FBI SCRUTINIZES BIODEFENSE LABS IN ANTHRAX PROBE 



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Last Updated

04 Nov 2002

Source: Baltimore Sun, February 22, 2002.

FBI scrutinizes biodefense labs in anthrax probe

Staff at Fort Detrick, records at Dugway draw new interest; 25 sites have had spores

By Scott Shane, Sun Staff

In recent weeks, FBI agents investigating the anthrax attacks that killed five people last fall have questioned a dozen biodefense scientists at Fort Detrick about former colleagues who have come under suspicion, according to employees of the Army's research institute in Frederick.

At the same time, agents were poring over entry records to the high-security laboratory at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, the only U.S. facility known to produce the kind of dry, fine-particle anthrax powder like that used in the mail attacks.

But even as investigators pursued possible links between military research and the anthrax-laced letters, they were learning of more laboratories that have had the Ames strain of anthrax used in the attacks. At last count, 25 such labs were identified, including facilities in at least five foreign countries - and investigators think there are more, said sources familiar with the work.

Five months after a terrorist turned the daily mail into a deadly biological weapon, one of the most extensive murder investigations in U.S history seems to be moving in two directions at once. While agents are aggressively following up on tips about suspicious people, the FBI is also casting a national net for clues and even pursuing leads overseas.

Just days before the FBI interviews at Fort Detrick, which set off fevered speculation among scientists who study the world's most dangerous germs, officials had doubled the reward in the anthrax case to $2.5 million. Investigators had distributed thousands of fliers near Trenton, N.J., where the anthrax letters were mailed. They had requested help from the American Society for Microbiology, telling its 40,000 members in an e-mail, "It is very likely that one or more of you know this individual."

And the FBI is adding to its list of labs and researchers that have handled anthrax. On Jan. 30, a grand jury subpoena went to a lab at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, demanding records of all anthrax at the lab and people with access to it for the past 10 years - or 20 years for dry, powdered anthrax, said Nancy D. Connell, director of the university's Center for Biodefense, where anthrax work is planned but none has taken place.

The FBI will say little about the investigation it has dubbed "Amerithrax." "The FBI is vigorously investigating the mailing of anthrax letters and hoax letters," bureau spokeswoman Tracey Silberling said yesterday. She added only that the FBI has not identified a leading suspect.

Still, a picture can be pieced together from people familiar with the bureau's actions, most of whom will speak only on condition of anonymity.

Biodefense experts at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick have been consulted regularly by the FBI about the anthrax spore powder that sickened at least 13 people in addition to killing two Maryland postal workers, a tabloid photo editor in Florida, a hospital worker in New York City and an elderly woman in Connecticut.

But late last month, when a team of agents from the FBI's Washington, Baltimore and New York field offices arrived at Fort Detrick, the agents clearly had a different mission. They asked "pointed questions" about a few people they appeared to consider potential suspects, said several employees.

Among others, the agents asked about a former Fort Detrick scientist who returned a few years ago and took discarded biological safety cabinets, used for work with dangerous pathogens. Like some other military lab workers, the scientist has expertise on weaponizing anthrax and has been vaccinated against it, sources say.

Reached by The Sun at his job with a government contractor, the scientist volunteered that he had been questioned by the FBI. He said he considered the questioning to be part of a routine effort to eliminate people with the knowledge to mount such an attack.

"I think they had a profile," the scientist said. "They had a bunch of people on the list. They have to rule people out. ... I certainly didn't appreciate getting called in. No one likes that. I'm one of the good guys."

The scientist acknowledged that several years ago, with Army permission, he took three biosafety cabinets that were being discarded at Fort Detrick, but he said they were for use in a classified Defense Department project that he could not discuss.

The FBI's attention to possible perpetrators with ties to U.S. biodefense laboratories has set off water-cooler gossip at Detrick and Dugway. Scientists discuss present and former colleagues they consider secretive, eccentric or vengeful. Some recall statements or actions that have come to seem suspicious only in retrospect.

The FBI's focus reflects a paradox at the heart of the case: Most of the Americans with the technical knowledge to create a bioweapon that by all accounts was prepared with diabolical skill are those whose job is to defend the country against such weapons.

The FBI has turned to those same biodefense experts to find clues in the powder.

One government official says that despite the extraordinary concentration and purity of the powder, with an estimated 1 trillion spores per gram, chemical analysis has not pointed to a specific source. Scientists have not been able to rule out the possibility that the powder might have been diverted from Dugway, the official says.

Genetic analysis, conducted at Northern Arizona University and the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, at first established that the mailed anthrax has almost the same genetic fingerprint as the Army's Ames strain, acquired in 1981 from a heifer that died in Texas. (The "Ames" designation came from a researcher's mistaken belief that the sample came from Ames, Iowa.)

Now researchers led by Paul Keim at Northern Arizona are trying to find tiny variations among different labs' samples of Ames anthrax. Keim said at a Las Vegas meeting last week that he has had some success. But the work is not complete, and it remains to be seen whether it will help pinpoint a source.

Part of the challenge is collecting Ames samples from the 25 or more labs that got the strain directly or indirectly from the Army. Government experts doubt it is possible to identify every place with Ames stocks - particularly overseas, where investigators know five countries had samples but believe the real number is higher.

Some outside scientists, frustrated that the FBI has reported little progress, have raised questions about the pace or direction of the investigation.

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a microbiologist who heads a working group on bioweapons for the Federation of American Scientists, has claimed on the federation Web site and in a talk at Princeton University on Monday that the FBI long ago identified a former government scientist as a "prime suspect." Agents haven't taken action, she says, because the suspect did secret bioweapons work the U.S. government does not want revealed.

Wrong, said Silberling, the FBI spokeswoman. "It is not accurate that the FBI has identified a prime suspect in the case," she said.

Other outsiders, by contrast, fear the bureau focused prematurely on a U.S. source for the anthrax attacks. Richard O. Spertzel, a longtime Fort Detrick scientist who later worked as a United Nations biological weapons inspector in Iraq, argues that he has seen no scientific evidence to rule out a foreign source.

"There's nothing concrete at all pointing to a domestic source," Spertzel said. He said he believes a connection to Iraq's germ-weapons program is more plausible, citing highly technical manufacturing details. He also finds intriguing a cryptic September article in a newspaper run by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's son Uday about a "virus" that would "attack the raven," which he calls a common Iraqi symbol for the United States.

Though White House officials have said the FBI is focusing on a domestic source, one law enforcement official insisted that no scenario, domestic or foreign, has been ruled out. Some FBI agents are working overseas, guided by CIA intelligence, officials say.

No one would be happier to find a foreign source than the U.S. biodefense establishment. Officials at Dugway and Detrick - where infighting and lax security in the early 1990s have been aired recently in an age-discrimination lawsuit - say their records show no missing anthrax.

But the very nature of such biological organisms makes it impossible to be certain. The anthrax letters collectively contained less than half an ounce of powder, experts say, which could have been grown from a few microscopic spores. A glass vial containing either prepared powder or seed spores could have been smuggled out of even the highest-security lab, scientists say.

"Unless you're going to strip search everybody every day," Spertzel said, "you can't prevent it."