MARGARET WARNER: FBI agents returned this week to the American Media Company building in Boca Raton, Florida, where deadly anthrax spores were first detected ten months ago. The contaminated building has been sealed since last October, after Robert Stevens, a photo editor who worked there, died from an anthrax infection. Another employee fell ill, but recovered. Investigators believe the anthrax contamination came in a letter or letters delivered to America media, the publisher of the National Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids.
Letters containing anthrax spores were also mailed last fall to NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, and Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. Four people, including two postal workers, died from exposure to those letters, and more than a dozen others became ill. On Monday, FBI officials in Florida explained what they hoped to accomplish in their new search.
DWIGHT ADAMS, FBI: Number one, we hope to do a very comprehensive, detailed assessment of the spore contamination throughout the entire building; number two, a very detailed assessment with regard to the mailroom in particular. Both of these efforts are to generate new leads in the criminal investigation. Number three, we're looking for a dissemination device, such as a letter or letters, again, to generate new leads for the investigation. And then finally, we're looking for large quantities of spores in order to chemically characterize those spores and compare them against the spores found in the Senator Leahy and Daschle letters.
MARGARET WARNER: Another recent public development in the anthrax investigation involves germ weapons expert Steven Hatfill. Hatfill is one of roughly two dozen people who've been characterized as "persons of interest" by the Justice Department because of their background and expertise. From 1997 to '99, Hatfill worked in the bioweapons program of the Army Medical Research Institute at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where anthrax was made and studied.
While he has not been officially designated a suspect, his apartment has been searched twice, and he's been publicly identified in numerous news accounts, apparently based on leaks from investigators. Last weekend, Hatfill once again denied any involvement. He volunteered to take a blood test for anthrax exposure to prove his innocence, and he harshly criticized Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Justice Department and the media.
DR. STEVEN HATFILL: This assassination of my character appears to be part of a government-run effort to show the American people that it is proceeding vigorously and successfully with the anthrax investigation. Today, I again appear before the TV cameras. I want to look my fellow Americans directly in the eye and declare to them, I am not the anthrax killer. I know nothing about the anthrax attacks. I had absolutely nothing to do with this terrible crime.
MARGARET WARNER: The new search in Florida is expected to take two weeks.
For insights into this investigation, we now turn to Clinton Van Zandt, a former FBI special agent. During his 25 years at the Bureau, he ran the behavioral science unit at the FBI Academy. And there, he helped develop profiles of domestic terrorists like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. And Dr. C.J. Peters, director of the Center for Bio Defense at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. He's the former chief of special pathogens at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And he also served as deputy commander of the Army Medical Research Institute at Fort Detrick. Welcome to you both.
Clinton Van Zandt, beginning with you, why would the FBI now, ten months later, be returning to this building in Florida? When I heard this agent say what they were going to do, looking for detail contamination in the mail room and in the building or looking for the letters or a lot of spores I thought, surely they did that earlier.
CLINTON VAN ZANDT: At the time. Well, in the investigation, Margaret, as most of us recall, that was the first place the FBI really found the anthrax contamination. We know, of course, Bob Stevens died. The anthrax was found on his computer, at his desk. But that was such a hot area, the anthrax being there, it was sealed off. And I think we've learned a lot since... in the last ten months, as to how to identify anthrax, how to investigate it. The learning curve, Margaret, has been almost vertical at least for the FBI -- it has because this is the first time that we've had this incident, this type of terrorism, in the United States.
And now we've had these bedfellows, the scientific community and the investigative community have had to get together, have had to learn each other's strengths and weaknesses and in the case of the facility now in Florida, we're going back to look for a delivery vehicle. We learned since that time that letters were used. But, you know, in a crime something is brought to a crime scene, something is left there and something is carried away. That's Criminal Investigation 101. The FBI is there now saying how did that anthrax get in? Could there be an envelope addressed to an entirely different person because the investigation suggests Mr. Stevens was not a target. If he was not, is there an envelope addressed to another person and, if so, maybe that will help the government identify who the real target might have been, trace that back, maybe we'll find the anthrax sender.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But why are you saying that the investigation now suggests that Mr. Stevens wasn't the target?
