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Jack Kelly: Their faraway eyes

In the LAX case, as in anthrax, the FBI averts its gaze

Sunday, July 14, 2002

FBI isn't supposed to stand for Foolish, Blind and Incompetent. But the investigation into the L.A. airport shooting July 4 is the latest indication that it may.

  Jack Kelly is national security writer for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com). 

Hesham Mohamed Hadayet stuffed two automatic pistols, extra clips of ammunition and a knife into his pockets, drove 45 miles to LAX, walked up to the El Al counter and blasted away. He killed two people and wounded others before being shot dead by El Al security. It took the FBI more than a day to conclude he'd gone to the airport intending to hurt people.

Special Agent in Charge Richard Garcia was quicker to dismiss "terrorism" as a motive for Hadayet's crime. He did this in a rambling and incoherent press conference hours after the shootings, even though FBI agents had yet to search Hadayet's home or interview his neighbors and co-workers.

The FBI is backtracking rapidly now that Israeli intelligence has identified Hadayet as a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and an Arabic newspaper in London reported that Hadayet met twice with Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian who is the No. 2 man in al-Qaida.

The bureau tends not to follow trails that lead in politically incorrect directions. Consider now the anthrax investigation.

On Sept. 18, 2001, letters containing powdered anthrax were sent to NBC News and the New York Post. On Oct. 9, two more letters were sent to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The anthrax in both was from the Ames strain developed at the Army lab at Fort Detrick, Md. But the anthrax in the letters sent to the senators was much more finely milled.

The Ames strain also claimed the life of Robert Stevens, an employee of American Media Inc. of Boca Raton, Fla., publisher of the National Enquirer and other tabloids. He died Oct. 5, the first known anthrax death.

Every bioterror incident in the last 100 years was the product of a conspiracy, according to a study by the National Defense University. But the FBI's working hypothesis is that the anthrax letters were mailed by a disgruntled American scientist.

Why are they so sure? Look at the first anthrax incident of 2001 -- June 2001, that is. As The New York Times reported in March, a man named Ahmed Alhaznawi came to the emergency room at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale on June 25, 2001, for treatment of an ugly black lesion on his leg. Dr. Christos Tsonas had never seen a lesion of that kind before. Alhaznawi told him it had been caused by a bump. Tsonas prescribed an antibiotic.

Alhaznawi was one of the 9/11 hijackers of Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. He was accompanied to the doctor's office by Ziad Jarrah, another one of the Flight 93 hijackers. Tsonas' prescription was found among Alhaznawi's effects. When Tsonas was shown photos of lesions caused by anthrax, he said Alhaznawi's lesion looked exactly like them. Fort Lauderdale, by the way, is just a short drive from the American Media headquarters in Boca Raton.

If the anthrax letters were prepared and sent by a single rogue scientist, the FBI ought to have found him by now. The list of scientists capable of weaponizing anthrax is not long. The list of scientists who have had access to the top secret areas at Fort Detrick is shorter. And no scientist, no matter how brilliant, could have prepared the anthrax on the workbench in his garage. For that, sophisticated equipment such as a centrifuge would be required. There aren't many private purchasers of such equipment.

The FBI hasn't found the terrorist lab. This could be because: (1) It is extremely well hidden, (2) the FBI is unbelievably incompetent or (3) the anthrax wasn't prepared in the United States.

The U.S. government gave a sample of the Ames virus to the British military lab at Porton Downs. U.S. intelligence agencies reported that Iraqi scientists tried in 1988 to get a sample of the Ames virus from Porton Downs, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., said in a floor speech last month. Perhaps they succeeded.

"European government and CIA officials reported meetings between al-Qaida members and intelligence officials," said Rep. Pence. "The 9/11 hijackers also attempted to rent crop dusters, presumably as delivery vehicles. These are all facts that suggest an international connection."

Somebody should tell the FBI.

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