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Last Updated

19 Jan 2003

Source: Washington Post, January 21, 2002.

Army Lost Track of Anthrax Bacteria

Specimens at Md.'s Fort Detrick May Have Been Misplaced or Stolen

By Rick Weiss and Joby Warrick, Washington Post Staff Writers

The Army's premier biowarfare research facility at Fort Detrick, Md., lost track of more than two dozen potentially dangerous biological specimens around 1991, including some containing the microbe that causes anthrax, according to scientists who worked there at the time and documents from a 1992 internal Army investigation that looked into the loss.

Moreover, Army investigators were told in 1992 that a Fort Detrick biological warfare research laboratory apparently had been the site of unauthorized anthrax research during weekends and evenings earlier that year, according to the documents, filed as part of a pending lawsuit.

And in contrast to recent assurances by Army officials that Detrick has not dealt with the dangerous, powdered form of anthrax spores in recent decades, such powders were, in fact, inadvertently produced in the lab during the 1990s, according to a scientist who worked there at the time and who has since filed a lawsuit, alleging discrimination, against the Army. The powders were produced while research on less dangerous, "wet" anthrax spores was being conducted, the scientist said.

The spore-laden letters that were sent to members of Congress and media outlets last fall contained a form of dry anthrax spores similar to the Fort Detrick byproduct. Five people were killed and 13 others are known to have been sickened in the attacks.

The unauthorized weekend work, which is not known to have involved the dry form of the bacteria, was accidentally uncovered when a worker noticed that someone had tampered with a device that would have revealed that the equipment had been used after hours, according to the Army investigation.

The apparent improprieties occurred at a difficult time in the Army lab's history -- when there were hard feelings over personnel issues and even a degree of internecine warfare among some workers -- a fact that makes it difficult today to weigh conflicting explanations for the inventory disparities and the apparent tampering with equipment.

It is possible that specimens may simply have been misplaced, according to one source who worked in the Fort Detrick lab and who spoke to The Washington Post yesterday on condition of anonymity.

On the other hand, that source and others said, the emerging details are consistent with the increasingly popular hypothesis that last fall's bioterrorist attacks were the work of a current or former Fort Detrick scientist.

At a minimum, according to several sources who worked there at the time, the personal rivalries and less than fully vigilant security practices offered adequate incentive and opportunity for an employee to make off with at least a few potentially deadly microbial samples.

Officials with the Army and the FBI declined to comment on the revelations yesterday.

Congress did not impose today's strict security measures for research on dangerous microbes until 1996. And at the time of the apparent breaches, several high-ranking people associated with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), which oversaw the work at Fort Detrick, were facing allegations of racial discrimination.

Details of the situation at Fort Detrick in the early 1990s, many of them first published yesterday by the Hartford Courant, are contained in papers filed as part of a 1998 discrimination lawsuit against the Army by an Egyptian American scientist, Ayaad Assaad, a veterinary physiologist who worked at Fort Detrick for nearly a decade before being let go in 1997, during a round of staff cuts.

The United States is a signatory to a 1972 international convention that prohibits research on offensive biological weapons, and the Fort Detrick lab has been officially devoted to defensive research since 1969. The 1992 Army investigation grew out of an internal audit conducted in February of that year that found 27 specimens missing from the lab -- including some containing the bacteria that cause anthrax. It is unclear whether any of the missing specimens belong to the Ames strain, the strain used in last fall's attacks. But Fort Detrick officials have acknowledged that the Ames strain was under study at the lab. The whereabouts of at least some of the 27 specimens remain a mystery.

It also remains unclear whether those specimens -- mostly tissues from animals that had been intentionally infected with the agents that cause anthrax, ebola and other diseases -- contained any viable microbes. The process of preparing them for study under a microscope typically requires subjecting them to toxic chemicals.

But even if those specimens pose no danger, their disappearance suggests that other, dangerous samples may have been subject to removal without authorization, former Fort Detrick workers said.

A woman who worked in the laboratory told Army investigators in February 1992 that she had seen evidence of unauthorized activities in the lab. An odometer-like device that records the use of a high-powered microscope had apparently been tampered with in a way that had concealed its use during evenings or weekends, according to court papers.

One Monday in early 1992, the worker found that the machine had apparently been used over the weekend and that the previous user had failed to close a computer file used to label microscope slides. The label name she saw on the computer screen was "Antrax [sic] 005," according to court papers.

Two former USAMRIID employees contacted by The Post yesterday described becoming aware of the missing bacteria either personally or through court records. Eric Oldenburg, a former Fort Detrick lab technician who now works as a detective in Phoenix, recalled being detailed to help track down the specimens.

"Some anthrax was missing, and there may have been other" types of microbes, Oldenburg said.

Assaad learned of the search through USAMRIID documents turned over to him as part of his lawsuit, which alleges that the Army discriminated against him because of his Arab heritage.

Assaad, who now works for the Environmental Protection Agency, described security at Fort Detrick in the early 1990s as "very lax," compromised by weak policies and what he described as improper relationships between some managers and their subordinates. He said it would have been relatively easy for someone working at USAMRIID's labs to walk out with deadly pathogens.

Assaad also asserted that a dry, powdered form of anthrax was present at Fort Detrick, contradicting repeated recent statements by Army officials that only a liquid form of anthrax was used at the Frederick, Md., facility. Assaad said that during the process of creating a wet aerosol of anthrax for lab experiments, small amounts of anthrax spores would precipitate and cling to the sides of lab equipment. "It dried to a powder as fine as any you could make," Assaad said. "You could collect some of it using a Kleenex or your finger."

The anthrax spores in the letters sent to Sens. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) were in the form of a fine powder -- particularly dangerous because the powdered form spreads more easily and penetrates the lung's deepest passages. Fort Detrick workers were not at risk of infection because they were vaccinated.

Assaad was interviewed by FBI agents on Oct. 3, shortly before news of the first anthrax attacks broke, after an anonymous note accused him of being a bioterrorist. The FBI concluded the letter was a hoax, but the timing of the incident makes Assaad suspect that the writer had foreknowledge of the anthrax-laced letters sent to New York and Washington and the letter believed to have been sent to Florida.

"After the attacks, I called the FBI to offer my assistance, but I never heard back from them," Assaad said.