PARIS -- A U.S. federal probe into doping in cycling, including whether Lance Armstrong cheated, appears to have made significant headway and is getting closer to its end, say officials who attended or were briefed on meetings between European and American agents this week at Interpol headquarters.
The size of the U.S. delegation, larger than previously known, and the fact that it traveled all the way to France for two days of talks with police officers and other officials from at least three European countries where Armstrong and some of his teammates have competed, trained and lived was in itself an indication of the importance of the snowballing probe, European officials said.
One European participant said he'd been expecting to meet no more than two or three people at Interpol's high-security compound in the south-central French city of Lyon. He was surprised to be ushered into a conference room where at least a half-dozen American officials were arrayed across the table.
This official said he told himself: "This is no joke. This is serious, this is hard-nose. It was not a sightseeing trip."
The official and other participants at the talks or those briefed on them spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in part because the U.S. delegation requested that the meetings not be discussed publicly. Several European officials said they were concerned that leaks could jeopardize the judicial process and do not want to endanger the probe by talking about it openly and in detail.
"This is a very complex procedure and it can only work within a judicial frame," said one European who met with the Americans.
While federal authorities have not disclosed who they are scrutinizing, dozens of interviews by the AP with people involved in the case have pointed to a broad investigation that began with cyclists who had records of doping. It then turned toward Armstrong, who won the Tour de France a record seven times and has consistently denied using performance-enhancing drugs. He has hundreds of clean doping tests as evidence.
At Interpol's glass and concrete headquarters, which is guarded by an electric fence, security cameras and police, U.S. investigators did not go into detail with the Europeans about their findings, which cyclists they are focusing on or what evidence they have gathered, two European officials said.
However, both came away with the firm impression that the U.S. probe has moved well past its opening stages. One said it appeared to be nearer its end than its beginning. Both said the Americans did not seem to be looking to Europe for evidence upon which to build their whole case.
Instead, the U.S. investigators were interested in how to obtain information that could support evidence already gathered in the United States. At least one meeting focused on the legal procedures that would need to be followed for evidence to be transferred from Europe to the United States, said a senior police officer briefed on the talks.
One of those leading the probe is federal agent Jeff Novitzky, who hounded baseball star Barry Bonds for years and wrung a confession from disgraced Olympic sprinter Marion Jones.
"He's going through all of Europe's trash cans. And sometimes you find things in a trash can," one participant said of Novitzky. "They need supplemental proof to back up everything they have gathered."
The police officer added that U.S. investigators appeared to be building a significant case.
"As we say in our jargon, they have some marbles to play with," he said.
Armstrong spokesman Mark Fabiani described the investigators' trip as wasteful and unnecessary.
"American taxpayer money is being squandered on a European trip for FDA investigators to dredge up old allegations that have already been thoroughly examined and completely discredited," he said. "All of Lance's samples were clean when they were first provided and tested, and no amount of tax money-wasting European meetings can change that fundamental fact."
Italian prosecutor Benedetto Roberti, who has carried out numerous doping investigations from his base in Padua, said he led a four-member Italian delegation, which included police from Padua and Florence, to the Interpol talks. France was represented by officers from a unit that specializes in sports doping cases and by officials from the French anti-doping agency, the AFLD, which has stored Armstrong's urine samples from the 1999 Tour de France and some of the six other Tours that the cancer survivor and campaigner also won.
Belgium also sent police and magistrates to the "informal and informative" talks, said Lieve Pellens, a spokeswoman for the Federal Prosecutor's Office.
Interpol, which has no powers of arrest or investigation but which helps police forces around the world work together, facilitated the meetings and its headquarters offered a guarded and convenient place to meet away from prying eyes.
Roberti, in an interview with the AP, refused to speak in detail about the U.S. probe. However, he indicated that the Americans are focused on Armstrong. Roberti also confirmed that he ordered the raid last week on the Tuscany house of Armstrong teammate Yaroslav Popovych to aid the American investigation. He said the contents of the Ukrainian rider's personal laptop and BlackBerry are being checked.
Another participant described the meetings as very productive, saying many cycling topics were discussed and that Armstrong wasn't the sole focus.
The American delegation included Novitzky, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart, U.S. federal prosecutor Doug Miller, his co-counsel Mark Williams and FBI special agent Olivier Faraole, according to a document listing the attendees that Roberti showed the AP. Approached by the AP earlier this week at his Lyon hotel near the Interpol compound, Novitzky said he would not comment on the probe.
The Europeans met with the Americans one delegation at a time, and there was another similar meeting at the end of July, when Roberti sent a delegate, he said.
Roberti said he appreciates the seriousness of the American investigation.
"We realized that we have reciprocal interest in this fight, and hopefully time will confirm that," he said. "We need to exchange information, because this phenomenon can't be beaten alone. Everyone needs to contribute. This battle can't be won in the media."
One participant said the U.S. investigators were direct, to the point and persistent, ensuring that they were putting pieces of the puzzle together without leaving gaps.
Mathew Rosengart, a former federal prosecutor who has taught courses on grand jury procedures but is not involved in the U.S. probe and did not attend the talks at Interpol, said the trip to France "signals that the government is very serious about the investigation and it's much more than a pro forma investigation."
"The Justice Department would not ordinarily spend the type of time and money without an extreme seriousness of purpose," he said. "It just shows they're turning over every rock looking for every piece of evidence."