the disease, and Ernesto Blanco, who came down with inhalational anthrax but recovered.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in August that the firm Consultants in Disease and Injury Control had been awarded the contract to decontaminate the former AMI headquarters. Real estate developer David Rustine, who purchased the building for only $40,000, has reportedly promised to be the first to walk through the building unprotected once it had been decontaminated.

In an effort to help prevent further biological attacks conducted by mail, the Postal Service in July began testing a new anthrax detection system at facilities in 15 cities. An agency spokesman told GSN last month that the test had been a “resounding success” and now the Postal Service is scheduled to begin installing the system nationwide early next year (see GSN, Sept. 9).

While progress has been made in efforts to decontaminate tainted facilities and to develop new techniques to prevent further attacks, many of the survivors of the attacks have been less successful in moving on, according to recent reports (see GSN, 18). In mid-September, the Baltimore Sun reported that a doctor at Baltimore Sinai’s hospital has been monitoring five of the survivors through telephone interviews conducted every three months since the attacks. According to the Sun, the study has found that all five survivors continue to report similar lingering symptoms, such as weakness and memory problems.

In contrast to their experience, the 76-year-old Blanco, the first survivor of the attacks, has so far been the only one to return to work, according to the Associated Press.

“I feel fine,” AP quoted Blanco as saying.

October 10, 2003
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WASHINGTON — Two years ago this month, the first reports emerged that people in the eastern United States had become infected with the biological warfare agent anthrax. By the end of November, the 2001 anthrax attacks killed five people in Connecticut, Florida, New York and Washington, and sickened 13 others.