FBI Lethargy Lets the Anthrax Killer Go Free
by Nicholas D. Kristof
NEW YORK -- The FBI's bumbling before Sept. 11 is water under the bridge. But the bureau's lackadaisical ineptitude in pursuing the anthrax killer continues to threaten America's national security by permitting him to strike again or, more likely, to flee to Iran or North Korea.
Almost everyone who has encountered the FBI anthrax investigation is aghast at the bureau's lethargy. Some in the biodefense community think they know a likely culprit, whom I'll call Mr. Z. Although the bureau has carried out lie-detector tests on Mr. Z, searched his home twice and interviewed him four times, it has not placed him under surveillance or asked its outside handwriting expert to compare his writing with that on the anthrax letters.
This is part of a larger pattern. Astonishingly, the FBI allowed the destruction of anthrax stocks at Iowa State University, losing what might have been valuable genetic clues. Then it waited until December to open the intact anthrax envelope it found. The FBI didn't obtain anthrax strains from various labs for comparison until March, and the testing is still not complete. The bureau did not systematically polygraph scientists at two suspect labs, Fort Detrick, Maryland, and Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, until a month ago.
Perhaps it's a cheap shot for an armchair detective to whine about the caution of dedicated and exceptionally hard-working investigators. Yet months pass and the bureau continues to act like, well, a bureaucracy, plodding along in slow motion. People in the biodefense field first gave Mr. Z's name to the bureau as a suspect in October.
He denies any wrongdoing, and his friends are heartsick at suspicions directed against a man they regard as a patriot. Some of his lie-detector tests show evasion, I hear, although that may be because of his temperament.
If Mr. Z were an Arab national, he would have been jailed long ago. But he is a true-blue American with close ties to the Defense Department, the CIA and the U.S. biodefense program. On the other hand, he was once caught with a girlfriend in a biohazard "hot suite" at Fort Detrick, surrounded only by blushing germs.
With many experts buzzing about Mr. Z behind his back, it's time for the FBI to make a move: Either it should go after him more aggressively, sifting thoroughly through his past and picking up loose threads, or it should seek to exculpate him and remove this cloud of suspicion.
Whoever sent the anthrax probably had no intention of killing people; the letters warned recipients to take antibiotics. My guess is that the goal was to raise preparedness against future biological attacks.
So it seems fair to ask the FBI a few questions:
Do you know how many identities and passports Mr. Z has and are you monitoring his international travel? I have found at least one alias for him, and he has continued to travel abroad on government assignments, even to Central Asia.
Why was his top security clearance suspended in August, less than a month before the anthrax attacks began? This move left him infuriated. Are the CIA and military intelligence agencies cooperating fully with the investigation?
Have you searched the isolated residence that he had access to last autumn? The FBI has known about this building, and knows that Mr. Z gave Cipro, an antibiotic used to treat anthrax, to people who visited it. This property and many others are legally registered in the name of a friend of Mr. Z, but may be safe houses operated by U.S. intelligence.
Have you examined whether Mr. Z has connections to the biggest anthrax outbreak among humans ever recorded, which sickened more than 10,000 black farmers in Zimbabwe from 1978 to 1980? There is evidence that the anthrax was released by the white Rhodesian army fighting against black guerrillas. Mr. Z has said that he participated in the white army's much-feared Selous Scouts. Could rogue elements of the American military have backed the Rhodesian army in anthrax and cholera attacks against blacks?
Mr. Z's résumé also claims involvement in the former South African Defense Force; all else aside, who knew that the Defense Department would pick an American who had served in the armed forces of two white racist regimes to work in the U.S. biodefense program with some of the world's deadliest germs?
What now? When do you shift into high gear?
Copyright © 2002 the International Herald Tribune