Fort Detrick’s anthrax mystery

Who tried to frame Dr. Ayaad Assaad, a former biowarfare researcher at the Army lab? Was it the same person responsible for last fall's anthrax mail terrorism?


Fort Detrick's anthrax mystery

On Oct. 2, Ayaad Assaad, a U.S. government scientist and former biowarfare researcher, received a call from an FBI agent asking him to come in for a talk. It was well before anthrax panic gripped the nation — in fact, it was the same day that photo editor Robert Stevens, 63, was admitted to a Florida hospital. It wasn’t until the next day that Stevens was diagnosed with inhalation anthrax, and another two days later, on Oct. 5, when he would become the first of five eventual fatalities caused by the apparent bioterrorist attack.

The day after hearing from the FBI, Assaad met with special agents J. Gregory Lelyegian and Mark Buie in the FBI’s Washington field office, along with Assaad’s attorney, Rosemary McDermott. They showed Assaad a detailed, unsigned, computer-typed letter with a startling accusation: that the 53-year-old Assaad, an Environmental Protection Agency scientist who filed an age discrimination suit against the U.S. Army for dismissing him from a biowarfare lab, might be a bioterrorist.

“Dr. Assaad is a potential biological terrorist,” the letter stated, according to Assaad and McDermott. The letter was received by the FBI in Quantico, Va., but Assaad did not learn from the FBI where it had been mailed from. “I have worked with Dr. Assaad,” the letter continued, “and I heard him say that he has a vendetta against the U.S. government and that if anything happens to him, he told his sons to carry on.”

According to Assaad, “The letter-writer clearly knew my entire background, my training in both chemical and biological agents, my security clearance, what floor where I work now, that I have two sons, what train I take to work, and where I live.

“The letter warned the FBI to stop me,” he said.

After their meeting, Assad was thanked by the FBI agents, who have not contacted him since. The bureau says it cleared Assaad of the anonymous allegations against him.

“We received an anonymous letter with certain allegations about Dr. Assaad,” Chris Murray, an FBI spokesman, told Salon Thursday. “Our investigation has determined those allegations are unfounded. Our investigation is complete. Period.” But Assaad believes there is a possible link between the person who sent the unsigned letter to the FBI and the terrorist who sent anthrax to Democratic politicians and prominent members of the media. Whoever it was seemed to display eerie foreknowledge of the biological attacks, since the letter was sent to the FBI well before any anthrax terror attacks were known to the public.

And there is also the fact that Assaad used to work at the U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), in Fort Detrick, Md., a biowarfare lab many critics believe might have been the source of the stolen anthrax. According to internal Army documents in Assaad’s own possession (and first reported about in the Hartford Courant), 27 specimens, including anthrax, Ebola and the hantavirus were lost in the early 1990s from the lab. The documents paint a chaotic picture of a poorly managed lab.

Assaad had his own unhappy experience at the lab: Before he was dismissed, he had run-ins with colleagues, once filing a racial discrimination complaint against some of them. And he believes that if the letter-writer was someone who at one point worked at the lab, it would explain why he knew so much about Assaad and would think that Assaad would make an easy target to frame.

“I’m the perfect scapegoat,” Dr. Assaad explained. “I’m Arab-American. I’m a scientist who knows about biological and chemical agents. I’m suing the U.S. Army,” he said. “Whoever did this clearly wants revenge.”

There is no proof that former colleagues of Assaad at the Fort Detrick facility were behind the attempt to frame him or the anthrax mailings. But there is no doubt that security at the lab was notoriously sloppy. And government investigators hunting for the anthrax mail terrorist are reportedly looking at the lab as a possible source of the toxin.

Assaad worked for eight years, from 1989-97, at the Army-run lab, where civilian and military scientists with top security clearances handle the most lethal biological agents known. Assaad’s tenure at the lab was not a particularly happy one. He was ultimately dismissed from the lab in 1997, along with six other older scientists, when the lab announced it needed to downsize because of budget restrictions. But Assaad disputes that reason in his age discrimination suit, which is still pending. He shared with Salon copies of Army internal documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Assaad’s attorney, that are from the Army’s own investigation into allegations of racial discrimination brought by Assaad.

