- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2002

A former U.S. scientist identified as a focus of the FBI's investigation into the mailing of anthrax-laced letters that killed five persons is believed to be the author of an anonymous letter falsely accusing another biochemist of the crime.
Law-enforcement authorities, microbiology specialists and others familiar with the FBI's anthrax probe said the unsigned letter to military police at the Quantico Marine Base identifying Egyptian-born scientist Ayaad Assaad as the anthrax mailer was an attempt by the unnamed co-worker to deflect the bureau's investigation from himself.
"There is a connection between the person who sent that letter and the person who sent the anthrax," said Rosemary A. McDermott, attorney for Mr. Assaad, a former scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md.
"The person who wrote that letter knew intimate details of my client's life and his professional history, and about the Fort Detrick operation," she said. "I don't think that is a coincidence."
Mr. Assaad, a U.S. citizen, was interviewed Oct. 2 by the FBI concerning accusations outlined in the anonymous letter and was cleared of any connection to the anthrax attacks.
The Washington Times reported yesterday that the FBI's five-month search for the person who mailed anthrax-filled letters to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat; Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat; and others had focused on a former U.S. scientist who worked at the Fort Detrick facility.
The unnamed scientist was identified from among 50 government researchers known to have the technical ability to produce the sophisticated weapons-grade anthrax strain found in the letters that went to Florida, New York, Connecticut and Washington, D.C.
The FBI yesterday, however, vigorously denied that its agents had targeted a specific suspect in the anthrax probe, saying the investigation had yet to identify the person responsible for sending the anthrax-laced letters.
"There is no prime suspect in this case at this time," FBI spokesman Bill Carter said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer also said that several individuals were under investigation and that the FBI had not narrowed that list to one. "I wish it were that easy and that simple right now," he said, adding that President Bush wants the matter resolved quickly but also wants the FBI to take its time to "build a case that would stand in court."
The FBI generally considers someone a "suspect" when he has been advised formally that he is the target of an investigation.
But the law-enforcement sources and others, including biochemical specialists whom the FBI had questioned, said the bureau's probe began to focus on the unidentified Fort Detrick scientist after extensive interviews with more than 300 people associated with the government's anthrax program. The former scientist has been interviewed, they said, and his house has been searched.
The Fort Detrick facility has maintained stores of weapons-grade anthrax, commonly known as the Ames strain of Bacillus anthracis.
The sources said the anonymous letter writer would have been among a narrow population to know that Mr. Assaad had been laid off at Fort Detrick or to have knowledge of his areas of chemical and biological expertise.
The letter also mentioned Mr. Assaad's two sons, identified the floor on which he worked, noted his security clearance, named the train he took to work and where he lived, and recounted a pending discrimination lawsuit he filed against the U.S. Army.
"Dr. Assaad is a potential biological terrorist," the letter said, according to Mrs. McDermott, who was allowed to read but not make a copy of the document. "I have worked with Dr. Assaad, and I heard him say that he has a vendetta against the U.S. government and that if anything happens to him, he told his sons to carry on."
The letter was sent after the September 11 terrorist attacks but before the threat of anthrax-laced letters became public. On Oct. 5, more than a week after the anonymous letter was mailed, Florida photo editor Robert Stevens, 63, became the first of five individuals to die from anthrax inhalation.
Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a microbiologist at State University of New York who heads the biological arms-control panel for the Federation of American Scientists, tells The Times that the FBI has been working on a "short list" of those who could have been involved, and that agents have narrowed that list to "a particular person … a member of the biochemical community."
Mrs. Rosenberg also said she did not understand why the FBI had not yet made an arrest "considering that the person responsible for this comes from a very narrow list of people who have the necessary skill to do what was done." But, she said, there is "a common suspect."
In a letter last month to the 40,000 members of the American Society for Microbiology, FBI Assistant Director Van A. Harp, who heads the bureau's anthrax task force, said the person responsible for mailing the deadly bacteria had experience working in a laboratory, had legitimate access to select biological agents and had the technical expertise to produce a "highly refined and deadly product."
In the letter, Mr. Harp said: "It is very likely that one or more of you know this individual."
In addition to Mr. Stevens, the others who died as a result of anthrax infection were U.S. postal workers Thomas Lee Morris, 55, and Joseph P. Curseen, 47, both of whom worked at the Brentwood facility in Northeast; Kathy Nyugen, a 61-year-old hospital stockroom employee in New York; and Ottilie W. Lundgren, a 94-year-old woman from Connecticut.
All the deaths were traced to the Ames strain of the bacteria, first isolated in Iowa and maintained by the U.S. Army since 1980 for testing purposes.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide