Senators Briefed on Anthrax Probe

Posted May 2, 2007 at 6:45pm

Ending a three-year blackout of Capitol Hill, FBI Director Robert Mueller recently briefed select Senators on the investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, but he did not include House lawmakers who had demanded a similar update and may now seek hearings on the matter.

According to those in attendance, FBI and Justice Department officials met with a small group of Senators in mid-March, marking the first formal briefing on the Amerithrax investigation, as it is formally known, since late 2003 when federal investigators began to withhold information because of alleged leaks to the media following earlier Congressional briefings.

Among those in attendance were Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — the target of one of the anthrax-laced letters sent in October 2001, which he never received because it was mistakenly sent to the State Department — and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has spearheaded efforts in recent months calling for the FBI to end its blackout.

FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko said the meeting, proposed by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during a January oversight hearing of his agency, was arranged specifically for the Vermont Senator, who was permitted to invite other lawmakers.

“With the concurrence of DOJ, the FBI briefed Senator Leahy on the Amerithrax investigation,” Kolko wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. “Senator Leahy was provided this brief due to his specific status as a victim in this case.”

The investigation is focused not only on the October 2001 anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill — which began when an intern to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) opened a letter containing the biological agent — but also on the five anthrax-related deaths, including two U.S. Postal Service employees, as well as similar letters received by NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post.

Neither Senator would discuss the classified briefing in detail, but Grassley, who acknowledged he has at times been critical of the bureau, said: “It seemed to me that the Director [Mueller] was more forthcoming than I thought he would be and gave us some information. … He called it an update on where the investigation is going.”

In a separate interview, Leahy, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said of the more than five-year-old investigation’s status: “They say it’s active and I hope it is,”

Asked whether he was satisfied with the information provided, Leahy said, “I’ll only be satisfied when they arrest someone.” He added that he remains concerned about the families of the five victims in the attack, while also noting that the letters constituted a threat on his own life.

The Vermont lawmaker declined to say whether he will seek another briefing but said that when the investigation is completed, he hopes to have the information declassified so that it can be made public.

Grassley said he has not yet asked for another briefing, noting that only six weeks had elapsed since the session. “Only time will tell,” he said.

Although Leahy indicated in January that he would expect his Republican counterpart on the Judiciary panel, ranking member Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), to be included in the briefing, he declined to identify those in attendance, as did Grassley. Specter’s office similarly refused to confirm whether he attended the meeting.

In the House, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) has demanded access to federal investigators — his district is home to the post box where the letters originated, and Holt’s Capitol Hill office was shut down during the attack after it was found to be contaminated with anthrax — but has been repeatedly denied, despite having received several FBI briefings in the initial stages of the investigation.

But House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) said Tuesday he has agreed to an appeal from Holt and will seek that information from the FBI through his panel. Reyes said he could hold hearings on the investigation if the committee’s request is ignored.

“Mr. Holt is very frustrated because he thinks they’ve been stonewalling,” Reyes said, citing a letter Holt wrote in March to several House committees seeking hearings on the issue.

“We need the information. We want the information,” Reyes added, acknowledging that he is drafting a letter to the FBI. He said the message will include the possibility of a hearing if the request is not met, although he has not determined whether that session would be closed or open to the public. “We’ll talk about it.”