But he is not alone in his concerns about his former colleagues. Another scientist who worked at the lab at the time — and who admits to having been part of a group in the lab that called itself the “Camel Club,” organized as a kind of drinking club that on the side ridiculed the Egyptian-born Assaad — said he also believes that the anthrax in the recent terror scare came from Fort Detrick’s USAMRIID.

“As soon as it came out” about the anthrax letters, “the first thing that came to my mind was Fort Detrick,” said the scientist, who requested anonymity and is now employed in academia. “I don’t know how many labs are utilizing anthrax from Detrick. Detrick represents a repository of many organisms, and they would send it out to various other labs. A lot of people who were working on anthrax in this country got their anthrax from Fort Detrick.”

The scientist also claimed that he understood DNA analysis being performed by a private lab in Rockville, Md., had already determined that the source of the anthrax in the letter sent to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy was from Detrick. However, the private lab has told journalists that it will be another two weeks to a month before they publicly reveal their results.

According to interviews with Assaad and this scientist, along with additional Army investigative transcripts obtained by Salon, the Army’s biowarfare research lab in the early 1990s was an organizational disaster area. A big problem at the lab, which apparently contributed to specimens going missing, was that after the Gulf War, USAMRIID decided to phase out work some scientists had been doing on projects that the Army lab no longer considered crucial to their core mission of researching vaccines against bioweapons. Many scientists who had been engaged in other projects, such as Lt. Col. Phil Zack, who had been researching the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), were eager to continue working on projects USAMRIID said they should stop. What followed, the documents reveal, were scientists sneaking into the Army biowarfare lab to work on pet projects after-hours and on weekends, former workers like Zack, who left in 1991, still being let in to do lab work, pressure applied to technicians to help out, documents going missing, and deliberate mislabeling of specimens among other efforts to hide unsanctioned lab work.

Lt. Col. Michael Langford, an Army scientist who became head of the USAMRIID experimental pathology division in February 1992, was interviewed by a USAMRIID investigator in the spring of 1992. The transcripts of that and other interviews reveal shocking lapses of security and resistance to oversight by USAMRIID lab scientists, including some of the same ones who engaged in harassment of Assaad.

“At the time I took over the Experimental Pathology branch on the 3rd of February [1992] it was obvious to me that there was little or no organization of that group and little or no accountability of many things,” Langford told the Army investigator, Col. Thomas J. Taylor.

Langford describes walking in to work one morning and seeing a group of lab scientists and technicians huddled behind closed doors in the room that houses an electron microscope. What Langford concluded was that certain scientists were covertly working on projects at night and on weekends that had been ordered halted by their division chief. He further concluded that employees were desperately trying to find old specimens of biological agents, including anthrax, they could “re-label” to cover up specimens that had gone missing in the chaos of prohibited, after-hours lab work.

“I walked in and the lights were on, the scope was off, and they were intensely looking for these blocks [of anthrax],” Langford described. “What was indicated to me was that perhaps these specimens were bootleg so to speak, they were going to cover them with old specimens, and when the old specimens disappeared, they were going to take these old anthrax blocks and substitute them. Well, when those were unavailable then these new blocks [of anthrax] mysteriously disappeared. So of course the probability is high that there was a problem there.”

Langford also described to the investigator strong resistance from his underlings and other scientists to his efforts to manage the group. Among those Langford considered management problems were Marian Rippy, a researcher in the experimental pathology division. (Zack and Rippy had also been reprimanded by the Army for harassing Assaad.) Langford said he considered a number of those on his staff to be “extremely difficult to deal with, would volunteer almost nothing, nearly almost always had to be given a written request to get a response, were very defiant, were very obstructive, and I also heard rumors that … Marian [Rippy] had made comments to the people in that lab basically to undermine me, you know, when I was coming in there,” according to Langford.

“We were not to continue any work; in fact I was aware that [Pathology division commander Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax] had secured the SIV materials and people because again it appeared from many sources that Phil Zack was asking people to work basically covertly and continue his SIV work against obvious clear mandates and directives of the division chief,” Langford told the investigator. (In an interesting side note, Jaax, whom Langford refers to, is the protagonist of the Richard Preston book “The Hot Zone,” about an Ebola outbreak in lab monkeys in Reston, Va., in 1989. The real-life events were also the basis of the movie “Outbreak,” starring Dustin Hoffman.)

