A RARE LOOK AT A TOP-SECRET FACILITY



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Last Updated

15 Jul 2003

Source: Hartford Courant (CT), July 15, 2003

A Rare Look At A Top-Secret Facility

By JANICE D'ARCY, Courant Staff Writer

FORT DETRICK, Md. -- Two U.S. congressmen and a busload of staff members traveled 50 miles northwest of Washington Monday to this dusty compound.

The congressmen and their entourage passed through two military checkpoints, then set off on a rare tour of the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, known as USAMRIID - a grim facility that is at once mysterious, suspicious and vital to national security.

The tour was part of a congressional investigation into the institute's operations. The facility houses the country's biological defense programs, as well as the laboratory where some believe the anthrax used in 2001 to kill five people originated. There are concerns about the facility's security.

"We just want to find out what's going on there," said U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4th District, who as head of the subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations is leading the congressional investigation and organized the trip. U.S. Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, accompanied the group.

The group approached a nondescript beige building protected by high privacy fences and concrete barriers. Inside, they found a facility equipped to deal with horrifying biological nightmares.

The group entered laboratories through inches-thick metal doors fitted with airtight seals in case the lethal agents within were to escape. Inside were unlocked freezers that have stored anthrax bacteria, SARS and Ebola viruses and other deadly biological organisms.

Overhead are orange lights designed to warn of lethal contamination.

Across the hall, ghoulish-looking decontamination suits hang in easy reach, their thick blue and orange coats forming the human shapes that last occupied them.

Nearby chemical showers are not in use, but their doors are open and spigots ready. The congressional visitors stepped in and looked around.

Next door, in a room nicknamed "the slammer," three plastic-encased beds are ready to quarantine any contaminated workers.

A few doors away, another lab is nicknamed "the morgue." That's expected to be used for corpses "as a contingency plan," a USAMRIID escort said.

There have been recent renovations and, most important to the tour group Monday, recent security upgrades.

There is now a video camera system monitoring most areas in the building. A few staff members now act as internal inspectors, visiting labs and sensitive areas unannounced to check for possible security breaches by researchers.

Still, safety and security concerns persist.

Shays at one point noted that the traditional concrete walls, with all their nicks and grooves, would be much more difficult to clean if contaminated than would a modern smooth wall.

Although individual labs are locked, staff members conceded that there are no locks on freezers containing potentially lethal agents. Tour guides said they have in the past tried to lock the freezers, but scientists wearing protective suits couldn't handle keys and other security devices while wearing their thick plastic gloves.

Monday's tour was hardly the first time officials here have been questioned about security. Soon after the anthrax attacks, investigators began looking closely at USAMRIID.

The facility, part of the larger Fort Detrick, used to be the focal point for the country's offensive biological weapons program before President Nixon shut it down in 1972. Ever since, it has employed a rare breed of specialized scientists adept at handling biological agents.

It was also one of the few facilities in the country to have the same strain of anthrax that turned up in the mail in Florida, New York, Washington, New Jersey and Wallingford, Conn.

Also, recent allegations of lax security, including some reported in The Courant, led to increased speculation and triggered Shays' investigation.

Last month, FBI agents drained a pond 6 miles from here to search for evidence in the anthrax case. Agents have questioned former USAMRIID scientist Steven Hatfill and have repeatedly searched his home. He has denied being responsible for anthrax-related terrorism.

"Initially you couldn't help that you were under suspicion, and that hurt," said Jim Swearengen, USAMRIID deputy commander.

"But most of us have come to realize that it's part of the process of a good investigation," he said.

Others were more defensive. Former USAMRIID Cmdr. David Franz said much "misinformation" about the labs emerged after the anthrax attacks.

Franz conceded the anthrax could have originated from the facility, but added that it may have originated elsewhere. And even if it were stolen from USAMRIID, he said, he doubted it was produced within the facility. "There's too much security for that," he said.

He dipped his finger into an imaginary bit of anthrax powder and held up his fingertip. "That's all it would take to walk out of here and then come back with a truckload," he said.

Franz joined the tour and, later, a panel of experts to discuss biological weapons proliferation issues. He speculated that the unsolved anthrax mailer case is now likely dependent on witnesses or informants.