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Last Updated

21 Oct 2002

Source:  The Sunday Mirror (Zimbabwe), October 20, 2002

FBI in Zim, S. Africa

US anthrax scare investigations home in on ex-Rhodie army man

Innocent Chofamba-Sithole, Assistant Editor

As American law enforcement agencies grapple with the frustrating mystery surrounding the October 2001 anthrax attacks, Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) agents are reported to be in the country and in South Africa in search of information on principal suspect, Steven J. Hatfill, who has lived and worked in both countries.

An impeccable source with the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) revealed to the Sunday Mirror that FBI agents were in the country to try and dig up information on Hatfill’s role in the Rhodesian army’s biochemical weapons project, which led to the outbreak of the worst reported case of anthrax in the world, between 1978 and 1980.

"We are not sure if the FBI is still in Zimbabwe or has gone to South Africa," the source said.

"American law enforcement is in southern Africa to confirm or disprove the many dubious claims on Hatfill’s resume and probably to build a character profile," added the source.

Described by US Attorney-General John Ashcroft as a "person of interest", a vague and rather unfamiliar term to veteran FBI agents, Hatfill has become the leading name in the investigation into the most dramatic act of bio-terrorism that America has ever seen.

The FBI is also reportedly keen to establish the link between Hatfill and the late University of Zimbabwe (UZ) Medical School professor, Robert Burns Symington, who is strongly believed to have worked on the Rhodesian white supremacist regime’s biochemical weapons project during the 1970s anti-colonial struggle.

Symington, whom former colleagues at the then Godfrey Huggins School of Medicine have described as "a little white supremacist", allegedly facilitated the entry into the school of Hatfill in 1979.

"I did suspect that Symington was connected to the military, but I did not know his connection with Hatfill. I only thought Hatfill had come in via the military, since he had connections with the Rhodesian army," said a former colleague of Symington’s, on condition of anonymity. He also lectured Hatfill during his days as a student at the school.

A copy of Hatfill’s military records, obtained by Newsweek, shows that Hatfill joined the US Marines in 1971, but was discharged a year later. During an interview with The Washington Post, Hatfill’s lawyer, Victor Glasberg, refused to respond to questions on Hatfill’s 15 years in southern Africa, saying it was irrelevant to the anthrax investigation, but noted that Hatfill developed his interest and specialty in viruses such as Ebola while in Africa.

Hatfill served in the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS) and the notorious Selous Scouts before enrolling for a medicine degree with the Godfrey Huggins School. Symington and the Rhodesian army are alleged to have brokered an arrangement with university authorities to have Hatfill accepted as a student. The school, even to this day, does not accept foreign students coming from countries with medical training institutions.

Symington later left the UZ for South Africa soon after independence, where he died of a heart attack a year after joining the University of Cape Town.

After graduating from the UZ in 1983, his protégé, Hatfill, also left for South Africa, where he acquired several masters’ degrees before joining the apartheid regime’s military medical corps on a one-year assignment to Antarctica. He returned to the US in the mid-1990s, where he worked as a government bio-defence scientist at Fort Detrick’s Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Hatfill regaled to colleagues with tales of his exploits as a cold warrior in the 1970’s, fighting with the elite SAS troops and the infamous Selous Scouts.

But US records show that he was in America for at least two of the years he claimed to have been fighting in Rhodesia. Apparently, Hatfill’s biography is riddled with gaps where classified projects presumably belong. From 1975 to 1978, he served with the US Army Institute for Military Assistance, while simultaneously serving in the Rhodesian military.

Contacted for comment over reports of the FBI’s presence in the country, US Embassy director of Information Bruce Wharton said: "The case of the anthrax attacks remains an open investigation and a matter of public concern. I can’t speak on the status of the FBI investigations, but as an embassy, I can say that there is no FBI in Zimbabwe right now."

However, US sources close to the investigations said the FBI was in the region to try and fill the gaps in Hatfill’s resume, which centre on his probable links to the Rhodesian army’s bio-chemical weapons project, suspected to have caused the 1978-1980 anthrax outbreak. Nearly two hundred people died, while over 10 738 cases of human anthrax were reported. Thirteen years after independence, a former senior white member of the Rhodesian army admitted the use of anthrax in the war by the military.

"It’s true that anthrax was used in an experimental role, and the idea came from the Army Psychological Operations," he said.

The apartheid regime in South Africa also ran a Chemical and Biological Warfare programme (CBW) in which toxic and poison weapons were used in political assassinations. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998 heard that in the late 1970’s, the apartheid government provided anthrax and cholera to Rhodesian troops for use against nationalist guerrillas in their war to topple white minority rule. Dr Wouter Basson, a former Special Forces Army Brigadier, ran the South African programme. Infamously referred to as "Dr. Death", Basson refused to testify before the TRC, and when he did, he only gave limited information, just to secure immunity from prosecution. It is not clear whether Hatfill, during his engagement with South Africa’s army medical corps, worked on Basson’s CBW.

"This could be the link the FBI is trying to establish during their visit to that country," said one military source.

Security Minister Nicholas Goche was still unreachable for comment on his mobile phone by last night.