"Bizarre, disjointed and juvenile"
Arab scientists recount hostility and harassment
at military anthrax lab
19 December 2001
by Lynn Tuohy
Days before the anthrax attacks became known, Dr. Ayaad Assaad
sat terrified in a vault-like room at an FBI field office in
Washington, D.C. The walls were gray and windowless. The door
was locked. It was Oct. 3.
Assaad, an Egyptian-born research scientist laid off in 1997 from the
Army's biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, Md., was handed an
anonymous letter describing him as "a potential terrorist" with a
grudge against the United States and the knowledge to wage
biological warfare against his adopted country.
"I was so angry when I read the letter, I broke out in tears," Assaad
recalled during a recent interview. "That people could be so evil."
After a brief interview, the FBI let Assaad go and assured him that
they believed the letter was a cruel hoax. But for Assaad, the
incident was another in a series of humiliations he traces to a
decade-long workplace dispute at the Fort Detrick lab.
He and other scientists allege that ethnic discrimination was
tolerated, and even practiced, by the lab's former commander. A
cadre of coworkers wrote a crude poem denigrating Arab
Americans, passed around an obscene rubber camel and lampooned
Assaad's language skills.
The locker-room antics in the early 1990s preceded a series of
downsizings, some acrimonious, that saw the lab's staff reduced by
30 percent. Along the way, the court record suggests, the Fort
Detrick facility became a workplace where "toxic" described more
than just the anthrax and other deadly pathogens handled by its 100
It also characterized a dysfunctional, at times hostile, atmosphere
that had the potential to create the type of disaffected biowarfare
scientist that some experts suspect is behind the anthrax attacks.
Neither Assaad nor any other scientist named in the court
documents has been linked to the attacks, and most say they have
not even been questioned by the FBI. A Fort Detrick spokesman said
yesterday that investigators are seeking to question current and
former employees of the lab, as well as other government facilities
that had access to the same strain of anthrax.
FBI spokesman Chris Murray confirmed yesterday that Assaad has
been cleared of suspicion. Murray also said the FBI is not tracking
the source of the anonymous letter, despite its curious timing,
coming a matter of days before the existence of anthrax-laced mail
"My theory is, whoever this person is knew in advance what was
going to happen (and created) a suitable, well-fitted scapegoat for
this action," Assaad said.
Assaad had come to the United States 25 years earlier, obtained
graduate degrees from the University of Iowa, became a citizen in
1986, married a woman from Nebraska and has two young sons. He
spent nine years researching biological and chemical agents at
high-security U.S. Army laboratories, including Fort Detrick, where
he was working on a vaccine against ricin, a cellular poison.
Bizarre, disjointed and juvenile
Court documents in federal discrimination lawsuits filed by Assaad
and two other scientists who also lost their jobs at Fort Detrick in a
1997 downsizing portray a bizarre, disjointed and even juvenile
workplace environment in the country's premier biowarfare
research lab. The Fort Detrick lab is one of two government labs
that work with the world's deadliest pathogens and since 1980 has
had the Ames strain of anthrax officials say was used in the recent
During a three-hour interview last week at the Thurmont, Md.,
office of their lawyer, Rosemary McDermott, Assaad and Dr.
Richard Crosland also were critical of the perennially changing
leadership and "warring factions" that they say undermined
scientific research at Fort Detrick.
Assaad said he was working on the Saturday before Easter 1991
when he discovered an eight-page poem in his mailbox. The poem,
which became a court exhibit, has 235 lines, many of them lewd,
mocking Assaad. The poem also refers to another creation of the
scientists who wrote it a rubber camel outfitted with sexually
The poem reads: "In (Assaad's) honor we created this beast; it
represents life lower than yeast." The camel, it notes, each week
will be given "to who did the least."
The poem also doubles as an ode to each of the participants who
adorned the camel, who number at least six and referred to
themselves as "the camel club." Two Dr. Philip Zack and Dr.
Marian Rippy voluntarily left Fort Detrick soon after Assaad
brought the poem to the attention of supervisors.
Attempts to reach Zack and Rippy were unsuccessful.
Assaad said he approached his supervisor, Col. David Franz, with his
concerns, but Franz "kicked me out of his office and slammed the
door in my face, because he didn't want to talk about it. I just
wanted it to stop."
In a telephone interview Monday, Franz said the downsizings at the
Fort Detrick lab in the late 1990s "were the toughest part of my job.
... If I lost my job, I might be pretty upset, too."
Franz ; now a private consultant on countermeasures to biological
and chemical attacks said he was not aware that Assaad had been
interviewed by the FBI, but acknowledged it's fair to interview
scientists who've left sensitive research positions.
