Solving The Anthrax Case--With No Mistakes

Amid unusually intense political pressure, FBI officials are sharply divided over the next steps in their nine-month-old anthrax investigation, law-enforcement sources say. Twice in recent weeks, bureau officials have been hauled up to the Senate to give private briefings on the state of the probe--to staff members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and to Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Such briefings in the midst of an ongoing case are highly unusual, officials say. But the FBI reluctantly agreed, given that both Daschle and judiciary chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy had deadly anthrax-laden letters sent to their offices last fall. The senators and their staffs were demanding answers in the wake of media criticism--much of it generated by Barbara Rosenberg of the Federation of American Scientists, who has charged that the bureau is dragging its feet in the probe for fear of embarrassing officials in the U.S. bioweapons program. FBI officials dismiss Rosenberg's conspiracy theories as nonsense, but some of her ideas (that the perpetrator is a U.S. researcher, for one) have support in the bio community and on the Hill. (After his own briefing, Daschle pronounced himself satisfied.) In fact, sources say, many bureau agents working the case are increasingly convinced that the culprit will be found among the relatively small number of U.S. scientists--most of them with the highest level of security clearances--who were working on anthrax and other aspects of U.S. bioweapons research. Most of these scientists have been associated with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., an important facility for bioweapons research and home to some of the deadliest pathogens, including the Ebola and Marburg viruses and smallpox, as well as anthrax.

Investigators are working from a rolling list with anywhere from a half dozen to 20 people under scrutiny. Names stay on the list until they can be cleared, a process dubbed Operation Elimination. But the task has proven frustrating. Two weeks ago the FBI searched the apartment of one veteran researcher, Dr. Steven J. Hatfill. Authorities say he has adamantly denied any involvement in the attacks, and the search produced no evidence implicating him, causing field agents to pull back. Some agents would like to step up the pressure, but others are more cautious. "I don't want it coming to us that we created a [Richard] Jewell," said one senior law-enforcement official, referring to the man wrongly accused of planting a bomb during the Atlanta Olympics. The lack of progress has been dispiriting and some officials believe the FBI needs to start looking in other directions. But top bureau officials still insist they are making progress. "We're light-years ahead of where we were months ago," said one.