BioTerror in the U.S.
While the Bush administration is beating the war drum against Iraq for allegedly obtaining biological and nuclear weapons and spreading them around the world, here in the USA we might have our own homegrown terrorist living freely and working everyday with lethal viruses like Ebola and Marburg. Dr. Steven Hatfill, virologist and right-wing ex-mercenary, is also the primary "person of interest" in the FBI's ongoing anthrax case.
Some prominent biodefense researchers think Hatfill is the right suspect, but that the FBI has balked at arresting him. Some have pointed out that the FBI has been dragging its feet on the case from the first day, recognizing that Hatfill is an insider, and that arresting him would not only embarrass the Bush administration and bring more calumny down on the FBI and CIA, but probably also expose some nasty secrets about the US biodefense -- or more accurately "bioweapons" -- program.
On Aug. 1, the FBI, under pressure from Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy (targets of two anthrax letters), searched Dr. Hatfill's apartment near Ft. Detrick for the third time. Hatfill has been interviewed by the FBI four times, undergone a lie detector test, and has now hired two layers to represent him. He has also lied about his past, claiming that he was in the US Army Special Forces (he flunked out of Special Forces training after the first month), and he has claimed to have a doctorate in molecular cell biology from the University of Rhodes (but the University has no record of his receiving the degree). There's also a mountain of circumstantial evidence against him.
Hatfill is one of about 20 or 30 people in the US with the scientific know-how to safely handle anthrax spores, who also has had access to a level 3 or 4 "hot" lab where he could work with powdered anthrax without risking infection. Notably, the anthrax in the letter to Tom Daschle was of such high potency that the list of suspects becomes even smaller. It includes Hatfill and only two or three other people who know how to use a new, efficient weaponizing technique developed only recently by one of Hatfill's close colleagues.
Until last year, Hatfill had a security clearance and access to the labs at Ft. Detrick in Maryland, where he was employed until 1999. He left Ft. Detrick to work for a government contractor, SAIC Corp., but his security clearance remained valid until Aug. 23, 2001, allowing him continued access to government labs. According to coworkers, when the Pentagon revoked his security clearance for undisclosed reasons, Hatfill was furious.
Hatfill's colleagues have reported that he lost his security clearance because he failed a lie detector test, specifically when asked questions about his service in the late 1970s with a secret, undercover military unit of the white, racist Rhodesian government. The Selous Scouts were notorious for using chemical and biological warfare against the black, independence fighters in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and against the black civilian population of Rhodesia who occasionally gave material help to the opposition. Historians have documented that the Selous Scouts seeded rivers with cholera, used the chemical toxins warfarin and thallium, sold parathion-laced clothing to opposition fighters and civilians alike, poisoned reservoirs and wells, and were almost certainly responsible for causing the world's largest anthrax outbreak, which sickened over 10,000 people and killed 182.
When Hatfill failed his lie detector test, he complained that the people administering the test were amateurs and that they couldn't understand what he and other Cold Warriors had to do in Rhodesia. Hatfill may have been lying about his work with the Selous Scouts just as he lied about his Special Forces training; nevertheless, his statements provide valuable clues to his mental state and his aspirations.
A recent article in The Sunday Mirror newspaper of Zimbabwe describes Hatfill as a medical student of Dr. Robert Burns Symington, the man credited with developing Rhodesia's chemical weapons.
In fact, Hatfill did attend medical school in Zimbabwe, where he lived near the Greendale Primary School in the capital city of Harare. The anthrax letters mailed last fall to Senators Daschle and Leahy had a phony return address of "Greendale School" in Trenton, NJ. The Greendale School in Harare was once named after the man who founded the Selous Scouts, Hatfill's favorite military squad.
Other details of Hatfill's resume are equally troublesome. After he graduated from medical school in 1983, Hatfill left Zimbabwe for South Africa, following in the tracks of many former white Rhodesian mercenaries who longed to work for a white employer. Hatfill has boasted that he joined the South African Defense Forces' Medical Service unit (SAMS) under the former apartheid government. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the SAMS' 7th Battalion developed an extensive chemical and biological warfare program which it deployed in the war in Angola and in helping the brutal RENAMO rebels in Mozambique. Many of the 7th Battalion's products were used for targeted assassinations of anti-apartheid activists and, horribly, in "crowd control" experiments on black, civilian demonstrators in South Africa. They even attempted to make a biological weapon that would attack only people of color. In 1984 -- the year after Hatfill moved to South Africa -- SAMS ramped up its virology program, conducting bioweapons research on Marburg, Ebola, and Rift Valley Fever, which they received from the US Centers for Disease Control. Dr. Hatfill is an expert on Ebola and Marburg; the US government employed him for two years, from 1997 to 1999, at Ft. Detrick in work on these viruses.
