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Senators grill FBI on anthrax investigation

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The FBI's expert on counterterrorism acknowledged Tuesday that much about the tainted anthrax letters of recent weeks, including who is responsible, remains a mystery -- a fact he called "unsatisfactory."

"We think that there are many people that have the potential, that have the knowledge to be able to produce a deadly biological agent," Tim Caruso, deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, told a Senate hearing on bioterrorism. Caruso said such individuals would still need facilities and laboratories to produce the anthrax powder, but he could not tell lawmakers how many such facilities exist.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the panel, was incredulous.

"So you don't know how many labs produce it, how many labs produce this quality. What do you know?" the California Democrat asked.

"I know it's an unsatisfactory answer and unsatisfying to us as well," Caruso said about the lack of knowledge about the anthrax incidents. Caruso said he could provide some details, but would not release them publicly because of the ongoing investigation.

Asked whether the anthrax letters are the work of terrorists from abroad or within the United States, Caruso said authorities don't know. "We've not come to any final judgments," he said.

Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carolina, followed a similar line of questioning, asking Caruso directly whether the FBI knew who was responsible for the anthrax terror. "We do not know at this time," Caruso replied.

The frustration at the hearing was evident, more than one month after the first anthrax case surfaced in Florida. Seventeen people have been infected with anthrax; four of them have died of inhalation form of the disease.

Authorities have identified three tainted letters -- one to a Senate office, another to NBC News and a third to the New York Post -- and believe most of those who fell ill, including postal workers, came into contact with those letters. Investigators, however, have not ruled out the possibility of other letters or sources of contamination.

The letters came in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Despite the timing, Justice Department officials say they don't know whether the letters are connected to the hijackings.

"I have been very surprised the FBI has not made more progress," Feinstein said.

Caruso said the anthrax investigation has been complicated by a large number of false alarms and hoaxes.

To illustrate his point, he said the number of cases of possible weapons of mass destruction, including biological agents, the FBI has responded to has skyrocketed from the 257 it handled in 2000.

Since mid-September, the FBI has responded to 7,089 suspicious anthrax letters, 950 incidents involving other alleged weapons of mass destruction, such as bombs, and 29,331 telephone calls about suspicious packages.

"The vast majority of these responses were not actual incidents," he said. "Resources made available by the law enforcement (branch) and responding to the alleged threat, and the resources made available by the public health laboratories in testing suspicious materials for the presence of biological agents are strained and stretched to capacity. "

-- CNN National Correspondent Susan Candiotti contributed to this report



 
 
 
 



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