WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Since deadly anthrax-laced letters were sent through the U.S. mail in 2001, killing five people and spreading nationwide panic, the FBI has beefed up its bioterror capabilities and created a Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate to focus on lethal threats.
The branch has had some successes, such as the 2008 arrest of a Las Vegas man who was preparing ricin in his hotel room. But the recent arrest - and quick release - of Mississippi Elvis impersonator Paul Kevin Curtis, who was accused of sending poisoned letters to President Barack Obama, a U.S. senator and a local judge, has tested the agency's responses all over again.
Here are five lessons that could emerge from the episode:
- BEWARE THE OBVIOUS - In investigating the anthrax letters of 2001, the FBI promptly focused on a researcher who had been fingered by several scientists as a suspicious person because of his unusual background and behavior. Authorities moved quickly to search his residence near the bioterror labs at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly named him as a "person of interest" before agents had enough evidence to bring charges. In the ricin case, the FBI appears to have based its arrest largely on a single clue to the suspect's identity. The letters used a sign-off similar to one Curtis used on social media and in other correspondence, including letters to members of Congress. In court, agents said they found no ricin or devices used to make it and nothing to suggest Curtis was researching how to make the poison. Curtis said the letters were an attempt by someone he knew to frame him. His attorney could not be reached for comment.
- VERIFY, VERIFY, VERIFY - The science of a bioterror case is so crucial to winning convictions that the FBI must ensure it has the most complete possible analysis of the material before jumping to conclusions. In the anthrax case, sophisticated laboratory analyses done by leading laboratories around the globe ultimately convinced the FBI that it had the wrong man. Agents used the DNA fingerprint of the anthrax to locate the exact vial at Fort Detrick from which the deadly spores originated. In the ricin case, Curtis was arrested when agents had only a preliminary finding that the material was ricin, based on field tests. Prosecuting attorneys said in court in Mississippi this week that they were still waiting on final results from the tests.
- ASSESS DANGERS BEFORE ALARMING THE PUBLIC - The material used in the anthrax mailings was a highly lethal aerosolized agent, which led to the deaths of postal workers handling the letters and recipients of the random mailings. But the ricin used in the recent mailings was described in court as a crude granular form, and the real dangers posed by the substance are unclear. An FBI agent testified that the ricin looked like castor beans ground up in a blender, according to press accounts. Since that would have to be ingested to poison a person, there is no evidence that the ricin letters - which were intercepted at off-site mail-sorting facilities for Capitol Hill and the White House - posed anything close to an emergency.
- AVOID POLITICAL PRESSURE - When poisonous letters are addressed to members of Congress or the president, the political stakes for the FBI are enormous. Adding to the pressure was the fact that the FBI also was trying to solve the Boston Marathon bombings that put the agency under congressional pressure. FBI officials were conducting a briefing on Capitol Hill on the Boston case within hours after the ricin letters were found, when they were joined by Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer, who told senators about the ricin letter sent to Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker. Senator Claire McCaskill emerged from the briefing to say there was already a suspect in the ricin case - someone who wrote to senators often. The complicated anthrax case - including false accusations against an original suspect - led to years of congressional scrutiny for the FBI and took a toll on public confidence in the agency's crime-fighting abilities.
- APOLOGIZE AND MOVE ON - With anthrax, it took six years and an embarrassing lawsuit for the Justice Department to issue its guarded exoneration of a falsely accused suspect, who walked away with a $5.8 million annuity as a settlement. The decision to free Curtis because of a lack of evidence was a first step, but the FBI made clear it would keep its options open in case his name re-emerged in the investigation. It remains unclear whether Curtis plans to sue the government for false accusations.
Reporting By Susan Cornwell and Marilyn W. Thompson; Editing by Peter Cooney