ARMY'S ANTHRAX MATERIAL SURPRISES SOME EXPERTS 



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Last Updated

14 Jun 2003

Source: Washington Post, December 14, 2001.

Army's Anthrax Material Surprises Some Experts

By Rick Weiss, Washington Post Staff Writer

Several scientists and biological warfare experts said yesterday they were surprised by the revelation that a U.S. Army installation in Utah has been producing dried preparations of the Ames strain of the anthrax bacterium, the same strain found in letters to Sens. Thomas A. Daschle and Patrick J. Leahy.

Most said they believe the research was justified for defensive purposes. But several expressed dismay that the Army had never mentioned the work publicly before Wednesday even as it spearheaded the biological and chemical analysis of the Senate letters for the FBI -- a potential conflict of interest that some feared could harm the credibility of the investigation.

The Army has refused to say anything about the extent to which the spore preparations in the Senate letters are similar to or different from the ones produced at its Dugway Proving Ground, about 80 miles from Salt Lake City. "We think we don't have anyone who has looked at both the anthrax we worked on in our lab and the sample from the Daschle letter," Army spokesman Chuck Dasey said.

It remained unclear yesterday how much the FBI knew about the Army program. One knowledgeable source suggested that the agency was caught unawares by the revelation. But other senior law enforcement officials said the FBI has known about the Dugway program since shortly after the Daschle letter was discovered, and has already conducted comparisons of the Army material and the letter's spores.

Officials said they have been granted full access to the information they need from Dugway, which runs classified biowarfare research programs. But they declined to reveal the results of their investigation into the Dugway anthrax material.

It remains unclear whether Dugway scientists have the technical capacity to make anthrax spores as dangerous as those found in the letters to Daschle (D-S.D.) and Leahy (D-Vt.). The particles in those letters were extremely small and the formulation very pure, with far more spores per gram than the U.S. offensive bioweapons program had achieved at its pinnacle in the late 1960s. Small size and high purity are crucial if infectious quantities are to become airborne and inhaled to cause the most deadly form of anthrax.

William Patrick, who led the Army's offensive biological weapons program at Fort Detrick until the program ended in 1969, said yesterday that it was he who taught Dugway scientists how to dry deadly bacteria into a fine powdery form in 1998. Until then, Dugway had no means of converting wet batches of the anthrax bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, into the dry powder needed to test new defensive technologies, he said, such as systems that can detect the invisible spores in the air.

Patrick said he taught the method using a harmless species of bacterium related to B. anthracis called B. globigii, after making "a few grams" of the material. Patrick said he believes the technique he gave to Dugway "is probably what they're now applying to the 'hot stuff.' " But he said he thinks that his technique is not capable of making a product of the quality found in the Daschle and Leahy letters. "It was plenty good, but not as good as that," he said. Then again, he said, "maybe they've gone on to something better."

Army officials would not comment yesterday. Dugway, on 800,000 acres in the Utah desert, has a long history of secret research and has been a favorite target of conspiracy theorists, including those who believe that the U.S. government has been hiding information about visits from aliens. In the 1960s, Dugway was embroiled in a controversy when thousands of sheep and other animals died downwind of the facility, showing symptoms of having been exposed to nerve gas. The Army denied any culpability but later compensated owners.

Several biowarfare experts said the government's credibility is at stake as the Army decides how much to reveal about its anthrax program.

"The U.S. government should have been not only more forthcoming about this episode but perhaps more detailed in its annual declarations" to the United Nations about its defensive biological weapons program, said Alan Zelicoff, of the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, who stressed that he does not believe that Dugway has been lax in its security or oversight.

Elisa D. Harris, who until recently was the National Security Council official responsible for U.S. policy on biological weapons and is now a research fellow at the University of Maryland, echoed that sentiment. She was one of several experts who suggested that congressional hearings might be in order.

Yet Harris's secret hope is that the Army will prove to have been the source of the material used in this fall's postal attacks.

"If it turns out that this material did in fact originate in the U.S. program, it's actually a terrific outcome because it means the primary actors we need to be focusing on are national programs and nation-states," she said. "In terms of the bioterror threat, the worst outcome would be that there is a biological Unabomber out there who was able to get vaccinated and get the material and the equipment to process it and then mail it out. That would be a really scary scenario."

Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.