FBI Overlooks Foreign Sources of Anthrax

December 24, 2001

by Edward Jay Epstein

The government seems hell-bent in its effort to limit the suspects in the anthrax mystery to a domestic loner. First, the FBI's behavioral analysis came up with the profile of a lone wolf based on its "exacting handwriting and linguistic analysis" of one letter that contained 18 words and another that contained 27 words. It suggested that the writer of these two letters was a single disgruntled American, not connected to the jihadist terrorists of Sept. 11 (even though the letter used the plural pronoun "we" and began with an underlined "9-11").

The problem is that this approach could not apply to the attacks for which no letter was found, such as the one in Florida. More important, the "lone wolf" theory failed to explain how a single person could acquire a virulent strain of Ames bacteria and weaponize it into an aerosol by milling the spore to one to five microns in diameter and producing billions of spores.

Initially, the FBI theorized that this strain was widely available, since it had been circulated to thousands of researchers, but this confused the nonvirulent Ames strain (which lacked an outer protective shells and toxic proteins) with the virulent one contained in the letters. As it turned out, only a small number of repositories -- fewer than 20 -- ever had access to the virulent strain. The search might have been narrowed down to a single repository if the FBI had not allowed an Agriculture Department facility at Iowa State to destroy through incineration the specimens that constituted the "family tree" of the Ames strain (which had originally been found in 1932 in Ames, Iowa).

Next, an analysis at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff found that the DNA of the anthrax used in the attacks was indistinguishable from an Ames strain sample provided by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease at Fort Detrick, Md. At this point, the White House spokesman Ari Fleischer commented that the "evidence is increasingly looking like" the anthrax-laced letters came from a domestic source.

This assumption is premature. The virulent strain of the Ames virus is also found abroad.

David Franz, who headed the biological-research program at Fort Detrick between 1987 and 1998, said that when the Army wanted to conduct defensive experiment on the Ames strain, it had to obtain the "information" from a British military lab that did experiments with Ames anthrax in the powdered form. Evidently, the virulent Ames strain had been sent from the U.S. to Britain, and, after the U.S. destroyed its stockpiles in the 1970s, samples had to be obtained from the British facility at Porton Downs, specifically from the Center for Applied Microbiology and Research (CAMR). Martin Hugh-Jones, a scientist at Lousiana State University who received a sample from CAMR in the 1990s, recalls that it was marked "October, 1932." So the matching sample traces not only to the U.S. but to Britain.

The security of the British anthrax bacteria is complicated by its privatization. In 1993, at the time it was supplying the virulent Ames strain sample, CAMR was partly privatized by the British government through a marketing agreement with Porton Products Ltd. in which Porton sold all its anthrax vaccine. Porton Products was owned by Speywood Holdings Ltd., which, in turn, was owned by I&F Holdings NV, a Netherlands Antilles corporate shell owned by Fuad El-Hibri, a Lebanese Arab with joint German-U.S. citizenship; his father, Ibrihim El-Hibri; and possibly other undisclosed investors.

Prior to his taking over this biotech company, Fuad El-Hibri had worked in the mergers-and-acquisitions department of Citibank in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, where he specialized in arranging investments for large Saudi investors. Saudi Arabia then was interested in obtaining an anthrax vaccine to counter Saddam Hussein's biological warfare capabilities. But the U.S. would not provide it.

So when Mr. El-Hibri took over the British biotech lab, he reorganized its bio-terrorism defense business, and arranged deliveries of biotech defense products to Saudi Arabia. Mr. El-Hibri was unavailable for comment, but the ownership is a matter of record and he has not made a secret of his involvement in bio-warfare research. Indeed, he testified before Congress in 1999: "I participated in the marketing and distribution of substantial quantities of two bio-defense vaccines -- botulinum Type A and anthrax."

Even more intriguing, Mr. El-Hibri's interest in anthrax vaccines did not stop with his deal with CAMR. In 1998, he arranged a leveraged buyout of the Michigan Biological Products Institute. MBPI, which originally had been owned by the state of Michigan, held the exclusive contract for providing the U.S. government with anthrax vaccine. While its vaccine worked well against the Vollum strain of anthrax (used by Russia), it was more problematic against the Ames strain. So it had conducted tests with the virulent Ames strain on guinea pigs, mice and monkeys with mixed results. BioPort's spokeperson confirmed that it had access to the virulent Ames strain for testing on animals. To take over MBPI, Mr. El-Hibri became an American citizen, and gave retired Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a large block of stock in Intervac, one of the corporations involved in the maneuver. The controlling shareholder was the same I&F Holdings used to take control of the British biotech lab, CAMR. He then renamed the company BioPort. BioPort, which controlled America's anthrax vaccine, was apparently of some interests to scientists in Afghanistan since an environmental assessment report of its planned laboratory renovations was turned up in the house of a Pakistani scientist in Kabul.

So far, the offshore availability of anthrax has been overshadowed by the search for a domestic lone wolf. Since the lethal bacteria could have been stolen from either a foreign or domestic lab, weaponized in a stealthed bio-warfare facility overseas and sent in ziplock bags to the person mailing the letters, The investigative focus needs to be widened.

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