Army's Anthrax Material Surprises Some Experts
By Rick Weiss
Live Online Discussions
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2001; Page A18
and biological warfare experts said yesterday they were surprised by
the revelation that a U.S. Army installation in Utah has been producing
dried preparations of the Ames strain of the anthrax bacterium, the
same strain found in letters to Sens. Thomas A. Daschle and Patrick J.
Most said they believe the research was justified
for defensive purposes. But several expressed dismay that the Army had
never mentioned the work publicly before Wednesday even as it
spearheaded the biological and chemical analysis of the Senate letters
for the FBI -- a potential conflict of interest that some feared could
harm the credibility of the investigation.
The Army has
refused to say anything about the extent to which the spore
preparations in the Senate letters are similar to or different from the
ones produced at its Dugway Proving Ground, about 80 miles from Salt
Lake City. "We think we don't have anyone who has looked at both the
anthrax we worked on in our lab and the sample from the Daschle
letter," Army spokesman Chuck Dasey said.
unclear yesterday how much the FBI knew about the Army program. One
knowledgeable source suggested that the agency was caught unawares by
the revelation. But other senior law enforcement officials said the FBI
has known about the Dugway program since shortly after the Daschle
letter was discovered, and has already conducted comparisons of the
Army material and the letter's spores.
Officials said they
have been granted full access to the information they need from Dugway,
which runs classified biowarfare research programs. But they declined
to reveal the results of their investigation into the Dugway anthrax
It remains unclear whether Dugway scientists have
the technical capacity to make anthrax spores as dangerous as those
found in the letters to Daschle (D-S.D.) and Leahy (D-Vt.). The
particles in those letters were extremely small and the formulation
very pure, with far more spores per gram than the U.S. offensive
bioweapons program had achieved at its pinnacle in the late 1960s.
Small size and high purity are crucial if infectious quantities are to
become airborne and inhaled to cause the most deadly form of anthrax.
Patrick, who led the Army's offensive biological weapons program at
Fort Detrick until the program ended in 1969, said yesterday that it
was he who taught Dugway scientists how to dry deadly bacteria into a
fine powdery form in 1998. Until then, Dugway had no means of
converting wet batches of the anthrax bacterium, Bacillus anthracis,
into the dry powder needed to test new defensive technologies, he said,
such as systems that can detect the invisible spores in the air.
Patrick said he taught the method using a harmless species of bacterium related to B. anthracis called B. globigii,
after making "a few grams" of the material. Patrick said he believes
the technique he gave to Dugway "is probably what they're now applying
to the 'hot stuff.' " But he said he thinks that his technique is not
capable of making a product of the quality found in the Daschle and
Leahy letters. "It was plenty good, but not as good as that," he said.
Then again, he said, "maybe they've gone on to something better."
officials would not comment yesterday. Dugway, on 800,000 acres in the
Utah desert, has a long history of secret research and has been a
favorite target of conspiracy theorists, including those who believe
that the U.S. government has been hiding information about visits from
aliens. In the 1960s, Dugway was embroiled in a controversy when
thousands of sheep and other animals died downwind of the facility,
showing symptoms of having been exposed to nerve gas. The Army denied
any culpability but later compensated owners.
biowarfare experts said the government's credibility is at stake as the
Army decides how much to reveal about its anthrax program.
U.S. government should have been not only more forthcoming about this
episode but perhaps more detailed in its annual declarations" to the
United Nations about its defensive biological weapons program, said
Alan Zelicoff, of the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, who
stressed that he does not believe that Dugway has been lax in its
security or oversight.
Elisa D. Harris, who until recently
was the National Security Council official responsible for U.S. policy
on biological weapons and is now a research fellow at the University of
Maryland, echoed that sentiment. She was one of several experts who
suggested that congressional hearings might be in order.
Yet Harris's secret hope is that the Army will prove to have been the source of the material used in this fall's postal attacks.
it turns out that this material did in fact originate in the U.S.
program, it's actually a terrific outcome because it means the primary
actors we need to be focusing on are national programs and
nation-states," she said. "In terms of the bioterror threat, the worst
outcome would be that there is a biological Unabomber out there who was
able to get vaccinated and get the material and the equipment to
process it and then mail it out. That would be a really scary scenario."
Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.
2001 The Washington Post Company
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