The FBI's attempts to recreate the spores used in last year's anthrax attacks could provide valuable clues and help the bureau focus its investigation, experts told Global Security Newswire last week.
The bureau has been working for months to reconstruct the spores, FBI Director Robert Mueller said Nov. 1, according to The Washington Post. "We're replicating the way or ways it might be manufactured, but it is not an easy task," the Post quoted Mueller as saying. "We are going into new territory in some areas," he added.
Several experts agreed that this new tactic in the FBI's "Amerithrax" investigation could provide information needed to better determine who might be a possible suspect. By knowing how the spores were produced, the FBI might be able to determine how many people were needed and whether sophisticated materials and equipment were acquired and used, said Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a biologist at State University of New York who has often publicized her views on the anthrax investigation.
With the information learned through the experiments, the FBI will also be able to better educate its field agents, improving their abilities to investigate sites and conduct interviews, said Martin Hugh-Jones, an anthrax researcher at Louisiana State University. It is "a very sensible decision," Hugh-Jones said in a written response to questions from GSN.
Charles Pena, a senior defense policy analyst at the CATO Institute in Washington, agreed that the experiments should enable FBI investigators to learn what kind of technical expertise was needed to produce the spores.
The FBI should be able to determine whether the spores were made by "an individual in their basement" or if the spores were more sophisticated-something "you need more than high school chemistry, high school biology" to produce, Pena said.
The bureau might also be able to learn whether specialized equipment was needed-and what kind-which could then be used to determine where such equipment could be obtained and by whom, Pena said. "This isn't the kind of stuff you can go down to K-Mart and get," he added.
No Solid Leads
The FBI's decision to attempt to recreate the spores might also be a sign that investigators lack other concrete evidence, Pena said. The bureau's decision reflects the fact that it does not have any solid leads in the case, and instead is choosing to go back to fundamentals, he said, suggesting that this is a tactic the FBI should have considered earlier.
Pena also criticized the FBI's apparent decision to base its investigation on a profile that a lone U.S. scientist is responsible for the attacks. In a large-scale investigation, officials tend to follow their initial assumptions, Pena said, adding that it is often difficult to shift an investigation away from those initial assumptions.
The FBI might now be asking, "If we start from zero, where would we go?" Pena said.
Research into how the anthrax spores were produced might help dissuade the bureau away from the lone U.S. scientist profile, said Richard Spertzel, chief biological inspector for the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq from 1994 to 1998.
"If it gets them [the FBI] off the kick that it can be easily and cheaply made, it will be helpful," Spertzel said in a written response to GSN.
The FBI's acknowledged months of research into recreating the spores should be an indication that they were probably difficult to produce, Spertzel said. He added that this high level of difficulty should also convince the bureau to shift the focus of its investigation away from Steven Hatfill, the former U.S. Army biologist who has been the public focus of the FBI investigation.
If the FBI were to determine through its research that the spores were coated with a silica compound and created with the use of a spray dryer-expensive and specialized equipment-it might narrow the field of suspects toward a state-run program such as Iraq, Spertzel said.
While the FBI has not publicly provided technical details of its anthrax-manufacturing research, such as whether it is using or producing live anthrax, experts agreed that the work probably does not violate the Biological Weapons Convention. The convention prohibits signatories from producing biological weapons agents except in small quantities for defensive purposes.
Attempt to reverse-engineer the spores would not violate the BWC as long as the quantities of anthrax used are small, Spertzel said.
"Such 'small quantities' are acceptable for defensive purposes and investigating a crime would certainly fall into that category," he said in a written response to questions from GSN.
The FBI might not even need to use actual anthrax in its research, Rosenberg said, noting that simulants would probably be as effective. If the FBI is using live anthrax, however, it should explain the necessity for doing so, she said.
"I don't see any point in secrecy on this," Rosenberg said in a written response to GSN. "It just adds to doubts about [the FBI's] competence in pursuing this case," she added.