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Last Updated

02 Jul 2003

Source: New York Times, July 2, 2003

Subject of Anthrax Inquiry Tied to Anti-Germ Training


This article was reported and written by William J. Broad, David Johnston and Judith Miller.

Three years ago, the United States began a secret project to train Special Operations units to detect and disarm mobile germ factories of the sort that Iraq and some other countries were suspected of building, according to administration officials and experts in germ weaponry.

The heart of the effort, these officials said, was a covert plan to construct a mobile germ plant, real in all its parts but never actually "plugged in" to make weapons. In the months before the war against Iraq, American commandos trained on this factory.

The tale of the mobile unit provides a glimpse into one of the most secretive of military and intelligence worlds, that of germ warfare defense. But here, two stories intersect. The first involves this previously unknown aspect of the Iraq war. The second involves the investigation into who sent letters containing anthrax that killed five people in the United States in late 2001.

Officials familiar with the secret project say that to design an American version of a mobile germ unit, the government turned to Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, then a rising star in the world of biological defense but more recently publicly identified by the Justice Department as "a person of interest" in the anthrax investigation.

It was unclear why investigators focused on Dr. Hatfill. Officials now say a major reason he came under suspicion was his work on the mobile unit.

Dr. Hatfill has been subjected to greater scrutiny than anyone else in the anthrax investigation, but the government has brought no charges. He has repeatedly denied any role in the attacks and has said he knows nothing about anthrax production.

Dr. Hatfill, people close to him say, is proud of his work on the mobile unit and says it demonstrates his desire to assist the government in biodefense, even though investigators tried to use his work against him. In any case, investigators found no evidence suggesting that the plant ever made anthrax, his friends, government experts and investigators all agree.

The secret trainer is similar to the mobile units that the Bush administration has accused Iraq of building to produce biological weapons. Neither its existence nor Dr. Hatfill's work on it has previously been disclosed publicly. Pat Clawson, Dr. Hatfill's spokesman and friend, said Dr. Hatfill would not comment on any secret project or any role that he might have played. Mr. Clawson also declined comment.

Dr. Hatfill helped develop the mobile plant while working for Science Applications International Corporation, a leading contractor for the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency, the officials and the experts said.

They said the unit was set up last fall at Fort Bragg, N.C., to help Delta Force, the Army's elite Special Operations unit, learn what to look for in Iraq and how to react if it found dangerous mobile gear.

Several people familiar with the Delta Force trailer, including senior counterterrorism officials, said it was intended solely for training. They emphasized that its components were not connected and that it could not have made lethal germs.

Even after the F.B.I. began investigating Dr. Hatfill, the Pentagon continued to draw on his expertise. But tensions arose between the Justice Department and the Defense Department over their access to the mobile unit, the weapons experts said.

The trainer's equipment includes a fermenter, a centrifuge and a mill for grinding clumps of anthrax into the best size for penetrating human lungs, these experts said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, suspecting that components from the Delta trainer might have been used to make the anthrax mailed in late 2001, examined the unit, officials and experts said. But investigators found no spores or other evidence linking it to the crime, they said.

The mobile unit is part of the government's secretive effort to develop germ defenses.

Critics say such biodefense projects often test the limits of the 1975 global ban on germ weapons, which the United States championed.

But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the anthrax letters only weeks later prompted the Bush administration to greatly expand the number of such clandestine projects.

Elisa D. Harris, a Clinton administration arms control official now at the University of Maryland, said developing a mobile germ trainer would not violate the treaty. But she questioned the wisdom of it.

"It will raise concerns in other capitals," Dr. Harris said, "in part because the United States has fought tooth and nail to prevent the international community from strengthening the germ treaty."

Senior Pentagon officials declined to discuss the mobile unit. An administration official said the Pentagon had reviewed the unit to ensure legal compliance with the germ treaty.

The American mobile unit was not a first. About 50 years ago, when the United States made germ weapons, scientists drew up plans for mobile units that could produce enough anthrax to kill almost everyone in a large city, said William C. Patrick III, a former head of product development at Fort Detrick, Md., then the military's center for developing germ weapons. The goal, Mr. Patrick said in an interview, was to create a reserve in case an enemy destroyed the nation's germ factories, in Arkansas and Maryland at the time.

Over the decades, other countries, including Iraq, have also sought such mobile gear.

