Anti-terrorism group moves to Williston (Aug.14 2008)

FBI director gives update on anthrax investigation 

Aug. 14, 2008
By Tim Simard
Observer staff

Williston will soon become home to the state’s first anti-terrorism task force, as revealed by FBI Director Robert Mueller. Mueller, along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, last week announced the formation of the Joint Terrorism Task Force for Vermont, to be housed within the Homeland Security building in Taft Corners.

“Since 9/11, the FBI has a new role of keeping the nation safe from terror,” Leahy said.

Observer photo by Tim Simard
FBI Director Robert Mueller, with Sen. Patrick Leahy watching, speaks at a press conference last week in which the two announced Williston will host an anti-terrorism task force.

Mueller came to Vermont with Leahy to inaugurate the new task force last Thursday. The pair was given a tour of the Homeland Security building, located on Harvest Lane.

The task force is meant to increase communication and cooperation between a number of federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, Border Patrol, customs agents and the U.S. Attorney’s office, Leahy said.

“In many instances, it wasn’t that we didn’t have good law enforcement, it’s that we didn’t have communication,” Leahy said.

He added Vermont, with its large border with Canada, is too small to handle the enforcement responsibility alone.

“I cannot tell you how important this is,” Leahy told Mueller before a crowd of press and government officials.

Mueller said there were more than 100 similar task forces set up all over the country. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, there were only 35, Mueller said.

Mueller said the success of such task forces, which he also dubbed “fusion centers,” is largely dependent on good relations between law enforcement peers. He cited last month’s Brooke Bennett murder investigation as an example. Mueller said the success in arresting the girl’s alleged kidnapper, Michael Jacques, went “incredibly well,” even in the face of such a brutal crime.

“That is one example of a case where we’ve worked together,” Mueller said.

Mueller also said the task force’s location in Williston was important, not only for the proximity to the border, but also because terrorists can organize anywhere in the country.

“One would not expect to find terrorists planning near the location of an attack,” Mueller said.

Leahy said the task force would initially be set up in Burlington, but will move to the Williston location shortly after space is made.

Leahy also said Williston has been a “great location” for Homeland Security in Vermont, and that many of the people he talked to at the center said they lived in town.

Anthrax update

Mueller also told the crowd he would update Leahy on the status of the anthrax attacks investigation. In October 2001, just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, a letter containing anthrax, a deadly powder, was mailed to Leahy’s Washington office. A similar letter was also sent to then Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Leahy’s letter was not discovered until November 2001, since the letter had been misdirected by the postal service.

Five letters were mailed that September to television broadcasters at ABC, NBC and CBS and to the New York Post and the National Enquirer. Five people died as a result of contact with anthrax.

Last Wednesday, the FBI announced that Bruce Ivins, a scientist and anthrax expert from Maryland, was now the sole suspect in the anthrax mailings. Ivins committed suicide last month when he learned he was to be charged. A previous scientist who had been deemed a person of interest, Dr. Steven Hatfill, was cleared of all suspicions.

Leahy said he was looking forward to the briefing Mueller would deliver later in the day.

“I want to know the motive behind this,” Leahy said. “That I want to know. Why did people die? This was a major, major crime.”

When asked by reporters about details of the investigation, including the length of time it took to find Ivins, Mueller stood by the FBI investigators while admitting mistakes had been made.

“I do not apologize for any action that took place,” Mueller said. “We followed up on every lead. There were, however, erroneous errors and there were leaks, unfortunately.”

Mueller said he was “satisfied” with the outcome of the investigation and the FBI had found the correct suspect.

After the Williston press conference, Mueller and Leahy traveled to Burlington to meet with the Vermont Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force at the Burlington Police Department.

Leahy is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the FBI and Justice Department’s anti-crime and anti-terror programs.