Bio-sleuth or crackpot?

Scientist Barbara Hatch Rosenberg has pressed to keep the investigation into last year's anthrax attacks alive. But bio-weapons researcher Steven Hatfill is not amused.

Published August 31, 2002 10:43PM (EDT)

The man the FBI has fingered as a subject in its ongoing investigation of the anthrax killings, bio-weapons researcher Steven Hatfill, unloaded on his critics last week during a press conference aimed at clearing his name. He accused John Ashcroft of violating the Ten Commandments, the New York Times of violating journalistic ethics, and a New York scientist of spearheading a vendetta against him.

The scientist Hatfill named was Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a biological arms control expert at the State University of New York at Purchase and chairwoman of the Federation of American Scientists' Chemical and Biological Arms Control Program. For months, Rosenberg has been quoted widely on all things anthrax. Her memos, which were first published on the FAS Web site back in January, have served as both laboratory and road map for theories about who is responsible for the anthrax attacks.

Rosenberg says her memos began as an effort to pressure the FBI, which she has repeatedly accused of dropping the ball in its investigation. "I began just putting together the data that was available, and discussing it on this e-mail list. Then people starting sending me information, so I sort of became a center for collecting information on the subject," she says.

While there is anything but consensus about Rosenberg's controversial theories, they clearly have informed much of the media speculation about the anthrax killer -- speculation that has thrust Hatfill's name into the headlines.

But Rosenberg tells Salon she was always very careful never to name Hatfill, despite requests from everyone from the FBI to the media to the U.S. Senate. "If there isn't a good reason for what they're doing, I think it's really disgusting that the FBI's done this," Rosenberg says, joining Hatfill's critique of the bureau. "No question, it was the FBI who outed him. They informed the media before they searched his apartment [in June] so that the media would be there in their helicopters, etc. The FBI clearly did this on purpose."

Rosenberg acknowledges the FBI decision may have come after her visit to the U.S. Senate increased the pressure on the bureau to show it was making progress in the case. Whether intentional or not, the FBI search allowed media outlets an excuse to print much of the speculation that had been circling around Hatfill for months. Much of that speculation was rooted in, or at least fed by, Rosenberg's memos, many of which never found their way to the FAS Web site.

For the last year, a listserv, run through the Stolkholm International Peace Research Institute, has been a place where bio-weapons experts and journalists lurk to share theories on, among other things, the anthrax killer. Some of the theories that have been voiced on the SIPRI listserv have found their way into media reports. Others have not. There has been, for instance, much information and speculation about Hatfill himself, and the FBI's investigation of Hatfill, that has not appeared in media accounts. Conspiracy theories about the U.S. government are popular, too -- that the anthrax attacks somehow were a CIA test to see how Americans respond to a biological weapons attack, or an effort to get more funding for bio-weapons research. Other discussions focus on Iraq as the possible source of the anthrax.

Rosenberg admits some of the information in her first anthrax memo has been disproved, and that her profile of the killer has changed over the last several months. "I think I've been able to refine some of my ideas. Some of them maybe were based on scanty information," she says. "All along, there's been speculation involved in all this. But I think that there's been more information that's become available over time, and I've been able to refine my ideas."

But she says she's been careful not to conduct a public lynching. Rosenberg says that when she feared her speculation about the anthrax killer might implicate a particular individual, she opted not to post the memos on the FAS site. Instead, they were sent to the listserv. In reference to a June memo, she says: "I put it on an e-mail discussion group, but I decided I did not want to put it on the [FAS] site because it got a little too specific, although it didn't mention any names."

In that June 13 memo, for example, Rosenberg describes a suspect who has "the right skills, experience with anthrax, up-to-date anthrax vaccination, forensic training and access to USAMRIID and its biological agents." The suspect's job, she said, was to devise bio-terror scenarios. He had had a recent job setback. And though Rosenberg indicated in the memo that the description might fit up to 10 different people, bio-defense experts, journalists and others who followed the case closely could have concluded that she was referring to Hatfill.

And even though she didn't post the memo, it has still been posted other places.