CLINTON VAN ZANDT: Well, there's been nothing in the past ten or eleven months that says he, as an individual, would have been targeted for any reason. Now, we look at Tom Brokaw, we look at the Senators, the Senate, the House have been sent. There's reasons those anthrax letters were sent there. It was sent to Brokaw and others in the media....
MARGARET WARNER: Who have high profiles.
CLINTON VAN ZANDT: High profile. They will go on air and tell about it. It was sent to members of government so they would do something about it -- announce it, do something about it. This man who died in Florida, he didn't fit in either of those. He was a photo editor. So it looks like cross contamination and now we have to find why that happened to him.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Dr. Peters, what from a scientific point of view, what are they able perhaps to find in this search that they didn't before, and would the anthrax that's still there, for instance, still be hot, still be potent?
DR. C. J. PETERS: Well, the anthrax spores can persist for decades in the environment. So the anthrax that was there the day they closed the building is still there in spore form. You have to look at the quantitative assessment of anthrax in the building. Those letters give off spores through the pores in the envelopes and so on. We know that. And now if you go back in and quantitatively or semi-quantitatively and examine the environment, you should be able to trace that letter just like you would follow a set of muddy footprints over your white carpet.So that's one thing.
Another thing in addition to the issue of evidence in the envelope and so on, if there's a large quantity of anthrax in an envelope or whatever, that could be extremely difficult in terms of decontamination. It would be one issue to decontaminate small quantities of spores that were present on surfaces and so on and quite another to deal with a concentrated powder that might be tucked away in the back of a drawer in someone's desk, so there are practical implications.
MARGARET WARNER: Have investigators -- just bring us up to date on this-- been able to definitively identify the strain of anthrax, we keep hearing about the Ames strain used in the Brokaw and the letters sent to the Senate – and/or have they been able to identify that the anthrax used in Florida was the same? How far along are they in identifying what kind of anthrax it was?
DR. C. J. PETERS: Well, from what's been released publicly, they have applied extremely powerful techniques to determine the genetic sequence of the entire genome of the cell lot and from what's been released publicly, they are identical and correspond to what we call the Ames strain. The problem arises... actually I can illustrate the problem by telling you why it's called the Ames strain. It was isolated actually in Texas, where I am today from a dead cow and it was sent to Ames, Iowa where the national veterinary lab is situated and then it was sent to Fort Detrick for a further study. And they just jotted down from the postmark Ames. And it was called the Ames strain. The problem is that these strains move around from laboratory to laboratory. It's not only common but it's really the source of some of the strength of our science that we can interchange these strains between laboratories and different people examine them.
MARGARET WARNER: And so, Mr. Van Zandt, how useful has it been, the progress they've made on identifying this strain, in narrowing a list of suspects in terms of who either here or worldwide had access to this strain?
CLINTON VAN ZANDT: Well it's been useful because we've identified it as a strain that originated, that is in the United States. We're told it was created, manufactured, milled within the last two to three years. So when the question comes up foreign versus domestic, not only do the letters themselves from a linguistic standpoint does the behavior also suggest domestic but it looks like the identification of the strain is also in the United States. Now there's still a two-track investigation. The FBI will continue to look at a foreign terrorist aspect as well as a domestic terrorist. But it seems that as hard as they look, they're still drawn back to this domestic theory.
MARGARET WARNER: So we keep reading about these profiles. And before we talk about Mr. Hatfill or any other possible suspect let's just talk about profiling. What can you tell us from what you know about what the profile the FBI has developed now about the likely perpetrator?
CLINTON VAN ZANDT: Well, a profile is simply an investigative tool. It helps you take a very large population group and shrink it down so that the investigators, the people who will really solve the crime, can go out and wear out their shoe leather and figure out who did this. The profilers who are looking at this-- I know I looked at the letters initially-- when we look at those, there are so many points, Margaret.
Let's say, for example, the date, September 11. We know the letters were mailed a week and three weeks later but the writer tried so hard to connect them to the events of September 11. When I see someone try that hard, that makes me want to look behind a curtain like in Wizard of Oz. I want to look behind and see what's behind that curtain. I think there's a curtain here that we have to see around.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Dr. Peters, what would you say from what we've learned about the likely level of scientific expertise of this individual or individuals?
