Search for Anthrax Additive Requires More Tests

At times, the language of bacteriology sounds almost botanical. When an oval-shaped spore "germinates" it grows into a rod, which looks like a short pretzel stick. Microbiologists refer to this as the organism's "vegetative" state. Alibek would expect a "home-brewed" anthrax preparation to look like a hodgepodge of spores and vegetative cells.

'Ted Kaczynski With a Petri Dish'

But federal officials say even the level of purity in the Daschle sample is no proof that a foreign state is connected to the attacks. Instead, a theory favored by some federal investigators might be described as "Ted Kaczynski with a petri dish."

According to this view, "a disgruntled Ph.D." here in America could have launched this wave of bioterror with a "well-equipped laboratory" and a tiny speck of virulent anthrax, which is quite simple to nurture into large colonies. That is, if he get his hands on the right strain.

America's biowarfare scientists remain divided on this point. The trick is still making an effective powder, which requires more than an advanced degree in microbiology. Bill Patrick, former chief of "product development" at Fort Detrick in the waning days of the U.S. offensive biological weapons program, believes the small amount of anthrax recovered so far, apparently just 2 grams in the Daschle letter, points to "a small operation."

Patrick and another Fort Detrick veteran, Col. David Franz, both say they'd expect state-supported bioterrorists to use larger amounts of anthrax in more ambitious attacks. For Franz, the threshold of proof for state involvement is 50 kilograms, or 100 pounds of anthrax, an amount that could cause, under perfect conditions, Hiroshima-like casualties.

Former U.N. weapons inspector Richard Spertzel disputes this logic. He maintains that the use of a small amount of anthrax in these attacks does not prove the perpetrators only possessed a small amount. "Look at what they've accomplished with a few letters," says Spertzel. "They didn't need to use more."

Another dissenter from the prevailing conventional wisdom, Alan Zelicoff of Sandia National Laboratories, admits that a "disgruntled Ph.D." could get a hold of a virulent anthrax strain and culture it, but "he wouldn't know the aerosol physics to create the powder. This is a complex engineering problem," says Zelicoff.

Sources privy to the federal investigation say the tests on the Daschle sample are still under way. Even if these tests ultimately find bentonite, as well as silica, they will not prove Iraqi involvement. In the language of criminology, the manufacturing techniques, and the additives in the aerosol powders, may add up to a known modus operandi, but they are not "fingerprints."

Although Spertzel is convinced that the accumulating circumstantial evidence is "narrowing the field," he concedes that investigators may never know with certainty the identity of the terrorists behind the germ attacks.

"I don't think that we're going to see a smoking gun that's going to implicate this country, or that company," says Spertzel. "That's the hard thing to swallow with these anonymous attacks. You want to defend yourself, but from whom?"

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