Riddle of the spores

Why has the FBI investigation into the anthrax attacks

stalled? The evidence points one way 

George Monbiot

Tuesday May 21, 2002

The Guardian 

The more a government emphasises its commitment to

defence, the less it seems to care about the survival

of its people. Perhaps it is because its attention may

be focused on more distant prospects: the

establishment and maintenance of empire, for example,

or the dynastic succession of its leaders. Whatever

the explanation for the neglect of their security may

be, the people of America have discovered that casual

is the precursor of casualty. 

But while we should be asking what George Bush and his

cabinet knew and failed to respond to before September

11, we should also be exploring another, related,

question: what do they know now and yet still refuse

to act upon? Another way of asking the question is

this: whatever happened to the anthrax investigation? 

After five letters containing anthrax spores had been

posted, in the autumn, to addresses in the United

States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation promised

that it would examine "every bit of information [and]

every bit of evidence". But now the investigation

appears to have stalled. Microbiologists in the US are

beginning to wonder aloud whether the FBI's problem is

not that it knows too little, but that it knows too


Reducing the number of suspects would not, one might

have imagined, have been too much to ask of the

biggest domestic detective agency on earth. While some

of the anthrax the terrorist sent was spoiled during

delivery, one sample appears to have come through

intact. The letter received by Senator Tom Daschle

contained one trillion anthrax spores per gram: a

concentration which only a very few US government

scientists, using a secret and strictly controlled

technique, know how to achieve. It must, moreover,

have been developed in a professional laboratory,

containing rare and sophisticated "weaponisation"

equipment. There is only a tiny number of facilities -

all of them in the US - in which it could have been


The anthrax the terrorist sent belongs to the "Ames"

strain of the bacterium, which was extracted from an

infected cow in Texas in 1981. In December, the

Washington Post reported that genetic tests showed

that the variety used by the terrorist was a

sub-strain cultivated by scientists at the US army's

medical research institute for infectious diseases

(USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland. That finding was

publicly confirmed two weeks ago, when the test

results were published in the journal Science. New

Scientist magazine notes that the anthrax the

terrorist used appears to have emerged from Fort

Detrick only recently, as the researchers found that

samples which have been separated from each other for

three years acquire "substantial genetic differences".

The Ames strain was distributed by USAMRIID to around

20 other laboratories in the US. Of these, according

to research conducted by Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, who

runs the Federation of American Scientists' biological

weapons monitoring programme, only four possess the

equipment and expertise required for the weaponisation

of the anthrax sent to Senator Daschle. Three of them

are US military laboratories, the fourth is a

government contractor. While security in all these

places has been lax, the terrorist could not have

stolen all the anthrax (around 10 grams) which found

its way into the postal system. He must have used the

equipment to manufacture it. 

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg has produced a profile of the

likely perpetrator. He is an American working within

the US biodefense industry, with a doctoral degree in

the relevant branch of microbiology. He is skilled and

experienced at handling the weapon without

contaminating his surroundings. He has full security

clearance and access to classified information. He is

among the tiny number of Americans who had received

anthrax vaccinations before September 2001. Only a

handful of people fit this description. Rosenberg has

told the internet magazine Salon.com that three senior

scientists have identified the same man - a former

USAMRIID scientist - as the likely suspect. She, and

they, have told the FBI, but it seems that all the

bureau has done in response is to denounce her. 

Instead, it has launched the kind of "investigation"

which might have been appropriate for the unwitnessed

hit and run killing of a person with no known enemies.

Rather than homing in on the likely suspects, in other

words, it appears to have cast a net full of holes

over the entire population. 

In January, three months after the first anthrax

attack and at least a month after it knew that the

sub-strain used by the attacker came from Fort

Detrick, the FBI announced a reward of $2.5m for

information leading to his capture. It circulated

500,000 fliers, and sent letters to all 40,000 members

of the American Society for Microbiology, asking them

whether they knew someone who might have done it. 

Yet, while it trawled the empty waters, the bureau

failed to cast its hook into the only ponds in which

the perpetrator could have been lurking. In February,

the Wall Street Journal revealed that the FBI had yet

to subpoena the personnel records of the labs which

had been working with the Ames strain. Four months

after the investigation began, in other words, it had

not bothered to find out who had been working in the

places from which the anthrax must have come. It was

not until March, after Barbara Hatch Rosenberg had

released her findings, that the bureau started asking

laboratories for samples of their anthrax and the

records relating to them. 

To date, it appears to have analysed only those

specimens which already happened to be in the hands of

its researchers or which had been offered, without

compulsion, by laboratories. A fortnight ago, the New

York Times reported that "government experts

investigating the anthrax strikes are still at sea".

The FBI claimed that the problem "is a lack of

advisers skilled in the subtleties of germ weapons". 

Last week, I phoned the FBI. Why, I asked, when the

evidence was so abundant, did the trail appear to have

gone cold? "The investigation is continuing," the

spokesman replied. "Has it gone cold because it has

led you to a government office?" I asked. He put down

the phone. 

Had he stayed on the line, I would have asked him

about a few other offences the FBI might wish to

consider. The army's development of weaponised

anthrax, for example, directly contravenes both the

biological weapons convention and domestic law. So

does its plan to test live microbes in "aerosol

chambers" at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center,

also in Maryland. So does its development of a

genetically modified fungus for attacking coca crops

in Colombia, and GM bacteria for destroying materials

belonging to enemy forces. These, as the research

group Project Sunshine has discovered, appear to be

just a tiny sample of the illegal offensive biological

research programmes which the US government has

secretly funded. Several prominent scientists have

suggested that the FBI's investigation is being

pursued with less than the rigour we might have

expected because the federal authorities have

something to hide. 

The FBI has dismissed them as conspiracy theorists.

But there is surely a point after which incompetence

becomes an insufficient explanation for failure. 



Back To Islam Awareness Homepage

Latest News about Islam and Muslims

Contact IslamAwareness@gmail.com for further information