After Iraq lost the 1991 Persian Gulf war and agreed to destroy its unconventional arms, Iraqi officials told United Nations inspectors that Baghdad had once considered making mobile germ plants. A United Nations official said that inspectors "kept that in the back of their minds" while looking for evidence of mobile germ plants. They found none.

In the fall of 1997, Dr. Hatfill, a medical doctor, entered the world of germ defense by taking a job at Fort Detrick, where he studied protections against deadly viruses like Ebola. In late 1998, he began working at Science Applications, a company based in San Diego that has offices in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. Among other things, it helps the government develop defenses against germ weapons.

At Science Applications in Virginia, because of an increase in anthrax hoaxes, Dr. Hatfill helped commission a paper from Mr. Patrick to assess the risks of spores sent through the mail. The February 1999 paper compared the probable physical characteristics of anthrax that could be produced by amateurs with the known traits of American weapon-grade anthrax; it said nothing about anthrax production.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other senior American officials have said that in late 1999 a defecting Iraqi chemical engineer told American officials he had supervised operations at a mobile germ unit, and that Baghdad was making a fleet of them.

By 2000, the United States appears to have concluded that the rumored Iraqi mobile plants were probably real.

At his job, Dr. Hatfill took on the mobile trainer project with enthusiasm, colleagues recalled. At times, one said, he asserted that he was its instigator.

Military officials said that the effort was financed by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, an arm of the Pentagon that works to counter biological, radiological and chemical weapons.

Experts said that Science Applications assigned the project to Dr. Hatfill and Dr. Joseph F. Soukup, a vice president for biomedical science, who helped commission the 1999 anthrax report.

Science Applications declined to discuss the project or Dr. Hatfill's involvement. "It's highly classified," Ron Zollars, a company spokesman, said. Dr. Soukup did not return phone calls.

To learn about mobile production, Dr. Hatfill again called on Mr. Patrick and his encyclopedic knowledge, said experts familiar with their work. Mr. Patrick, who also declined to comment, described the old American plans in detail, these experts said.

The collaboration, experts said, produced a novel design that demonstrated a number of ways to multiply viruses and bacteria, including the use of fermentation, chicken eggs and tissue culture. It was not meant to replicate Iraqi or American designs but instead to illustrate a range of mobile biological threats.

In 2000, Dr. Hatfill began gathering parts for the mobile unit, an expert said. Another quoted Dr. Hatfill as saying he had bought parts for the Delta trailer long before its construction and stored them in a warehouse.

"It's all the ordering of equipment that in hindsight looks suspicious," said a third expert, who is familiar with the secret federal projects that Dr. Hatfill worked on.

The trainer's construction began in September 2001, one expert said. Dr. Hatfill supervised it at A.F.W. Fabrication, a metalworking plant on the outskirts of Frederick, Md. The shop was a mile from Dr. Hatfill's apartment outside Fort Detrick's main gate.

Although Dr. Hatfill seemed fully engaged in biodefense work, his world began unraveling. That summer, the C.I.A. had rejected his application for a high-level intelligence clearance after he failed a polygraph test, associates and officials said. Then, in September 2001, the anthrax attacks began and Dr. Hatfill soon found himself under scrutiny.

Science Applications fired him in March 2002. The secret Delta trailer, a person close to Dr. Hatfill said, was then half built.

Mr. Zollars of Science Applications said Dr. Hatfill did no further work for the company and received no further pay. Experts familiar with Dr. Hatfill said he continued to work on the germ trainer. "He was doing it on his own, using his own money," one recalled.

Later, as the Delta trailer was being hauled to Fort Bragg, F.B.I. agents and experts pulled it over and thoroughly checked it for anthrax and other deadly germs.

"The F.B.I. wanted to confiscate it," one expert recalled.

After tense discussions, the Pentagon kept the Delta trailer, which was set up at Fort Bragg last fall in preparation for the war with Iraq. Experts said many troops used it in training sessions run at times by Dr. Hatfill and at other times by Mr. Patrick.

"This is a sensitive thing," Col. Bill Darley, spokesman for the United States Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., said of the mobile unit in an interview. He declined to disclose details, other than to say it was used exclusively for training.

"We are not growing anthrax or botulinum toxin," Colonel Darley said. "None of this equipment is functional. It looks like it is the real stuff, but it's nonfunctional."

Friends said Dr. Hatfill was deeply committed to following through on the project because it was for the Special Forces, in which he had tried to serve while in the Army at Fort Bragg. "I had given my word," one friend quoted him as saying. "I wasn't about to break it."