Antrhax Experiments, Production and Cover-up?

News reports that the FBI is not close to making an arrest in its investigation of last year’s deadly anthrax mailings and may be “dragging its feet,” have provoked charges of a possible cover-up and secret domestic experiments conducted during the 1950s by Fort Detrick researchers.

Beginning one week after the September 11 terrorists attacks, anonymous and threatening letters, some containing anthrax, were mailed from Trenton, New Jersey and St. Petersburg, Florida to a number of media outlets and Congressional offices. Eventually, as a result of these mailings, five people died and twenty-three other people fell seriously ill.

The new charges concerning domestic experiments center primarily on a 1957 anthrax outbreak in Manchester, New Hampshire. In August and September of that year, three employees at the Arms Textile Mill contracted anthrax inhalation and died. A fourth employee died in October and a few weeks earlier five other employees came down with cutaneous anthrax, a less dangerous form of the disease. A fifth employee came down with inhalation anthrax on September 5, but remarkably recovered from the disease.

A routine activity at the Arms Mill was the processing of goat’s hair imported from Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, and India for use in the lining of expensive suits and coats. The mill employed 632 workers spread throughout a complex of large brick buildings located on the banks of the Merrimack River and near the edge of downtown Manchester.

Curiously, the mill never ceased operations, even temporarily, during the outbreak and continued to operate until 1968 when it went out of business. Two years prior to its closing a man working in a machinery shop across from the mill died of anthrax inhalation. State health officials conjectured that spores remaining from the 1957 incident migrated from the Arms buildings through a shared ventilation system into the machinery shop.

Following its closure, state health officials sealed the mill off while trying to decide the best way to make the site environmentally safe. Following an expensive decontamination process in 1971, after which the mill still tested positive for anthrax, the buildings were demolished. The colossal pile of rubble was systematically soaked in chlorine for decontamination and, when that proved ineffective on the mill’s huge hickory beams, an incinerator was erected on the site that burned the wood to fine ash. The remaining bricks and stone were carted away for nearby burial. Today the old Arms site is a parking lot for an upscale commercial area.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, the Arms Mill outbreak is “the only anthrax epidemic” that occurred in the United States. The CDC also reports “that only 18 cases of inhalation anthrax were reported in the U.S. from 1900 to 1978 and that “two of the cases were laboratory associated.”

In an amazing coincidence, at the same time of the Arms outbreak, the mill was the site of tests using an experimental anthrax vaccine. The Biological Warfare Laboratories of the U.S. Chemical Corps at Fort Detrick, Frederick, Maryland, sponsored the tests, which began quietly in May 1955. Additionally, Fort Detrick scientist, Dr. George G. Wright, developed the prototype vaccine used at the mill. The vaccine was briefly produced a few years later by the pharmaceutical company Merck Sharp & Dohme, today Merck and Co., Inc. Company head, George W. Merck, was a principal advocate of biological warfare in the 1940s and 1950s and was a founder of Fort Detrick. Wright’s vaccine is essentially the same serum administered today to American military personnel and others at risk to anthrax. Also involved in the 1957 Arms mill tests, according to declassified Fort Detrick documents and former scientists who worked on the project, were Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, and Britain’s top secret Microbiological Warfare Research Laboratories at Porton Down.

In recent weeks, a number of former Fort Detrick researchers who have been interviewed by the FBI as possible sources of information, as well as possible suspects, in the anthrax-letters investigation, have confidentially expressed concerns that “the anthrax mailer” may never be arrested because “he knows too much” about incidents like the Arms Textile Mill tests and other surreptitious Army experiments conducted throughout the 1950s.

Dr. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a microbiologist who chairs the Working Group on Biological Weapons for the American Federation of Scientists, has also aggressively advanced this same hypothesis. According to an “Analysis of the Anthrax Attacks” released by Rosenberg early last month, “the FBI has known that the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks is American” for over three months, but speculates Rosenberg, the perpetrator may be “untouchable to the FBI” because he may “know something that he believes to be significantly damaging to the United States.” Also, in early February, Rosenberg told Salon reporter, Laura Rozen: “This guy knows too much, and knows things the U.S. isn’t very anxious to publicize.”

FBI director Robert Mueller has dismissed Dr. Rosenberg’s remarks as “inaccurate” and said that the FBI “is in no way, shape, or form dragging its feet in the investigation.” Other FBI officials who have declined to speak on-the-record about the investigation say that it “would be imprudent to discuss the details of the case publicly at this juncture.”

In all of her statements about the anthrax mailings, Dr. Rosenberg has said nothing about the attacker’s motivations, but another anthrax expert, Dr. Meryl Nass, has advanced a provocative theory.

