Anthrax Theory Emerges
Scientists: FBI Questions Suggest Insider Grew Spores At Lab, Refined Them Elsewhere
By DAVE ALTIMARI And JACK DOLAN Courant Staff Writers
June 13, 2002
The FBI is investigating whether the anthrax spores used in last fall's attacks could have been grown secretly inside an Army lab and then taken elsewhere to be weaponized, according to three sources familiar with the ongoing probe.
A former government microbiologist, who was interviewed in recent days by the FBI, said agents focused their questioning on the logistics of how someone with access to the U.S. Army's biodefense labs at Fort Detrick, Md., might carry out the scheme. The microbiologist, who once worked at Fort Detrick, said the agents did not indicate if they had evidence that such an incident had occurred.
"They asked me, if I wanted to grow something I wasn't supposed to, would there be somebody asking me about it and could I have taken it out of the lab," said the scientist, who did not want to be identified. "I told them no one checked, and it was far easier to get something out of Fort Detrick than into it."
A second bioterrorism scientist who also has been questioned by the FBI said the agents' "operating theory" appeared to be that the Fort Detrick labs were the source of the anthrax, and that spores were somehow removed covertly. This scientist also did not want to be identified.
The scientists' accounts are among several developments that suggest the FBI is seriously exploring the possibility that a knowledgeable Fort Detrick insider could have clandestinely produced and removed anthrax spores to a private location, where they could be refined into the lethal powder sent through the mail last fall.
That premise also is at the center of a new assessment of the investigation by a prominent bioweapons expert, who says five biodefense experts have given the FBI the name of a former Fort Detrick scientist who had access to "a remote location" that could have been used to refine anthrax spores into a weaponized form.
In her assessment - scheduled to be posted today on the Federation of American Scientists' web site - Barbara Hatch Rosenberg all but names the scientist, and provides details about his background. The Courant obtained an advance copy of the six-page paper written by Rosenberg, who is chairwoman of the federation's working group on biological weapons.
She says, in her assessment, that the unnamed scientist suffered a career setback last summer that "left him angry and depressed" and that the FBI, with his consent, searched his home and computer. Rosenberg claimed that although the FBI had the scientist's name for months, the bureau dragged its feet before searching his home, and therefore could have lost valuable evidence.
The unnamed scientist has declined interview requests, but in a voice-mail message left for a Courant reporter last month he denied that he was a suspect: "I happen to have a letter from our attorneys, who went up to see the FBI, who say I never was a suspect and am not a suspect now. I actually have no idea where you got this presumption."
His attorney has declined to comment on any aspect of the case, including his client's claim about contacts with the FBI. He did not return repeated calls Wednesday.
The accounts of scientists who have been drawn into the sweeping anthrax inquiry do not provide a complete picture of its scope. But they shed light on a line of inquiry by the FBI that has slowly emerged in recent months - the possibility that the anthrax, and its user, have ties to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick.
Questions about lax security at Fort Detrick were first raised earlier this year in a series of stories in The Courant. The stories, based on interviews with more than a dozen current and former Fort Detrick scientists, described how relatively easy it would have been to smuggle biological agents out of the labs, and how inventories were rarely kept up to date, making it difficult to determine whether dangerous substances were missing.
The notion that anthrax could disappear from Fort Detrick was underscored by a 1992 inquiry that found pathology specimens of anthrax spores, Ebola virus and other pathogens had, in fact, become missing. Army officials insisted that the samples did not pose a risk, and that most were later accounted for, although at least one set of anthrax spores still had not been tracked down as of February.
The same 1992 inquiry also found evidence that someone was secretly entering a lab late at night to conduct unauthorized research, apparently involving anthrax. A numerical counter on a piece of lab equipment had been rolled back to hide work done by the mystery researcher, who left the misspelled label "antrax" in the machine's electronic memory, according to the documents obtained earlier this year by The Courant.
More recently, early results of genetic testing confirmed suspicions that the anthrax used in last fall's attacks was from a strain that originated at Fort Detrick, and was genetically indistinguishable from the anthrax used in the Army's biodefense program. That revelation was followed by the news, a few weeks ago, that the FBI intended to interview and conduct polygraph tests on more than 200 former and current employees of Fort Detrick and the army's Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, where anthrax tests have been conducted.
An FBI source said there are only about 25 people from Dugway on the list of those to be interviewed and tested, meaning the vast majority of scientists to be scrutinized are from Fort Detrick.
Rosenberg has been increasingly critical of the FBI's handling of the investigation, asserting in her assessment to be released today that the FBI has blundered by taking "a profoundly unscientific approach."
"There has been a tendency to write off a direction of inquiry, or to swing radically in the opposite direction, on the basis of superficial results or incomplete data," she wrote. "The likely outcome for the investigation is continued stalemate, marking time on the off chance that an unknown informer will turn up with a smoking gun."
An FBI spokesman in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday night that the bureau would not have a response to Rosenberg.
"At this point, we are continuing the investigation to identify a suspect or suspects," said the spokesman, Steven Berry.
Elsewhere in Washington, Rosenberg's opinions appear to be getting the attention of senators who plan to include the FBI's handling of the anthrax investigation as part of the ongoing congressional hearings into the government's actions before and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Next week, staffers for Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Tom Daschle, D-S.D., plan to discuss with Rosenberg details of her continuing assessment of the anthrax investigation, including some she believes are too sensitive to publish on the federation's website, said David Carle, a Leahy spokesman.
In a public congressional hearing last month, Leahy asked FBI Director Robert Mueller polite, general questions about his agency's progress in the anthrax investigation. More recently, Leahy privately submitted a long list of much more pointed questions on the topic, requesting reams documents to back up the bureau's answers.
Rosenberg has said there are similarities between the FBI's actions in the anthrax probe and its missteps prior to Sept. 11, including a lack of communication among agents and slow reaction to possible leads. Copyright 2002, Hartford Courant