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Thursday, Jul. 03, 2003 at 8:18 AM
Steven Hatfill, who has been described as a “person of interest” in the investigation into a series of anthrax mail attacks in 2001, worked as recently as last year on a top-secret Defense Department project in which a mobile germ lab...
Hatfill reportedly worked on secret germ-lab mockup
‘Person of interest’ in anthrax probe said to have helped train U.S. troops
July 2 — Steven Hatfill, who has been described as a “person of interest” in the investigation into a series of anthrax mail attacks in 2001, worked as recently as last year on a top-secret Defense Department project in which a mobile germ lab similar to those believed to be in use in Iraq was constructed in the United States, it was reported Wednesday. Hatfill’s work on the hitherto undisclosed project, designed to train U.S. Special Operations units to detect and disable such mobile labs, explains in large part while federal investigators have made the medical doctor turned bioweapons expert a central focus of their probe into the deadly attacks.
THE NEW YORK Times, citing unidentified administration officials and experts in germ weaponry, reported that the mobile lab in a Delta trailer was an accurate facsimile of those believed to be in Iraq, but was never “plugged in” to produce anthrax or other biological agents. The lab was examined by the FBI, but no evidence linking it to the crime was found, the newspaper said.
The newspaper said that the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency asked Science Applications, a San Diego company with offices in Virginia, to build the mobile lab facsimile in 2000 after concluding that an Iraqi defector’s claim that Saddam Hussein’s regime had such labs was probably true. Company officials assigned the project to Hatfill, who had previously commissioned research to assess the risks of anthrax spores sent through the mail, and a colleague, the newspaper said.
PARTS STORED IN WAREHOUSE
Hatfill, who has repeatedly denied any role in the anthrax attacks and has said he knows nothing about anthrax production, quickly began ordering parts for the mobile unit, which he stored in a warehouse long before construction work on the lab began in September 2001, the Times said.
The newspaper said Hatfill’s work on the trainer, which included a fermenter, a centrifuge and a mill for grinding clumps of anthrax into the optimal size for penetrating human lungs, was a major reason that he came under suspicion in the anthrax attacks, which killed five people.
“It’s the ordering of equipment that in hindsight looks suspicious,” the newspaper quoted one expert as saying.
The Times reported that Hatfill ran some training sessions for Special Operations forces using the mobile lab last fall at Fort Bragg, N.C., long after he had been identified by Attorney General John Ashcroft as a “person of interest” in the anthrax probe.
Hatfill’s spokesman, Pat Clawson, told the Times that Hatfill would not comment on any secret project.
The newspaper quoted Col. Bill Darley, a spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., as saying the mobile lab was used exclusively for training.
“We are not growing anthrax or botulinum toxin,” the Times quoted him as saying. “None of this equipment is functional. It looks like — it is — the real stuff, but it’s nonfunctional.”
U.S. forces in Iraq have found two mobile labs that the Bush administration says were biological-weapons production plants, though no evidence has been found that they were actually used to manufacture anthrax or other biological agents.
Meanwhile, FBI investigators last weekend finished searching the bed of a pond near Frederick, Md., apparently finding no physical evidence relevant to the anthrax case.
The decision to drain the one-acre pond, which is about eight miles from the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, where Hatfill once worked, came after some FBI officials theorized that the anthrax attacker could have packed the letters underwater to avoid being exposed to anthrax and may have disposed of evidence there.
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