DR. C. J. PETERS: Well, I think it may be quite low or quite high. But I'd like to go back to something that Mr. Van Zandt said that I just totally disagree with. Knowing that this strain was originally isolated in the U.S. has absolutely nothing to do with where the weapon may have been prepared because, as I tried to make the point, these strains move around. A post doc in somebody's laboratory could have taken this strain to another lab and it could have been taken overseas and it could have ended up absolutely anywhere. Tiny quantities of anthrax that you couldn't see, that you couldn't detect in an inventory can be used to propagate as much as you want. So that's just not, in fact, very helpful.
I think one of the issues is that anthrax is the easiest of the biological weapons or potential biological weapons to grow and to process. It's very, very stable in spore form so you don't have to worry about special stabilizers. So a lot of the microbiology of this could have been done with ordinary equipment, impossible to trace, by someone with very modest skills. One of the big issues here, I think, is the weaponization. I'm a virologist. I don't work with bacteria like anthrax. I could make this stuff and so could a smart technician in a hospital clinical laboratory. But what I couldn't do is make the powder that is so readily aerosolized as we saw in the Hart Office Building.
So I think that is the crux of one intersection of knowledge that has to come together with the ability to grow it, and this could come together in two people working together or it could come together because someone, for example, grows Bacillus Therengensis, the bacillus that secretes an insecticidal protein in a pesticide company.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Van Zandt, now let's talk about these persons of interest. As we said in the introductory piece the Justice Department says they have 20 or 30. This Mr. Hatfill's name has come forward. We don't want to fall into impugning him –
CLINTON VAN ZANDT: Absolutely not.
MARGARET WARNER: -- when we have no one here to speak for him. But what is it about him that makes him typical of the class of persons of interest, and also what does that term mean?
CLINTON VAN ZANDT: Well, person of interest is something that apparently the attorney general coined to separate him from a suspect. I think it's a lower degree of interest. And I think that's all that's supposed to indicate. As far as a person of interest, it appears that Dr. Hatfill had access to laboratories where anthrax was used. He was --supposedly written a book about it. In 1999 he commissioned a study about how anthrax could be used as a weapon and sent through the mails so we have the access, we have the background. Then when we start to look on the personality side we're always interested in any person's background. What is there or was is not there?
In the case again of Dr. Hatfill we're told through the media that he suggested he had a PhD that he hadn't finished. We're told that he indicated he was a member of Special Forces and he really wasn't. So there's a number of perhaps Walter Mittyian type of aspects to his or another person's personality we need to look at.
MARGARET WARNER: So why would his name because apparently many other people fit part of the profile. Why is his name become public? Is he right that he's been selectively leaked against?
CLINTON VAN ZANDT: Well, leaked I think is a very important issue. The first time he was... the FBI was conducting a search, a local TV crew happened to be in the area, saw FBI cars and came over. The second time a search took place, a neighbor called up the media and said, hey, you might be interested. The FBI is back again. So to me that's not a FBI leak. That's a happenstance. And he, as you suggest, is one of at least 80 people that they're looking at.
MARGARET WARNER: Dr. Peters, briefly, how does this Hatfill controversy look to you? In other words, does it seem to you as if he's been kind of unfairly -- his name put out there?
DR. C. J. PETERS: You know, I don't know what the FBI knows about Hatfill but none of the things that I've heard for example just now make me feel that he is a likely person more so than many others that could be identified. I think that the fact that his name came out is very deleterious to his reputation and to his livelihood.
MARGARET WARNER: Right.
DR. C. J. PETERS: One of the things that people don't realize is that he worked at USAMRIID -- the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. They are concerned with medical countermeasures that would be applied to infected people. They're not concerned with making these powders. They don't make the powders.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Dr. Peters, I'm sorry to interrupt you.
DR. C. J. PETERS: They use the liquids.
MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry. But we are out of time. Thank you both very much.
CLINTON VAN ZANDT: Thank you.