- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

More than a dozen Environmental Protection Agency scientists have been interviewed by FBI agents investigating the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks and the more recent discovery of the bacteria ricin on Capitol Hill, The Washington Times has learned.

The bulk of the interviews, conducted March 17, focused on an anonymous letter accusing an Egyptian-born EPA scientist of plotting biological warfare against the United States in the days before the anthrax attacks, EPA sources said.

Meanwhile, in a separate development linked to the anthrax attacks, a federal judge yesterday granted the government’s request to delay until October a lawsuit by bioweapons expert Steven J. Hatfill against Attorney General John Ashcroft and the FBI.

In the suit, filed in August in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Mr. Hatfill said his reputation and life were destroyed when Mr. Ashcroft publicly named him a “person of interest” in the anthrax investigation.

Five persons were killed by the anthrax mailings, which increased fears of bioterrorism after the September 11 attacks. The probe into who mailed anthrax to media outlets in Florida and New York and to offices on Capitol Hill has yet to yield arrests or indictments.

The Times reported last month that the FBI had questioned one unnamed EPA scientist about the anonymous letter sent in early October 2001 to police in Quantico, Va. The letter identified EPA scientist Ayaad Assaad as a “religious fanatic” with the means and intent to unleash a bioweapons attack.

The FBI has declined to discuss the letter or the EPA interviews. One EPA employee, who met with the FBI, said the latest round of interviews focused on 14 scientists who worked closely with Mr. Assaad.

The interviews were “low-key and relaxed,” involving questions about the anonymous letter that implicated Mr. Assaad in the anthrax and the recent ricin letters, the EPA employee said, adding that the FBI agents told the scientists that they were trying to find out who had written the letter.

The agents told the scientists that Mr. Assaad was not a suspect in the investigation, the EPA employee said.

Mr. Assaad, who has graduate degrees from Iowa State University, has lived in the United States since the mid-1970s. Before working for the EPA, he was contracted by the U.S. Army to conduct research to develop a ricin vaccine.

Dismissed from Fort Detrick, Md., in 1997, Mr. Assaad has filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Army, in which he says others at Fort Detrick ridiculed him by forming a group called the “Camel Club.”

Fort Detrick, a facility known to have had access to the Ames strain of anthrax used in the 2001 attacks, has been a focus of the anthrax probe. Like Mr. Assaad, Mr. Hatfill worked at Fort Detrick during the 1990s, although the two men did not work there during the same period.

The FBI has not named any suspects in the anthrax probe. Government lawyers said Mr. Ashcroft’s reference to Mr. Hatfill as a “person of interest” during an August 2002 news conference was an attempt to make clear that the bioweapons expert was not a suspect.

Mr. Hatfill’s lawyers said Mr. Ashcroft and others violated their client’s constitutional rights. The lawsuit accuses the government of singling out Mr. Hatfill to deflect attention from a lack of progress in the anthrax probe.

Mr. Hatfill has denied involvement in the anthrax attacks. The government wants his suit dismissed on the grounds that allowing it to go forward “will compromise and frustrate” the anthrax probe and could give Mr. Hatfill and others “a voyeur’s window” into the probe’s workings.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said he would rule later on whether to dismiss the Hatfill suit entirely.

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