Stumped by a string of germ attacks that have killed three Americans so far, investigators are wondering if homegrown extremists, not international terrorists, are behind the deaths by mail.
The puzzling bioterror scare has left nearly a dozen other Americans infected with anthrax, forced the shutdown of government offices and left the postal system in disarray, with no delivery in some Washington neighborhoods.
Investigators, certain that the anthrax used to taint letters to lawmakers and media organizations was produced in laboratories, are trying to determine who manufactured it, saying it could even have been made in the United States.
The Washington Post on Saturday quoted unnamed intelligence officials saying they suspected domestic extremists were responsible for the bioterror attacks, but cited no hard evidence.
FBI and other investigators are looking at US-based right-wing hate groups, as well as US residents sympathetic to Islamic extremists, the daily said.
"Nothing seems to fit with an overseas terrorist type operation," an intelligence official told the Post.
A spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) declined to comment on the report.
The US Postal Service faced mounting fears about the safety of the country's mail, with more post offices closed for site testing and thousands of postal workers receiving preventive treatment for anthrax exposure.
The New York Medical Examiner's office has opened an investigation into whether anthrax caused the death earlier this month of a local postal worker, according to news reports early Sunday.
The medical examiner's office would review the circumstances surrounding the death of postal worker Laura Jones, who died on October 10 of what was determined at the time to be natural causes.
Meanwhile, the post office in Princeton, New Jersey has been closed following a preliminary positive test for anthrax, NJ health officials announced. Another office in southwest Washington was closed on Friday.
More than 12,000 postal workers in the metropolitan Washington and New York areas have been tested and/or are receiving treatment as a precaution, the USPS said on its website.
Postal inspectors have arrested 14 individuals for anthrax-related hoaxes and were investigating 13 additional cases. A total of some 5,500 incidents have been reported, it said.
Authorities dismissed a report that the anthrax used bore the trademarks of Iraqi manufacture, and a law enforcement official, who asked not to be named, said "state sponsorship is being considered more and more unlikely."
Bioterrorism expert Barbara Hatch Rosenberg said only US scientists had the ability "to reduce anthrax to the sort of highly consistent, smaller particles" found in a letter mailed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
Daschle lashed out Saturday at those behind the attacks, urging Americans not to be "paralyzed by our anger or slowed by our sadness".
He outlined three points for a national effort to counter bioterror threats: the increase of the nation's supply of antibiotics and vaccines; better coordination of the government's response; and accelerated scientific research.
The anthrax scare began earlier this month when Robert Stevens, a photo editor at the Sun tabloid in Boca Raton, Florida, was diagnosed with inhalation anthrax. Stevens died on October 5.
A few days later, a mailroom employee in the same building was also found to be suffering from respiratory anthrax.
Fourteen people have now been diagnosed with either inhalation anthrax or skin anthrax, a less serious manifestation of the illness. Three have died -- Stevens and two Washington postal workers, one of whom was buried Saturday.
The widening scare has caused the most concern in the Washington area, where traces of anthrax have been found at city post offices, congressional office buildings, an army medical research facility, and off-site mail depots serving the White House, the State Department, the CIA and the US Supreme Court.
The US Supreme Court has shut its doors and the nine justices are taking doxycycline, which Washington health officials are now dispensing in place of Ciprofloxacin, because it is more easily tolerated.
In Atlanta, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that those at repeated risk of exposure to anthrax, such as the 800 laboratory technicians performing tests on possibly infected samples, be vaccinated.
Indiana Republican Mike Pence, whose office tested positive for anthrax contamination, on Saturday issued a stern warning to those behind the bioterror campaign.
"You have failed again. You have failed to reach your target. ... You have further steeled the resolve of every member of this national government whose duty it is to either bring you to justice or seal your fate," Pence said -- Washington, (AFP)
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