FBI scrutinizes biodefense labs in anthrax probe

Staff at Fort Detrick, records at Dugway draw new interest

25 sites have had spores

February 22, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

In recent weeks, FBI agents investigating the anthrax attacks that killed five people last fall have questioned a dozen biodefense scientists at Fort Detrick about former colleagues who have come under suspicion, according to employees of the Army's research institute in Frederick.

At the same time, agents were poring over entry records to the high-security laboratory at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, the only U.S. facility known to produce the kind of dry, fine-particle anthrax powder like that used in the mail attacks.

But even as investigators pursued possible links between military research and the anthrax-laced letters, they were learning of more laboratories that have had the Ames strain of anthrax used in the attacks. At last count, 25 such labs were identified, including facilities in at least five foreign countries - and investigators think there are more, said sources familiar with the work.

Five months after a terrorist turned the daily mail into a deadly biological weapon, one of the most extensive murder investigations in U.S history seems to be moving in two directions at once. While agents are aggressively following up on tips about suspicious people, the FBI is also casting a national net for clues and even pursuing leads overseas.

Just days before the FBI interviews at Fort Detrick, which set off fevered speculation among scientists who study the world's most dangerous germs, officials had doubled the reward in the anthrax case to $2.5 million. Investigators had distributed thousands of fliers near Trenton, N.J., where the anthrax letters were mailed. They had requested help from the American Society for Microbiology, telling its 40,000 members in an e-mail, "It is very likely that one or more of you know this individual."

And the FBI is adding to its list of labs and researchers that have handled anthrax. On Jan. 30, a grand jury subpoena went to a lab at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, demanding records of all anthrax at the lab and people with access to it for the past 10 years - or 20 years for dry, powdered anthrax, said Nancy D. Connell, director of the university's Center for Biodefense, where anthrax work is planned but none has taken place.

The FBI will say little about the investigation it has dubbed "Amerithrax." "The FBI is vigorously investigating the mailing of anthrax letters and hoax letters," bureau spokeswoman Tracey Silberling said yesterday. She added only that the FBI has not identified a leading suspect.

Still, a picture can be pieced together from people familiar with the bureau's actions, most of whom will speak only on condition of anonymity.

Biodefense experts at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick have been consulted regularly by the FBI about the anthrax spore powder that sickened at least 13 people in addition to killing two Maryland postal workers, a tabloid photo editor in Florida, a hospital worker in New York City and an elderly woman in Connecticut.

But late last month, when a team of agents from the FBI's Washington, Baltimore and New York field offices arrived at Fort Detrick, the agents clearly had a different mission. They asked "pointed questions" about a few people they appeared to consider potential suspects, said several employees.

Among others, the agents asked about a former Fort Detrick scientist who returned a few years ago and took discarded biological safety cabinets, used for work with dangerous pathogens. Like some other military lab workers, the scientist has expertise on weaponizing anthrax and has been vaccinated against it, sources say.

Reached by The Sun at his job with a government contractor, the scientist volunteered that he had been questioned by the FBI. He said he considered the questioning to be part of a routine effort to eliminate people with the knowledge to mount such an attack.

"I think they had a profile," the scientist said. "They had a bunch of people on the list. They have to rule people out. ... I certainly didn't appreciate getting called in. No one likes that. I'm one of the good guys."

The scientist acknowledged that several years ago, with Army permission, he took three biosafety cabinets that were being discarded at Fort Detrick, but he said they were for use in a classified Defense Department project that he could not discuss.

The FBI's attention to possible perpetrators with ties to U.S. biodefense laboratories has set off water-cooler gossip at Detrick and Dugway. Scientists discuss present and former colleagues they consider secretive, eccentric or vengeful. Some recall statements or actions that have come to seem suspicious only in retrospect.

The FBI's focus reflects a paradox at the heart of the case: Most of the Americans with the technical knowledge to create a bioweapon that by all accounts was prepared with diabolical skill are those whose job is to defend the country against such weapons.

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