Dr. Nass, a biologist and medical doctor who spent three years studying the worlds largest anthrax epidemic in Zimbabwe, said that she believes the motivational factors in the anthrax mailings may be financial and political. In an interview this week, Nass said: “To me it appears the attacks were designed to get publicity, no deaths, and were politically motivated.”

Without doubt, the anthrax investigation, which thus far has visibly produced little in the way of hard results, has generated a number of embarrassing reports to the federal government. First, there was the revelation that the anthrax strain used in the attacks came from a government-sponsored laboratory which in turn obtained the anthrax from the British government’s Porton Down facility which in turn obtained it from Fort Detrick. That strain, commonly called the Ames strain, originated from specimens taken in 1979 from an infected dead cow by scientists at Iowa State University’s Ames Laboratory. The strain’s moniker came into play in 1980 after Fort Detrick researchers requested a virulent culture sample from the University. Once received, the Army dubbed it the “Ames strain.”

Second, came reports that the Army has been unable to account for many of its anthrax specimens and that, since at least 1992, some have been misplaced, lost, or stolen. The Army admits that a 1992 audit at Fort Detrick discovered that nearly a dozen anthrax specimens were missing. Of equal concern is that the same audit revealed that other specimens of the deadly Ebola virus were also missing.

Third, is the Army’s “lack of security” at some of its assumed “highly secured” Fort Detrick laboratories. A January 20, 2002 article in the Hartford Courant by Jack Dolan and Dave Altimari states that two former Fort Detrick scientists “said that as recently as 1997, when they left, controls at Fort Detrick were so lax it wouldn’t have been hard for someone with security clearance for its handful of labs to smuggle out biological specimens.” The same article quotes the former chief of one of Fort Detrick’s laboratories, Lt. Col. Michael Langford, as saying that the lab he took over in 1992 had “little or no accountability” and that he ordered an immediate inventory of the facility. According to other former Fort Detrick scientists, some of the specimens that Langford’s audit revealed missing were “tissue samples” taken from “dead animals and humans who had been infected with lethal diseases.”

Reports of lack of security perhaps should come as no surprise to the Army or FBI investigators. In September 1986, Neil Levitt, a former laboratory director at Fort Detrick’s Research Institute on Infectious Diseases, publicly claimed that security was so lax at the facility that someone walked off with “more than a quart” of a deadly virus. The virus caused a disease called Chikungunya, an affliction found in Africa and Asia that produces rapid and severe flu-like symptoms.

Even earlier in September 1975, Dr. Edward Schantz, a University of Wisconsin professor and former Fort Detrick researcher, testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Intelligence Activities, told Sen. John Tower that there was no “formal process” for handling lethal substances at the Maryland facility. Schantz said that researchers routinely “passed [substances] back and forth” to other laboratories with virtually no controls in place.

Equally embarrassing to the government have been reports over the past five months that were recently confirmed by a December 23, 2001 Baltimore Sun article by reporter Scott Shane. The article revealed that Fort Detrick scientists had harvested bacteria from the dead bodies of persons “accidentally infected” with anthrax. Several former Army researchers who are now retired and live in Florida, including Bill Walter who to reporter Shane, have reported that at least three people affiliated with Fort Detrick who died from anthrax had their cadavers harvested so as to assist in the development of a new virulent anthrax strain. Army officials dispute these reports and say that harvesting was never performed at Fort Detrick. However, the same officials admit that accidental anthrax deaths did occur at the facility.

One of the allegedly harvested bodies was that of a Fort Detrick microbiologist, Dr. William A. Boyles. According to former colleagues, Boyles died on November 25, 1951 after “accidentally inhaling anthrax spores used in a controlled experiment.” Within 48-hours Boyles fell seriously ill and developed an extremely high fever. According to once classified Army documents, Boyles was first taken to a public hospital in Frederick, Maryland and then within hours transferred to the Fort Detrick Hospital where oddly the day before he had sent home after being diagnosed as having a common cold. Boyles died after slipping into a coma five hours after his transfer. The Army falsified his death certificate and issued a press release stating he had died from bronchial pneumonia. In 1975, after the Army admitted covering-up Boyles’ death, his widow told reporters that she was not bitter about the Army’s deception, but was angry that the private physician who admitted her husband to the public hospital had been harshly reprimanded for bringing in a patient “with such a contagious disease.” (According to the CDC, anthrax is “not contagious.”)

