WASHINGTON — Congress and the FBI are now openly battling over the pace and direction of the anthrax investigation.
Late Monday, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, sent a damning six-page letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales requesting a briefing on the FBI investigation, now five years old. The letter faults the agency for its handling of the case, saying "the FBI has little in the way of results to show for its work."
Meanwhile, in an unusual move, the FBI's top lobbyist has informed members of Congress that the bureau will no longer brief them on the case. The FBI's Assistant Director for Congressional Affairs wrote, "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."
FBI on defense
FBI critics consider the letter rich irony, since the FBI itself is under attack for leaking key details of the case to the media.
In the fall of 2001, someone mailed anthrax-laced letters to two U.S. senators and to a number of media organizations, including NBC News. The finely milled anthrax spores were remarkably buoyant, and five people who inhaled them were killed.
After the anthrax incident, Dr. Steven Hatfill was publicly branded a “person of interest.” He’s never been charged with any crime and has since brought a libel and defamation suit against columnist Nicholas Kristof and The New York Times.
On Oct. 20, a federal magistrate judge ruled that The New York Times must reveal the names of the confidential sources on whom Kristof relied for a series of columns about the anthrax case. The judge revealed that two of Kristof's unnamed sources were FBI agents.
Meanwhile, the FBI recently installed a new team of top investigators to head up the anthrax case. Sources familiar with the case tell NBC News that the new managers are looking anew at all possible suspects, with a much broader focus than before. The sources say that the previous head of the case, inspector Richard Lambert, was moved to a new position within the FBI, in part because he had focused too much on Hatfill.
Grassley's letter picks up on that, stating that Lambert's transfer to a Tennessee FBI office "raises questions about why he was replaced [and] the focus of the FBI's investigation under his leadership." Lambert now is the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's field office in Knoxville, Tenn.
Lambert did not return several phones calls seeking comment.
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