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Federal agents searched a former Army microbiologist's apartment for a second time Tuesday -- one week after he was discussed at a meeting between the FBI's most prominent critic and staff members of two senators who received anthrax-laced letters.
Agents cordoned off the street in front of the Detrick Plaza Apartments abutting the U.S. Army's premier biological warfare research laboratory, where Dr. Steven J. Hatfill worked for several years. Late in the afternoon, agents packed evidence into garbage bags and placed them into a Ryder rental truck backed up near the door of Hatfill's apartment.
Hatfill could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but he has maintained for months that he had nothing to do with last fall's anthrax attack that killed five people, including 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren of Oxford, Conn.
Last month, he said he had a letter from his attorney saying that the FBI did not consider him a suspect and that he was ``sick of'' the scrutiny by the press.
Federal officials haven't named any suspects.
Tuesday's search came a week after Hatfill's name came up during a meeting between Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a biological weapons expert from the Federation of American Scientists, and staff members of Sens. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., both of whom were sent anthrax-contaminated letters. FBI agents were present at the meeting, sources said.
For months, Rosenberg has been publicly prodding the FBI to take a closer look at Hatfill.
Among the reasons she has cited:
Five experts in the close-knit biological weapons community months ago passed Hatfill's name on to the FBI.
He had access to a remote cabin in Maryland and the expertise to make the highly potent weapons-grade anthrax.
He left the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick under questionable circumstances two years ago.
In March, the scientist lost his job with prominent Department of Defense contractor Science Applications International Corp. when his security clearance was revoked, a company source said. It is unclear why his clearance was revoked, and he has since gotten a job with another private contractor.
On Tuesday, FBI agents stopped residents of the Detrick complex and asked for identification before they were allowed to return home. One resident said she saw at least one agent, wearing a mask over her nose and mouth, going in and out of the scientist's apartment.
A basin full of detergent was placed at the door of the apartment, where agents appeared to be washing some equipment, said the resident, who declined to be identified.
Law enforcement sources said that the scientist agreed to the search of his apartment in hopes of clearing his name. Sources said the search is one of many they have conducted in the "Amerithrax" investigation.
Agents first searched the apartment late last year, when they also searched Hatfill's car. A high-tech vacuum found no evidence of anthrax.
In the past few years, Hatfill, 48, has publicly discussed the process of turning toxic biological agents into easily inhaled powders -- the form of the anthrax placed in the letters sent in the mail attacks last fall.
Hatfill has also said that the United States is woefully unprepared for a biological attack.
The FBI announced a few weeks ago that it was going to give lie detector tests to more than 200 former and current employees of the infectious-disease center in Maryland and another anthrax research facility,Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
According to one scientist recently interviewed by the FBI, agents have asked if it would be possible for someone to grow anthrax in the Maryland laboratory and smuggle it off the base without being detected.
The FBI has been criticized for the slow pace of the investigation, but has said it is an unprecedented case that is difficult to crack.
Agents have focused much of their attention on genetic testing of the anthrax in Leahy's letter, hoping that it would indicate which laboratory the anthrax came from and possibly who made it.