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Last Updated

10 Aug 2003

Source: Washington Times, August 10, 2003

Accused scientist says letter links to anthrax mailers


The FBI won't release an anonymous letter, which in the days before the 2001 fatal anthrax mailings, accused an Egyptian-born scientist of plotting biowarfare against the United States, saying it would divulge secret sources in the continuing investigation.

In a July 7 note citing the sources, the FBI denied Ayaad Assaad, the letter's subject, access to the evidence. Mr. Assaad said he's convinced it is linked to a person or a group responsible for the anthrax mailings that killed five persons.

"They know damn well that this letter is connected to the anthrax sender," he said, adding that the FBI's refusal to provide a copy suggests "they're trying to protect whoever sent it."

He said he suspects it led investigators to the Army's biodefense lab at Fort Detrick.

Asked about the anonymous letter Friday, a spokeswoman at the FBI's Washington field office said it is "unrelated to the anthrax mailings."

However, that assertion hasn't stopped the bureau from withholding it for nearly two years from Mr. Assaad. According to the July 7 note to him, in which the Justice Department denied his latest request for a copy of the letter, releasing it "could reasonably be expected to disclose the identities of confidential sources and information by such sources."

About two weeks before the anthrax mailings became known, the FBI was given the unsigned letter describing Mr. Assaad, who once worked at Fort Detrick, as an anti-American religious fanatic with the means and expertise to unleash a bioweapons attack.

He has been seeking a copy of the letter ever since agents with the FBI's Washington field office questioned him about it on Oct. 3, 2001.

The Hartford Courant first reported the FBI's continued refusal to release it last month. During an interview with The Washington Times on Thursday, Mr. Assaad said he's baffled by what he calls the FBI's contradictory actions.

"They're trying to protect someone who hurt me," he said, explaining that from what he saw of the letter it was laden with false and negative statements about him. While it didn't specify his religion, he said it called him a "religious fanatic."

Mr. Assaad, who holds graduate degrees from Iowa State University and has lived in the United States since the mid-1970s, claims he was discriminated against when he worked at the Army's Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick. He now works as a toxicologist for the Environmental Protection Agency.

He said when the FBI questioned him about the anonymous letter, agents told him he could file a Freedom of Information-Privacy Acts request to get a copy of it. When the interview was completed, the agents cleared him and said he was free to go.

However, he said when he made repeated calls to the FBI asking if agents wanted to speak with him again or if his past work with bioweapons could assist in their investigation, he was turned away.

Meanwhile, he said, the FBI had given him a wrong case number for filing the request to obtain a copy of the letter. FBI agents recently were seen near Fort Detrick unsuccessfully squishing through the muck at the bottom of a drained pond in search of evidence in the anthrax mailings. They reportedly were hunting for something tangible to connect the anthrax mailings to scientist Steven Hatfill, whom authorities have called a "person of interest" in the case.

No charges have been filed against Mr. Hatfill, but investigators who searched his apartment twice last year are said to have him under 24-hour surveillance.

Mr. Hatfill denies involvement in the anthrax mailings. He worked at Fort Detrick for two years, until 1999, before taking a job with defense contractor Science Applications International Corp., where he worked as a senior scientist until March 2002.

According to a report last month in The New York Times, he was involved in building mock biological weapons labs to train special operations personnel on what to look for in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.