FREDERICKSBURG, Va.--IT WAS A BRITISH military commander, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who was responsible for the first confirmed act of bioterrorism in North America—the distribution of smallpox-contaminated blankets to the Ottawa and Lenni Lenâpé peoples in 1763 for the express purpose of killing them off.
Nearly two and a half centuries later, it appears that the culprit in this continent’s latest bioterror incident also is linked to the greatest military power of his day—in this case the U.S. military.
A number of U.S. media outlets have confirmed that the FBI has made military laboratories the primary focus of the anthrax investigation. The British magazine New Scientist has gone even further, reporting that investigators are certain that last fall’s anthrax attacks were carried out by an American scientist “from within the U.S.’s own biodefence establishment.” (The smart aleck in me poses this question: If our military is found to have harbored a terrorist, do we wage war on
The military connection may explain why the investigation is proceeding so slowly. Last week, Barbara Rosenberg, a bioweapons expert with the highly prestigious Federation of American Scientists, said in a speech at Princeton University that many scientists working in her field believe the feds are focusing their attention on one suspect, but are “dragging their feet” in arresting him because he knows sensitive government secrets.
“There are a number of insiders —government insiders—who know people in the anthrax field who have a common suspect,” Rosenberg was quoted as saying in The Times of Trenton, N.J. “The FBI has questioned that person more than once. So it looks as though the FBI is taking that person very seriously.”
Rosenberg believes the perpetrator likely had been a scientist at the Fort Detrick, Md., military research lab and is now working for a contractor in the Washington, D.C., area. She thinks he made the anthrax himself and weaponized it at a private location.
The New Scientist, meanwhile, offered this clue in support of the theory that the anthrax attacker was a government insider: In late September, after the anthrax letters were posted but before the first case was diagnosed, a Marine base received an anonymous letter calling an Egyptian-born scientist, Ayaad Assaad, a bioterrorist.
Assaad, the magazine says, had been laid off from the Fort Detrick lab in 1997 and was harassed while he worked there. The attempt to frame him (authorities do not consider Assaad a suspect) revealed a knowledge of Fort Detrick that only an insider could have, the New Scientist asserts.
Rosenberg says the rogue scientist may have been involved in “secret activities that the government would not like to see disclosed,” and that researchers she knows inside the government “are worried that it could happen that some kind of quiet deal is made that [the perpetrator] just disappears from view.”
The FBI denies that it has a prime suspect. But the way this case is shaping up, we might do well to recall what independent journalist I.F. Stone told young reporters to make their first assumption: “Governments lie.”
Consider the government’s performance in the anthrax case up till now. Initially, it insisted that the military had destroyed all of its weaponized anthrax. But The (Baltimore) Sun exposed this as deception in December when it reported that an Army research installation in Dugway, Utah, was still making a weaponized strain of the bacteria.
That strain—samples of which were shipped to Fort Detrick and elsewhere—turned out to be a genetic match with the anthrax that the bioterrorist mailed last fall.
The apparent security breakdown at U.S. bioweapons labs has experts asking whether the government should be lavishing additional money on the biodefense establishment, as President Bush intends to do (he announced an $11 billion increase in funding over the next two years).
As one bacterial molecular biologist at Rutgers University told the New Scientist, burgeoning biodefense research could make bioterror attacks even more likely, since lethal microbes will exist in more labs and an increasing number of people will be trained to work with them.
The anthrax-letters episode raises troubling questions about government transparency and about security at bioweapons labs. Given what we’ve seen so far, we have to wonder whether the feds will really get to the bottom of the anthrax attacks, and whether the Bush administration is pursuing policies that will actually reduce the chances of future acts of bioterror.
RICK MERCIER is a columnist for The Free Lance–Star in Fredericksburg, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.