After months of frustration, FBI investigators have stumbled on a new theory of the 2001 anthrax attacks that some sleuths hoped could crack the case. Earlier this year, acting on a tip, FBI divers recovered a plastic container from the depths of an ice-covered pond near Frederick, Md. Some suspect it could have been used as a crude piece of lab equipment. The bureau has long believed that the anthrax perp is a disgruntled bioweapons researcher. One of the "persons of interest" the bureau has focused on is Steven J. Hatfill, a doctor and bioterrorism researcher who formerly worked at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick. (Hatfill has steadfastly denied any involvement in the attacks and has criticized the FBI for singling him out.) Earlier this month The Washington Post reported the discovery of the new evidence, a clear plastic container resembling a "glove box," a device often used by researchers handling deadly pathogens to protect them from contamination. The Post also reported a tantalizing new theory. Some investigators believed that the perp may have submerged the box underwater to manipulate the spores into envelopes without sickening or killing himself. While some law-enforcement officials are taking the novel theory seriously, others have dismissed it as fantasy. "It got a lot of giggles," says one FBI source.
But what is more intriguing to the FBI is the source of the tip in the first place. NEWSWEEK has learned that the tipster was an acquaintance of Hatfill's; agents searched the pond after interviewing the friend, who relayed a provocative conversation he'd had with the bioweapons researcher. Hatfill, the source told the bureau, was questioning the FBI's current theory of the case, that whoever manufactured the anthrax would have needed access to sophisticated equipment and a lab. He said the toxic bacteria could be made in the woods and the evidence could be tossed "in a lake." When agents found the box in the Frederick pond, they thought they had a eureka moment. The FBI tested the box for residue of anthrax bacilli, and at first got a positive result. But subsequent tests have been negative. (It is possible that the spores would wash off underwater.) Investigators still have no physical evidence linking Hatfill, or anyone else, to the crime. Hatfill's lawyer, Tom Connolly, would not comment on the discovery of the box or his clients's alleged conversation. "Dr. Hatfill had nothing to do with the anthrax attacks. Period," Connolly told NEWSWEEK. Next month the FBI may drain the entire pond in hopes of finding new evidence. One item agents might be looking for: a wet suit that could have been used and disposed of by the anthrax attacker.