The FBI's profile of the anthrax suspect is a person who is likely
male, has some background or strong interest in science and
probably has access both to a laboratory and a source of weaponized
Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a microbiologist affiliated with the
Federation of American Scientists, earlier this month carried the
profile a bit further when she predicted that the perpetrator is an
American microbiologist with access to weaponized anthrax that
likely came from a government lab or one contracted by the
The third plaintiff who was laid off from Fort Detrick,
Jordanian-born Dr. Kulthoum Mereish, was commissioned a captain
in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and began researching
biological-threat agents at Fort Detrick in 1986. She alleged in the
affidavit accompanying her lawsuit that Franz exhibited "a bigotry
toward foreigners" and refused to confront the "camel club."
Confronted with the allegations and asked this week if he considers
himself racist, Franz replied, "You obviously don't know me."
Crosland and Assaad still hold sensitive positions with the U.S.
government. Assaad works for the Environmental Protection
Agency as a senior toxicologist reviewing and regulating pesticides.
Crosland is scientific-review administrator of biological research at
the National Institutes of Health. Mereish, McDermott said, works
for the United Nations in a job that has top security clearance.
Anthrax Missing From Army Lab
January 20, 2002
By JACK DOLAN And DAVE ALTIMARI, Courant Staff Writers
Lab specimens of anthrax spores, Ebola virus and other pathogens disappeared from the Army's biological warfare research
facility in the early 1990s, during a turbulent period of labor complaints and recriminations among rival scientists there,
documents from an internal Army inquiry show.
The 1992 inquiry also found evidence that someone was secretly entering a lab late at night to conduct unauthorized research,
apparently involving anthrax. A numerical counter on a piece of lab equipment had been rolled back to hide work done by the
mystery researcher, who left the misspelled label "antrax" in the machine's electronic memory, according to the documents
obtained by The Courant.
Experts disagree on whether the lost specimens pose a danger. An Army spokesperson said they do not because they would
have been effectively killed by chemicals in preparation for microscopic study. A prominent molecular biologist said, however,
that resilient anthrax spores could possibly be retrieved from a treated specimen.
In addition, a scientist who once worked at the Army facility said that because of poor inventory controls, it is possible
some of the specimens disappeared while still viable, before being treated.
Not in dispute is what the incidents say about disorganization and lack of security in some quarters of the U.S. Army
Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases - known as USAMRIID - at Fort Detrick, Md., in the 1990s. Fort Detrick is
believed to be the original source of the Ames strain of anthrax used in the mail attacks last fall, and investigators have
questioned people there and at a handful of other government labs and contractors.
It is unclear whether Ames was among the strains of anthrax in the 27 sets of specimens reported missing at Fort Detrick
after an inventory in 1992. The Army spokesperson, Caree Vander-Linden, said that at least some of the lost anthrax was not
Ames. But a former lab technician who worked with some of the anthrax that was later reported missing said all he ever handled
was the Ames strain.
Meanwhile, one of the 27 sets of specimens has been found and is still in the lab; an Army spokesperson said it may have
been in use when the inventory was taken. The fate of the rest, some containing samples no larger than a pencil point, remains
unclear. In addition to anthrax and Ebola, the specimens included hanta virus, simian AIDS virus and two that were labeled
"unknown" - an Army euphemism for classified research whose subject was secret.
A former commander of the lab said in an interview he did not believe any of the missing specimens were ever found. Vander-Linden
said last week that in addition to the one complete specimen set, some samples from several others were later located, but
she could not provide a fuller accounting because of incomplete records regarding the disposal of specimens.
"In January of 2002, it's hard to say how many of those were missing in February of 1991," said Vander-Linden, adding
that it's likely some were simply thrown out with the trash.
Discoveries of lost specimens and unauthorized research coincided with an Army inquiry into allegations of "improper
conduct" at Fort Detrick's experimental pathology branch in 1992. The inquiry did not substantiate the specific charges of
mismanagement by a handful of officers.
But a review of hundreds of pages of interview transcripts, signed statements and internal memos related to the inquiry
portrays a climate charged with bitter personal rivalries over credit for research, as well as allegations of sexual and ethnic
harassment. The recriminations and unhappiness ultimately became a factor in the departures of at least five frustrated Fort
In interviews with The Courant last month, two of the former scientists said that as recently as 1997, when they left,
controls at Fort Detrick were so lax it wouldn't have been hard for someone with security clearance for its handful of labs
to smuggle out biological specimens.
The 27 specimens were reported missing in February 1992, after a new officer, Lt. Col. Michael Langford, took command
of what was viewed by Fort Detrick brass as a dysfunctional pathology lab. Langford, who no longer works at Fort Detrick,
said he ordered an inventory after he recognized there was "little or no organization" and "little or no accountability" in
"I knew we had to basically tighten up what I thought was a very lax and unorganized system," he said in an interview
A factor in Langford's decision to order an inventory was his suspicion - never proven - that someone in the lab had
been tampering with records of specimens to conceal unauthorized research. As he explained later to Army investigators, he
asked a lab technician, Charles Brown, to "make a list of everything that was missing."
