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Detrick's security lapses date to 1980s; Anthrax not first biological agent to disappear from base
Frederick (MD) Gazette
by Nicole Belanger
Staff Writer
Jan. 24, 2002
Problems with security at Fort Detrick's research laboratories date back even earlier than 1991, when anthrax was discovered missing.
The missing vials of anthrax, ebola and hunta, all dangerous biological agents, were discovered after the Army conducted an environmental impact study on all of its labs as a result of a lawsuit filed by a local retired scientist. Their disappearance became public this week following another lawsuit's disclosure.
Neil Levitt, owner of The Deli restaurant in Frederick, sued the nation's military powers in 1987 after suspicious incidents he experienced surrounding his development of a vaccine for chikungunya, a painful, but not usually fatal, disease spread by mosquitoes.
The vaccine was unsafe, Levitt said, but he believed the Army was covering up the fact that soldiers could have been vaccinated with a virus, instead of a cure.
Two quarts of the virus disappeared and has never been found, according to testimony Levitt gave to the U.S. Senate in 1988. Now Levitt, who worked at Detrick for 17 years before he resigned, said he is not surprised by reports of missing anthrax of the same strain as that involved in last fall's mail attacks that killed five people and injured 13.
Another former Fort Detrick scientist and Frederick resident, Ayaad Assaad, filed a lawsuit in 1998 along with two other former scientists alleging their 1997 termination from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) was a result of age discrimination.
Assaad claims in the suit that scientists and high-ranking Army officers formed a "camel club," a derogatory reference to his Egyptian background.
While Assaad's lawyer, Rosemary McDermott, recently studied a 500-page document the Army compiled about the harassment, she discovered that soldiers testified at the time to missing anthrax.
A warning bell went off in McDermott's mind.
"When we got this information, we felt it was important to get it out into the public for their safety," Assaad said, referring to reports that the strain of anthrax used in the attacks has been traced back to the same strain used at Fort Detrick.
Army officials said the strain is also used in other facilities throughout the country.
Assaad's story, and that of the two other scientists -- Richard Crosland and Kay Mereish -- has hit national news this week over concern about the anthrax mailer's identity.
Assaad became convinced that the terrorist is either a current or former Detrick scientist after the FBI received an anonymous letter identifying Assaad as a potential bioterrorist just days before the first anthrax letter was mailed.
But the FBI has not interviewed Assaad about his theory, he said.
"Everyone else is interested in my story except for law enforcement," Assaad said
A spokeswoman with the U.S. Army public affairs office in Virginia refused to comment on both the lawsuit and the missing vials of anthrax, saying that comments could interfere with the FBI's investigation.
Peter Gulotta, media representative for the FBI's Baltimore field office, would not comment on the ongoing investigation, he said. "We have no information that can be given out to the public," Gulotta said.
A former Army official said the fact that vials of anthrax were missing was public knowledge back in 1991, but both McDermott and Assaad disagree.
"I knew they were missing, but it was very hush, hush," Assaad said.
Norman Covert, who was the public information officer at Detrick from 1977 until 1999, said the Army never verified that anything was actually missing. "There was sloppy bookkeeping and no accountability, but nobody thinks that someone walked out with it," Covert said.
Covert also believes there is little credibility in the pending lawsuit the three scientists have filed.
He said there was an effort to overhaul and improve security at that time, such as installing electronic doors and video monitors. But according to Assaad, the security improvements did not extend to the USAMRIID part of the base.
"We were not impacted by that study," Assaad said. As far he knows, security problems still exist there.
According to the 500-page report, someone was conducting late-night unauthorized research in the labs dealing with anthrax. Lab slides showed up with the words "Antrax 005."
The late-night part was not strange, both Assaad and Covert said, because scientists often conducted research during off-times. But the fact that a specialized electron microscope was used improperly shows that it was by a person who was not trained to use the machine, Assaad said.
He and his colleagues are hoping for the same thing that Levitt wanted 15 years ago: security measures to be instituted at the Army base where lethal and dangerous biological agents are contained just a few blocks away from Frederick residents. "I hope they do a lot of things there, not only security, but it could be a good place to do scientific research if things are improved," Assaad said.

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