WASHINGTON — After a month of searching intensely but unsuccessfully for the footprints of a foreign power, perplexed U.S. authorities are focusing greater attention on the possibility that the anthrax crisis may be the work of domestic extremists without ties to Islamic terrorists.
"You can't rule out the possibility of foreign involvement, but at this point there is no evidence pointing in that direction," one well-placed official said, noting that the search for such evidence has been exhaustive.
The shift of focus does not reflect any new leads in the United States but rather the lack of progress abroad. Interviews with investigators from U.S. intelligence agencies, the FBI and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal just how little they have learned in four intense weeks.
"We're feeling our way," Deputy Atty. Gen. Larry Thompson acknowledged late last week. "It is not a science. It's an art."
On the domestic front, investigators are looking at a wide range of possibilities, including that the anthrax might have originated in a university biomedical laboratory.
And the anthrax outbreak has posed such an unusual combination of law enforcement and scientific challenges that it has forged a rare partnership between the FBI and epidemiologists from the CDC, as well as with federal postal inspectors and state and local authorities.
"It was a willing response, it was a rapid response, and it was a creative response," Thompson declared in a speech last week.
So far, however, it apparently has also been an unsuccessful response.
Investigators have learned more about what doesn't work than about what does. Senior CDC officials acknowledge that they wasted time during the early stages of the crisis in Florida by using nasal swabs to test individuals for anthrax exposure.
Similarly, FBI officials have concluded that almost nothing of value has come from the massive effort to find the culprits by sending federal agents swarming through the Trenton, N.J., neighborhoods where several of the early anthrax letters were mailed.
Without abandoning the New Jersey inquiries, the bureau is focusing on possible domestic sources of anthrax bacteria as a way of locating the terrorists--or lone wolf.
"We're looking domestic," a Bush administration official said Saturday. "If it were international, we would have seen something in the [intelligence monitoring] traffic, and we've seen nothing. You can't rule it out completely, but there is no indication of it."
Two probe officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, conceded they had become deeply frustrated and worried.
Not only were no breakthroughs in sight, they said, but the sporadic outbreaks thus far might only be experimental preludes to a more deadly effort.
One said this concern had led him to stop using the Washington subway system. Both said they were stockpiling enough antibiotics to provide several days of treatment for their families.
The FBI Probe
For the FBI, scientific examination of the anthrax samples found thus far, principally in Washington and New York, has yielded few clues.
Widespread reports held that the type of virulent anthrax mailed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) at the Capitol and to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw in New York could only have come from sophisticated labs in the United States, Russia or Iraq. But a senior law enforcement official said last week that just the opposite conclusion had been reached.
The anthrax powder could have come from "any region in the world," he said. It "occurs globally, which . . . It's an awkward way of saying the organism is ubiquitous."
Studying the technology used to harvest and distribute the anthrax--as well as the method used to produce its fine-grained particles--has not narrowed the field, he said.
So where did it come from?
"I haven't a clue, honestly," the official said.
Indeed, senior federal law enforcement authorities said late last week they were no closer to cracking the case than they were early in October, when a photo editor in Florida at a supermarket tabloid became the first to die of anthrax.
The anthrax death last week of a female hospital worker in New York has muddied the investigative path further because it does not seem to involve contact with contaminated letters, as in other cases.
"We're very much in the process of trying to learn everything that we can about her life over the last month or two: who she knew, places she visited, her daily routes, where she shopped," New York FBI spokesman Joe Valiquette said.
A grand jury for the southern district of Florida, in its investigation of the photo editor's death, has subpoenaed university and research laboratory records in search of where anthrax spores have been kept and who had access to them. USC and Louisiana State University were among those subpoenaed.
"They wanted to know which cultures we had on hand and who had been visiting our lab," said Martin Hugh-Jones, an LSU scientist.