Is a U.S. bioweapons scientist behind last fall's anthrax attacks?

A growing number of scientific experts have come to this conclusion. But the FBI seems strangely reluctant to zero in on the most likely suspects.

Published February 8, 2002 11:09PM (EST)

When Arthur O. Anderson, chief of clinical pathology at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), saw the anthrax sent to Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., last October, he was amazed.

"There was nothing there except spores," he told Salon. "Normally, if you take a crude preparation of anthrax spores, you see parts of degenerated bacteria. But this stuff was highly refined."

Another former Army lab scientist characterized the sample as "very, very good."

"Only a very small group of people could have made this," said David Franz, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq and biodefense scientist at USAMRIID, who now works for the Southern Research Institute, a defense contractor. "If you look at the sample from the standpoint of biology, it tells me this person [who made the anthrax] was very good at what they do. And this wasn't the first batch they've made. They've done this for years. The concentration was a trillion spores [on anthrax] per gram. That's incredibly concentrated."

Anderson and Franz aren't drawing conclusions about where the anthrax came from -- perhaps in part because the subject is deeply sensitive at the U.S. Army's own biodefense lab, which could find itself at the center of the investigation. But conversations with dozens of scientists and experienced biodefense hands reveal a growing belief that last fall's anthrax letter culprit is most likely an experienced bioweapons scientist. And while Franz and others note that there are Iraqi and Russian scientists with the skills to pull off the complex anthrax-mail attack, many experts now believe the culprit worked at a U.S. bioweapons facility.

Only a few dozen individuals in the U.S. possess the expertise to produce the sophisticated anthrax specimen sent to Daschle, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and at least three media outlets last fall. There may be as many as 200 Russian scientists capable of such work, and perhaps 10 Iraqis. But certain clues have convinced many -- though not all -- bioweapons experts who've followed the FBI investigation closely that the anthrax in the letters most likely came from a U.S. lab. That's chiefly because Ames strain anthrax, the type used in the letters, has been distributed by USAMRIID to about 20 U.S labs since 1981. Of those, only four facilities are believed to have the ability to produce the highly lethal, dry powder form of the Ames strain anthrax the lethal letters contained.

But despite signs that this should narrow the list of anthrax suspects to a few dozen people, the FBI appears to be casting a wider net in its investigation, which seems to have made fairly limited progress since the first victim, American Media Inc. photo editor Bob Stevens, died of anthrax inhalation four months ago.

Just two weeks ago, for instance, the FBI blanketed New Jersey, where at least four of the anthrax letters were mailed from, with fliers asking anyone who might have any knowledge of the culprit to contact the Bureau. This week, a University of Illinois law professor said that his university was one of dozens that recently received FBI subpoenas demanding that they turn over all documents relating to anthrax. And last week, the American Society for Microbiology in Washington announced that, at the request of the FBI, it had e-mailed its 40,000 members asking for possible clues.

A spokesman for the group said that while they happily complied, they found the FBI request a bit perplexing. "As we understand, it's not just microbiology needed to create [the anthrax that was in the letters]," said the microbiology society's spokesman, who asked not to be named. "You need the microbiology skills to grow it, but to process it, you need a totally different set of skills," such as advanced chemical engineering training, he said.

The wide net cast by the FBI also baffles many scientists and other weapons nonproliferation experts familiar with the anthrax investigation, who think federal authorities could make more progress identifying the anthrax attacker by focusing on a much narrower group.

"If you want to see the intersection of the two talents -- the microbiologic ability to obtain and safely grow lots of anthrax, and the industrial ability to turn it into a dry powder -- then that would suggest to me that the person did indeed have some experience with the biological warfare program," says C.J. Peters, who, as a doctor specializing in hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola, worked at USAMRIID from 1977 to 1990, and later at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He now heads a new center for biodefense at the University of Texas at Galveston.

"Frankly, I find it puzzling," says Elisa D. Harris, who served as director of nonproliferation issues at the National Security Council from 1993 until 2001, and is currently a resident scholar at the University of Maryland. "Given what's been reported about the nature and quality of the anthrax material in the Daschle and Leahy letters, that the material itself almost certainly originated in the U.S. biological weapons program, they ought to be able to narrow the investigation to a fairly limited number of facilities. That number is certainly less than 20. So I find it puzzling that the FBI has approached all 40,000 members of the American Society of Microbiologists. I don't understand why they seem to be casting the net so widely."

