The second tier of the news, that spot just under Topic A where stories vie to be the next obsession, is unusually crowded these days. Excellent prospects include the pedophile priests, a Boston story quietly spreading to other cities; the former NBA star charged in the killing of a chauffeur; two or three teetering companies that could be The Next Enron; and the coming shoot-out between the General Accounting Office and the Vice President.
But most promising of all is a dark horse that's been plodding along for months: the anthrax mystery. The government's search for the perpetrator had long been a B story, oddly so, given the enormity of the crime and its obvious whodunit interest. Until this week, when The Washington Times ran a front-pager that began, "The FBI's search for the person who mailed anthrax-laced letters that killed five persons has focused on a former U.S. scientist who worked at a government laboratory where he learned how to make a weapons-grade strain of the deadly bacteria."
Anyone who's followed this story knew this wasn't necessarily news. Countless outlets have run stories and columns floating the theory that the anthrax terrorist was a government scientist with some connection to an Army facility at Fort Detrick, Md., that has done a great deal of anthrax research. Almost all of these stories have cited the same source, a State University of New York (Purchase) microbiologist named Barbara Hatch Rosenberg who, since not long after the attacks, has been aggressively promoting her own profile of the criminal.
For instance, Time magazine drew on Rosenberg for a story in its February 4 issue: "She thinks the killer is a middle-aged American who works for a CIA contractor in the Washington area but has had access in the past to the labs at Fort Detrick. She believes he or she has been vaccinated against anthrax and knows how to conceal forensic evidence. Says Rosenberg: 'It's highly probable that the perpetrator is someone who was known in the lab, someone who was thought to be O.K.' "
The Hartford Courant of Connecticut has done the most impressive investigative work on the Fort Detrick scenario. The paper reported, for example, that in the 1990s, the biowarfare lab was a "bizarre" and "toxic" workplace, rife with strange doings that might be related to the anthrax attack. An Egyptian-born scientist named Ayaad Assaad, who once worked there, has alleged in a discrimination lawsuit that he was cruelly harassed for his ethnic background. Shortly before the anthrax attacks last year, the FBI was given an anonymous letter fingering him as a possible bioterrorist. While the bureau has cleared Assaad, it's possible the anthrax terrorist is a former colleague who wrote the letter to frame him.
Last week, The Times of Trenton, N.J., reported a new wrinkle. Speaking to an audience at Princeton University, Rosenberg suggested that the FBI had a specific suspect, but it had delayed arresting that person because of concerns about government secrets. "We know that the FBI is looking at this person, and it's likely that he participated in the past in secret activities that the government would not like to see disclosed," Rosenberg said, according to the Trenton paper. Note that the "he or she" of the Time account has now become a definite "he."
The Trenton paper's story was picked up here and there, but didn't make a huge splash. Then, this week, came the Washington Times story, with a somewhat ambiguous lead phrase—"focused on a former U.S. scientist"—that could be read to mean either a general profile or a specific person. A little further down in the story, however, it became clear that reporter Jerry Seper, citing unnamed sources, was talking about an individual: "The government's chief suspect, the sources said, is believed to have worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., which has maintained stores of weapons-grade anthrax.... The sources said the former scientist is now employed as a contractor in the Washington area. The unidentified scientist, according to the sources, was twice fired from government jobs and, after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed more than 3,000 people, reportedly made a threat to use anthrax. He has been interviewed by FBI agents on several occasions, according to the sources, and his house has been searched."
Hot stuff. So hot that within hours, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was fielding questions about the story, and knocking it down: "Unfortunately, there still are several suspects; it's not as if there's only one.... That story, I think, was a little over-reaching in saying there's just one. The FBI has not narrowed it down to just one; they are continuing their investigation."
Gleeful wire stories went out, and the next day's papers had gloating headlines such as USA Today's "FBI: Report of prime anthrax suspect false." The New York Times reported that, rather than a "chief suspect," the FBI has a "short list" of 18 to 20 people. That story ran on the front page, above the fold, signaling that the flagship of print media was alive to this story's new energy. Seper, the Washington Times reporter, told me in an interview that he's not backing down: "I stand by the fact that they have a particular guy that they have focused their investigation on."
But what really matters, from a news consumer's point of view, isn't how many suspects there are. It's that this story has long legs, and one of these days, it's going to run.