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Anthrax Letter Attacks Clarified Amid Conflicting FBI Reports

By William J. Broad

Seeking to clear up public confusion, an FBI official has reiterated the bureau’s judgment that the anthrax in the letter attacks five years ago bore no special coatings to increase its deadliness and no hallmarks of a military weapon.

In theory, that finding could widen the pool of potential suspects in the unsolved case since the perpetrator would have required less skill and could have worked with more commonplace materials. What started as the largest criminal investigation in American history now, five years later, appears to be stalled.

The statement by the FBI official contradicts an array of assessments over the years about the anthrax attacks, which in late 2001 killed five people and sickened 17 others. Tainted letters were dropped into a mailbox in Princeton, N.J., sending anthrax to several news media offices and two U.S. senators.

Soon after, a variety of public and private experts proclaimed the deadly spores to have been specially treated to enhance their ability to float in the air and reach deep into human lungs, where they could germinate and kill their host. Some experts called the anthrax military-grade.

But the bureau official, Douglas J. Beecher, a scientist at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Va., disputed such claims as misguided in a recent journal article.

“A widely circulated misconception is that the spores were produced using additives and sophisticated engineering supposedly akin to military weapon production,” Beecher wrote in the August issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology. “The persistent credence given to this impression fosters erroneous preconceptions, which may misguide research and preparedness efforts and generally detract from the magnitude of hazards posed by simple spore preparations.”

The FBI declined to make available lead scientists in the investigation.

The Hartford Courant and The Washington Post referred to the Beecher piece in recent articles.

William C. Patrick III, a scientist who once made germ weapons for the American military and is now a private consultant on biological defense, agreed with the FBI’s assessment. “The material was good, but not weapons grade,” Patrick said in an interview. “You can’t make that in your basement. It requires sophisticated equipment.”

The misconceptions in the case began early, reinforced by edgy public officials and federal scientists struggling to assess an unfamiliar threat quickly.