Remember the Anthrax Investigation?

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Remember the anthrax investigation? The probe into the individual (or individuals) responsible for sending a wave of anthrax-laced letters through the mail just days after 9/11? After the initial flurry of media attention died down little was written about the case, but the FBI has quietly continued to investigate the attacks. Now, The Washington Post, among other news outlets, is reporting that there’s been a new — and somewhat discouraging — development in the case:

Five years after the anthrax attacks that killed five people, the FBI is now convinced that the lethal powder sent to the Senate was far less sophisticated than originally believed, widening the pool of possible suspects in a frustratingly slow investigation.

The finding, which resulted from countless scientific tests at numerous laboratories, appears to undermine the widely held belief that the attack was carried out by a government scientist or someone with access to a U.S. biodefense lab.

It was originally believed that the agent used in the attacks was a rare, weaponized variety of anthrax known as the Ames strain, which could only be found in a handful of labs, among them the U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) on the Fort Detrick base in Frederick, Maryland. “In my opinion, there are maybe four or five people in the whole country who might be able to make this stuff, and I’m one of them,” former U.N. bioweapons inspector Richard O. Spertzel said in 2002. “And even with a good lab and staff to help run it, it might take me a year to come up with a product as good.”

The alleged grade of the material and the significant expertise needed to refine it led the FBI to zero in on government biodefense researchers, in particular Steven J. Hatfill, a former researcher at USAMRIID who the Bureau designated a “person of interest” in the case. (Hatfill has sued The New York Times and Vanity Fair for defamation and the Justice Department for violating his constitutional rights in leaking confidential information to the press.)

Now, according to the Post:

The prevailing views about the anthrax powder, meanwhile, have been coalescing among a small group of scientists and FBI officials over several years but rarely have been discussed publicly. In interviews and a recently published scientific article, law enforcement authorities have acknowledged that much of the conventional wisdom about the attacks turned out to be wrong.

Specifically, law enforcement authorities have refuted the widely reported claim that the anthrax spores had been “weaponized” — specially treated or processed to allow them to disperse more easily. They also have rejected reports that the powder was milled, or ground, to create finer particles that can penetrate deeply into the lungs. Such processing or additives might have suggested that the maker had access to the recipes of biological weapons made by the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.

If this is true, then it complicates the investigation significantly and makes the list of potential suspects much longer. The FBI, for its part, has described its suspect list as “fluid.” This development also begs the very important question of how so many experts could have been so wrong for so long.

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