Turmoil in a Perilous Place

The Hartford Courant

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 in Maryland 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 that he traces back to a decadelong workplace dispute involving 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 being handled by its 100 doctoral-level 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 Tuesday 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 Tuesday 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.

Assaad, whose lawyer is trying to get the letter through a Freedom of Information Act request, said he believes the letter writer is someone from the Army who knew Assaad well, and might be connected to the anthrax attacks.

The FBI has refused to give a copy of the letter to Assaad.

``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. ``You do not need to be a Nobel laureate to put two and two together.''

Assaad had come to the United States 25 years earlier, obtained graduate degrees from the University of Iowa at Ames, 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 the one at Fort Detrick, where he was working on a vaccine against ricin, a cellular poison.

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 that officials say was used in the recent attacks.

During a three-hour interview last week at the Thurmont, Md., office of their lawyer, Rosemary A. McDermott, Assaad and Dr. Richard Crosland also were critical of the perennially changing leadership and ``warring factions'' that they say undermine scientific research at Fort Detrick. A third plaintiff, Dr. Kulthoum ``Kay'' Mereish, was traveling and could not participate in the interview.

Assaad said he was working on the Saturday before Easter 1991, just after the Persian Gulf War had ended, when he discovered an eight-page poem in his mailbox. The poem, which became a court exhibit, is 47 stanzas -- 235 lines in all, many of them lewd, mocking Assaad. The poem also refers to another creation of the scientists who wrote it -- a rubber camel outfitted with all manner of 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 M. Zack and Dr. Marian K. Rippy -- voluntarily left Fort Detrick soon after Assaad brought the poem to the attention of supervisors.

Attempts to reach Zack and Rippy were unsuccessful.

Assaad said he approached his supervisor, Col. David R. 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.'' Assaad alleged that his subsequent layoff, six years later, was another example of Franz's discrimination against Arabs.

In a deposition, Franz said that all three of the Arab Americans at Fort Detrick's infectious disease lab in the early 1990s worked for him. He stated that he had read the poem at that time, but that he wasn't responsible for taking action against its authors because they worked for another division within the institute.

``I was peripheral to everything that surrounded the poem,'' Franz stated in the deposition.

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. I lost nearly 30 percent of my people during the Clinton [administration] downsizing. 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 that it's fair to interview scientists who've left sensitive research positions.

He said he believed whoever is behind the attacks is ``a good microbiologist,'' but added: ``I don't think it's a [Fort Detrick] scientist.''

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.

Crosland speculated that whoever sent the anthrax letters ``would have to be immunized, or it would be suicide.'' But what is the motive?

``I have no idea,'' Crosland said. ``Why did the Unabomber send out package bombs for 20 years? That's the parallel.''

The third plaintiff who was laid off from Fort Detrick, Jordanian-born 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.''

``As a civilized person, I struggled to control my emotions,'' Mereish, now 46, stated. ``I was truly outraged. Why did they hate me so deeply? ... I am an American from the heart and by the law. My division chief, Col. Franz, did nothing to stop this discrimination. He took no action to alleviate the pain and the prejudice rampant throughout the institution.''

Mereish described some of Franz's comments to her as ``absolutely outrageous and totally abhorrent to me.'' As an example, she cited Franz's alleged statement to her that she reminded him of ``Dr. Taha'' -- the biologist in charge of developing the Iraqi biological weapons program.

Crosland, during the interview, described Franz as a racist. ``Everyone knew that,'' Crosland said. ``Trying to prove it is another issue.''

Confronted with the allegations and asked this week if he considers himself racist, Franz initially said, ``I'm not even going to respond to that question,'' but later added, ``I'm a little offended by the question. You obviously don't know me.''

William Patrick, the man who led the Army biological weapons program at Fort Detrick until 1969, described Franz as ``fair minded'' and said he would take any accusations of racism against his colleague ``with a grain of salt.''

Crosland was critical of the research environment at Fort Detrick, saying leadership or priorities would change and projects well under way would be scuttled and new ones initiated.

``You can't do this with revolving leadership and warring camps -- civilians vs. military, enlisted vs. officers, administrators vs. scientists,'' Crosland said. ``And you've got a lot of secrecy. Not confidentiality, but the I-know-something-you-don't-know kind of secrecy. It's just poorly managed. We used to have a saying that anything that got accomplished got accomplished in spite of the place, not because of it.''

Mereish and Assaad's lawsuits initially claimed both age and race discrimination. The racial discrimination claims were dismissed by a federal judge who ruled that several other scientists laid off did not fall into their ``protected class,'' diluting claims that race motivated the layoffs.

The age discrimination suits filed by all three doctors are progressing, however. Of the seven staff members laid off from their department in 1997, six were age 40 or over. Franz also stated under oath he was trying to protect the ``younger'' and ``junior'' scientists.

McDermott is interviewing government officials. She expects a ruling in the case in a matter of months. Significant to the age discrimination cases is a 1995 memo Franz wrote to his superiors that said ``it was the young, bright scientists ... that I must attempt to protect.'' Mereish is now 47, Assaad is 52 and Crosland is 55.

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.

Copyright © 2018, CT Now