FBI, Postal Service offer up to $1 million for information on anthrax terrorists
WASHINGTON (AP) – Federal investigators pressed for evidence at research labs and universities that may have access to anthrax and questioned pharmacies to see if anyone tried to buy large amounts of antibiotics before the nationwide anthrax scare.
As a third television network in New York reported an anthrax exposure and a New Jersey postal letter carrier who may have handled two anthrax letters tested positive for the disease, authorities offered $1 million for information leading to the arrest of those who sent the deadly spores.
The female letter carrier who may have handled envelopes sent to NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle worked out of the West Trenton, N.J., local post office facility.
”Once again we call upon the public to assist us in this fight against terrorism,” FBI Director Robert Mueller said in a joint announcement with Postmaster General Jack Potter.
Officials stressed they had not determined whether the anthrax came from foreigners or U.S. residents. One scenario being explored is whether someone living in the United States might have gotten help from a foreign country, a company or an overseas or a domestic terrorist with enhanced biochemical capabilities, officials said.
”We think it may be ill-advised to think about the situation in terms of an either/or matrix,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said. He also raised the possibility that the anthrax attacks could be the work of more than one homegrown terrorist.
”It might well be that we have opportunists in the United States or terrorists in the United States who are acting in ways that are unrelated,” Ashcroft said.
Interviewed later on MSNBC, Ashcroft said that ”we can’t rule out” that the anthrax attacks and the Sept. 11 events were related.
With two of the anthrax letters postmarked in Trenton, N.J., investigators fanned out across the state looking for evidence, including whether anyone sought large doses of antibiotics that protect against anthrax infection before the current cases occurred. They also checked sites where the sophisticated equipment or anthrax expertise might be found.
Authorities questioned at least one pharmacist in Trenton about whether anyone bought 60 to 120 tablets of the antibiotic Cipro, used for treating anthrax, before Sept. 18 – the postmark date of an anthrax-laced letter sent to Brokaw from the same city.
”Anyone trying to buy that many would stick out like a sore thumb,” said pharmacist John Berkenkopf, who told investigators no customers had tried to buy such a quantity of pills.
Cipro is usually prescribed for a week to 14 days, which is about 10 or 20 pills, for common infections. The regimen for anthrax is 60 days.
At Princeton University, a 20-minute drive from Trenton, university spokeswoman Marilyn Marks said FBI agents visited the campus Wednesday. In contacts with researchers, ”the thrust of their questions was were we doing research on campus that used anthrax” and ”the answer is no,” said Marks. She said the FBI spoke to the head of the Environmental Health and Safety Department and others.
Tests have concluded that the anthrax in the letter sent to Brokaw was of the same strain as the anthrax sent to an American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla., where one man has died.
Health officials were still testing the anthrax sent to Daschle in Washington. Tests to determine the source of the anthrax in all three letters were continuing.
”It looked to be run-of-the-mill, sensitive to all antibiotics,” said Dr. William Winkenwerder, an assistant defense secretary.
Investigators said they were intrigued by the fact that the anthrax sent to NBC in September appeared to be in a heavier granular substance. A federal bioterrorism official said Wednesday the Daschle letter’s anthrax was professionally made and possibly refined with additives to make it more easily airborne. But another official said that was not confirmed.
”There was no evidence, based on what we know thus far, that it was any different from other samples at this time,” said Winkenwerder.
If the handwriting and envelopes were concluded to be similar but the powdery substances that contained the spores were different, it might suggest a common sender may have received sophisticated assistance in between the Brokaw and Daschle letters, government officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Some of the traditional evidence-gathering was slowed because the envelopes were contaminated with anthrax, making tests such as fingerprinting, DNA analysis and saliva more risky for lab technicians.
”The contamination issue very clearly affect this,” Postal Inspector Dan Milhalko said.
Law enforcement officials said one possible source of evidence – DNA from saliva on the envelope seal or stamp – may be missing.
The sender probably understood that licking a stamp or the envelope could prove deadly given the anthrax spores and could be tested for DNA. The envelope sent to Daschle’s office was sealed instead with tape and both the Daschle and Brokaw envelopes were prestamped by machine imprinters and didn’t need an adhesive stamp. Fingerprint evidence was being sought from the envelopes.
Postal and FBI investigators were using bar codes to determine where and when the letters were sent and then checking for surveillance camera footage that might identify a suspect.
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