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Where Is the Anthrax Coming From?

FBI investigators are trying to determine who's responsible for the anthrax scare and whether it's one person acting alone or perhaps a larger group with ties to terrorism. Richard Spertzel, a former US Army microbiologist, was the first to expose Iraq's germ warfare capabilities while serving as a United Nations biological weapons inspector there from 1994 to 1998. He spoke with the Early Show about the likely origins of this bioweapon, how it's coming into the US, and who's disseminating it.

Spertzel does not subscribe to the "lone gunman" theory that these anthrax attacks were perpetrated by a single person, nor does he believe that these were acts of domestic terrorism. "That's one thing I feel absolutely safe in saying," he says. "This is not the work of a homegrown terrorist or some nut with an axe to grind."

According to Spertzel, the description of the substance sent to Tom Daschle as being highly pure in form indicates that the anthrax had been "weaponized," at least in this particular case. "It's not weapons-grade material if it's in large particles," he says. "True weapons-grade substances will be very fine matter that easily disseminates in the air."

In order to get the powder in weaponized form, "Now you're talking about people who either know exactly how to do that," says Spertzel, "or who received it from a country operating an offensive bioweaponry program."

Under this scenario, he virtually eliminates the possibilities of this substance originating from American labs or being cultured and grown from its natural manifestations in animals or soil.

"Strains of anthrax are being used in various agricultural, university, and goverment labs throughout the country," he explains. "But this particular anthrax was dried powder, and I don't believe labs around the country are drying anthrax spores and making them into weapons-grade material."

And while he notes that it was indeed possible to isolate and grow anthrax from contaminated soil where afflicted cattle were buried, it would be extremely difficult to determine whether that particular sample is pathogenic. "If you really wanted to characterize a strain well enough to consider seriously using it," he says, "that would take years. It can be done, but it takes a long time. And even still, it wouldn't come in a naturally weaponized form."

All signs, then, point to state-sponsored terrorism. Spertzel is quick to note that nobody has any hard evidence as to which countries are developing bioweapons programs, but Iraq was among his top suspects. "I certainly have every reason to believe that Iraq still has the expertise that I knew them to have, and is still producing such material," he says. Other possibilities include Iran, North Korea, the former Soviet Republics, and of course any country that employed bioweapons scientists from the Soviet Union.

"This is the kind of expertise among unemployed bio experts of the Soviet Union ra," he says. "Wherever they ended up is where this kind of stuff could be developed."

Based on facts he's gathered from news reports, Spertzel believes all these cases to be related. "If you look at the letter sent to New York," he said, "it was sent in the period of September 16th to the 25th, before Florida's first incident was publicized. So you rule out the possibility of these latest cases being copycats. Anthrax threats in the mail have been commonplace for the last several years," he continues, "but all of those have proven to be hoaxes. Why all of a sudden, are we finding three different regions with positive anthrax testing all in a short period of time? Anyone who says these are unrelated believes in extreme coincidences a lot more than I do."

Given the nature of distribution in these cases, Spertzel believes that a bioweapons-building country likely provided anthrax to an organized terrorist network to circulate. "It's been reported that Mohammed Atta met ith an Iraqi Intelligence official in Prague," he says. "And this material is very easy to transport. It can come in dry seed form in a vial as small as your little finger. Let's face it, not much material is needed to put in a letter, and if they wanted to make more of it in the US, all they need is a few organisms, and they can start growing more."

The fact that the anthrax powder differed physically from Florida to Washington, DC, to New York does not discredit Spertzel's theory. "Just look at how the al Qaeda network operates," he says. "Why were there four planes? My point is that there may be separate cells, separate operatives doing what they can. Some were given good stuff that was potent, and some were given stuff that was not that great."

Furthermore, CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] lab work revealed today that the New York NBC anthrax matches the strain found in Florida. "DNA testing showed that these two regions have identical strains," says Spertzel, "which suggests a common origin. Given the timing of these attacks alone, I don't see any way they're not possibly linked."

As for intent, Spertzel cannot discern whether the perpetrators wanted to kill, scare, or conduct a trial run of sorts. "It may be all of the above," he says. "Let's wait to see what happens. We're now up to 31 people exposed in DC. They've managed to shut down the House. We just don't know whether or not people will go on to develop the disease."

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