Arab scientists recount hostility and harassment at military anthrax lab

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Days before the anthrax attacks became known, Dr. Ayaad Assaad sat terrified in a vault-like room at an FBI field office in Washington, D.C. The walls were gray and windowless. The door was locked. It was Oct. 3.

Assaad, an Egyptian-born research scientist laid off in 1997 from the Army's biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, Md., was handed an anonymous letter describing him as "a potential terrorist" with a grudge against the United States and the knowledge to wage biological warfare against his adopted country.

"I was so angry when I read the letter, I broke out in tears," Assaad recalled during a recent interview. "That people could be so evil."

After a brief interview, the FBI let Assaad go and assured him that they believed the letter was a cruel hoax. But for Assaad, the incident was another in a series of humiliations he traces to a decade-long workplace dispute at the Fort Detrick lab.

He and other scientists allege that ethnic discrimination was tolerated, and even practiced, by the lab's former commander. A cadre of coworkers wrote a crude poem denigrating Arab Americans, passed around an obscene rubber camel and lampooned Assaad's language skills.

The locker-room antics in the early 1990s preceded a series of downsizings, some acrimonious, that saw the lab's staff reduced by 30 percent. Along the way, the court record suggests, the Fort Detrick facility became a workplace where "toxic" described more than just the anthrax and other deadly pathogens handled by its 100 scientists.

It also characterized a dysfunctional, at times hostile, atmosphere that had the potential to create the type of disaffected biowarfare scientist that some experts suspect is behind the anthrax attacks.

Neither Assaad nor any other scientist named in the court documents has been linked to the attacks, and most say they have not even been questioned by the FBI. A Fort Detrick spokesman said yesterday that investigators are seeking to question current and former employees of the lab, as well as other government facilities that had access to the same strain of anthrax.

FBI spokesman Chris Murray confirmed yesterday that Assaad has been cleared of suspicion. Murray also said the FBI is not tracking the source of the anonymous letter, despite its curious timing, coming a matter of days before the existence of anthrax-laced mail became known.

"My theory is, whoever this person is knew in advance what was going to happen (and created) a suitable, well-fitted scapegoat for this action," Assaad said.

Assaad had come to the United States 25 years earlier, obtained graduate degrees from the University of Iowa, became a citizen in 1986, married a woman from Nebraska and has two young sons. He spent nine years researching biological and chemical agents at high-security U.S. Army laboratories, including Fort Detrick, where he was working on a vaccine against ricin, a cellular poison.

Bizarre, disjointed and juvenile

Court documents in federal discrimination lawsuits filed by Assaad and two other scientists who also lost their jobs at Fort Detrick in a 1997 downsizing portray a bizarre, disjointed and even juvenile workplace environment in the country's premier biowarfare research lab. The Fort Detrick lab is one of two government labs that work with the world's deadliest pathogens and since 1980 has had the Ames strain of anthrax officials say was used in the recent attacks.

During a three-hour interview last week at the Thurmont, Md., office of their lawyer, Rosemary McDermott, Assaad and Dr. Richard Crosland also were critical of the perennially changing leadership and "warring factions" that they say undermined scientific research at Fort Detrick.

Assaad said he was working on the Saturday before Easter 1991 when he discovered an eight-page poem in his mailbox. The poem, which became a court exhibit, has 235 lines, many of them lewd, mocking Assaad. The poem also refers to another creation of the scientists who wrote it — a rubber camel outfitted with sexually explicit appendages.

The poem reads: "In (Assaad's) honor we created this beast; it represents life lower than yeast." The camel, it notes, each week will be given "to who did the least."

The poem also doubles as an ode to each of the participants who adorned the camel, who number at least six and referred to themselves as "the camel club." Two — Dr. Philip Zack and Dr. Marian Rippy — voluntarily left Fort Detrick soon after Assaad brought the poem to the attention of supervisors.

Attempts to reach Zack and Rippy were unsuccessful.

Supervisor approached

Assaad said he approached his supervisor, Col. David Franz, with his concerns, but Franz "kicked me out of his office and slammed the door in my face, because he didn't want to talk about it. I just wanted it to stop."

In a telephone interview Monday, Franz said the downsizings at the Fort Detrick lab in the late 1990s "were the toughest part of my job. ... If I lost my job, I might be pretty upset, too."

Franz — now a private consultant on countermeasures to biological and chemical attacks — said he was not aware that Assaad had been interviewed by the FBI, but acknowledged it's fair to interview scientists who've left sensitive research positions.

The FBI's profile of the anthrax suspect is a person who is likely male, has some background or strong interest in science and probably has access both to a laboratory and a source of weaponized anthrax.

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a microbiologist affiliated with the Federation of American Scientists, earlier this month carried the profile a bit further when she predicted that the perpetrator is an American microbiologist with access to weaponized anthrax that likely came from a government lab or one contracted by the government.

The third plaintiff who was laid off from Fort Detrick, Jordanian-born Dr. Kulthoum Mereish, was commissioned a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and began researching biological-threat agents at Fort Detrick in 1986. She alleged in the affidavit accompanying her lawsuit that Franz exhibited "a bigotry toward foreigners" and refused to confront the "camel club."

Confronted with the allegations and asked this week if he considers himself racist, Franz replied, "You obviously don't know me."

Crosland and Assaad still hold sensitive positions with the U.S. government. Assaad works for the Environmental Protection Agency as a senior toxicologist reviewing and regulating pesticides. Crosland is scientific-review administrator of biological research at the National Institutes of Health. Mereish, McDermott said, works for the United Nations in a job that has top security clearance.