Polygraphs to be given federal workers about anthrax attacks

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Still seeking a suspect in the anthrax-by-mail attacks, the Justice Department is preparing to give lie detector tests to hundreds of federal workers at two facilities where anthrax is kept, a law enforcement official says.

The government will administer the tests to workers at Fort Detrick, Md., and Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. The tests will begin in June.

Investigators will focus on workers who had expertise in preparing anthrax for use as a weapon and those who may have had access to it, the official said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The move underscores the government's growing suspicion that the anthrax attacks were conducted by someone with legitimate access to the deadly bacteria.

ABC News, which first reported the plans for testing, said some former employees of both facilities may be given polygraph tests as well.

The law enforcement official said the plan to test employees does not mean the government has a suspect.

The World Bank, meanwhile, told 1,200 of its 8,500 employees in Washington not to report to work for two days because a preliminary anthrax test of mail came back positive, spokeswoman Caroline Anstey said Monday. The preliminary tests often give false positives and the more definitive tests should be done in two days, Anstey said.

The International Monetary Fund reported Tuesday that it had received a positive reading from a batch of mail at its facility.

IMF chief spokesman Thomas Dawson said that all IMF mail is initially screened for anthrax at an offsite facility. However, officials decided to do a second test Monday after being informed of the positive reading at the World Bank. This second test produced a positive reading for anthrax where no such reading had been found in the first test.

Dawson said the suspect mail has been sent to a lab for a third more extensive set of tests with results expected back in two days. IMF employees who worked in the mailroom and the loading dock area had been sent home, Dawson said.

The preliminary anthrax readings at the IMF and World Bank follow a field test positive reading earlier this month at the Federal Reserve. Fed spokesman David Skidmore said Tuesday that follow-up testing was still being conducted on the 20 letters involved in that incident.

The investigation into who sent several anthrax-laced letters last year has produced few leads and investigators acknowledge the trail is growing cold. The government has begun a strategy of focusing on possible sources of anthrax and casting a wide net, rather than identifying suspects from the few clues gained from the letters.

Army scientists in Utah have been developing a powdered form of anthrax for use in testing biological defense systems, military officials have said.

The Army said in a recent statement that small quantities of anthrax have routinely been produced at Dugway, and then shipped to the Army's biodefense center at Fort Detrick.

Fort Detrick, which also is home to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, has anthrax samples from other sources as well.

Investigators began interviewing employees at Fort Detrick after anthrax-laced letters were sent to members of Congress in Washington and to television network offices in New York last year. Along the way, anthrax spores leaking from the letters contaminated post office buildings in Washington and New Jersey.

Two Washington postal workers died of inhaled anthrax, as did two women thought to have been infected from the mail. At least 13 people developed either skin or respiratory anthrax, but recovered.

The strain of anthrax found in letters mailed to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy is called Ames. Scientists at Detrick obtained a sample of the Ames strain from the Agriculture Department in the early 1980s for vaccine testing, and in turn gave samples to at least five other labs.

Since the attacks, security at Fort Detrick has come under fire.

One former researcher at the infectious-disease center there said recently that nothing would have prevented workers from removing deadly germs from the labs.

Fort Detrick spokesman Charles Dasey declined to comment on the allegations of lax security.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: