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An Anthrax Blackout

Five Years After Attacks, FBI Refuses to Brief Congress

The FBI has completely shut Congress out of its now five-year investigation into anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill and around the nation, with accusations flying up and down Pennsylvania Avenue about the probe into the worst biochemical attacks in U.S. history.

The FBI and Justice Department have not briefed two key players in the attacks — former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Senators who were targeted by anthrax-laden letters — in at least two and a half years. Other Members involved in the attacks, such as Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), whose district was home to the postal box where the letters originated, have gone three and a half years without receiving any briefings or updates.

And Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who took over the panel in 2005 after the FBI began withholding information from the Hill, has never been briefed about the status of the investigation into terrorist attacks that left five people dead and dozens of others injured or facing lengthy courses of dangerous drug therapy.

Late last month, in a letter to Holt, the bureau officially stated that it has been withholding all information about the attacks from Congress because of alleged leaks to the media following briefings on the Hill. The FBI laid the blame for the blackout squarely at the feet of current and former Members and their staffs from briefings that apparently occurred in 2003.

“After sensitive information about the investigation citing Congressional sources was reported in the media, the Department of Justice and the FBI agreed that no additional briefings to Congress would be provided,” wrote Eleni Kalisch, assistant FBI director for Congressional affairs, to Holt in what appears to have been the first official recognition of leak allegations.

This briefing shutdown has left some Members furious with the FBI, leading them to publicly and privately conclude that the investigation clearly has stalled.

“I would like to think that they know a lot more than they did five years ago, but I have no basis to make that judgement,” said Daschle, the Majority Leader at the time of the attacks, in a recent interview. “From what little they have shared with us, I can only assume that things haven’t gone well in the investigation these past five years.”

In addition, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a senior member of Judiciary and sometime critic of the bureau, is preparing a letter to the FBI in which he will formally request that agents provide a briefing on the attacks, which paralyzed the Capitol for weeks.

The FBI currently has 17 special agents working on the case, according to the “Amerithrax” page on the bureau’s Web site, and two more agents are joining the probe this month. The agents have conducted more than 9,100 interviews, issued more than 6,000 subpoenas and executed 67 searches across the globe.

“There’s a lot of good to be said about the investigation,” said Debra Weierman, spokeswoman for the FBI’s Washington, D.C., field office. “We have made progress, and it’s an incredibly active and productive investigation.”

For now, however, an extraordinary situation remains, in which Congress is not receiving any information about an investigation in which its own Members were among the handful of principal targets of the attacks.

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