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Ashcroft: No charges yet in anthrax probe


NEWARK, New Jersey (CNN) -- The investigation into last fall's anthrax attacks has yet "to cross a threshold" that would allow prosecutors to bring charges against anyone, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday.

"When we arrive at that threshold, I will make an announcement to that effect," Ashcroft told reporters at a news conference with members of an anti-terrorism task force in Newark.

Ashcroft said the investigation has become more intense in recent weeks, but he refused to call Steven Hatfill -- a former federal scientist whose home has been searched as part of the investigation -- a suspect in the case.

Hatfill, has publicly acknowledged he is being investigated in the case but has maintained his innocence.

"Mr. Hatfill is a person of interest to the Department of Justice, and we continue the investigation. For me to comment further, it would be inappropriate," he said.

Ashcroft also refused to comment about accusations by Hatfill and his attorneys that the FBI has mistreated him. But the attorney general sought to assure the public that prosecutors are investigating the anthrax case diligently.

"The anthrax investigation is one like almost all investigations that involves breakthroughs and plateaus. Progress has been made. There is a sense of intensity in the investigation," he said.

"But frankly, the ultimate plateau that's necessary is for us to cross a threshold which provides a basis for prosecutable facts."

A mailbox in Princeton, New Jersey, has tested positive for anthrax, and authorities say last fall's anthrax-laced letters may have been mailed from that box. The letters, which authorities have said leaked "weaponized" anthrax, were postmarked in nearby Trenton.

Some business owners in Princeton have said FBI agents in recent weeks have been showing a picture to locals of a man who resembles Hatfill. Asked if the photograph being distributed in Princeton is Hatfill, Ashcroft said, "I did not see the photograph, and I'm not able to comment."

The anthrax-laced letters last fall were sent to offices of U.S. Sens. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, and to TV network news offices in New York. Five people, including two postal employees in Washington, died of inhalation anthrax.

Other letters may have been sent to other places. Authorities still are unsure how three of those who died -- an elderly woman in Connecticut, a nurse in New York and a Florida employee of a national tabloid newspaper -- became infected.




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