The FBI says it is pursuing all avenues.

"We are continuing to investigate the source of the anthrax, and who might be responsible for sending it," an FBI spokesman told Salon. "That investigation is very thorough and very exhaustive and we have not ruled anything out. We have pursued thousands of leads."

Perhaps responding to a growing chorus of criticism, on Thursday unnamed FBI sources were quoted telling the Wall Street Journal that they are in fact zeroing in on U.S. weapons labs in their anthrax investigation. But the article also revealed a startling fact: The FBI has not yet subpoenaed employee records of the labs where Ames strain anthrax is worked with.

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a biological arms control expert at the State University of New York at Purchase and chair of a bioweapons working group at the independent Federation of American Scientists, believes the FBI has intentionally dragged its heels on the weapons-lab angle, most likely for political reasons.

"For more than three months now the FBI has known that the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks is American," Rosenberg wrote to Salon on Tuesday. "This conclusion must have been based on the perpetrator's evident connection to the U.S. biodefense program."

Rosenberg has become convinced that the FBI knows who sent out the anthrax letters, but isn't arresting him, because he has been involved in secret biological weapons research that the U.S. does not want revealed.

"This guy knows too much, and knows things the U.S. isn't very anxious to publicize," Rosenberg said in an interview. "Therefore, they don't want to get too close."

Other experts aren't ready to make that leap. Some suggest that the FBI may just be moving slowly and carefully to gather incriminating evidence that can stand up in court. Some blame simple incompetence.

"Barbara says the FBI's been told to look for things, and they haven't," says Milton Leitenberg, a biological arms control expert at the University of Maryland. "I don't know. I think they [the FBI] are doing a half-assed job of it myself. But maybe other people would have done as bad a job, who knows."

But Jonathan A. King, a professor of microbiology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he, too, is suspicious of the government's handling of the investigation.

"The first place one would have looked for the anthrax perpetrator is at the U.S. facilities where people have grants from the government to do biological defense research," King said in an interview. "But for months, there was no statement from any federal authorities naming these laboratories as under suspicion. It's extraordinary."

Although Rosenberg goes further than most experts in criticizing the FBI's anthrax investigation, her analysis of the case has become must reading for scientists and congressional staffers concerned about biodefense issues. (An FBI spokesman contacted by phone Thursday says the agency, too, is reading her work, but won't comment on it.) A microbiologist by training, Rosenberg worked as a cancer researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and as a professor of biochemistry at Cornell Medical College. A decade ago, she founded the Federation of American Scientists' biological and chemical weapons program, which she now heads.

In her analysis of the details known about the anthrax attacks to date, she has built a persuasive and disturbing case that the anthrax culprit is a deep insider to the U.S. government's biological weapons program.

Her conclusion is based on a collection of facts that point to a smaller and smaller number of individuals who could have met all the criteria for producing, handling and sending out the anthrax letters. The perpetrator seemed to have advanced expertise and experience in biological weapons like anthrax, for instance, and access to the technology to produce and refine it. He or she (but most think it's a he) probably would have had to have access to the anthrax vaccine, which is not widely available, in order not to succumb to the disease himself -- which means records of anthrax vaccinations, which require a yearly booster shot, would be available to further help identify the person.

In addition, the perpetrator used a highly sophisticated, lethal powder form of the Ames strain of anthrax. Although the strain itself came into the possession of USAMRIID in 1981, and was distributed from there for research purposes to about 20 labs, only about four facilities in the U.S. are believed to have the capability for "weaponizing" dry anthrax -- which basically means refining or cultivating a pure sample whose spores are so tiny and uniform they can easily be inhaled into the lungs.

Even the FBI seems to acknowledge the anthrax suspect has technical expertise in biology. In the letter sent to the 40,000 members of the American Society for Microbiology, Van Harp, assistant director of the FBI's Washington field office, told recipients: "It is very likely that one or more of you know this individual. A review of the information to date in this matter leads investigators to believe that a single person is most likely responsible for these mailings. This person is experienced working in a laboratory. Based on his or her selection of the Ames strain of Bacillus anthracis, one would expect that this individual has or had legitimate access to select biological agents at some time.