"It turned out that there was quite a bit of stuff that was unaccounted for, which only verifies that there needs to
be some kind of accountability down there," Langford told investigators, according to a transcript of his April 1992 interview.
Brown - whose inventory was limited to specimens logged into the lab during the 1991 calendar year - detailed his findings
in a two-page memo to Langford, in which he lamented the loss of the items "due to their immediate and future value to the
pathology division and USAMRIID."
Many of the specimens were tiny samples of tissue taken from the dead bodies of lab animals infected with deadly diseases
during vaccine research. Standard procedure for the pathology lab would be to soak the samples in a formaldehyde-like fixative
and embed them in a hard resin or paraffin, in preparation for study under an electron microscope.
Some samples, particularly viruses, are also irradiated with gamma rays before they are handled by the pathology lab.
Whether all of the lost samples went through this treatment process is unclear. Vander-Linden said the samples had to
have been rendered inert if they were being worked on in the pathology lab.
But Dr. Ayaad Assaad, a former Fort Detrick scientist who had extensive dealings with the lab, said that because some
samples were received at the lab while still alive - with the expectation they would be treated before being worked on - it
is possible some became missing before treatment. A phony "log slip" could then have been entered into the lab computer, making
it appear they had been processed and logged.
In fact, Army investigators appear to have wondered if some of the anthrax specimens reported missing had ever really
been logged in. When an investigator produced a log slip and asked Langford if "these exist or [are they] just made up on
a data entry form," Langford replied that he didn't know.
Assuming a specimen was chemically treated and embedded
for microscopic study, Vander-Linden and several scientists interviewed said it would be impossible to recover
a viable pathogen from them. Brown, who did the inventory for Langford and has since left Fort Detrick, said in an interview
that the specimens he worked on in the lab "were completely inert."
"You could spread them on a sandwich," he said.
But Dr. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist at the State University of New York who is investigating the recent
anthrax attacks for the Federation of American Scientists, said she would not rule out the possibility that anthrax in spore
form could survive the chemical-fixative process.
"You'd have to grind it up and hope that some of the spores survived," Rosenberg said. "It would be a mess.
"It seems to me that it would be an unnecessarily difficult task. Anybody who had access to those labs could probably
get something more useful."
Rosenberg's analysis of the anthrax attacks, which has been widely reported, concludes that the culprit is probably a
government insider, possibly someone from Fort Detrick. The Army facility manufactured anthrax before biological weapons were
banned in 1969, and it has experimented with the Ames strain for defensive research since the early 1980s.
Vander-Linden said that one of the two sets of anthrax specimens listed as missing at Fort Detrick was the Vollum strain,
which was used in the early days of the U.S. biological weapons program. It was not clear what the type of anthrax in the
other missing specimen was.
Eric Oldenberg, a soldier and pathology lab technician who left Fort Detrick and is now a police detective in Phoenix,
said in an interview that Ames was the only anthrax strain he worked with in the lab.
More troubling to Langford than the missing specimens was what investigators called "surreptitious" work being done in
the pathology lab late at night and on weekends.
Dr. Mary Beth Downs told investigators that she had come to work several times in January and February of 1992 to find
that someone had been in the lab at odd hours, clumsily using the sophisticated electron microscope to conduct some kind of
After one weekend in February, Downs discovered that someone had been in the lab using the microscope to take photos
of slides, and apparently had forgotten to reset a feature on the microscope that imprints each photo with a label. After
taking a few pictures of her own slides that morning, Downs was surprised to see "Antrax 005" emblazoned on her negatives.
Downs also noted that an automatic counter on the camera, like an odometer on a car, had been rolled back to hide the
fact that pictures had been taken over the weekend. She wrote of her findings in a memo to Langford, noting that whoever was
using the microscope was "either in a big hurry or didn't know what they were doing."
It is unclear if the Army ever got to the bottom of the incident, and some lab insiders believed concerns about it were
overblown. Brown said many Army officers did not understand the scientific process, which he said doesn't always follow a
"People all over the base knew that they could come in at anytime and get on the microscope," Brown said. "If you had
security clearance, the guard isn't going to ask you if you are qualified to use the equipment. I'm sure people used it often
without our knowledge."
Documents from the inquiry show that one unauthorized person who was observed entering the lab building at night was
Langford's predecessor, Lt. Col. Philip Zack, who at the time no longer worked at Fort Detrick. A surveillance camera recorded
Zack being let in at 8:40 p.m. on Jan. 23, 1992, apparently by Dr. Marian Rippy, a lab pathologist and close friend of Zack's,
according to a report filed by a security guard.
