WASHINGTON — The Justice Department said Friday it had made "substantial progress" in the investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks, but officials declined to comment on a report in The Times that the department was about to bring the first criminal charges for the attacks against a Maryland man who died this week.
The Times reported Friday that a top government scientist who helped the FBI analyze samples from the 2001 attacks had died in Maryland from an apparent suicide just as the Justice Department was about to file criminal charges against him.
Bruce E. Ivins, 62, who had long worked at the government's elite biodefense research laboratories at Ft. Detrick in Maryland, had been informed of his impending prosecution, said people familiar with Ivins, his suspicious death and the FBI investigation.
His name had not been disclosed publicly as a suspect in the case.
Paul Kemp, Ivins' lawyer, said in a statement Friday that his client was innocent of any involvement in the attacks, in which a series of anthrax-laced letters sent from New Jersey killed five people, injured 17 others and traumatized the nation weeks after Sept. 11.
"For six years, Dr. Ivins fully cooperated with [the anthrax] investigation, assisting the government in every way that was asked of him," Kemp said. "We are saddened by his death, and disappointed that we will not have the opportunity to defend his good name and reputation in a court of law.
"We assert his innocence in these killings, and would have established that at trial," the lawyer added. "The relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo takes its toll in different ways on different people, as has already been seen in this investigation. In Dr. Ivins' case, it led to his untimely death."
The Justice Department said in a statement that there had been "significant developments in the investigation," including "substantial progress" using "new and sophisticated scientific tools."
Law enforcement officials said that the department was in the process of deciding whether to officially close the investigation, one of the most extensive in FBI history.
If the investigation is declared over, the department will seek a court order releasing investigative documents in the case that have been under court seal, the officials said. They declined to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.
"We anticipate being able to provide additional details in the near future," the Justice Department statement said. Officials indicated in the statement that they wanted to update victims of the attacks about the investigation before making further details public.
In Kennebunkport, Maine, where President Bush was vacationing, reporters asked a White House spokeswoman whether Bush had been briefed on the latest developments. She said she had no information and referred questions to the Justice Department.
"What I can tell you is that President Bush over the years has maintained an interest in this case and has periodically been updated by the FBI director," spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
On Capitol Hill, the target of several of the anthrax-laced letters, frustrated members of Congress pressed the FBI for more information.
"The public, the victims' families, and law enforcement would like to know that the book is closed on this investigation," Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) said in a statement.
"The FBI has not briefed me about today's news reports, so I cannot say whether that is the case," Holt said. "What we learn will not change the fact that this has been a poorly handled investigation that has lasted six years and already has resulted in a trail of embarrassment and personal tragedy."
Holt disclosed a letter he sent Friday to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III requesting an update on the probe.
"It's been frustrating that the FBI has essentially shut out Congress throughout its seven-year investigation," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a statement. "Now seems to be the opportune time for the bureau to brief Congress about whether the case is to be closed and justice will be served.
"If it is, we must thoroughly examine the reasons why. In the meantime, we should remember that a rush to judgment can be dangerous and expensive for everyone. The last person the FBI had in its sights in this case suffered for six years and just collected a $6-million settlement," he said.
The Times' Friday report chronicled the first major breakthrough in the case, which had stymied legions of FBI and other law enforcement agents for more than six years.
The extraordinary turn of events followed the government's payment in June of a settlement valued at $5.82 million to Steven J. Hatfill, another former government scientist, who was long targeted as the FBI's chief suspect.
The Justice Department's cautious public response Friday contrasted sharply with its public finger-pointing at Hatfill early in the investigation. Then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft declared Hatfill a "person of interest" in the case in 2002. Hatfill accused the government of orchestrating a leak campaign to reporters that ruined his reputation.
"We understand that the FBI wants to take the time to brief the victims' families about an important development in the anthrax investigation," Thomas Connolly, Hatfill's lawyer, said Friday. "Out of respect for the victims and their families, we will withhold comment until that has occurred."