In 4-Year Anthrax Hunt, F.B.I. Finds Itself Stymied, and Sued - New York Times

Ouch! -- law

Biodefense experts say solving the case, even belatedly, is critical..."If we can't catch this guy, I'm afraid it's going to encourage others to try an attack," said David W. Siegrist.. "If we solve this case, even if it takes five or six years, it might provide some degree of deterrence," Dr. Fraser said. "What everyone's afraid of is another incident before this one is solved."

In 4-Year Anthrax Hunt, F.B.I. Finds Itself Stymied, and Sued

WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 - Richard L. Lambert, the F.B.I. inspector in charge of the investigation of the deadly anthrax letters of 2001, testified under oath for five hours last month about the case.

But Mr. Lambert was not testifying in a criminal trial. He and his teams of F.B.I. agents and postal inspectors have not found the culprit. Instead, he and six other F.B.I. and Justice Department officials have been forced to give depositions in a suit over news media leaks filed by Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, the former Army biodefense expert who was under intensive scrutiny for months.

Four years after an unknown bioterrorist dropped letters containing a couple of teaspoons of powder in a mailbox in Princeton, N.J., what began as the largest criminal investigation in American history appears to be stalled, say scientists and former law enforcement officials who have spoken with investigators.

The failure to solve the case that the authorities call "Amerithrax" is a grave disappointment for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Postal Inspection Service, the investigative arm of the Postal Service. The letters were the first major bioterrorist attack in American history and killed five people, sickened 17 others, temporarily crippled mail service and forced the evacuation of federal buildings, including Senate offices and the Supreme Court.

"They've done everything they can possibly think of doing, and they're just not there yet," said Randall S. Murch of Virginia Tech, a former scientist at the bureau who led the use of laboratory tests to trace the origin of microbes used in crimes. "You have to understand that the pressure is enormous."

A former law enforcement official who keeps up with several investigators said, "From the people I've talked to, it's going nowhere." The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of sensitivity over leaks in the case, said some agents still formally assigned to the investigation were mostly working on other cases, because "there's nothing for them to do."

For the director of the bureau, Robert S. Mueller III, who started work in September 2001 just before the Sept. 11 attacks and the anthrax letters, the case is a priority. He is briefed on the investigation every Friday that he is in Washington, Debra Weierman, a spokeswoman for the bureau, said.

Ms. Weierman said 21 agents from the bureau and nine postal inspectors were assigned to the inquiry, a far cry from the hundreds of the early months, but still a major commitment. She said that investigators had conducted more than 8,000 interviews and served 5,000 subpoenas and that the case remained "intensely active."

The fact that Dr. Hatfill, who has not been charged or cleared, has turned the tables on the agents who he says have ruined his life can only make this fourth anniversary more frustrating for the authorities.

The two sets of anthrax-laced letters, addressed to news media organizations and Senators Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, both Democrats, were postmarked Sept. 18 and Oct. 9, 2001.

Dr. Hatfill, 51, grew up in Illinois and trained as a physician in Zimbabwe before conducting medical research in South Africa. After returning to the United States, he worked from 1997 to 1999 at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md.

He was the focus of public attention from anthrax investigators in 2002 and 2003, when his apartment near the fort and places he had lived or visited were searched. For months, he was under 24-hour surveillance; one worker from the Federal Bureau of Investigation ran over his foot when the scientist tried to photograph him.

Two years ago, Dr. Hatfill sued the bureau and the Justice Department, saying leaks to the news media about him and the public description of him by Attorney General John Ashcroft as a "person of interest" in the case had destroyed his reputation.

He also has a suit pending against The New York Times and a columnist for the paper, Nicholas D. Kristof, saying Mr. Kristof defamed him.

This summer, Judge Reggie B. Walton, of Federal District Court in Washington, let Dr. Hatfill's lawyers begin questioning people about the reported leaks.

In 4-Year Anthrax Hunt, F.B.I. Finds Itself Stymied, and Sued - New York Times


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