The Blog

The Hunting of Steven J. Hatfill (cont.)

Why are so many people eager to believe that this man is the anthrax killer?

12:00 AM, Sep 7, 2002 • By DAVID TELL
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Part 1

6 Let's get out of Africa. Hasn't it been established that Hatfill had experience with and access to anthrax while he was working at Fort Detrick?

No. Hatfill maintains that he has never worked with anthrax bacteria or seen a sample of the organism outside of photographs. He further maintains that he knows nothing about either the bug or the disease it causes beyond what he has randomly picked up in the normal course of his scientific career -- and, lately, in the normal course of reading about himself in the newspaper. So far as we know, these avowals remain completely uncontradicted. Which fact cannot by itself, however, resolve the question whether Hatfill might, while at Fort Detrick, have been able secretly to gain access to the installation's anthrax and then steal a quantity of spores; it is next to impossible to prove that something can't have happened. Still, the scenario seems more than a little dubious.

Most of us remember the blizzard of stories that appeared last winter about a history of lax security at the Detrick laboratories. Most of us do not remember that most of the security lapses at issue in those stories, and all of the worst ones, dated back to the early 1990s. And that the principal evidence adduced for those lapses was derived from documents released in connection with an employment-discrimination lawsuit brought against USAMRIID by a scientist who claims the agency had fired him without cause. And that this man, along with another, similarly disgruntled ex-USAMRIID researcher involved in another, similarly bitter wrongful-discharge suit, were the primary quoted sources for last winter's "Fort Detrick in Chaos" expos s.

It is true that even current Fort Detrick scientists, some of them, have lately told reporters that they can conceive of methods by which they might, if they wished, sneak out of the labs with samples of those pathogens they are authorized to use in official experiments. But making off with pathogens they are not authorized to use is a very different matter. Current and former officials familiar with security arrangements at USAMRIID tell The Weekly Standard that the place has considerably tightened up since the early 1990s. Even before last fall's anthrax attacks, key cards issued to Fort Detrick scientists granted them access only to their own labs and associated facilities -- and were programmed to set off security alarms whenever misused. Steven Hatfill was a virology researcher when he worked at Fort Detrick. Consequently, as USAMRIID has publicly confirmed, he was never authorized to enter the bacteriological buildings where anthrax was kept and studied; he was never tasked to perform anthrax-related work of any kind; and he was never issued vials of anthrax for his own, private use.

Finally, as the New York Times reported on June 23, FBI technicians, through some form of radiocarbon dating, seem to have satisfied themselves that last fall's anthrax letters contained powders prepared from a freshly grown batch of bacteria, no more than two years old. If so, that would suggest that the perpetrator cannot have acquired the anthrax spores from which he cultured his weaponry any earlier than September 1999. Hatfill's National Research Council Grant at Fort Detrick, by its formal terms, ended that same month. But according to numerous published reports, Hatfill was no longer working at USAMRIID by then. He had been full-time at SAIC since the previous February.

7 Hasn't it been established that Hatfill had an up-to-date anthrax vaccination at the time last fall's letters were mailed? No. All Fort Detrick laboratory workers are required to undergo vaccinations against a broad range of pathogens, including anthrax bacteria, whether or not it's something they're likely ever to come in contact with. The standard course of immunizations for anthrax involves six initial shots over a period of eighteen months and then one regular booster shot every succeeding year. Hatfill, through his attorneys, says that his last anthrax shot came in late 1999, and that he hasn't had a booster since -- which, if true, means that he was out of sequence and many months overdue for the relevant vaccination when the anthrax killer was putting last fall's powders together. Yes, the scientific literature, such as it is, suggests that anthrax vaccinations may continue to provide certain individuals, in widely varying degrees and according to factors that aren't yet fully understood, with significant protection against disease -- even after a final booster shot has "expired." But that is not a bet you'd think an experienced scientist like Hatfill would be willing to make.