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
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
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 scientists.
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 became known.
"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
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 attacks.
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 explicit appendages.
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
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 anthrax.
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 government.
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
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
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"A lot of good has come from it . . . five people have died, but we've put about $6 billion in our budget . . ."
Anthrax Plot Against Liberals?
By Reed Irvine and Cliff Kincaid | November 8, 2001 "He'd have to learn a lot more than just what he knew working
with underarm aerosol sprays."
The federal government's handling of the anthrax controversy seems like the Keystone Cops. The most serious aspect was
the failure to immediately test postal workers, two of whom died of anthrax exposure. Media coverage has followed confusing
government statements. First, the anthrax in Senator Tom Daschle's office was said to be "weapons-grade." Then a
government scientist said it was "common-variety" anthrax. Then we were told it was, in fact, weapons-grade.
The letters were discovered after the terror attacks of September 11th. Some of the letters say, "Death to America,"
and have praise for Allah. It seems obvious to some that radical Muslims wrote the poison letters. The letters are written
or printed in such a way as to suggest they are the work of someone who has just learned his letters and the language. That,
too, suggests a foreigner who hasn't been in the U.S. very long.
But what seems obvious to some doesn't make sense to others. Gary Brown, described as a retired Air Force counter terrorism
specialist, told the Washington Post that he suspected the anthrax terrorism was domestic because, he said, one of the letters
went to Daschle, "who's on the left. If it's a home-grown militia effort, Daschle's a likely target." But Daschle
has never been a major target of the far right-wing. He's never been seen as a major left-wing figure. One might expect the
militia send a letter to an official of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Iraq has been suggested as a possible source, and this makes a lot of sense. Iraq has concealed its hand in past terrorist
incidents, such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. But Iraq's foreign minister and top scientist assured Lesley Stahl
on 60 Minutes that they would never do such a thing. Following the lead of that so-called expert quoted in the Post, some
of the talking heads in the media have started suggesting that right-wingers are the source of the anthrax. On CNBC's Hardball
show, Chris Mathews suggested the source was someone who hates liberals working at a plant making underarm deodorant.
"It's been my hunch for days now," he said, "that [the source is] some angry person perhaps living in the
New Jersey area who has been an employee of a major pharmaceutical company that may work with aerosol sprays for underarm
deodorants or whatever. Would that kind of engineer have the capability – just because he didn't like the country,
didn't like liberals or media people, to produce this kind of anthrax and put it in an envelope?"
His guest was David Franz, the vice president of chemical and biological defenses at the Southern Research Institute and
a former commander at the Army's germ defense lab at Ft. Detrick, Maryland. Franz politely said Mathews didn't know what he
was talking about. He explained, "He'd have to learn a lot more than just what he knew working with underarm aerosol
sprays. Those are chemicals, and here we're dealing with living things. We're dealing with a spore that you have to keep alive…"
One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at Mathews' pathetic attempt to blame conservatives for the anthrax" terrorism.
Col. David R. Franz:
"A former commander of Fort Detrick, Col. David Franz, said, "A lot of good has come from it . . . five people
have died, but we've put about $6 billion in our budget . . ."
But for the families of the five people who died, it is cold comfort."
(ABC News, 4/4/02).
" An anonymous letter was sent to the FBI describing Egyptian-born Dr. Ayaad Assaad as a "potential terrorist"
early last October right before the anthrax letters. Although the FBI cleared him of any suspicion, his victimization by a
racist clique at Fort Detrick prior to his layoff in 1997 was revealed. At that time he was targeted with racist poison pen
His supervisor, Col. David Franz, "slammed the door in my face," asserted Assaad, "when I complained."
Dr. Richard Crosland and Dr. Kay Mereish described Fort Detrick Commander Franz as a "bigot" and "racist"
when they were laid off in the same year that Hatfill was hired."
(Hartford Courant, 12/19/01)