Friday, October 26, 2001

The Defense Department financed a secret operation in 1999 called Project Bacchus, in which a team of scientists successfully built a clandestine bioterrorism lab and produced simulated anthrax with materials purchased on the open market.
The scientists set up the lab in Nevada and, within a short period of time and without attracting any attention, assembled the necessary equipment to process and produce about 2 pounds of bacteria, including one that simulated anthrax.
Operating out of a former barber shop and recreation hall without arousing any suspicion, the team purchased the necessary glassware, piping and filters from a local hardware store. It also ordered a 50-quart fermentation unit from Europe for growing the bacteria, high-ranking Pentagon officials said yesterday.
The officials said the team purchased a milling machine capable of grinding dried material into fine powder from a store in the Midwest.
The team was not allowed to produce real stains of anthrax, but only biopesticides during two production tests in 1999 and 2000. Pentagon officials who studied the results of the test said the scientists, with anthrax spores, could have produced enough of the bacteria to have killed at least 10,000 people.
The scientists succeeded in developing a lab capable of producing bacteria that could kill thousands of people, and did so on a budget of about $1.5 million passed to them by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a Pentagon group assigned the task of containing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
Pentagon officials told The Washington Times the project proved that terrorists with cash and some expertise in the production and processing of bacteria could put together an anthrax lab with readily available equipment and supplies. And, the officials said, would-be terrorists could do so without being detected.
The anthrax that has been spread through the mail to media and government outlets in New York, Florida and Washington has been described as finely milled and that those responsible for it intended to use it as a weapon, said Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.
Law enforcement authorities have said it does not appear to be a strain of anthrax that would have been produced in Iraq or Russia, the two countries known to have supplies of the bacteria leading to speculation that it was produced in this country at a secret site.
Authorities have not tied the anthrax attacks in this country to terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 assault on America, but have not ruled out that possibility. They said Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the attacks, and his al Qaeda network have the necessary cash to fund a clandestine lab and that several of the organization’s members are college-educated.
Earlier this year, as part of Project Bacchus, a special forces team was sent to the Nevada lab to “neutralize” the factory. The laboratory, which actually processed only harmless biopesticides, was successfully disabled without the release of its theoretically lethal contents into the environment.
Pentagon officials said anthrax has become a weapon of choice because it is easy to acquire, can be stored in dry, powder form and remains potent for decades. With some expertise, the spores can be dispersed in the air and inhaled by unprotected troops and civilians.
They said infection from inhaled spores is highly lethal, and spores that are not inhaled remain in the soil for many years. The U.S. military developed a strain of anthrax so lethal that just 8 gallons, properly dispersed, could kill everyone on Earth, they said.
Project Bacchus, first reported in a little-noticed story by New York Times reporter Judith Miller a week before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, was never revealed to other agencies within the government. No one at the White House was briefed about it.
Mrs. Miller was herself the target of an anthrax hoax, when a letter containing a powdery substance was delivered to her office. She is the author of “Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret Wars.”
Pentagon officials said the Project Bacchus lab was established as part of an effort by the government to determine whether terrorists could manufacture biological weapons in this country using materials purchased from private outlets and whether it could or would be detected.
Sensors placed outside the lab were designed to create what the Pentagon officials described as “signatures” measurable heat changes, noises and emissions that could be sampled in the air and soil as well as patterns of energy consumption.
The signatures were designed to be categorized and used as guides in detecting other similar sites in the United States and abroad, they said.

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