Anthrax Probe Turns to Polygraph
The decision by the FBI to administer polygraph tests to hundreds of federal workers at two top military research facilities marks a new effort by investigators to smoke out individuals who might have information about last year’s deadly anthrax attacks.
Seven months after the first victim died from the bioterrorist attack launched by mail, officials still have been unable to identify a suspect through intensive scientific and other law enforcement techniques.
However, suspicion has focused on two military laboratories, at least one of which has weapon-grade anthrax stocks available. Scientists analyzing the genetic sequence of the spores used in the attacks--which came from a strain known as Ames--said earlier this month that they were able to rule out some laboratories as the source of the spores that killed five people and sickened at least 13 others.
Federal investigators characterize the unusual plan to begin polygraph testing of large numbers of employees at Ft. Detrick in Maryland and Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah next month as “another step in the investigation.”
“What you’ve got is a universe of individuals who could have the knowledge, ability and wherewithal to do this--and how do you separate them? How we’re doing that here is by asking them to submit to voluntary polygraphs,” said a federal law enforcement official who asked not to be identified.
Army officials said Tuesday that they are continuing to cooperate with federal investigators.
“We expect our folks to comply with the laws and share any information that FBI is asking for,” said Army spokeswoman Karen Baker.
About 600 employees at Dugway and Ft. Detrick are categorized as research staff, including clerical and technical personnel, according to military officials. Sources estimated that about 200 employees at the high-security facilities would submit to polygraphs, but they cautioned that the number could vary greatly and that the probe could expand beyond those two facilities.
In 1999, amid concerns about espionage breaches, the Energy Department moved to polygraph an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 federal employees at nuclear labs, expanding the use of wholesale polygraphs for the first time outside the CIA and the National Security Agency.
But after an uproar from nuclear scientists, the Energy Department decided to conduct polygraphs on only about 800 scientists with access to nuclear weapon secrets. Scientists had attacked the reliability of the tests and argued that the dramatic expansion that was originally planned by federal authorities would have damaged careers and degraded years of loyal service by weapons scientists.
In the anthrax investigation, microbiologists at laboratories where the Ames strain is known to have been available have already been questioned at length. But direct appeals for information from research scientists, as well as from the general public in the Trenton, N.J., area where the letters were mailed, have not led to a prime suspect. A $2.5-million reward for information leading to the capture of the anthrax killer remains unclaimed.
An FBI official who asked not to be identified said the mass polygraph move was not generated by desperation.
“Progress is being made. But without being able to get into specifics, it’s hard to bring that out and explain it to the public” because of sensitivity about the ongoing investigation, the official said.
However, John Martin, a former senior official at the Justice Department who has dealt extensively with polygraphs, said the decision to go to mass polygraphs “is a clear indication that they are running out of investigative leads.”
“The broad net that is being thrown out, going after 200 suspects, indicates that they have not narrowed the number down to five or 10,” which in an ordinary criminal investigation would be a large number to polygraph, he said.
Martin said the tactic is “very, very unusual. It will take a long time to get through 200 people, and they’re going to have to use a large number of polygraph examiners.” The complexity of the task--and the fact that examiners will need to know the investigation in great detail to be effective--will make zeroing in on a suspect even more difficult, he said.
FBI officials declined comment on the polygraph issue.
“All I can tell you is it’s a pending investigation, and we’re using the investigative tools available to us,” said Chris Murray, spokesman for the FBI’s Washington field office, which is running the investigation.
While members of the scientific community expressed skepticism about polygraphs in general, they also acknowledged that the scientific progress made in the case may provide investigators with enough information to turn up individuals with “guilty knowledge.”
“No one wants this cloud lifted more urgently that the people who are involved in this field of research,” said Steven Afterwood, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists.
Afterwood described the number of people capable of launching the attack as small.
“This is not an open-ended community at all, and this investigation has been a burden and an annoyance,” he said. “The problem is that the polygraphs may also be a wild goose chase. It does have the signs of a kind of brute-force, try-anything approach, but sometimes that’s what you have to do.”
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