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Last Updated

09 Jan 2003

Source: Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2002.


Anthrax Probe Centers on Staffers Of Labs Able to Produce Strain


WASHINGTON -- Federal investigators say they have questioned more than 300 current or former employees at laboratories around the nation capable of producing a form of anthrax similar to the type that killed five people in Florida, New York, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., last year.

The search has turned to past and present employees of several domestic labs after an analysis of the anthrax DNA matched it to a strain held at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Md., and shared with other facilities, mostly in the U.S. Researchers also concluded that the physical properties of the finely powdered anthrax sent to Capitol Hill are consistent with secret U.S. processes for producing it.

Some experts, distressed at the progress of the probe, have even provided lists of likely suspects to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a microbiologist at the State University of New York at Purchase, who heads the biological arms-control panel for the Federation of American Scientists.

"The FBI has gotten short lists of suspects from several people over two months ago," said Dr. Rosenberg. She said she knew of three lists that had been prepared by government insiders or by employees of military contractors familiar with biological weapons. One list of people provided the FBI included two high-profile members of the bioweapons community, who were apparently chosen based on their technical expertise or possible motive, not any specific evidence against them.

The FBI confirmed that it had received and investigated several such lists. Agency officials also say they still have no clear suspects and continue to pursue all avenues of investigation.

Kenneth Alibek, president of Advanced Biosystems Inc., a defense contractor, said he wasn't surprised to learn that his name had appeared on one such list. Dr. Alibek, born Kanatjan Alibekov, was formerly deputy director of the secret Russian germ weapons program known as Biopreparat, but defected to the U.S. in 1992.

"It would be absolutely inappropriate if my name was not on at least one list, if not all," said Dr. Alibek, "because it is absolutely obvious that I am one of the experts."

Dr. Alibek said he was interviewed by the FBI in November in Washington. "We had an open discussion, and I gave them some technical advice regarding how to assess the possible manufacturing processes involved," he said.

The FBI is known to have expressed interest in other individuals, including a university graduate student from a Muslim nation in Africa who once worked in an anthrax lab.

"We've done over 300 interviews at places we consider really critical," said an official close to the investigation. "I can tell you categorically that we've given a lot of people shakes," but "there was nothing to it," the official said.

Dr. Rosenberg, who believes the anthrax mailings originated with stocks held by the U.S. military or its contractors, says the lack of visible progress in the anthrax probe is leading to concern that it may be stalled due to the secretive nature of military biodefense research.

Already, scrutiny following the anthrax attacks led to the disclosure in December that scientists at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah had manufactured a potent powdered form of anthrax. Dr. Rosenberg and others said national security concerns surrounding additional, undisclosed programs to study biological weapons could be interfering with the current FBI probe.

"It's my own guess this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Elisa Harris, an analyst with the Center for International Security Studies in Maryland and a former national security council official in the Clinton administration responsible for compliance with the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Although the secret Dugway effort appears small and justified under the treaty, which allows defensive research, she said the Clinton White House wasn't aware it existed.

Progress may depend on a new round of genetic analyses under way. Investigators have asked for anthrax samples from several labs known to possess the military strain, including Battelle Memorial Institute, a government contractor involved in anthrax research; the Dugway Proving Ground; the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick; Northern Arizona University; Louisiana State University; the Canadian Defence Establishment at Suffield, Alberta; and biodefense-research laboratories at Porton Down, in the United Kingdom, said a senior FBI investigator.