"This person has the technical knowledge and/or expertise to produce a highly refined and deadly product," the letter continued. "This person has exhibited a clear, rational thought process and appears to be very organized in the production and mailing of these letters. The perpetrator might be described as 'stand-offish' and likely prefers to work in isolation as opposed to a group/team setting. It is possible this person used off-hours in a laboratory or may have even established an improvised or concealed facility comprised of sufficient equipment to produce the anthrax."

Rosenberg says the perpetrator has dangled plenty of clues in front of investigators. One of those clues, she says, is a letter sent to the military police at the Quantico, Va., Marine base (and forwarded to the FBI) in late September -- well before the public was aware that anthrax was being sent in the mail -- that tried to frame a former U.S. biowarfare researcher as a bioterrorist. That anonymous letter stated that the writer had worked with the man, Dr. Ayaad Assaad, and had details about him that only an insider would know (although some details in the letter turned out to be incorrect.) The FBI has cleared Assaad of any possible connection to the case, but Assaad himself has criticized the agency for not zeroing in on his accuser as a likely culprit, since that person seemed to have foreknowledge about the anthrax attacks.

"The perpetrator has left multiple, blatant clues, seemingly on purpose," Rosenberg writes. "Second letters, addressed similarly to the anthrax letters and containing [talc] powder ... The postal addresses and dates of these letters map out an itinerary of the perpetrator(s) ... which single out the perpetrator from the other likely suspects."

Rosenberg also says three senior U.S. biodefense officials have given the same name of a likely suspect to the FBI. She would not reveal that person's name, but said he is a former USAMRIID scientist, who she understands is working for a defense or CIA contractor in the Washington metropolitan area. Rosenberg says that the FBI has questioned the individual, along with many other former biodefense scientists.

Interestingly, William C. Patrick III, the founder of the U.S. military's biological weapons program, and the man who taught the folks at the Army's Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah how to make dry anthrax (using a harmless anthrax substitute, though), is no longer willing to talk to the press. Contacted by Salon Thursday, Patrick said that he has been misquoted in the media, and doesn't wish to comment on the investigation anymore. Rosenberg believes that the anthrax perpetrator may know Patrick, because the attack resembles a classified study that Patrick wrote for a CIA contractor a couple of years ago, which tried to predict how an anthrax attack through the mail would work.

Based on all the evidence, Rosenberg sums up her conclusions this way: The perpetrator, she believes, is "angry at some biodefense agency or component, and he is driven to demonstrate, in a spectacular way, his capabilities and the government's inability to respond. He is cocksure that he can get away with it. Does he know something that he believes to be sufficiently damaging to the United States to make him untouchable by the FBI?"

But C.J. Peters, the former USAMRIID and CDC doctor, says the FBI's dragnet to date is just standard operating procedure, and he doubts that it's been a ploy to hide secret weapons research.

"The FBI throws the net as wide as they possibly can," Peters said. "They put hundreds of people on this case and turn the crank and look for little clues and putting A and B together. I could imagine that maybe, just maybe, there might be someone in the Defense Department who says, I don't want this to be traced back to Dugway [the Army proving grounds in Utah]. I could imagine a person thinking that. But I couldn't imagine that the FBI would care if it were traced back to Dugway. The FBI guy's thinking, 'Hey, man, I got them. I am going to be famous now. We are going to be heroes, we found it.' I don't believe it's a grand government-wide conspiracy."

That said, Peters does have concerns about the FBI's ability to use the scientific information the physical anthrax provides.

"I'm not sure the FBI understands how to use the biological information," Peters added. "They think they are going to solve this the way they solve all other crimes. But it also seems possible to me they may be overlooking some helpful hints from the biology of the anthrax itself. I wonder if they are making full use of everything that's known about the biology."

And while few other scientists admit to sharing Rosenberg's dark conclusions about why the FBI has been slow to solve the anthrax case, some believe that casting the net widely served multiple political purposes for the Bush administration.

"From the moment one saw that it was highly concentrated Ames strain anthrax, the first lead candidate should have been a U.S. laboratory with a military contract," says MIT's Jonathan King. "Instead, we heard no such public admission. Immediately they were talking about Iraq and al-Qaida, when the largest such facilities are in the U.S. That leads me to think two things: the U.S. government is covering up the fact that the most likely source of the anthrax was not al-Qaida, was not foreign terrorists, but was a home-grown individual. And secondly, it was turned into part of the anti-terrorist propaganda."

