WASHINGTON — At a laboratory in northern Arizona, microbiologist Paul Keim toiled over the pedigree of the anthrax spores that killed three people and shook the U.S. capital to its roots.
At Ft. Detrick, Md., Army germ warfare specialists struggled with another question: whether the toxic white powder had been chemically altered to be more deadly.
At the FBI, officials admitted that they lacked vital expertise, despite millions of dollars spent on a new crime lab and special units for hazardous materials and weapons of mass destruction.
"We certainly didn't go out and hire one or several experts in biological weaponry," a senior federal law enforcement official said. "I'm afraid the public has the right to expect that we would have that kind of expertise, and we don't."
Now, as it enters its fourth week, the massive but fragmented anthrax investigation has entered a frustrating phase. Despite an all-out effort, progress has been so slow that it's impossible to tell which will come next: breakthrough or stalemate.
Several thousand FBI agents are wading through a swamp of leads, for example, but most of them prove to be false. Scores of forensic experts are studying scientific clues, but the tests take precious time and may never lead to the perpetrators.
And the effort is hampered by confusing and often contradictory statements from officials.
As sobering as all this is, it may be spawning a larger problem:
The outbreak of anthrax terrorism along the East Coast has exposed significant weaknesses in institutions that Americans long have considered to be the most dependable in the world. U.S. medical science, public health and political leadership all have been found wanting in one aspect or another.
But perhaps no shortcomings have proved more fundamental--and had greater repercussions around the country--than those of law enforcement. That someone has contaminated the mail with anthrax is bad enough. That investigators seem stumped makes it far worse.
"The unknown is the weapon with anthrax, not the anthrax itself," said Jay Segal, a specialist in emotional trauma at Temple University's Center for Public Health in Pennsylvania. "As Americans, we like to have answers, certainty. The unknown is killing us.
"It's not that anthrax is in our mailboxes. It's that it's in our minds."
"There is a feeling that government is not in control," said Ray Kelly, former director of the U.S. Customs Service and now chief of security for Bear Stearns in New York. "There is no indication we know where this is coming from or that law enforcement is hot on the trail of anybody.
"We always thought we were protected, especially in the medical field, and that leaders knew what to do. Not this time."
Even an FBI official involved in the inquiry conceded that the halting pace of the investigation is beginning to strain the public.
"We need to make an arrest soon," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, "because the anxiety level out there needs to be ratcheted down."
More Resources, but Expertise Lags
For years, according to one senior federal law enforcement official with scientific expertise, the FBI has been asking for more resources to combat bioterrorism, along with a budgetary wish list of other needs. Beginning in 1996, after high-profile bioterrorism incidents in Japan and elsewhere, the FBI received millions of dollars to do just that.
But there are gaps in the FBI's capabilities. "In terms of knowing the finer details of the [anthrax] materials, we don't have the kind of experts--biological experts--that we have for, let's say, fingerprinting and inks," the official said.
"It is a very small pool of experts, but they are not ours. We are essentially having to hire them, or they are coming from other government agencies."
In the weeks since the anthrax letters began arriving, the FBI has turned to experts at the CIA and the Defense Department. This outside expertise is available, but using it requires speed and coordination that goes well beyond the norm.
One result has been that, as the public poses urgent questions, the nation's lead law enforcement agency has been slow to respond with answers or even relevant information.
"I can't blame them for being concerned," the official said. Anthrax contamination, he said, "really hits home."
Many of the anthrax samples have been sent for testing to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Others are being reviewed at Ft. Detrick by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, known as USAMRIID.
But much of the most arcane scientific gumshoe work has been farmed out to labs outside the government, including the one headed by Keim at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
Keim has spent much of his professional life trying to learn more than anyone else in the world about one tiny subject. He has collected samples of anthrax spores from around the world, patiently studying and cataloging each one.