Since emerging as a major critic of the FBI's investigation of the anthrax case, Rosenberg herself has come under fire. She has been deemed a home-wrecker by Hatfill, and a left-wing loony by conservative publications like the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. The Standard, which has long made the case that the anthrax came from Iraq or al-Qaida, ridiculed her "sensational pronouncements" and "surprisingly unscientific, even Oliver Stone-scale, incaution about the 'facts' at her disposal." To support her theories, the Standard wrote, she jumped to unwarranted conclusions about the chemistry of anthrax production and about the U.S. government's sinister motives in botching the investigation.

Her colleagues say many of the criticisms against Rosenberg have been unfair, and insist she has an impeccable reputation in the scientific community. "She is a sound lady. They may not like her in Washington, but she doesn't believe in flying saucers or anything like that," says Martin Hugh-Jones, a professor at Louisiana State University and one of the nation's leading anthrax experts.

But while she may not be a kook, she does have a long history as an activist. And that, her supporters say, is why she's become a foil for Hatfill, and for conservative media outlets who have derided both Rosenberg and her theories.

Rosenberg says her interest in biological weapons grew out of her activism as an advocate for nuclear arms control in the 1970s and '80s. "At first, I was concerned about nuclear weapons. Then being a biologist, I learned about biological weapons," she says. In the 1990s, "I realized the U.S. hadn't passed implementing legislation for the Biological Weapons Convention, so I decided to work on that, and lobbied very hard for it."

But she lost. And when the Bush administration last year backed away from the treaty, Rosenberg penned an Op-Ed piece in the Baltimore Sun. "Rejection of the biological weapons treaty follows an administration pattern of arrogance in conducting foreign policy that seems almost designed to create antagonism," she wrote.

But Bush's decision was hailed by the conservative press. The Washington Times ran an editorial of its own with the headline "Bush Was Right to Reject Biological Weapons Protocol." The Wall Street Journal also expressed support for the move.

Some say this political history is part of what's motivating the current criticism of Rosenberg in conservative circles. University of Maryland professor Milton Leitenberg, who serves on the same FAS committee as Rosenberg, said his colleague is "a useful foil" for conservative attacks.

The Journal has been among the biggest Rosenberg critics. A recent column by Robert Bartley begins with a synopsis of the liberal history of the FAS, and claims Rosenberg is on a crusade against Hatfill.

"So the full agenda is to prove that Dr. Hatfill concocted his anthrax with the help of leading bioweapons scientists and in intelligence facilities," Bartley writes. "That is, that these secret facilities have been used to violate the Biological Weapons Convention."

Rosenberg has critics in the scientific community as well. Among them are David Franz, former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, and former U.N. biological weapons inspector to Iraq.

Former UNSCOM bio-weapons inspector Dick Spertzel also disagrees with Rosenberg's assertion that the anthrax came from a U.S. scientist who probably has CIA ties. Spertzel has maintained the anthrax originated in Iraq, and recently defended Hatfill, saying the biologist "is being crucified."

But Franz and Spertzel are implicated in Rosenberg's June memo about the motivation of the person she believes to be the anthrax killer. And in the theory, there are hints of Rosenberg's liberal political roots. "The suspect is part of a clique that includes high-level former USAMRIID scientists and high-level former FBI officials," Rosenberg writes. "Some of these people may wish to conceal any suspicions they may have about the identity of the perpetrator, in order to protect programs and sensitive information. This group very likely agreed with David Franz, former Commander of USAMRIID, when he said: 'I think a lot of good has come from it [the anthrax attacks]. From a biological or a medical standpoint, we've now five people who have died, but we've put about $6 billion in our budget into defending against bioterrorism'."

Rosenberg says she laments the public scrutiny Hatfill has come under if he is in fact not guilty. But, she says, her efforts to prod the FBI were born out of frustration that the bureau's lackluster investigation would pave the way for future bio-terror attacks.

"I do think that apprehending the perpetrator of the attacks as fast as possible is a way of deterring future bio-terror attacks," she says. "I think the failure to do so has now opened up the possibility for future attacks in a way that was very unlikely before."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Cia Fbi Iraq Middle East Terrorism