Indeed, while in the early days of the anthrax letter scare, U.S. political leaders said they were actively looking to see if there was a connection between the anthrax and Iraq and al-Qaida, those views are now in the minority. On Dec. 17, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that it is "increasingly looking like it was a domestic source." On Jan. 13, Homeland Defense Director Thomas Ridge told media, "the primary direction of the investigation is turned inward." Two weeks ago, at a New Jersey press conference, an FBI official said the investigation was focusing on a U.S. government scientist.

It would be easier to dismiss Rosenberg's fears of a high-level U.S. coverup as cloak-and-dagger paranoia if it weren't for the fact that U.S. bioweapons programs are so secretive and mysterious. There is growing evidence that the programs, which are governed by international law and are supposed to be under congressional oversight, are more widespread and ambitious than officials have admitted.

Many experts are still angry that the U.S. walked out of the Biological Weapons Convention conference this past July in Geneva, after the Bush administration rejected language that would have subjected signatory nations, including the U.S., to inspections to make sure they're not engaging in any prohibited offensive bioweapons development.

"They [U.S. government officials] don't want the treaty to be tighter, and they don't want people coming here and investigating our facilities and stockpiles," says Meryl Nass, an MIT-trained physician who has long advocated for stricter arms control. "So it turns out that the U.S. did have this dry weaponized anthrax after all, and that was a big secret. But no one has really discussed the implications of this. They completely avoided the issue. But the rest of the biodefense establishment around the world knew exactly what it meant. They knew the U.S. had basically transgressed the weapons convention."

And even if the FBI isn't intentionally trying to protect bioweapons secrets from being revealed, some experts worry that the proliferation of bioweapons programs -- some of them still secret -- could be hampering the FBI's anthrax investigation.

"I think a number of us were surprised by some of the revelations" of secret bioweapons programs, says Elisa D. Harris, the former Clinton administration NSC official. Harris thinks it's possible the FBI itself is not aware of all of the biodefense work being contracted out by the U.S. government, because it is such a highly secretive and compartmentalized program.

Harris says she was shocked to read in the New York Times last September about biodefense research programs that she herself had not known about, although she had served for eight years in the White House as the point person for weapons of mass destruction nonproliferation issues.

On Sept. 4, 2001 -- just a week before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Times reported that from 1997-2000, the CIA conducted a program called Clear Vision, to build a model of a Soviet germ bomblet. The program was carried out at the West Jefferson, Ohio, labs of Battelle Memorial Institute, a defense and CIA contractor. In addition, the Times story reported, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon's intelligence arm, hired Battelle last year to create a type of genetically enhanced version of anthrax, a "superbug," to see if the anthrax vaccine currently in use by the Pentagon was effective against it. A second Pentagon program, called Bacchus, involved building a germ factory in the Nevada desert from scratch, but reportedly did not use real germs, but simulants that mimic their dispersal.

"I was only aware of one of those three programs," Harris says. "I was never told by the Defense Department about the other two. I was also not aware that since the early 1990s, the U.S. Army has apparently been producing small quantities of dry, very potent Ames strain anthrax."

An FBI spokesman said he knew of no effort by other government agencies to hamper the bureau's investigation. But whatever is stalling the investigation -- the forensic complexity of the case, bureaucratic resistance to FBI scrutiny, or a darker scenario of the sort Rosenberg describes -- Harris and others say it's now clear the U.S. biodefense program lacks proper oversight. And some experts even think it could take a congressional investigation to get to the bottom of what has stalled the anthrax investigation -- especially to answer questions about why the FBI didn't beat a quicker path to U.S. bioweapons labs.

"If it turns out that the anthrax that killed 5 people and injured a dozen and resulted in tens of thousands of people having to take antibiotics, if that anthrax came from the U.S. biodefense program, that just underscores the importance of the Congress looking into this program and getting a really comprehensive picture about what has been taking place.

"There has been no real serious oversight of the U.S. biological defense program for a very long time," Harris added. "And I think this is a good moment, given the impact of the anthrax attacks, for Congress to take responsibility."

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

By Laura Rozen

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

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