FBI and the Anthrax Attacks

I think the best way to sum it up is as follows: The FBI Doesn’t Have a Clue. If you recall, initially quite a bit of interest focused on Steven Hatfill as a person of interest. Particularly the FBI was interested in Hatfill’s supposed secret underwater laboratory. Now the nobody talks about Hatfill anymore. Probably because he is suing them.

But here is what the FBI has learned after 5 years of sitting on their thumbs,

Five years after the anthrax attacks that killed five people, the FBI is now convinced that the lethal powder sent to the Senate was far less sophisticated than originally believed, widening the pool of possible suspects in a frustratingly slow investigation.

The finding, which resulted from countless scientific tests at numerous laboratories, appears to undermine the widely held belief that the attack was carried out by a government scientist or someone with access to a U.S. biodefense lab.

What was initially described as a near-military-grade biological weapon was ultimately found to have had a more ordinary pedigree, containing no additives and no signs of special processing to make the anthrax bacteria more deadly, law enforcement officials confirmed. In addition, the strain of anthrax used in the attacks has turned out to be more common than was initially believed, the officials said.

In short all the hyperventilating about how amazingly sophisticated the weaponizing of the anthrax was, it turns out not to be all that special. Basically, they FBI went from one person to hundreds even maybe thousands of possible suspects. Why did the FBI initially focus on Steven Hatfill? Who knows, and we’ll probably never know.

Now the FBI can’t even restrict the possible suspects to people inside the U.S.,

“There is no significant signature in the powder that points to a domestic source,” said one scientist who has extensively studied the tan, talc-like material that paralyzed much of Washington in the deadliest bioterrorism attack in U.S. history.

Even the strain of anthrax used has turned out to be far more ubiquitous than initially thought. The Ames strain can be found all over the world and in particular in countries that belonged to the former Soviet Union.

However, a law enforcement official said, “we have not closed the door on any possibilities. There’s a discrete number of individuals who continue to be investigated, both internationally and domestically.”

Wow, a discrete number of individuals. That sounds impressive except when you realize that when dealing with individuals you only have discrete numbers. It isn’t like we can have 1.1., 1.23. 3.45. and every Real number in between when talking about individuals. When was the last time that a law enforcement official said that the number of suspects is equal to the irrational number Pi?

Nonetheless, failure to solve the mystery has bred public skepticism.

Well yeah. That and boneheaded stunts like running over Hatfill’s foot while supposedly surveilling him.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Terrorism, ,
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    They’re lucky they’re not paid by the job.

  2. Paul says:


    If you haven’t already, you should read this:

    FBI fails to re-create anthrax production

    (assuming it is accurate, which is never a safe bet on this story)

    I find this one of the most interesting stories of the whole sorted ordeal. If our best folks can’t reproduce it, that would lead us to believe that it was a very advanced grade of anthrax.

    Either that or “our best people” are idiots.

    Really either now appears to be a valid opinion.

    Anyway I missed the story back in 2003 but I find it fascinating today. If we can’t reproduce it that says something. About what I’m not sure in this wacky case, but I’m sure it says something.

  3. Anderson says:

    Wow, a discrete number of individuals.

    C’mon, Steve, it took them five years to get that far! Give them a break! At least they’re not still questioning math professors about “this Euler guy.”

  4. Boyd says:

    I would pick a minor nit to say that “discrete number” in the context of the quote does not mean “integer” (if it even means that in any context), but rather “a countable number; a finite set of values.” As in, “We have a number of specific suspects we continue to investigate.”

    Not that it’s a true statement necessarily, especially since it seems to run counter to the prior sentence in the quote, “We have not closed the door on any possibilities.”

  5. legion says:

    I hear they’re gonna pin it on Richard Jewell… 🙂

  6. Steve says:


    Fair enough, but a countable set does not have to mean “small”. A set with one billion individuals is both discrete and countable.

    Legion and Anderson,

    Ha! Both good observations.

  7. Ray says:

    If I remember correctly, Steven Hatfill was described as “a person of interest.” Perhaps someone liked him and wanted his home phone number? As far as this investigation has gone in the last 5 years, that’s a likely assumption!