- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

An Environmental Protection Agency scientist has been questioned by the FBI about an anonymous letter accusing a colleague of plotting biowarfare in the days before the 2001 anthrax attacks.

Agents from the FBI’s anthrax task force, according to a document obtained by The Washington Times, sought information on the anonymous letter, which warned that Ayaad Assaad, an Egyptian native who works as a toxicologist at the EPA, was an anti-American “religious fanatic” with the means to unleash a bioweapons attack.

The anonymous letter, sent in early October 2001 to police in Quantico, Va., identified Mr. Assaad, who conducted ricin research at the Army’s biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, Md., before moving to the EPA.

Meanwhile, the discovery of the deadly protein ricin on Capitol Hill early this month brought a chilling reminder of the anthrax attacks that left five persons dead in the months after the September 11 hijackings.

It also may have restored the FBI’s interest in Mr. Assaad, who built a career during the 1990s developing a ricin vaccine for the Army and generally is regarded as one of the premier ricin researchers in the nation.

The document obtained by The Times indicates that one of Mr. Assaad’s EPA colleagues was called last week into the FBI’s Washington field office and asked whether he was the author of the letter, which referred to Mr. Assaad as a “religious fanatic.”

Mr. Assaad, who holds graduate degrees from Iowa State University and has lived in the United States since the mid-1970s, has something of a contentious past as an Army researcher.

He has a discrimination lawsuit pending against the Army stemming from the time he worked as a researcher at Fort Detrick during the 1990s. The lawsuit claims others at the Army base had formed a group called the “Camel Club” to make fun of his ethnicity, published reports said.

Mr. Assaad yesterday said he has not been questioned by the FBI since the days before the anthrax attacks. He said the anonymous letter, which investigators showed him at the time, probably was written by someone who had worked at Fort Detrick.

“I hardly believe the letter came from an EPA scientist,” he said. “It carries the fingerprint of Fort Detrick.”

However, FBI officials at the Washington field office, which is heading the anthrax task force, have refused to release the letter or give Mr. Assaad a copy.

It was not clear yesterday whether the latest development signals a new direction in the more than 2-year-old investigation into who sent deadly anthrax bacteria to senators on Capitol Hill and to news outlets in Florida and New York.

“At this point, I’m unable to discuss whether or not there is a nexus between the anthrax mailings of 2001 and this anonymous letter written to the FBI before the first anthrax mailing,” a representative at the FBI’s Washington field office said yesterday.

The document said one EPA scientist was told by an FBI agent last week that he had been identified by other EPA scientists as the author of the anonymous letter about Mr. Assaad. The document also indicates that the FBI agent warned the scientist not to speak of the interrogation and suggested he may be subjected to a lie-detector test.

While it may appear the FBI has a renewed interest in the anonymous letter, it also may be that investigators have been pursuing the letter secretly as a lead in their aging investigation.

The massive probe into who mailed the anthrax has resulted in no arrests and has produced few substantial leads. However, FBI officials say the probe remains intensely active.

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