A Delivery from the Inside

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Remember the recent anthrax case in the US last year which led to the deaths of five people, with 13 others being infected?

Such was the hysteria at the time that US senators were forced to evacuate their offices for two months because they thought anthrax had found its way into the air conditioning system. The scare was also used to justify the military build-up in preparation for the war against Afghanistan. We were told that the person sending anthrax was a terrorist, possibly a supporter of Al Qaida or Saddam Hussein.

Well, it now appears that the anthrax attacker was in fact an American scientist who worked within the US's own biological warfare establishment. Recent reports in 'New Scientist' magazine and the 'Guardian' show there is increasing evidence that the variant of anthrax contained in the letters was an unusually virulent strain made at the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Barbara Rosenberg is a bioweapons expert for the Federation of American Scientists. She said, 'We can draw a likely portrait of the perpetrator as a former Fort Detrick scientist who is now working for a contractor in the Washington DC area.' She goes on to say, 'He probably made the anthrax himself and weaponised it in a private location with equipment and material he had accumulated.' Rosenberg reveals that the anthrax attacker would have been vaccinated, and would have had access to classified information about modifying the spores to make them stay airborne.

None of this specialised knowledge was utilised at the time to try and capture the attacker. Not only was the government's own research ignored but advice by both Russian and Canadian scientists, which could have saved lives, was disregarded by the FBI.

There is another clue which points to someone who worked at USAMRIID itself. A US Marine base received a letter in late September, after the anthrax letters were posted but before Robert Stevens, the first victim of the attack, was diagnosed. The letter called an Egyptian scientist, Ayaad Assad, a bioterrorist. Assad was laid off by USAMRIID in 1997, and was harassed while he worked there. Rosenberg suspects the letter sent to the Marine base was the real attacker's attempt to frame Assad by trying to capitalise on anti-Muslim feeling after 11 September. The letter also revealed an insider's familiarity with USAMRIID. She says 'The FBI may be dragging its feet and may be not so anxious to bring to public light the person who did this.'

New Scientist also reports that the attacker masqueraded as a Muslim in the anthrax letters themselves: 'This could be a clue to his motivations. If he wished to scale up US military action against Iraq he almost succeeded-many in Washington tried hard to see Saddam Hussein's hand in the attacks.'

The other motivation, however, may have been to make the US pour billions of dollars into biological weapons research, something Bush has been only too willing to do. He recently announced an $11 billion increase in funding over the next two years. Some $1.5 billion is earmarked for the National Institute of Health alone-five times its current biological warfare budget. The money will pay for basic research into 'select agents'-the phrase used for the pathogens most likely to be turned into weapons-and for work on improved diagnostic drugs and vaccines. Top of the list come anthrax, plague, smallpox, botulism and tularemia, (a bacterial disease of rodents).

Increasing the number of pathogens to be used as weapons makes the country more, not less, vulnerable to attack from some disgruntled 'insider'. More expenditure and commitment to develop biological weapons can only lead to an escalation of the same from other powers around the world.