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Investigators Scour Post Offices in Fla., N.J.
Investigators Scour Post Offices in Fla., N.J. for Clues to Deadly Mail's Source
By Dan Eggen and Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers Tuesday, October 16, 2001; Page A01
Federal investigators homed in yesterday on two Postal Service operations in New Jersey and south Florida in search of clues that may help them track the origins of the spate of anthrax cases discovered in the past two weeks.
Letters to Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle in Washington and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw in New York -- both of which have tested positive for anthrax bacteria -- went through a postal distribution center in Trenton, N.J., law enforcement officials said yesterday.
Agents interviewed postal employees in Trenton in an attempt to determine the origin of the letters, and are reviewing videotapes from the center's camera, a law enforcement source said.
In Florida, state health officials announced that small numbers of anthrax spores were found at a post office in Boca Raton, site of the tabloid newspaper headquarters where anthrax was first detected after the death of a photo editor who apparently inhaled the deadly bacteria.
Nasal swabs obtained from postal employees there tested negative for anthrax exposure, but employees have been given 15-day courses of antibiotics as a precaution, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Faced with an apparent bioterrorism attack in the wake of the deadly Sept. 11 attacks, federal officials said they have little choice but to proceed as if the escalating number of reports of anthrax may be linked to the al Qaeda terrorist network and its leader, Osama bin Laden. U.S. officials blame bin Laden for the Sept. 11 terrorist assaults on New York and Washington that left more than 5,000 dead.
"There may be a possible link" between the anthrax cases and bin Laden, President Bush said yesterday. "I wouldn't put it past him."
Yet 10 days after the anthrax-related death of Bob Stevens, who worked at American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, the FBI has established no clear connection between the bioterrorism scare and al Qaeda, government officials said yesterday. "It's anyone's guess at this point," a law enforcement official said.
Investigators and many terrorism experts note that the anthrax exposures so far bear little similarity to the types of terrorist operations characteristic of bin Laden, whose followers have preferred explosive and overtly violent attacks intended to kill large numbers of people at once.
Although a former al Qaeda operative has testified that the terrorist organization experimented with deadly chemicals such as cyanide in training camps in Afghanistan, the group's efforts have been clumsy and it so far has not been linked to an actual attack using chemical or biological weapons, intelligence officials said. Bin Laden operatives tried, but failed, to buy anthrax and other harmful bacteria several years ago in Czechoslovakia, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
"It just doesn't have the fingerprints or the pattern of a bin Laden operation," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former counterterrorism official at the CIA who has been studying bin Laden for a decade. "Al Qaeda wants to inflict mass casualties and kill as many people as they can. Sending individual, targeted mailings is not going to accomplish that. . . . This might turn out to be someone else trying to fly in under the radar."
Investigators are also nagged by evident inconsistencies between the anthrax cases reported so far.
The samples found at NBC in New York and Daschle's office in Washington moved through a New Jersey postal distribution center; those found in Boca Raton appear to have gone through one in Florida. The recipients -- including the Sun tabloid editor, a veteran network newscaster and the leader of the Senate -- show no clear pattern. The letter to Brokaw was postmarked Sept. 18; the letter to Daschle was postmarked Oct. 9, according to Dan Mihalko, a postal service inspector. Authorities have not found the specific source of the anthrax at the Florida tabloid.
As a result, FBI investigators are still looking strongly at the possibility that the anthrax cases have sprung from one or more opportunistic, homegrown terrorists motivated by causes removed from bin Laden and Islamic fundamentalism.
The investigation has been further muddied by hundreds of false alarms and copycat hoaxes, with increasing reports of mailed envelopes containing mysterious powders. Just yesterday, the National Abortion Federation said more than 30 clinics in 14 states and the District had reported receiving letters that claimed to contain anthrax, including some with references to the Army of God, an extremist anti-abortion group.
In Florida, the Department of Health said in a statement that "a minuscule amount of anthrax spores has been found in a small, non-public mail-processing area of the Boca Raton main post office. . . . There's no indication that these spores pose a health risk to workers or visitors. As an extraordinary precaution, health officials are asking employees to leave this small portion of the building."
The spores were found in a sorting area that is not open to the public, officials said. Judy Johnson, a local leader of the American Postal Workers Union, said anthrax traces were also found in various sorting bins.
Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency were scheduled to clean up the affected area last night, and the post office is scheduled to reopen tomorrow. A separate statement from the post office said its employees were tested and placed on antibiotics last week.
Also yesterday, a Florida real estate agent who in June leased two apartments to suspected hijackers Marwan Al-Shehhi and Hamza Alghamdi said she never told them that her husband was editor-in-chief of the Sun tabloid, where Stevens worked.
"There was no way" the hijackers learned about her husband's employment during their dealings with her, Gloria Irish said in a brief interview at her Delray Beach real estate office. She also did not recall having any copies of the Sun in her office or her car. Irish has spoken with the FBI and a spokesman for the bureau said the relationship appeared to be "just a coincidence right now."
After Stevens died on Oct. 5, anthrax bacteria was found on his keyboard and in the mailroom of American Media Inc., which publishes several tabloids, including the Sun and the National Enquirer.
Two other AMI employees have tested positive for anthrax spores in their nasal cavities. Preliminary blood tests on five additional employees have shown elevated levels of antibodies for anthrax but officials at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said no conclusions can be drawn until after a second round of blood tests are taken this week.
FBI officials in South Florida have repeatedly said that they have identified no connection between the Sept. 11 hijackings and the anthrax found there. They also have said that there is no evidence of a link between the anthrax in Florida and other parts of the country, although they have not ruled out a connection.
In another development yesterday, the FBI has cleared two Middle Eastern men who were detained at JFK Airport on Friday after buying one-way tickets to Amsterdam. "Their stories and explanations checked out," an official said. The Delta flight was canceled after the men were detained.
Staff writers Peter Slevin and Justin Blum in Delray Beach, Fla.; John Mintz and Walter Pincus in Washington; and correspondent Christine Haughney in New York contributed to this report.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), October 15, 2001