- 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
- 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
- "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
- 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 Detrick scientists.
- 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.
- Lost Samples
- 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 the lab.
- "I knew we had to basically tighten up what I thought
was a very lax and unorganized system," he said in an interview last
- 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
- "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
- "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
- Late-Night Research
- 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 off-the-books research.
- 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 9-to-5 schedule.
- "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,
- 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 interviewing Assaad.
- 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
- 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.
- Copyright © 2002 by The Hartford Courant