Hijacker's lesion deepens mystery

U.S. official cautions against linking anthrax and Sept. 11 attacks

March 24, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

A top federal bioterrorism official said yesterday that he found "awfully suspicious" the fact that a Sept. 11 hijacker sought treatment for a lesion resembling cutaneous anthrax.

Dr. Donald A. Henderson, commenting on a report in The New York Times yesterday, cautioned that there isn't necessarily a connection between the hijackers and the anthrax-laced letters that killed five people last fall.

He said there's no way of proving that hijacker Ahmed Alhaznawi was suffering from anthrax in June when he visited an emergency room in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., because no culture was taken.

But Henderson, director of the office of public health preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services, noted other evidence that the hijackers might have been preparing for a biological or chemical attack. Another hijacker, Mohamed Atta, explored the availability of crop-dusting aircraft and visited a Florida pharmacy seeking help for his red, irritated hands, conceivably caused by use of disinfectants.

Still, most or all of the anthrax-laced letters were mailed from New Jersey on Sept. 18 and Oct. 9, after the hijackers were dead. And there are other reasons to believe the attacker was an American, he said.

"The letters and their targets don't fit very well with politically unsophisticated foreigners," said Henderson. "Are these just weird coincidences? They could be."

The revelation that Alhaznawi was seen for an anthrax-like lesion only deepens the mystery around the anthrax attacks, which remain unsolved after nearly six months of investigation by hundreds of FBI agents and U.S. postal inspectors. The Times reported Alhaznawi's treatment yesterday, as well as the fact that U.S. officials had discovered an uncompleted laboratory in Afghanistan believed to be an al-Qaida biological agent production facility.

The lab, near Kandahar, was abandoned while under construction. But the Times reported that U.S. military officials concluded that the building had been designed to produce anthrax.

There is extensive evidence that the al-Qaida terrorist network has sought biological weapons. Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, reiterated that yesterday.

At the lab near Kandahar, "there was evidence of the attempt, by [Osama] bin Laden, to get his hands on weapons of mass destruction, anthrax, or a variety of others," Franks said in an NBC interview taped yesterday for broadcast today on Meet the Press. The network provided an excerpt to the Associated Press.

But neither at the newly discovered laboratory nor anywhere else has proof been found that the group obtained such weapons.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told Congress this month that despite reports the bureau has focused on U.S. military labs in its anthrax investigation, "we have not excluded any possibility at this point," and agents have also been "looking overseas."

Still, in a statement issued in response to the report of Alhaznawi's treatment in Florida, the FBI seemed skeptical about a connection between the hijackers and the anthrax attacks.

"This was fully investigated and widely vetted among multiple agencies several months ago," the statement said. "Exhaustive testing did not support that anthrax was present anywhere the hijackers had been. While we always welcome new information, nothing new has in fact developed."

In recent weeks, FBI agents have repeatedly visited the Army's biodefense center at Fort Detrick in Frederick, one of more than 20 laboratories in the United States and several foreign countries that have the Ames strain of anthrax used in the mail attacks. The agents have given polygraph exams to employees with access to anthrax and have studied records of the bacteria, said workers at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

The institute is preparing a room to receive samples of Ames anthrax subpoenaed last month from labs around the country. But the room is not yet fully equipped to receive the samples, so the labs have been given extensions to comply with the subpoenas, institute spokeswoman Caree Vander Linden said last week.

Henderson, who said the FBI does not share investigative information with him, said he was puzzled that the bureau has taken so long to collect the samples, which are to be compared scientifically with the mailed anthrax.

"You'd think they would have done that in the first couple of weeks," Henderson said. "It's given anyone a chance to get rid of any evidence that may have existed."

An FBI spokesman declined to comment yesterday on the pace of the investigation, referring a reporter to previous statements discussing the need to collect evidence carefully so that it could stand up in court.

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