It was during this period, from 1990 to early 1992, when scientists apparently pursued projects covertly at the lab, that the Army facility appears to have lost track of 27 specimens, including anthrax, Ebola and hantavirus. USAMRIID told media this week that any specimens that went missing were rendered harmless by various preservation and radiation processes — a contention Assaad says is not true. He says the specimens leave behind a residue that could be reactivated.

Assaad’s personal experience at that lab makes him particularly skeptical. He complains of behavior from colleagues that, while certainly not necessarily that of potential terrorists, does seem like symptoms of a poorly managed lab that was out of control.

In particular, Assaad, who is Egyptian-American, was the target of the group of USAMRIID scientists and lab technicians who called themselves the Camel Club. Among his antagonists were colleagues in Fort Detrick lab’s experimental pathology division, Zack and Rippy.

Using a stuffed camel as a kind of mascot, the Camel Club composed a poem, “The Rhyme of the Ancient Camellier,” with the apparent purpose of humiliating Assaad. It begins:

“Ayaad Assaad was the start,
with a reputation for not having heart
A ‘skimmer’ without equal
We hope there’s no sequel
In his honor we created this beast
It represents life lower than yeast
Whoever is voted this sucker,
you can’t duck her, You must accept blame,
And bear all the shame Unlike Assaad,
that first motherfucker”

The poem continues for five typewritten rhyming pages, ending with:

Well it’s time for the camel to pass.
So let’s all reach and raise up a glass.
Let’s give’m the credit,
the one who will get it,
the poor bastard we’re gonna harass.

Assaad theorizes that the Camel Club and the racial discrimination he experienced were at least partly an outgrowth of a dispute he had with Zack and Rippy over the authorship of a scientific paper for which he says he had done the research. Rippy and Zack, Assaad says, had done only minor work, but wanted to put their names on the research paper, and he says he felt they didn’t deserve it. Assaad says the dispute escalated, with Rippy and Zack threatening to be disruptive and humiliate him at a scientific conference where he delivered his paper’s findings. Then, he says, their harassment took an ethnic cast, because of his Arabic heritage.

Assaad said he filed a formal complaint with the Army after his supervisor ignored him. The commander of the U.S. Army lab investigated the complaint and found in Assaad’s favor, and singled out Zack and Rippy for criticism for being at the center of the Camel Club. (The Army investigation documents further revealed that the two, both married, were also having an affair.)

“Based upon your complaint, I directed that an informal investigation be conducted,” USAMRIID’s then-commander, Col. Ronald Williams, wrote Assaad in a memo in August 1992. “The investigation revealed that Lieutenant Colonel Zack and Dr. Rippy had participated in discriminatory behavior.

“On behalf of the United States of America, the Army, and this Institute, I wish to genuinely and humbly apologize for this behavior,” Williams’ memo continued.

Before the investigation ended, both Zack and Rippy were reprimanded. Then Zack left USAMRIID in December 1991, first heading to the Army’s Walter Reed Institute, then going to the private pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, and then to a company in Colorado acquired by St. Louis’ Nexstar Financial Management. Several calls by Salon to his last known phone number and address in Boulder, Colo., went unreturned, and Nexstar says it no longer has any record of Zack. Rippy, who left USAMRIID shortly after Zack, in February 1992, worked for a while at Eli Lilly, but could not be located by Salon.

Assaad is puzzled that after clearing him of the accusation that he could be a bioterrorist, the FBI showed no interest in talking with him about his days at Fort Detrick. “The whole world wants to talk to me, except the FBI,” he said, as his lawyer’s phones rang nonstop this week, with media organizations seeking interviews with him. “Something’s wrong here.”

But while the FBI may not be interested in talking with Assaad further, federal authorities increasingly seem to believe that the anthrax letters were sent by a U.S. government scientist — and not by the Iraqis or al-Qaida, as some hawks have continued to insist over the past few months, while hundreds of Islamic and Arab-born immigrants have been questioned and detained by the FBI and INS.

“I can tell you there are scientists out there who do have military connections that we are focusing on, at least that connection,” Kevin Donovan, FBI special agent in charge of the Newark bureau, said at a press conference Wednesday.

For his part, Assaad says, “I want people to know the truth,” and wants to show the American people that Arab-Americans are not the enemy. Should the FBI trace the anthrax attacks back to his former lab, Assaad may have gone a long way toward his goal.

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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