Lacking Leads, Anthrax Hunt Comes Home

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

After a month of searching intensely but unsuccessfully for the footprints of a foreign power, perplexed U.S. authorities are focusing greater attention on the possibility that the anthrax crisis may be the work of domestic extremists without ties to Islamic terrorists.

"You can't rule out the possibility of foreign involvement, but at this point there is no evidence pointing in that direction," one well-placed official said, noting that the search for such evidence has been exhaustive.

The shift of focus does not reflect any new leads in the United States but rather the lack of progress abroad. Interviews with investigators from U.S. intelligence agencies, the FBI and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal just how little they have learned in four intense weeks.

"We're feeling our way," Deputy Atty. Gen. Larry Thompson acknowledged late last week. "It is not a science. It's an art."

On the domestic front, investigators are looking at a wide range of possibilities, including that the anthrax might have originated in a university biomedical laboratory.

And the anthrax outbreak has posed such an unusual combination of law enforcement and scientific challenges that it has forged a rare partnership between the FBI and epidemiologists from the CDC, as well as with federal postal inspectors and state and local authorities.

"It was a willing response, it was a rapid response, and it was a creative response," Thompson declared in a speech last week.

So far, however, it apparently has also been an unsuccessful response.

Investigators have learned more about what doesn't work than about what does. Senior CDC officials acknowledge that they wasted time during the early stages of the crisis in Florida by using nasal swabs to test individuals for anthrax exposure.

Similarly, FBI officials have concluded that almost nothing of value has come from the massive effort to find the culprits by sending federal agents swarming through the Trenton, N.J., neighborhoods where several of the early anthrax letters were mailed.

Without abandoning the New Jersey inquiries, the bureau is focusing on possible domestic sources of anthrax bacteria as a way of locating the terrorists--or lone wolf.

"We're looking domestic," a Bush administration official said Saturday. "If it were international, we would have seen something in the [intelligence monitoring] traffic, and we've seen nothing. You can't rule it out completely, but there is no indication of it."

Two probe officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, conceded they had become deeply frustrated and worried.

Not only were no breakthroughs in sight, they said, but the sporadic outbreaks thus far might only be experimental preludes to a more deadly effort.

One said this concern had led him to stop using the Washington subway system. Both said they were stockpiling enough antibiotics to provide several days of treatment for their families.

The FBI Probe

For the FBI, scientific examination of the anthrax samples found thus far, principally in Washington and New York, has yielded few clues.

Widespread reports held that the type of virulent anthrax mailed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) at the Capitol and to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw in New York could only have come from sophisticated labs in the United States, Russia or Iraq. But a senior law enforcement official said last week that just the opposite conclusion had been reached.

The anthrax powder could have come from "any region in the world," he said. It "occurs globally, which . . . It's an awkward way of saying the organism is ubiquitous."

Studying the technology used to harvest and distribute the anthrax--as well as the method used to produce its fine-grained particles--has not narrowed the field, he said.

So where did it come from?

"I haven't a clue, honestly," the official said.

Indeed, senior federal law enforcement authorities said late last week they were no closer to cracking the case than they were early in October, when a photo editor in Florida at a supermarket tabloid became the first to die of anthrax.

The anthrax death last week of a female hospital worker in New York has muddied the investigative path further because it does not seem to involve contact with contaminated letters, as in other cases.

"We're very much in the process of trying to learn everything that we can about her life over the last month or two: who she knew, places she visited, her daily routes, where she shopped," New York FBI spokesman Joe Valiquette said.

A grand jury for the southern district of Florida, in its investigation of the photo editor's death, has subpoenaed university and research laboratory records in search of where anthrax spores have been kept and who had access to them. USC and Louisiana State University were among those subpoenaed.

"They wanted to know which cultures we had on hand and who had been visiting our lab," said Martin Hugh-Jones, an LSU scientist.

Hugh-Jones said he believes that LSU's security was tight enough to keep the university's anthrax out of terrorists' hands, but he suggested that high-grade material capable of causing inhalation anthrax was not so carefully guarded elsewhere.

"I think they got it from a labeled vial in a lab," he said. A visitor or rogue scientist could "just steal it and slip it in his pocket."

At USC, an attorney who worked on the university's response to the subpoena said the grand jury asked the university what types of anthrax bacteria it ever had on hand, and who had access to the anthrax.

One other FBI strategy--a $1-million reward--has elicited 170,000 tips and potential leads. But none has moved the investigation forward significantly, and many have proved to be hoaxes. The hoaxes have led to numerous indictments, but they have also diverted hundreds of agents from the real crime.

The probe has also been plagued by internal problems. At least a day and a half after hospital worker Kathy T. Nguyen was first confirmed as an anthrax victim last week in New York, investigators had not talked to her mailman.

And Friday, the FBI's hazardous material team in Quantico, Va., had still not been informed about reports of anthrax in Europe. "Things have a ways of winding up various places, and we learn about it [in] peculiar ways," one official said.

