Anthrax Missing From Army Lab
January 20, 2002
By JACK DOLAN And DAVE ALTIMARI, Courant Staff Writers
>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 and
>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
>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
>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 of specimens.
>"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
>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.
>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 week.
>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
>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
>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
>Some samples, particularly viruses, are also irradiated
>with gamma rays before they are handled by the pathology
>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 inert."
>"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 lab.
>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
>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
>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, claiming discrimination.
>Assaad said he had believed the harassment was behind
>him until last October, until after the Sept. 11 terrorist
>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 Detrick colleague.
>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