While Hatfill worked at Ft. Detrick, his coworkers saw him taking home old biosafety cabinets, which could be used to grow deadly germs at his home. Hatfill's coworkers have also pointed out that he travels frequently, and was in Britain at the time that one of the anthrax hoax letters was mailed from Britain. And one of the targets of the anthrax laced letters was a media outlet in Boca Raton, Florida -- about 200 miles from where Hatfill rents a storage locker.
Most importantly, an anonymous letter was sent to the FBI before the anthrax deaths occurred. The timing of this letter makes it a crucial clue in finding the anthrax perpetrator; it was mailed after the first anthrax letters were sent, but before anyone had reported any illness or had died from anthrax. No one else but the attacker could have written and mailed it. In this letter, the attacker attempts to point the finger at an Egyptian-born scientist, Dr. Ayaad Assad, who worked at Ft. Detrick until 1997. The attacker gives personal information about Dr. Assad -- information that only a coworker would know. While at Ft. Detrick, Assad was the butt of racist and demeaning taunts by a group of coworkers who called themselves the "Camel Club." Assad has been cleared by the FBI of any involvement with the anthrax letters, but the attacker is probably a member of the "Camel Club," a group of scientists who worked on pathogenic viruses.
How could a virologist get access to anthrax, a bacterium, particularly the potent Ames strain? Of the 15 US labs that have the Ames strain, Dr. Hatfill had access to three (and possibly more because of his security clearance). He is known to have worked in two: Ft. Detrick and Louisiana State University, where he recently accepted a full-time position in the National Center for Biomedical Research and Training. Hatfill has previously worked as an adjunct professor in the LSU program. Hatfill certainly has the motive to make an anthrax-laced letter and mail it to a Democratic Congressperson. For years, he has supplemented his income by speaking to various groups and the media about the necessity for more vigilance and more spending on biodefense. He has taught hospital personnel all over the country how to recognize and respond to virulent biowarfare germs. He has also demonstrated numerous times just how easy it is -- at least for him -- to make biological weapons at home with supplies obtained from the grocery store. He has even demonstrated this skill for ABC TV cameras.
Finally, various US newspapers recently reported that, during his 1999 employment at SAIC Corp, Hatfill and another employee had commissioned a study to describe how anthrax spores could be weaponized, sealed in ordinary business envelopes, and mailed to targets in the US. The newspapers reported that Hatfill undertook the study on his own; however, some of Hatfill's colleagues have come forward to correct the record: Hatfill was working under contract for the CIA at the time, and the CIA had commissioned the study.
Is Hatfill being protected merely because he's a CIA asset? And why is the U.S. government spending money weaponizing biological agents that are a danger to the U.S. public and are banned under the 1972 Biological Warfare Convention?
When the US government signed onto the convention in 1972, President Nixon ordered the US biological weapons stockpile destroyed. But the FBI recently admitted that some germ stocks were maintained in secret anyway. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s -- during the Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush Sr. administrations -- US laboratories sold or gave viral and bacterial cultures to anyone who was an ally at the time, including the apartheid government of South Africa. And now it is apparent that, all throughout that time, the US government recruited men like Steven Hatfill to come to the US and work in our own "biodefense" program and create extraordinarily deadly weapons -- ostensibly to test vaccines.
It's no mystery now why the Bush administration refused to ratify a UN protocol that would strengthen enforcement of the 1972
Bioweapons Convention by allowing inspection of government labs. The US is almost certainly in violation of the treaty.
Is Dr. Hatfill is being let off the hook because he knows that the US has a "bioweapons" program, not a "biodefense" program? In addition, he may know some embarrassing proliferation secrets that the Bush administration would rather keep under wraps right now.
Iraq has become the enemy with weapons of mass destruction, not our own government. But it's the germs in our own labs that have killed five people, sickened dozens of others, cost millions of dollars to clean up, and sparked a billion dollar spending spree to boost "biodefense" programs -- the very programs that should be shut down immediately.
Maria Tomchick is co-editor and contributing writer of Eat The State!, a biweekly newspaper of political opinion, research, and humor based in Seattle, Wash. It can be found online at www.eatthestate.org.