WASHINGTON -- The anthrax spores that contaminated the air in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office had been treated with a chemical additive so sophisticated that only three nations are thought to have been capable of making it, sources said Wednesday.
The United States, the former Soviet Union and Iraq are the only three nations known to have developed the kind of additives that enable anthrax spores to remain suspended in the air, making them more easily inhaled and therefore more deadly, experts said Wednesday. Each nation used a different technique, suggesting that ongoing microscopic and chemical analyses may reveal more about the spores' provenance than did their genetic analysis, which is largely complete but reportedly has done little to narrow the field.
A government official with direct knowledge of the investigation said Wednesday that the totality of the evidence in hand suggests that it is unlikely that the spores were originally produced in the former Soviet Union or Iraq.
Even identifying the kind of coating may not solve the crucial question of who is perpetrating the terror, because little is known about how secure the stores of the three countries' stocks have been during the past few years.
Nonetheless, the conclusion that the spores were produced with military quality differs considerably from public comments made recently by officials close to the investigation, who have said the spores were not "weaponized" and were "garden variety." Those descriptions may be technically true, depending on how one defines those terms, several experts said. But they obscure the basic and more important truth that the spores were treated with a sophisticated process, meaning the original source was almost certainly a state-sponsored laboratory.
The finding strongly suggests that the anthrax spores in the U.S. mail attacks were not produced in a university or makeshift laboratory or simply gathered from natural sources. But it does not answer the question of whether a state-sponsored laboratory supplied the anthrax spores directly to terrorists or simply lost control of some stocks in recent years.
The presence of the high-grade additive was confirmed for the first time Wednesday by a government source familiar with the ongoing studies, which are being conducted by scientists at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick. Four other experts in anthrax weapons said they had no doubt that such an additive was present based on the high dispersal rate from the letter to Daschle, D-S.D.
"The evidence is patent on its face," said Alan Zelicoff, a senior scientist at Sandia National Laboratories' Center for National Security and Arms Control. "The amount of energy needed to disperse the spores (by merely opening an envelope) was trivial, which is virtually diagnostic of achieving the appropriate coating."
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