Homegrown Terror

  • Share
  • Read Later
MARK WILSON/AP

AFTERMATH: The Capitol Police haz-mat team scrubs up outside a Senate office building after testing for ricin

After anthrax-tainted letters began showing up in the wake of 9/11, authorities quickly suggested that this was probably a case of homegrown terrorism rather than Round 2 of al-Qaeda's assault on the U.S. The likely perpetrator, many still believe, was a malevolent nerd with chemistry-lab expertise and a grudge against the government. But when traces of the biological toxin ricin showed up in Senator Bill Frist's mail room last week, the FBI and other agencies declared there was no evidence pointing to either a foreign culprit or a mad scientist. One possibility under examination: a good ole boy who knows his way around 18-wheelers, weigh stations and CB radios.

That would be consistent with two unsolved ricin-in-the-mail incidents that occurred last fall. They didn't create much of a panic, and despite the evacuation of three Senate office buildings last week, neither did the ricin found under a mail-opening machine on Capitol Hill. Ricin is a potent enough poison, and terrorist groups from al-Qaeda to the Iraq-based Ansar al-Islam have reportedly produced it for use as a biological weapon. So, evidently, did Saddam Hussein before the first Gulf War.

But ricin isn't especially good as a weapon of mass destruction. It's easy to make, using a recipe you can get off the Internet. It comes from the castor bean, which is used around the world in products ranging from laxatives to brake fluid to nylon, and also grows wild in the southwestern U.S., so there's no shortage of raw material. But unlike anthrax, ricin is tough to aerosolize and inhale; the easiest way to deliver a fatal dose is injection or ingestion, and you need a lot for the latter. Ricin is powerful, but it's a retail, not a wholesale, poison.

That's why ricin once enjoyed a certain cachet among international men of mystery. Every spywatcher knows about Bulgarian defector Georgi Markov, who was assassinated in London in 1978 in a ploy that James Bond or Austin Powers would appreciate: a shadowy stalker jabbed Markov in the leg with an umbrella rigged to inject a pellet of ricin under his skin (the killer was never found, but the KGB and the Bulgarian secret service were prime suspects).

More recently, the handful of ricin cases pursued by the FBI have involved domestic hotheads, not international spies. In 1995, for example, two Minnesota men associated with a tax-protest group called the Patriots Council were convicted for possessing ricin with the intent of using it as a weapon. And in 1993, Canadian customs agents found ricin along with four guns, 20,000 rounds of ammunition and some neo-Nazi literature in the car of an Arkansas survivalist crossing into Canada.

Then last October someone hand-delivered a package to a mail-sorting center near Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina. Inside the package, which was addressed to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), was a metal vial filled with ricin. A label read, "Caution ricin poison enclosed in sealed container. Do not open without proper protection," and a letter demanded repeal of federal rules mandating 10 hours of rest in every 24 for long-haul truckers. Otherwise the sender, who signed the letter "Fallen Angel" and claimed to be "a fleet owner of a tanker company," would pour ricin into the local water supply. "Keep at eight [hours] or I will start dumping," said the note.

The FBI gave polygraph tests to the mail facility's 36 employees and to local truck drivers, and in early November asked the American Trucking Association to notify members to look out for anyone acting aggressively or suspiciously. But even as the word was going out, another letter containing a vial of ricin turned up on Nov. 6 at a White House mail-handling facility at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington. Postmarked Chattanooga, Tenn., it too was addressed to the DOT, via the White House. And like the first letter, it carried a warning label and a demand from Fallen Angel to ease trucking rules. That incident was never made public. Nearly a week passed before the Secret Service, which had intercepted the letter, notified the FBI, the U.S. Postal Service and the Department of Homeland Security—a delay that rankled those agencies. The Secret Service has promised to revise its protocols. But it's also important to remember, says a law-enforcement source, that "ricin is not a living, flesh-eating bacteria, like anthrax, so our response is much different."

Beyond that, investigators tell TIME that the powder found in Frist's mail room was mostly paper dust, with traces of ricin so minute, they can't even be evaluated for particle size or purity. No envelope or note has been found, and no other piece of mail from the Senate has even a trace of ricin on it. Neither do any door sills, doorknobs, railings or surfaces anywhere in the building. Same goes for air filters, which should catch floating particles.

That leads to a couple of theories. Perhaps an envelope in Frist's mail room contained a letter that was forwarded to the DOT, where Fallen Angel's grudge is aimed. Or maybe the letter was simply sent by someone who had previously handled ricin. "Let's say he didn't send us any product," says an investigator. "He's just sloppy. It's on his fingers, on his hands, or he's using the same envelopes, same paper. That may be why we don't have anything."

Still, it's worrisome to know that anyone is sending lethal substances through the U.S. mail—and getting away with it. The FBI has spent 251,000 man-hours on the anthrax case, conducted 15 searches, interviewed 5,000 people and served 4,000 subpoenas—without an arrest. (Steven Hatfill, a former government bioweapons expert once described by Attorney General John Ashcroft as a "person of interest" in the case, is suing the U.S. government for violating both his constitutional rights and internal Justice Department rules against leaks. He has strongly denied accusations that he is behind the mailings.)

Now officials have another bioweapons correspondent to worry about—or maybe more than one. Without a note or an envelope, it's unclear whether this is related to the Fallen Angel incidents. If there was what the media are calling a "smoking letter," it may have long since gone out with the trash. Without even that much of a clue, the best that authorities can do is look for forwarded letters, reinterview Frist staff members, examine suspicious mail the Senator has got over the years—and hope that a tip or a slipup puts the latest mad mailer out of circulation.