about Epidemiology & the department

Epidemiology academic information

Epidemiology faculty

Epidemilogy resources

sites of interest to Epidemiology professionals

Last Updated

13 Dec 2002

Source: The Times (Trenton), February 19, 2002.

Expert: Anthrax suspect ID'd

By JOSEPH DEE, Staff Writer

PRINCETON BOROUGH -- An advocate for the control of biological weapons who has been gathering information about last autumn's anthrax attacks said yesterday the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a strong hunch about who mailed the deadly letters.

But the FBI might be "dragging its feet" in pressing charges because the suspect is a former government scientist familiar with "secret activities that the government would not like to see disclosed," said Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Chemical and Biological Weapons Program.

Rosenberg, who spoke to about 65 students, faculty members and others at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, said the FBI has known of the suspect since October and, according to her "government insider" sources, has interrogated him more than once.

The investigation into five anthrax-laced letters and several other hoax letters -- all mailed last fall, including several processed by Trenton Main Post Office in Hamilton -- was the focus of Rosenberg's talk. She also gave her thoughts about what the government should do to control biological weapons.

"There are a number of insiders -- government insiders -- who know people in the anthrax field who have a common suspect," Rosenberg said. "The FBI has questioned that person more than once, ... so it looks as though the FBI is taking that person very seriously."

She said it is quite possible the suspect is a scientist who formerly worked at the U.S. government's military laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md.

Rosenberg said she has been gathering information from press reports, congressional hearings, Bush administration news conferences and government insiders she would not name.

During a brief question-and-answer session after her talk, one man wondered whether biological agents truly pose significant dangers to the public, given the limited number of deaths and illnesses caused by five anthrax-laced letters.

Without mentioning other biological agents that are far more deadly and contagious than anthrax, Rosenberg said the potential for a biological attack is "catastrophic."

Another man wondered if the FBI and other investigators might be focusing too narrowly on one scientist, saying, "New Jersey is the epicenter of the international pharmaceutical industry," and many people in those labs presumably have the skills to handle and refine anthrax.

"I think your argument would have been a good one earlier on, but I think that the results of the analyses (of the letters and the anthrax in them) show that access to classified information was essential," Rosenberg said. "And that rules out most of the people in the pharmaceutical industry... . It's possible, but they would have had to have access to the information," Rosenberg said.

Picking up the conversational thread, another man said, "People know a lot, and it's a question of what they choose to focus their knowledge on. Things are invented in parallel," he said.

-- -- --

She said the evidence points to a person who has experience handling anthrax; who has been vaccinated and has received annual booster shots; and who had access to classified government information about how to chemically treat the bacterial spores to keep them from clumping together, which allows them to remain airborne.

"We can draw a likely portrait of the perpetrator as a former Fort Detrick scientist who is now working for a contractor in the Washington, D.C., area," Rosenberg said. "He had reason for travel to Florida, New Jersey and the United Kingdom... . There is also the likelihood the perpetrator made the anthrax himself. He grew it, probably on a solid medium and weaponized it at a private location where he had accumulated the equipment and the material.

"We know that the FBI is looking at this person, and it's likely that he participated in the past in secret activities that the government would not like to see disclosed," Rosenberg said. "And this raises the question of whether the FBI may be dragging its feet somewhat and may not be so anxious to bring to public light the person who did this.

"I know that there are insiders, working for the government, who know this person and who are worried that it could happen that some kind of quiet deal is made that he just disappears from view," Rosenberg said.

"This, I think, would be a really serious outcome that would send a message to other potential terrorists, that (they) would think they could get away with it.

"So I hope that doesn't happen, and that is my motivation to continue to follow this and to try to encourage press coverage and pressure on the FBI to follow up and publicly prosecute the perpetrator."

-- -- --

She expressed disappointment that the U.S. government last July decided against signing an international biological weapons treaty that would ban nations from developing such weapons.

"It became clear from congressional testimony that the reason for this rejection was the need to protect our secret projects," Rosenberg said.

During the question-and-answer period, one woman said, "I'm not sure that I understood you completely, but it seems to me that the United States government has a double-standard," of wanting other nations to comply with a weapons ban but wanting freedom to pursue its own program.

"I'm totally shocked by this information," she said, sending a wave of laughter through the lecture hall.

"They make no bones about it," Rosenberg replied. "On many occasions they've argued that rules should be for the bad guys, not the good guys."

Rosenberg said she worries about an "enormous increase" in money in the Bush budget for research into bioterrorism agents. "There is already a rush for this funding," she said.

The number of researchers and labs ought to be tightly controlled, she said. Under the current budget proposal, however, she says the government will be spreading money around to "a lot more people and a lot more laboratories around the country from which bioterrorists can emerge, as one just did.

"By spreading around this access and this knowledge, we're asking for trouble."