Homegrown crime or foreign-born terror?
Investigators sifting through the few clues they have as to who is responsible for the recent anthrax mail attacks don't have much to go on, and what they do have is tugging them in decidedly different directions.
"Everything you look at is like a mouse trail," said Clint Van Zandt, a retired FBI agent and profiler. "You think you're going somewhere and it splits into two or three or four trails."
About the only concrete evidence to work with so far are the letters containing anthrax spores sent to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, the New York Post and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The letters use short sentences with block printing, as if they were written by a youngster, and proclaim "Death to America" and "Death to Israel."
Forensic document examiner Gerald Richards, a lecturer at George Washington University, says the formation of the lettering, the spacing and how the letters are constructed leads him to conclude that they all were prepared by the same person.
But whether that writer is American or foreign-born – based on handwriting analysis – is open to interpretation, he says. Richards leans more toward a homegrown writer theory.
"Most indications that I see are not consistent with a foreign-born writer," Richards said. "Even though they don't seem very articulate, it doesn't seem like the writer is very skilled. That may be a fact. The writer is not skilled. And also it may be a portion of a disguise or at least some way of attempting to downplay the handwriting."
The style of the date on the letters, 09-11-01, would also point to an American writer. In most of the rest of the world, the first numeral would be the date instead of the month. Van Zandt also noted that the number "1" is written with a short diagonal line at top and a line at the bottom, something many Americans do.
The use of a school for a return address could indicate the writer was an American who would know such a letter likely would be delivered to a member of Congress. The return address on the Daschle letter was "4th Grade, Greendale School, Franklin Park, NJ 08852." Officials said no such school exists.
Some believe the misspelling of penicillin ("penacilin" in the letters) indicates that the writer is a foreigner without a dictionary. Others say an uneducated, lazy – or perhaps just devious – American would be more likely to spell penicillin the way it sounds rather than look it up.
"I think it's someone who's playing with us," said former CIA counterterrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro. "I think it's a nut. I don't think it has anything to do with foreign stuff."
Cannistraro added, "This is some American trying to imitate a foreign terrorist group. It's deceptive. There are no demands in the letters, only an attempt to inspire fear, create paranoia and impress the recipients with how powerful they are."
Van Zandt, who in the Unabomber case was able to match Kaczynski's letters to his manifesto against technology, said the anthrax attacker could be an American trying to send a message – perhaps one who believes the nation needs a wake-up call to prepare for a bioterrorism attack.
The anthrax spores themselves also send mixed signals about their origin. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the anthrax contained in the Daschle letter had been altered to make it more of a threat, leading some to speculate that a foreign government with extensive chemical weapons experience was behind the attacks.
At the same time, though, Ridge identified the strain of anthrax in all three letters as Ames, a substance named for the university city in Iowa, and used in American bioweapons research and in vaccine testing.
And presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer threw another ratchet into the foreign-source theory Friday when he said officials had concluded that the anthrax "could be produced by a Ph.D. microbiologist in a sophisticated laboratory."
Fleischer said that finding indicates that the anthrax that has surfaced in Boca Raton, Fla., Washington, New York City and Trenton, N.J., "could be produced by a broader range of people" than just foreign governments that sponsor terrorism.