Scientists accuse Army lab of bias Researchers say they were fired from facility because of Arab roots

August 24, 1998|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Two former scientists at the nation's top military center for battling germ warfare have filed federal complaints alleging that commanders at the Frederick facility harassed and eventually fired them because of prejudice toward Arab-Americans.

Kulthoum A. Mereish and Ayaad W. Assaad, who studied lethal toxins considered the weapons of choice for biological terrorists, were fired last year during a "reduction in force" at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. But the civilian employees claim downsizing wasn't the Army's motivation.

"They were terminated because they are foreign-born scientists," said Rosemary A. McDermott, a lawyer in Thurmont representing both researchers. "These are dedicated people who performed outstanding work for our government, only to be tossed aside."

Mereish, 43, is a pharmacologist who had researched the deadly properties of such threats as yellow rain and anthrax in the hopes of finding vaccines. Assaad, 49, a veterinarian and expert on lung physiology, studied poisons believed to be stockpiled in the bio-weapons arsenals of hostile nations.

Both scientists have filed federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints, saying they were fired primarily because of their Arabic roots. Mereish is Jordanian and Assaad is Egyptian. Both are U.S. citizens.

Assaad described the facility, which employs roughly 100 researchers, as having a pervasively racist and suspicious attitude toward Arab-Americans. He said someone at the facility once left a racist poem on his desk, and said he sometimes was chided by supervisors about his Arab heritage.

A female supervisor, he said, once told him that she considered men in his culture to be denigrating toward women. Another time, he was told by a supervisor that "foreigners do not write as well as American scientists do," according to his EEOC complaint.

'Public needs to know'

"The public needs to know what is going on in there," Assaad said. "There are problems that must be dealt with."

Both scientists also claimed that age discrimination played a part in their firings. Mereish, who is also suing the Army in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, alleges the colonel then in charge of the Army medical institute systematically weeded out veteran researchers to make way for what he called "younger, brighter scientists."

The colonel, David R. Franz, who retired in June, at times referred to Mereish as 'Dr. Germ, the woman-scientist who was an Iraqi aide," the lawsuit claims. The comment suggested that Mereish's loyalties were questionable because of her Middle Eastern heritage, she said.

"In the lab, I worked with some of the most dangerous toxic agents in the world," Mereish said. "I worked with toxins that could kill if a few particles blew on me. I did this because I am loyal to this government. To be treated in the way I was, and to be told I am not needed, is wrong."

Neither Franz nor a spokeswoman for the Army medical research institute, based at Fort Detrick, would comment to a reporter on the allegations. But in testimony given to a Department of Defense investigator looking into the complaints last October, Franz said his decision to fire the scientists was strictly professional.

"Race and national origin were not a factor," Franz told the investigator, according to a military transcript. "That's not the way I operate. I want the best people, the right people for the jobs, and it doesn't matter, you know, if they're pink."

Race 'not a factor'

Franz said the firings weren't personal -- and added that he regretted having to let qualified scientists go. He said he had lost about 25 percent of his personnel to Department of Defense downsizing since 1991, putting him in "a very constrained environment" with a budget he described as "going south."

"I have a very important mission and that is to develop medical counter-measures to protect our citizenry against biological warfare agents," Franz said. "I don't take that mission lightly. But the pie is only so big so every command is cut for the most part."

He added, "War fighters would rather preserve tooth and cut tail, and medics are often considered tail, so medics take a good part of that hit. Even after the reductions in force, I didn't have enough money to pay my $12 million salary budget and turn on the lights."

Franz, 52, had spent 23 of his 27 years of active duty with medical research divisions. This month, he was named to head the chemical and biological defense division at the Southern Research Institute in Frederick, an independent research corporation.

Assaad and Mereish are seeking reinstatement and back pay. They also are requesting that guidelines be put into place at the Army research institute that would prevent discriminatory practices.

Mereish claimed that when she was notified that she was being fired after seven years as an Army scientist, Franz humiliated her in front of others by saying that she "used to say when she was young that Saddam Hussein was a handsome guy."

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