For years speculation that the Arms Textile Mill anthrax epidemic may have been far more than an accidental occurrence has been the subject of debate among scientists. In 1999, former United Nations official and BBC correspondent, Edward Hooper, published a book entitled, “The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS.” Buried deep within the 1,070-page tome is a brief section that concerns the Arms Mill outbreak. Hooper’s research inadvertently led him to the incident through his unrelated interviews with Dr. Stanley A. Plotkin who at the time of the Arms tests worked for the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service and was assigned to medically evaluating the anthrax outbreak. In 1960, Dr. Plotkin wrote a medical paper on the Arms outbreak, which is still widely circulated and studied today among anthrax experts. Published in the American Journal of Medicine and entitled, “An Epidemic of Inhalation Anthrax, the First in the Twentieth Century,” it was co-authored with Dr. Philip S. Brachman who was the U.S. Public Health Service’s chief epidemiology investigator of the 1957 outbreak. Oddly, the paper, which meticulously details the facts of the Arms Mill outbreak, makes no mention whatsoever that Fort Detrick had any involvement in the events surrounding the outbreak or that the mill had been the simultaneous site of anthrax vaccine tests.

In his book Hooper recounts the basic facts of the Arms Mill incident and writes: “It may of course be that [Fort Detrick] scientists were simply very lucky from a research perspective, and that Mother Nature started an epidemic of inhalation anthrax at just the right moment to test their vaccine under field conditions. And yet, of course, there is another, more ominous possibility. This is that, unbeknownst to… Plotkin and Brachman, humans played a conscious role, and that a decision was made by [Fort Detrick] to subject the vaccine to the ultimate field test– that of challenge with virulent anthrax organisms.”

The Arms Mill debate came up again recently at a November 2000 Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences committee meeting in Washington, D.C. Attending the meeting as separate expert witnesses were Dr. Meryl Nass and Dr. Stanley Plotkin. The meeting concerned the Defense Department’s anthrax vaccine program and Nass raised a number of concerns about safety, which Plotkin strongly rejected. When the subject of the Arms Mill study came up, Nass remarked that the outbreak occurred “serendipitously at the same time” that Fort Detrick scientists were conducting their tests on human subjects. Plotkin heatedly responded, “I reject any implied or stated accusation that this was a biological warfare experiment.”

In an interview last week, Plotkin said he didn’t “think much of conspiracy theories” and that author Edward Hooper’s “innuendo that we purposely launched the [Arms Mill] outbreak” is “false and vicious.”

Plotkin, who today is a prominent AIDS researcher and Emeritus Professor of immunology at the University of Pennsylvania, said he “came to the Anthrax Investigation Unit in August 1957, fresh from a training course.” He continued, “We had launched a study of anthrax vaccine in May 1957. I had never been to the mill in question when I received a telephone call early in September to tell me that anthrax had been diagnosed in a mill worker in Manchester, New Hampshire. I went t up to investigate.”

Asked why the Army’s Fort Detrick was involved in the tests, Plotkin said, “I think the answer is obvious. The vaccine had been developed at Fort Detrick and the purpose of our study, aside from protecting the mill workers, was to find out what value the vaccine had against an anthrax attack.”

On the question of why the mill was never closed, even temporarily, because of the epidemic, Plotkin said, “The outbreak appeared to be over before the issue of what to do came up. Closing the mill would have been an economic hardship for the workers. Instead, all workers were offered the vaccine in November [1957], ending their utility for the study, but protecting everybody.” Asked if any follow-up studies had been conducted on the Arms workers after the outbreak, Plotkin said, “Not to my knowledge.”

Recently obtained Fort Detrick documents reveal that interest in the New Hampshire outbreak was ongoing and intense, and that numerous officials at the installation closely monitored the outbreak. At the time, the Army was deeply involved in developing anthrax as an offensive weapon of war. According to the former chief of Fort Detrick’s anthrax production plant, Orley R. Bourland Jr., throughout the 1950s deadly spores were manufactured “24 hours a day, seven days a week.” Fort Detrick’s massive anthrax fermenters, housed in Building 470, held 1,800 gallons of wet anthrax solution and pumped out about 7,000 grams of anthrax a week.

One 90-page document, dated June 1958 and stamped “Secret,” details a meeting that was attended by several ranking Fort Detrick officials including the heads of its Dissemination and Filed Testing Division, its Engineering and Production Branch, and at least one official from Britain’s Porton Down Biological Warfare Center. Also in attendance were Dr. Philip Brachman and Dr. Stanley Plotkin representing the U.S. Public Health Service.

Dr. Riley D. Housewright, Fort Detrick’s Scientific Research Director, opened the meeting by informing attendees that the gathering was a continuation of Fort Detrick’s commitment to “give maximum support to the BWL [Biological Warfare Laboratories] program of follow-up investigation on N resulting from the New Hampshire outbreak of anthrax.” For over a decade, “N” had been the Army’s code-letter for operations involving weapons-grade anthrax.

The document then details Dr. Philip Brachman’s review of “follow-up studies resulting from the New Hampshire outbreak of anthrax.” He explains that “during a 10-week period” in August to November 1957 there had been nine cases of anthrax at the mill, five of inhalation anthrax and four of cutaneous. Reads the report: “Four of the five inhalation cases were fatal. In three of the four fatal cases, autopsies were performed, proving the diagnosis; in the instance of the woman who was buried without an autopsy, it has been impossible to get permission to exhume the body.”