Moreover, although the FBI tested cars used by suspected lead hijacker Mohamed Atta and his accomplices for anthrax, they did not test the Florida apartments the terrorists had used. Part of the reason, officials said, was that none of the investigators who originally searched those apartments had become ill.

"We don't have any evidence to suggest that [the hijackers] were involved in it, no evidence to tie it in," said FBI Special Agent Judy Orihuela, a bureau spokeswoman in Miami.

She said FBI agents did check reports that Atta went to a pharmacy seeking a way to decontaminate himself from anthrax spores. But investigators ultimately concluded that he had simply bought over-the-counter hand cream.

In New Jersey, where FBI agents are still trying to determine who mailed the anthrax letters to Daschle and Brokaw, authorities have ruled out any connection with the hijackers. FBI Special Agent Sandra Carroll, a department spokeswoman, pointed out that the hijackers all died Sept. 11, weeks before the first anthrax letter was postmarked.

But four weeks after the search began, Carroll said, authorities still had no idea who had sent the letters, or why.

Anthrax bacteria have turned up at a third postal facility in New Jersey, state officials said Saturday.

One of about 100 environmental samples collected by the FBI from the regional mail processing and distribution center in Bellmawr, about 30 miles southwest of Trenton, tested positive, Reuters reported. Last week, a 54-year-old Delaware man employed at the facility apparently contracted skin anthrax, health officials said.

The CDC Probe

CDC officials now realize that the nasal swabbings performed in Florida were done too long after the original exposure to yield useful information about whether a particular individual was at risk for anthrax or how large the circle of exposure had grown.

"I can tell you that if we had to do that investigation over today, we certainly would not have recommended the widespread nasal swabbing that we did there," said Julie Gerberding, acting deputy director of the CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases. She said the CDC should have "expected to see exactly what we did see, which was a thousand people with negative nasal swabs."

She said the swabbings left many Americans with a false impression that the process helped determine risk. That became a serious public relations problem as anthrax hot spots spread but the swabbings were abandoned.

CDC officials are now drafting a blueprint for handling suspected anthrax outbreaks at the grass-roots level--a system that would knit federal agencies and local doctors, emergency response crews, police and public health authorities into an effective team.

As their probe moves out of its initial phase, CDC investigators are focusing on how powdered anthrax spores become airborne, or "aerosolized." They are the most lethal in this state because they can be inhaled into the lungs.

Initially, the CDC told Washington postal workers that anthrax powder in sealed envelopes posed no risk to mail handlers. Yet two such workers subsequently died of inhalation anthrax.

Now, the CDC is trying to understand more precisely how spores on a surface of an envelope or a mail-handling machine might have infected nearby workers.

The CDC's Dr. Bradley Perkins, who led the Florida investigation, said earlier data suggested that the risk of getting anthrax that way was probably quite low. "We would like, however, to get additional data about the re-aerosolization risk around postal sorting machines," he said.

What CDC scientists are not doing is exploring a question often asked by the public: How likely is "cross-contamination" to occur if an object contaminated with anthrax comes in contact with one that is not contaminated--an anthrax letter being placed in a mail bag with other letters, for example.

Officials now believe cross-contamination infected a New Jersey bookkeeper with skin anthrax and have had to temper early proclamations that the mail was basically safe. Now they say there is an extremely low risk of contracting skin anthrax though cross-contamination and that inhalation anthrax is impossible because too few spores would be transferred.

But CDC officials conceded they had done no experiments to bolster their theories.

The Intelligence Front

A senior intelligence official said an intense search by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies had found "no evidence yet of foreign involvement" in the handful of anthrax-laden letters that have spread fear in several states.

But the official, who asked for anonymity, added that the CIA had not concluded that the source was domestic either.

"We have no conclusion one way or the other," the official said.

That failure to find evidence of foreign involvement after intensive searching is what prompts some analysts to conclude the anthrax problem may well be home-grown. But neither those who lean toward a domestic source nor those holding open the possibility that the biological attacks originated overseas are insisting they are correct.

Some officials, however, still argue that only a state-supported program could have produced the finely milled anthrax so far detected. Former CIA director R. James Woolsey, among others, suspects Iraq. He notes that Saddam Hussein built a sizable covert bio-weapons program before and after the 1991 Gulf War, including sophisticated systems to produce anthrax and spray-based delivery equipment.

Others say that the few anthrax letters found so far were mailed close to where several of the hijackers lived before the attacks.

Such suspicions have a weakness pointed out by a senior law enforcement official active in the anthrax probe: "There's been no evidence to indicate state sponsorship or a foreign national involvement."

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This article was reported by Times staff writers Richard T. Cooper, Robert Drogin, Megan Garvey, Eric Lichtblau, Aaron Zitner, Meyer and Wright in Washington, and Sharon Bernstein, Melinda Fulmer and Robert J. Lopez in Los Angeles. It was written by Cooper.

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