WASHINGTON – Biologists at U.S. Army labs say that, thanks to the FBI’s floundering anthrax investigation, they will now have to undergo Top Secret background checks to work with anthrax and other bio-agents.
Army scientists handle anthrax, as well as plague, botulinum toxin and tularemia, on a regular basis. The biological agents are classified as Biosafety Level 3, the second-highest biohazard risk, but have not required such security clearance in the past.
“We were told that to even be in a room with the select agents we will have to have a special key and Top Secret clearance,” said a biologist at the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, a top Pentagon bioweapons research center.
The scientist, who requested anonymity, called the new restrictions a “knee-jerk reaction” to the FBI’s profiling of possible suspects in the anthrax case.
Following stock psychological profiles, the FBI has focused on an angry, “lone individual” with some scientific background in its anthrax murder probe. Five people were killed by anthrax-laced letters sent through the mail just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The FBI identified former Army scientist Dr. Steven Hatfill as a “person of interest” in the case and has repeatedly searched his old apartment. He worked until 1999 for Fort Detrick’s Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Maryland. The USAMRIID lab is the primary custodian of the virulent Ames strain of anthrax found in the anthrax letters, which praised “Allah” and called for death to America and Israel.
Hatfill, who has not been charged in the case, strongly denies any involvement in the anthrax letters. The FBI has been criticized for rushing to accuse him in what looks to be a repeat of the bureau’s bungled Richard Jewell case. Hatfill’s spokesman, Patrick Clawson, declined comment on the tighter security measures at Army labs, which appear to be a legacy of the FBI’s targeting of Hatfill.
WorldNetDaily also has learned that the FBI recently administered polygraph tests to some Dugway scientists. “They were asked questions about the letters,” the Dugway biologist said.
FBI investigators have been working secretly for months at Dugway to “reverse-engineer” the highly lethal spores found in the letters. Determining precisely how the spores were weaponized could help agents narrow the suspect list. More than a year after the letters were mailed, they still have no solid leads.
The Army recently put up a fence around the perimeter of the Dugway lab where biologists handle anthrax, sources say.
A Dugway spokeswoman referred questions about the security tightening to the Pentagon. A spokesman there, James Turner, acknowledged that a review of lab security is under way, but he could neither confirm nor deny specific measures taken at the labs.
“The Department of Defense, the Army and the various agencies are still in the drafting stages of developing an appropriate level of security to properly safeguard biological select agents against loss, theft, sabotage, diversion or unauthorized use,” Turner said in an interview. “Until the guidance is official and final, it would be too early to comment on the controls we have recently added to our facilities.”
A USAMRIID spokeswoman says the post-anthrax “bioassurety program” will establish new guidelines involving personnel background investigations, as well as physical security, accountability and inventory of stock, and safety.
Army lab scientists complain that university labs also work with anthrax and other select BL3 agents, and many of them employ foreign nationals, and yet they have not restricted access to such bio-agents.
But USAMRIID spokeswoman Caree Vander-Linden says the new guidelines will cover university labs, too.
“It’s not just defense labs,” Vander-Linden told WorldNetDaily. “Other labs at universities will have a similar program in place.”
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