Zack could not be reached for comment. In an interview this week, Rippy said that she doesn't remember letting Zack in,
but that he occasionally stopped by after he was transferred off the base.
"After he left, he had no [authorized] access to the building. Other people let him in," she said. "He knew a lot of
people there and he was still part of the military. I can tell you, there was no suspicious stuff going on there with specimens."
Zack left Fort Detrick in December 1991, after a controversy over allegations of unprofessional behavior by Zack, Rippy,
Brown and others who worked in the pathology division. They had formed a clique that was accused of harassing the Egyptian-born
Assaad, who later sued the Army, claiming discrimination.
Assaad said he had believed the harassment was behind him until last October, until after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He said that is when the FBI contacted him, saying someone had mailed an anonymous letter - a few days before the existence
of anthrax-laced mail became known - naming Assaad as a potential bioterrorist. FBI agents decided the note was a hoax after
But Assaad said he believes the note's timing makes the author a suspect in the anthrax attacks, and he is convinced
that details of his work contained in the letter mean the author must be a former Fort Detrick colleague.
Brown said that he doesn't know who sent the letter, but that Assaad's nationality and expertise in biological agents
made him an obvious subject of concern after Sept. 11.
"Shenanigans have been going on,"
Nicholas D. Kristof: 'Case of the missing anthrax'
Date: Friday, July 19 @ 09:55:57 EDT
Topic: War & Terrorism
By Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times
It's bad enough that we can't find Iraqi anthrax hidden in the desert. But it turns out that we also misplaced anthrax
and Ebola kept in a lab outside Washington D.C.
Internal Army documents about the U.S. biodefense program describe missing Ebola and other pathogens, vicious feuds, lax
security, cover-ups and a "cowboy culture" beyond anyone's scrutiny. Moreover, germ warriors in the C.I.A. and the
Defense Department decided — without bothering to consult the White House — to produce anthrax secretly
and tinker with it in ways that arguably put the U.S. in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention.
It's time for Congress or an outside commission to investigate our nation's biodefense program and establish oversight.
"Shenanigans have been going on," declares one internal Army memo about the labs at ground zero of the biodefense
world: Usamriid, the acronym for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, based at Fort Detrick, Md.
The 400 pages of documents, which I've obtained and which were described by The Hartford Courant earlier this year, quote
a newly arrived officer named Michael Langford as saying that he found "little or no organization," "little
or no accountability," "a very lax and unorganized system" and signs of covert work and cover-ups.
Mr. Langford requested an inventory of pathogens acquired in 1991. The resulting memo shows that 62 samples had vanished,
including Ebola, hantavirus, anthrax, S.I.V. (the monkey version of the virus that causes AIDS), and several described only
Usamriid says that it rechecked this year and was able to account for virtually all of the missing specimens except one
set that would have been irradiated to render it harmless. But a decade's delay in bothering to look for missing Ebola seems
a bit much, and conversations with scientists who have worked at Usamriid do not inspire confidence (although, in fairness,
many who talk publicly have lawsuits pending against the lab).
"When I was laid off, I walked out for three days in a row with boxes, and no one looked inside them," recalled
Richard Crosland, who worked at Usamriid from 1986 to 1997. "I was there for 11 years, and never once did anyone ask,
`Where is the substance you ordered?'
"I could have walked out with it when I left, and no one would have known. I didn't, but I could have. 7-Eleven had
better inventory control. And I was working with botulinum, which is one of the deadliest substances on earth.
"If you couldn't find a microscope, you were in real trouble. But if you misplaced five micrograms of botulinum that
could kill thousands of people, nobody would notice."
In truth, many microbiology labs are pretty chaotic, and ultimately labs have to pick reliable people and then trust them.
But that's what piqued my interest in Usamriid in the first place — my research about a man I've called "Mr.
Z," who has been interviewed four times by the F.B.I. and whose home has been searched twice in connection with the anthrax
investigation. Usamriid hired Mr. Z in 1997 to work with Ebola and Marburg viruses, although he had spent years in the armed
forces of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa.
Most researchers at Usamriid are dedicated patriots who could earn more in the private sector. When Mr. Z left Usamriid
in 1999, he was making $58,000 a year — and jumped to a $150,000-a-year job with a private contractor. Many bio-defense
scientists risk their lives working with deadly germs to improve vaccines for American troops, and they deserve our gratitude.
Still, the Army documents indisputably point out serious problems. They recount incidents in 1992 when someone appeared
to be working secretly with anthrax at night and on weekends and then trying to cover it up. Memos describe how someone tried
to roll back a numerical counter on an electron microscope to hide his work with anthrax.
As recently as April of this year, anthrax spores were found in a hallway and administrative area of Usamriid —
shortly after Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, visited the complex. Anthrax spores seem to have it in for Democratic
Reprinted from The New York Times: