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Last Updated

19 Jan 2003

Source: Baltimore Sun, May 21, 2002.

FBI to polygraph workers in Md., Utah on anthrax

Up to 200 employees at Fort Detrick, Dugway could face lie detectors

By Scott Shane, Sun Staff

The FBI will soon begin giving polygraph exams to scores of employees at the Army's bio- defense center at Fort Detrick in Frederick and at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah to see if a government insider mailed the anthrax that killed five people last fall, an FBI official confirmed last night.

In the course of the eight-month investigation, lie- detector tests have been given to a small number of scientists who had access to anthrax, including about 10 people at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick.

But the new polygraph initiative, first reported last night by ABC News, would go much further. It might cover up to 200 current and former employees of the two Army research facilities, the FBI official said.

Fort Detrick sources say that about 80 current employees have had access in recent years to the Ames strain of anthrax used in the attacks.

The number of people with access to anthrax at Dugway Proving Ground is probably considerably smaller. But scientists at Dugway, unlike Fort Detrick, have manufactured for research purposes small quantities of fine-grained, weapons-quality anthrax resembling the powder in the envelopes sent to news organizations and two U.S. senators last fall.

Experts inside and outside the government said last night that the planned polygraph campaign might indicate that investigators are out of leads and casting a wide net in hopes of tripping up the perpetrator.

"It looks to me like desperation," said a scientist at Fort Detrick. "The trail has kind of gone cold."

Several Fort Detrick employees said the FBI, whose agents spent months interviewing workers and reviewing records, has not been active on the military base lately.

But some nongovernment scientists said the FBI polygraphs may be designed to probe new leads that could narrow the field of possible suspects.

A third possibility is that investigators have a suspect or suspects at Fort Detrick or Dugway but are planning to polygraph a large number of people to keep from tipping their hand. They may fear that the perpetrator could flee or attack again.

"Maybe they really have one or two specific people and they're covering it with a large number of polygraphs," said Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist at the State University of New York who has followed the investigation closely.

Rosenberg believes the anthrax attacker probably worked at Fort Detrick and welcomes the polygraph program. "It's about time," she said.

But Fort Detrick employees - many of whom have put in long hours to do technical work backing the FBI investigation - already feel targeted by the bureau and the press, and more polygraphs won't help, one worker said.

"I think there's going to be resentment," he said. "People feel we're getting beaten up already."

News of the new polygraphs comes as Fort Detrick officials are reviewing a Defense Department proposal to drastically increase security measures around the dangerous pathogens they study.

By one estimate, simply to build the new fences and other physical security measures proposed would cost $10 million to $15 million. Other proposed changes would sharply limit the number of foreign nationals allowed to work with biological agents, possibly including visiting scientists from friendly countries such as Great Britain.

Genetic research published in Science magazine showed that the anthrax used in the attacks is derived from a sample from a dead cow in Texas that was sent to scientists at Fort Detrick in 1981. But that strain, labeled "Ames," was widely shared with other laboratories - at least 25 in the United States and other countries.

Genetic testing could narrow the number of possible sources for the anthrax but is unlikely to prove it came from a particular lab, scientists say.

It could not be learned last night whether the new polygraph initiative will be expanded beyond Fort Detrick and Dugway to other government and university labs that have had anthrax.

John E. Collingwood, an assistant FBI director, recently wrote in a letter to The New York Times that despite allegations of "bureaucratic bungling," the investigation "represents a case study in cooperation between the scientific community and government agencies."

He denied that the FBI is convinced that the perpetrator is an American, saying: "In fact, we have not precluded any category of suspect, motive or theory."