The FBI has a new focus in their search for the person who mailed the anthrax letters last November to a Florida media outlet and members of Congress. They also have, for the first time, a real suspect in the case.
Is the suspect a foreigner? Is it an Arab immigrant? A disgruntled Muslim convert from Chicago or California? A member of a right-wing militia group? Or could it be an anarchist loner sitting in a cabin in the middle of the woods somewhere cooking anthrax in his aluminum pans on a butane stove?
It’s none of those. The suspect is Dr. Steven Hatfill, a well-paid scientist and bioterror expert employed by a US government defense contractor.
That’s crazy, right? What respectable, middle-aged man with a high-paying job would intentionally set out to do something that would eventually kill five people, cost millions to clean up, and send the nation into a panic?
The FBI has theorized that Dr. Hatfill or someone like him was motivated to send the anthrax letters post-Sept. 11 in order to put a scare into the US government, the media, and the American people, with the intent to boost funding for bioterrorism programs. While the FBI hasn’t arrested Hatfill or obtained proof beyond a doubt that he did it, the evidence they have so far is very credible.
Hatfill’s name came up on a short list of 20 or 30 people who have the scientific know-how to safely handle anthrax spores and turn them into a deadly biological weapon, who have been vaccinated against anthrax exposure, who have or had security clearances around the time of the attack, and who had access to the army’s biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, MD–now recognized as the undisputed source of the anthrax found in the envelopes mailed to Democratic senators Tom Daschle and Daniel Patrick Leahy.
Hatfill, a medical doctor and a PhD in molecular cell biology, attended medical school in Rhodesia in the 1970s. At the time, he was a graduate of the US Army’s Special Forces training program. The New York Daily News and the Baltimore Sun report that, during the Rhodesian civil war which eventually led to the newly independent nation of Zimbabwe, Hatfill was assigned by the US Army to a Rhodesian government secret army unit that fought against the black guerrilla uprising. Hatfill has described witnessing the 1979-1980 anthrax outbreak in Zimbabwe during the civil war, which infected 10,000 people and killed 200–the largest known outbreak of cutaneous anthrax in modern history. Many bioterror experts believe this outbreak was caused by the use of a biological weapon.
When Hatfill attended medical school in Rhodesia, he lived near the Greendale Primary School in the capital city of Harare. The anthrax letters mailed last fall had a phony return address of “Greendale School” in Trenton, NJ.
Hatfill worked for the US Army’s biodefense lab at Ft. Detrick for two years, but left in 1999 under undisclosed circumstances. A former colleague has said that Hatfill was caught taking home surplus laboratory equipment that could be used to handle dangerous materials.
Hatfill obtained a job with defense contractor Science Applications International Corp. soon after he left Ft. Detrick. He kept his security clearance. But on August 23, 2001, the Pentagon revoked his clearance for undisclosed reasons. SAIC fired him six months later, when it became obvious that he would not be able to regain his security clearance.
While Hatfill worked for SAIC, he and another employee commissioned a study to describe how anthrax could be weaponized, sealed in ordinary business envelopes, and mailed to targets in the US. The study was not commissioned for an outside client of the company; Hatfill undertook it under his own volition. (Hatfill has made numerous public appearances and given media interviews on how easy it is for ordinary people to cook up bioterror weapons in their home kitchens with supplies obtained from the supermarket.) The details of the study so closely resemble the actual attacks of last November, that a number of Hatfill’s colleagues have pressed the FBI to pursue him more aggressively as a suspect.
The FBI had already questioned Dr. Hatfill four times and done a routine search of his apartment in the Detrick Plaza Apartments (just outside the gates of Ft. Detrick), when his name came up again last week in a briefing for the staff of Senators Leahy and Daschle, which included testimony from FBI agents assigned to the case and a noted bioweapons expert from the American Federation of Scientists. On Tuesday, June 25, the FBI returned to Dr. Hatfill’s apartment. This time, instead of taking a few swabs and rifling through some papers, they removed garbage bags full of evidence. In addition, they searched a locker he rents near his parents’ ranch in Ocala, Florida, just 230 miles from the Boca Raton offices of the Florida Sun, where media tabloid photographer, Robert Stevens, received the first anthrax dose and became the first fatality.
If Dr. Hatfill or someone like him is the originator of the anthrax letters, then his goal to increase funding and attention for potential bioterrorism attacks has been successful beyond his wildest dreams. The US government has appropriated billions of dollars for stockpiling vaccines, preparing hospitals, and readying local law enforcement to protect the American public from a chimera. Notably, three days after the FBI searched Dr. Hatfill’s apartment and storage locker, the Pentagon announced that it was backing down from its requirement that all US military personnel be vaccinated against anthrax.
After all, last November’s anthrax threat originated within our own “defense” community, and the FBI has recognized that almost from the start. The fact that the US military’s biodefense program is stockpiling deadly bacteria with minimal security is a big part of the problem. And the fact that much of our bio-defense work is being performed by private companies like SAIC, who employed Dr. Hatfill after he was dismissed from Ft. Detrick (and didn’t ask why), and who kept him on staff after his security clearance was revoked (and didn’t ask why), is another part of the problem. These same private companies are now lining up for a chunk of taxpayer money that they don’t deserve.
But the biggest problem is the US media, which created a nationwide panic over the deaths of five people, when a larger number of people die of lightening strikes in any given year. The media frenzy was followed quickly by politicians (with their eyes on the November polls) eager to do something to protect America–which, naturally, meant raiding the national treasury.
Compounding the problem, the media again dropped the ball by not reporting the FBI’s focus on a handful of US bioweapons experts and army researchers as the main suspects. This made it impossible for the US public to put into perspective all the political grandstanding or raise an outcry against the hemorrhage of taxpayer funds.
Sources for this article: “US to keep anthrax vaccine for civilians,” BBC Online, 6/29/02; “FBI Investigates Anthrax Researchers,” Christopher Newton, Associated Press, 6/28/02; “Biological Warfare Experts Questioned in Anthrax Probe,” Guy Gugliotta and Dan Eggen, Washington Post, 6/28/02, A7; “Doc in Anthrax Probe Studied Mail Bioterror,” Helen Kennedy, New York Daily News Online, 6/28/02; “Blueprint for Anthrax Attack,” Brian Ross, ABCNews.com, 6/27/02; “Scientist theorized anthrax mail attack,” Scott Shane, Baltimore Sun, 6/27/02; “FBI Searches Home in Anthrax Case,” Dave Altimari and Jack Dolan, Hartford Courant, 6/26/02; “Frederick scientist’s home searched in anthrax probe,” Scott Shane, Baltimore Sun, 6/26/02; and “Clues to Anthrax Attacks Found,” Rick Weiss, Washington Post, 5/10/02, A2.