Was anthrax mailer a bioweapons researcher?

This has military lab stamped all over it’

Bioterrorism
Watch

Given the difficulty of creating high-quality anthrax in a civilian research lab, the original source of the Bacillus anthracis that killed five people last year was likely a U.S. bioweapons facility, the president of the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) tells Bioterrorism Watch. "Given the high quality of the preparation that was used, this has military laboratory stamped all over it," says Abigail Salyers, PhD, ASM president and a professor of microbiology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. The U.S. bioweapons program was formally disbanded as part of a global treaty in the early 1970s, but many military labs remained open for "biodefense" research to counter bioterrorism, she says. "These anthrax spore preparations last for decades," Salyers says.

Anthrax mailer is criminal, but not stupid’

The atmosphere of a university research lab is too open and freewheeling for someone to produce anthrax undetected, she says. Salyers’ personal theory is that someone who worked in a military bioweapons laboratory stole the anthrax, possibly years ago. "It’s anybody’s guess as to what is going on here, but I would be astounded if this came out of a university laboratory," she says. "[This person] is crazy, criminal, but not stupid. I can’t imagine that anybody who was going to do that would take the trouble and risk of trying to do that in a university laboratory environment."

In a related matter — despite a published report to the contrary — the Federal Bureau of Investigation denies it has narrowed its anthrax investigation to a former scientist in a U.S. bioweapons lab. A FBI spokeswoman at the agency’s national office in Washington, DC, told Bioterrorism Watch that the agency has not identified "a prime suspect" in the hundreds of interviews it has conducted in the investigation.

A story that was published in the Feb. 25, 2002, Washington Times reported that the FBI’s search was focusing on a former U.S. scientist who worked at a government bioweapons laboratory. The government’s chief suspect, the article reported, is believed to have worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, MD, which has maintained stores of weapons-grade anthrax. No charges had been filed as this issue of Bioterrorism Watch went to press.

Do you know this person?

Salyers described her theory on the case — before the newspaper report was published — when the FBI openly solicited help from the ASM in the investigation. In a message appealing for help from ASM members, Van Harp, assistant director of the FBI’s Washington, DC, field office, said "a single person" is most likely responsible for the mailings. "It is very likely that one or more of you know this individual," he told ASM members.

A $2.5 million dollar award is offered to anyone providing information that leads to an arrest of the bioterrorist. The FBI profile describes a socially withdrawn person who has "a clear, rational thought process" and is very organized. "The perpetrator might be described as standoffish’ and likely prefers to work in isolation as opposed to a group/team setting," Harp told the ASM. It is possible the mailer used off-hours in a laboratory or may have even established an improvised, concealed facility to produce the anthrax, the FBI profile noted.

"The person is experienced working in a laboratory," Harp told the ASM. "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."

Indeed, the Ames strain used in the attacks has been used in bioweapons research both in the United States and worldwide, Salyers says. In addition, given the elaborate research protocol required, it is unlikely a university laboratorian creating anthrax would go undetected no matter how "standoffish" he or she was. "I’m just telling you what you have to go through if you were crazy enough to be a bioterrorist," Salyers says. "If a deranged scientist tried to do this in a university laboratory, red flags would be going up all along the way."

Recipe for disaster

The first step — cultivating the bacteria and producing spores — is something that almost any microbiologist could do, she says. "But you get this slush, and that is not going to hurt anybody," she says. "There are people who will tell you that you can do this the hard way with a mortar and pestle and grind it up in the laboratory. But it is clear that the powder that was in the letters was a much higher quality than that."

The anthrax "slush" must be ground into a fine powder to be capable of getting past human respiratory defenses. "The machinery for doing this is mostly in military research laboratories," Salyers says. In addition, sophisticated treatment of the spores must be done to defeat their general property of clumping and sticking together. "You would want to treat the spores so that they don’t stick together and also so that you get a preparation that is very volatile — goes into the air and stays in the air," she adds.

Regardless of whether the mailer worked in a military lab or other facility, there is growing consensus that the attacks were not the work of foreign terrorists. "The current thinking among many people is that this is a domestic event that kind of occurred in the slipstream of 9/11," says William Schaffner, MD, ASM member and chairman of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, TN. "The [FBI profile] characteristics don’t seem terribly surprising. They seem akin to the kind of characteristics that were part of the picture of [the Unabomber] Ted Kaczynski — a disgruntled person who is very bright, and in this instance, has a substantial amount of professional and technological expertise in order to carry this off."

[Editor’s note: Those who think they may have information relevant to the case can contact the FBI via telephone at (800) CRIME TV — (800) 274-6388 — or via e-mail: Amerithrax@FBI.gov.]