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Thursday December 13 09:07 AM EST

U.S. Recently Produced Anthrax in a Highly Lethal Powder Form


Government officials have acknowledged that Army scientists in recent years have made anthrax in a powdered form that could be used as a weapon.

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As the investigation into the anthrax attacks widens to include federal laboratories and contractors, government officials have acknowledged that Army scientists in recent years have made anthrax in a powdered form that could be used as a weapon.

Experts said this appeared to be the first disclosure of government production of anthrax in its most lethal form since the United States renounced biological weapons in 1969 and began destroying its germ arsenal.

Officials at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in Utah said that in 1998 scientists there turned small quantities of wet anthrax into powder to test ways to defend against biowarfare attacks.

A spokeswoman at Dugway, Paula Nicholson, said the powdered anthrax produced that year was a different strain from the one used in the recent mail attacks that have killed five people. Dugway officials said powdered anthrax was also produced in other years but declined to say whether any of it was the Ames strain, the type found in the letters sent to two senators and news organizations.

Government records show that Dugway has had the Ames strain since 1992.

Dugway officials said in a statement that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was looking into "the work at Dugway Proving Ground," along with that of other medical facilities, universities and laboratories. "The Army is cooperating with and assisting the F.B.I.'s efforts," the officials said.

The disclosure at Dugway comes as federal agents, as part of a vast investigation of the anthrax attacks that has made little apparent headway, are trying to figure out where stores of anthrax are housed around the nation and who has the skill to create the powdered form — a major technical step needed to make the anthrax used in the terror attacks.

The F.B.I. declined to detail its strategy other than to say its agents have visited some laboratories and are identifying new ones that may have handled, or had access to, the Ames strain.

"We're following every logical lead," said one law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The F.B.I has subpoenaed records from dozens of laboratories that do pathogen research, drawing up a list of places that possess the Ames strain. The bureau, citing the criminal investigation, will not release the list or identify the labs being scrutinized. But private experts say the list is most likely short.

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a biological arms control expert at the State University of New York at Purchase and chairwoman of a bioweapons panel at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington, concluded that at least 15 institutions had worked recently with the Ames strain. Dr. Rosenberg, who has argued that the likeliest suspect in the anthrax attacks is a government insider or someone in contact with an insider, drew up her list after surveying scientific publications about anthrax and consulting private and federal experts.

Of the 15, Dr. Rosenberg said, four are "probably more likely than the others to have weaponization capabilities" — the ability to turn wet anthrax spores into a fine powder that could be used as a weapon.

Army researchers have previously acknowledged making wet anthrax, but Dr. Rosenberg said the acknowledgment yesterday by Dugway officials that they had produced dried anthrax was the government's only such disclosure. "I know of no case of the United States saying that it has made anthrax powder," she said.

Some details of Dugway's anthrax work were reported yesterday by The Baltimore Sun.

Dugway's disclosure was so sketchy that it was impossible to determine how similar the powdered anthrax produced there was to that sent in the anthrax attacks. In addition to drying, other steps involved in producing the most lethal powders include making the particles uniformly small and processing them so they float freely.

Private and federal experts are clashing over how much powdered anthrax Dugway has made. The issue is politically sensitive since some experts say producing large quantities could be seen as violating the global treaty banning germ weapons.

William C. Patrick III, a scientist who made germ weapons for the United States and now consults widely on biological defenses, told a group of American military officers in February 1999 that he taught Dugway personnel the previous spring how to turn wet anthrax into powders, according to a transcript of the session.

The process, Mr. Patrick told officers at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, was not as refined as the one used in the heyday of the government's germ warfare program, but it worked. "We made about a pound of material in little less than a day," he told the officers. "It's a good product."

He did not say what strain of anthrax was used in this work.

But Ms. Nicholson, the Dugway spokeswoman, said workers there "never produced more than a few grams" of powdered anthrax in any given year. There are 454 grams in a pound.

Experts have said the letter sent to Senator Tom Daschle contained about two grams of anthrax spores — a small amount, but enough, if distributed with high efficiency, to infect millions of people.

Ms. Nicholson said the dry anthrax made in 1998 was of the strain known as Vollum 1B, which the Army used to make anthrax weapons before the United States renounced biological arms in 1969. She said it was used for decontamination studies.

"You have to use live spores because you are determining the rates of inactivation or kill," she said.

She said Dugway did make one- pound quantities of Bacillus subtilis, a benign germ sometimes used to simulate anthrax. Mr. Patrick could not be reached for comment on this point.

Elisa D. Harris, who handled biological defense issues on the National Security Council for the Clinton administration, said she knew nothing about a pound of dried anthrax being made at Dugway. She added that after President Richard M. Nixon unilaterally ended America's germ weapons program, the United States destroyed about 220 pounds of anthrax.

Dugway's production of dried anthrax is part of the government's secret research program on how to defend against germ weapons, which gained momentum in the late 1990's. The Clinton administration began a series of projects aimed at understanding the nation's vulnerabilities to biowarfare and devising ways combat the threats.

Experts like Dr. Rosenberg have argued that some of these programs violate the 1972 global treaty banning germ weapons. Others say these projects, including making small amounts of the germs, are permitted by the treaty and are vital to defense research.

It is uncertain how the disclosure by Dugway will be perceived abroad, where some European countries have recently accused the United States of turning its back on the germ treaty, charges that the Bush administration denies.

It is not known whether Dugway has shared its skills in making biological powders with other institutions, but it has shared its supply of the Ames strain.

In 1997, it sent germs to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, said Christopher C. Kelly, a spokesman there. He added that the institute, a sister lab to the Naval Medical Research Center, uses Ames to develop research assays for biological defense.

F.B.I. agents have interviewed staff members there, he said.

Intelligence officials say that Battelle Memorial Institute, a military contractor in Ohio, has experience making powdered germs. They say the contractor participated in a secret Central Intelligence Agency program, code-named Clear Vision and begun in 1997, that used benign substances similar to anthrax to mimic Soviet efforts to create small bombs that could emit clouds of lethal germs.

Katy Delaney, a Battelle spokeswoman, would not comment on the laboratory's anthrax work except to say that the lab had always cooperated "with any and all legitimate inquiries from law enforcement."

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