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Last Updated

14 Jun 2003

Source: Washington Post, December 13, 2001.

Army Working on Weapons-Grade Anthrax

Utah Facility Quietly Developed Formulation; Spores Sent Back and Forth to Md.

By Rick Weiss and Joby Warrick, Washington Post Staff Writers

An Army biological and chemical warfare facility in Utah has been quietly developing a virulent, weapons-grade formulation of anthrax spores since at least 1992, and samples of the bacteria were shipped back and forth between that facility and Fort Detrick, Md., on several occasions in the past several years, according to government officials and shipping records.

The Utah spores, grown and processed at the 800,000-acre Dugway Proving Ground about 80 miles from Salt Lake City, belong to the Ames strain -- the same strain used in the deadly letters sent to media outlets and two senators in September and October. No other nation is known to have made weapons-grade Ames. And although it is legal to make small quantities of such agents under the provisions of an international treaty the United States has signed, experts said yesterday they were surprised by the revelation that a U.S. lab was producing such lethal material.

"It comes as a bit of a shock," said Jonathan Tucker, a former member of the U.N. team that inspected Iraq's bioweapons stocks after the Persian Gulf War and now director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies' Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program in Washington.

Army officials said yesterday that all the material they have made has been accounted for and that they are cooperating with the FBI in its investigation. The FBI would not comment on the Dugway program yesterday, but agency officials have hypothesized that the attacks were the work of a domestic terrorist -- perhaps someone with some knowledge of microbiology.

Sources said that hypothesis is now sure to get renewed attention.

"This is a very important lead," said one person involved in the government's investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Dugway has in the past acknowledged growing small quantities of virulent anthrax spores in a form that does not pose a significant risk of deadly inhalation. It has also processed related but nonvirulent bacteria into dry powdery forms that mimic weapons-grade anthrax in experiments. Dugway's production of a powdered form of Ames anthrax was first described in yesterday's Baltimore Sun. Dugway officials said in a statement yesterday that it became necessary to process virulent bacteria into a dangerous powder form to conduct certain defensive experiments.

Under the terms of the international biological weapons convention, small amounts of weapons-grade biological weapons can be produced in "types and quantities consistent with prophylactic, peaceful and protective purposes." No specific allowable quantities are spelled out. Among other things, the Army research seeks to find new ways to detect anthrax spores after a clandestine attack, to develop new ways of decontaminating spore-laden environments, and to test the efficacy of face masks and other protective equipment.

The Dugway statement said its spores are always shipped in a wet paste form, to minimize the danger of a spill or other dangerous accident. Spores must generally be processed into a fine dry powder for them to become airborne and enter the lungs, where they can trigger the most serious "inhalational" form of the disease.

No details were available yesterday about how Dugway scientists converted that paste into powder for their experiments. Various nations have achieved that goal by different means, and investigators hope to get clues about who has been sending the contaminated letters by studying the powders' physical and chemical characteristics, which can reveal details about how they were made.

Army and other officials have said the anthrax spores in the letter to Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) were highly concentrated and were produced in a powder made of particles smaller than three microns in diameter -- well into the size range that would make them extremely dangerous if released into the air. They were mixed with silica, an additive.

Army officials in Washington said yesterday that Fort Detrick does not have the equipment for making dried anthrax spores. But Fort Detrick does have a machine that can kill bacteria with irradiation -- equipment Dugway lacks. Thus, in some instances, when Dugway scientists wanted to work on dried spores without risk of infection, they shipped samples to Detrick to be sterilized.

The most recent shipment of the deadly spores to Fort Detrick left Dugway Proving Ground June 27. The spores were to be irradiated at the Maryland lab to render them harmless, according to shipping records and interviews with officials.

Those spores apparently sat at Fort Detrick for more than two months before being shipped back to Dugway on Sept. 4, less than a month before this fall's spate of bioterrorist attacks began with a Florida photo editor's fatal case of anthrax.

Army officials yesterday could not provide details about how they kept track of the spores in each facility, except to say they were in full compliance with the federal "special agents" law. That law spells out how certain dangerous germs -- including the anthrax bacterium, Bacillus anthracis -- are to be handled when being shipped from lab to lab.

Shipping records obtained by The Washington Post indicate that the June shipment from Dugway to Detrick involved two small vials, one containing 180 milliliters and the other 160 ml. The return shipment contained five vials, each with 150 ml, for a total of 750 ml. An Army spokesman yesterday could not explain the discrepancy.

A previous shipment of Ames went from Dugway to Detrick in August 2000. Two weeks later, six times the original volume of material was shipped back to Dugway.

New revelations about the technical sophistication of the material used in the letters to Daschle and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) have only deepened the debate over who could be behind the attacks. Some prominent anthrax experts believe the signs point to an American scientist with connections to the U.S. biological weapons program or one of its contractors.

"The anthrax in the letters was probably made and weaponized in a U.S. government or contractor lab," Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a microbiologist and director of the Federation of American Scientists' Working Group on Biological Weapons, concluded in an analysis released by the federation on Monday. "It might have been made recently by the perpetrator on his own, or made as part of the U.S. biodefense program; or it may be a remnant of the U.S. biological weapons program before [President Richard M. Nixon] terminated the program in 1969."

Richard Spertzel, a former Army colonel who directed the U.N. biological weapons inspection team in Iraq, scoffed last week at the idea of a "bio-bomber," a disgruntled or deranged scientist crafting a lethal anthrax weapon alone in a basement lab.

"The quality of the product contained in the letter to Senator Daschle was better than that found in the Soviet, U.S. or Iraqi program, certainly in terms of the purity and concentration of spore particles," Spertzel said in testimony Dec. 5 to the House Committee on International Relations, apparently referring to the U.S. offensive program that ended in 1969.