The document describes how Brachman separated the mill’s workers into two categories for purposes of the vaccine tests, which began, approximately 12-weeks before the first reported case of anthrax. Workers were deemed either “susceptibles” or “immune.” Simply put, “susceptibles” were those subjects who were either not given the anthrax vaccine or those who were given “the control material” or placebo. “Immunes” were those workers who had “the full course of the antigenic material,” or those “who had had the disease at some time in the past and were therefore assumed to be immune.”

Here it should be noted that from 1948 through 1956 there had been 63 cases of cutaneous anthrax at the Arms Mill, a then-common occurrence among workers handling animal products. Anthrax during the 19th century was called the “woolsorters’ disease” and, according to medical literature, about 30 percent of those workers stricken with inhalation anthrax recovered. During the Arms outbreak only 313 of the mills 632 employees received the actual test vaccine. None of the 5 employees who contracted anthrax had been vaccinated as part of the tests because 2 received the placebo instead and the remaining 3 did not participate in the tests.

Midway through his review, Brachman was asked if the Arms mill was still open to which he replied that it was “operating full force.” However, he explained, alterations had been made in the mill’s operations and that following the outbreak the controlled tests had been terminated and all employees had been offered the vaccine.

This question was followed by another concerning “whether the viable spores,” which were assumed to be still present in the mill, ever got “through the fabric to infect customers” who purchased the products produced at the mill. The report reads: “The response was that this is a touchy question,” and that “some products” did test positive for anthrax, but that after further treatment they tested negative. Yet, the report goes on to state that an unidentified “grocery clerk in Philadelphia” came down with cutaneous anthrax after purchasing “a new woolen coatfour weeks before his illness.”

Later in the same document it is noted that Fort Detrick pathologist, Dr. Edwin V. Hill, reported that autopsies had been performed “on monkeys which died following a respiratory exposure to the anthrax organisms isolated in the New Hampshire outbreak.” The report reads: “These animals died very suddenly without premonitory symptoms. The gross and microscopic findings in the autopsies were similar to those observed in the work with the strain which has been under study in the past.”

Dr. Edwin Hill was certainly no stranger to the subject of human experimentation. In October 1947, Hill and another Fort Detrick pathologist, Dr. Joseph Victor, traveled to Allied-occupied Japan to interview Shiro Ishii, head of Japan’s wartime Unit 731. Ishii is regarded today the Rising Sun’s counterpart to Joseph Mengele because of his diabolical Manchurian experiments which resulted in the brutal deaths of thousands of people. Upon returning to the U.S., Hill recommended immunity for Ishii and his scientists because, as he stated in a letter to his commander, “Evidence gathered in this investigation has greatly supplemented and amplified previous aspects of this field [biological warfare]. Such information would not be obtained in our own laboratories because of scruples attached to human experimentation.”

Former Army researchers report that the Arms Mill was not the only textile operation involved in tests conducted by Fort Detrick’s tests during the 1950s and that “at least four other mills” were involved. A 1960 medical paper also authored by Drs. Brachman and Plotkin verifies this. The paper, entitled, “Field Evaluation of a Human Anthrax Vaccine”, states that “epidemiological studies” were conducted in “four mills located in the northeastern United States” where “Bacillus anthracis contaminated raw material were handled and clinical infections occurred.” The paper identifies the mills only as code-letters: “A, M, P, and S.” The other mills reported no cases of inhalation anthrax but did experience a total of 17 cases of cutaneous anthrax. The Army refuses to identify any of the plants involved in the tests, but other sources have reported that two of the mills were “in the Philadelphia area” and that another was the Arel Textile Mill located near Charlotte, North Carolina.

Perhaps significant to note is that in 1995 documents related to the Arms Mill outbreak were turned over, without explanation, to the National Committee on Human Radiation Experimentation in response to its request to the Department of Defense for records related “to human experimentation.” The National Committee was created in January 1994 by President Bill Clinton to “investigate reports of possibly unethical experiments funded by the government decades ago.” The Committee’s Final Report to the President makes no mention of the Arms Mill incident.

The 1958 Fort Detrick document also reveals the Army’s involvement in then-ongoing human experiments with a compound called EA 1729, which was the Army’s medical code-name for LSD. According to former Army scientists, researchers from Fort Detrick’s ultra-secret Special Operation Division conducted covert experiments using LSD in Western Europe in the early 1950s. These same scientists say that fears about details of these experiments becoming known may also contribute to any alleged cover-up in the FBI’s on-going anthrax investigation.

Copyright © H.P. Albarelli Jr. Albarelli is an investigative journalist and writer who lives in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.