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Last Updated

13 Nov 2002

Source: Washington Times, February 25, 2002.

Anthrax suspect worked in U.S. lab


The FBI's search for the person who mailed anthrax-laced letters that killed five persons has focused on a former U.S. scientist who worked at a government laboratory where he learned how to make a weapons-grade strain of the deadly bacteria.

Law enforcement authorities and leading biochemical experts familiar with the FBI's five-month investigation said agents targeted the unidentified scientist after extensive interviews with more than 300 persons associated with the government's anthrax program, although no charges have yet been filed.

The scientist was identified from a pool of about 50 researchers known to have the technical ability to produce the sophisticated weapons-grade anthrax strain found in the letters sent to Florida, New York, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., the sources said.

The FBI has known for more than three months that the person responsible for sending the letters was a U.S. citizen and, according to the sources, probably a former scientist connected to the government's biodefense program.

The government's chief suspect, the sources said, is believed to have worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., which has maintained stores of weapons-grade anthrax -- commonly known as the Ames strain of Bacillus anthracis.

The sources said the former scientist is now employed as a contractor in the Washington area.

The unidentified scientist, according to the sources, was twice fired from government jobs and, after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed more than 3,000 people, reportedly made a threat to use anthrax.

He has been interviewed by FBI agents on several occasions, according to the sources, and his house has been searched.

The sources said that while numerous chemicals were located inside the house, no anthrax was found.

The FBI investigation, according to the sources, began to focus on current and former U.S. scientists after the anthrax found in letters sent to the Capitol Hill offices of Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont matched a finely powdered strain of the bacteria held at Fort Detrick.

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a microbiologist at State University of New York who heads the biological arms-control panel for the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), said that the FBI has been working on a "short list of suspects" for some time, and that agents had narrowed the list to "a particular person ... a member of the biochemical community."

"It has taken a long time for the FBI to identify any suspects in this case, and I don't know why, considering that the person responsible for this comes from a very narrow list of people who have the necessary skill to do what was done," she said. "But there is a common suspect, and the FBI has questioned that person more than once."

Mrs. Rosenberg said she and several colleagues have wondered whether the FBI's failure to bring charges in the case is related to government reluctance to publicly acknowledge its biochemical operation.

"Is the FBI dragging its feet? I just don't know. And, if so, I don't know why," she said.

The FBI has consistently maintained that the anthrax investigation is on track, and that thousands of leads have been pursued by a task force of investigators under the direction of FBI Assistant Director Van Harp, who heads the bureau's D.C. field office, and Chief Postal Inspector Kenneth C. Weaver.

Neither the FBI nor the U.S. Postal Service has identified any potential suspects.

In a letter last month to the 40,000 members of the American Society for Microbiology, Mr. Harp said it was "very likely that one or more of you know this individual."

"A review of the information to date in this matter leads investigators to believe that a single person is most likely responsible for these mailings," he said. "This person is experienced working in a laboratory. Based on his or her selection of the Ames strain of Bacillus anthracis, one would expect this individual has or had legitimate access to select biological agents at some time."

In the letter, Mr. Harp also said the suspect had the technical knowledge and expertise to produce a "highly refined and deadly product," and that he or she may have "used off-hours in a laboratory or may have even established an improvised or concealed facility comprised of sufficient equipment to produce the anthrax."

The anthrax found by investigators in the Daschle and Leahy letters was described as "weaponized," meaning it consisted of fine particles treated to eliminate static charge -- preventing them from clumping and allowing them to float in the air.

According to the sources, an extraordinary concentration of spores was identified in the anthrax tested in the letters and that the purity of the bacteria was characteristic of that made at U.S. laboratories. They said the tested anthrax was unmilled, also characteristic of anthrax manufactured at U.S. laboratories.
     A sampling of anthrax from the Daschle letter, they said, contained a form of silica used at U.S. laboratories. The sample did not contain bentonite, which is used by foreign laboratories, including Iraq, they said.

The government has offered a $2.5 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for sending the letters.

The five persons who died were Florida photography editor Robert Stevens (case 5), 63; U.S. postal workers Thomas Lee Morris (case 15), 55, and Joseph P. Curseen (case 16), 47, both of whom worked at the Brentwood facility in Northeast; Kathy Nyugen (case 22), a 61-year-old female hospital stockroom employee in New York; and Ottilie W. Lundgren (case 23), a 94-year-old woman from Connecticut.
     All the deaths were traced to the Ames strain of the bacteria, first isolated in Iowa and maintained by the U.S. Army since 1980 for testing purposes.