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Vol. LXII, No. 32
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
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Holt Wants Answers on Anthrax From FBI

Dilshanie Perera

Ellen Gilbert

In spite of claims on the FBI website that the bureau remains “determined to solve the case” they have code-named “Amerithrax,” Representative Rush Holt (D-12) has told FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, that “the public and the Congress deserve an answer from you.” 

In the wake of the FBI’s recent settlement with biological weapons scientist Steven Hatfill, a one-time “person of interest” in the case, and, shortly afterward, the apparent suicide of Army scientist Bruce Ivins, who was reportedly about to be indicted, Mr. Holt issued a statement suggesting that even when the book is closed on the case, “what we learn will not change the fact that this has been a poorly-handled investigation that has lasted six years and already has resulted in a trail of embarrassment and personal tragedy.”

In his letter to Mr. Mueller, Mr. Holt cited his “strong interest in this case. As you know,” he wrote, “the attacks evidently originated from a postal box in my Central New Jersey congressional district, and they disrupted the lives of my constituents.”

The same week the news about Mr. Ivins broke, the spectre of contaminated mail was revived as ambulances, fire trucks, a disaster response unit, and numerous police cars lined the driveway and lawn surrounding Borough Hall while employees were evacuated and temporarily quarantined under a white tent outside. The scare was precipitated by the contents of a suspicious package that had caused a negative reaction in employees who came in contact with the letter inside it. Symptoms reported were itching, rashes, burning, and blistering.

Tests done by the State Department of Health have come back negative for traces of harmful biological agents. Borough Police Lieutenant Nick Sutter reported that the state had tested for seven different agents, and that the package would continue to be tested. 

“Amerithrax” began when, in the weeks after 9/11, letters contaminated with anthrax were allegedly mailed from a mailbox on the corner of Nassau and Bank Streets in the Borough. Five people were killed and 17 others were sickened by letters addressed to U.S. Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, and the editor of the New York Post. The mailbox, which was found to contain anthrax spores, was removed, and the U.S. Postal Service’s regional processing facility in Hamilton was closed for four years because of evidence of anthrax contamination. Mr. Holt’s own office was also found to be contaminated when Congressional offices were inspected. 

The FBI disputes perceptions of a lack of rigor in the investigation. According to the agency’s website, “We’ve conducted more than 9,100 interviews and issued some 6,100 subpoenas. Nineteen FBI agents, working with eight inspectors from the U.S. Postal Service, continue to pursue each and every lead aggressively.” The New York Times recently reported, however, that the evidence amassed by F.B.I. investigators against Mr. Ivins “was largely circumstantial, and a grand jury in Washington was planning to hear several more weeks of testimony before issuing an indictment.”

Mr. Ivins’s apparent obsession with the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, which has a Princeton University chapter, and the fact that his father was a 1928 graduate of the university, has added to speculation about the late scientist’s ties to Princeton. The anthrax-tainted mailbox was located near a building where the sorority stores some of its property. (The chapter does not have on-campus housing.) Some media reports have linked Mr. Ivins’s obsession with the sorority to his own college days at the University of Cincinnati, where he was reportedly rebuffed by a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma.

Calm and Orderly

The package sent to Borough Hall was from an elderly man living in a nursing home in Louisiana. A letter had been sent to a vitamin supply shop in the area, but had been returned to the man. Upon its receipt, he mailed the letter within another letter addressed to Mayor Trotman, with instructions to forward it to the vitamin supplier. The second letter was the source of the possible allergic reaction that Borough staff members experienced.

Lt. Sutter mentioned that the air quality in the building tested fine with respect to dangerous materials. He added that at the time of the scare, the atmosphere was “calm and orderly” and that the police department and other emergency services “responded according to protocol.”

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