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Tracking Anthrax

October 17, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: And for that part of the story I’m joined by Dr. Richard Spertzel. He is the former head of the biological weapons inspection team for the United Nations Special Commission On Iraq, known as UNSCOM. A retired army colonel, he was deputy commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick. Welcome, Dr. Spertzel. The Centers for Disease Control reports tonight that there is a connection between the strain, if you want to use that term of anthrax found in New York, and the strain found in Florida. What does that mean?

DR. RICHARD SPERTZEL: What they’re saying is that based on, most likely, genetic fingerprinting of the DNA of the two strains, that there is either close or perhaps even an identical relationship between the two. That is they are the same strain.

GWEN IFILL: And here the same source perhaps?

DR. RICHARD SPERTZEL: It would suggest a common source. But the same strain may in fact be found in different laboratories. So without further information at this point, we probably can’t say that specifically a laboratory was involved in both of those situations.

GWEN IFILL: It seems that so much of this story revolves around definition, so let walk through a few. One of the ones we keep hearing about is the word weaponized, or weapons grade anthrax. What are they talking about?

DR. RICHARD SPERTZEL: A weapons grade anthrax is one that is of the correct particle size that Dr. Fauci said that’s capable of getting down into the lungs. It also has certain other properties attributed to it that makes it readily releasable into the air. A true weapons grade anthrax would have the properties that if it were a pile on this table, waving your hand over it would be enough to release some of that into the air —- once airborne –.

GWEN IFILL: Is that what we think we saw in Senator Daschle’s office?

DR. RICHARD SPERTZEL: It would appear in the case of Senator Daschle’s office that the act of opening a paper, the letter, was enough to release the material into the air. And once airborne, again, an attribute of weaponized grade, is it’s going to stay airborne.

GWEN IFILL: So what would it take, and more importantly I guess, who would it take to produce this grade of anthrax that we’re talking about here?

DR. RICHARD SPERTZEL: To start with, it requires someone who knows very specifically what to do, how to do it, and then has the capability to accomplish that act. The accomplishing part of it requires some specialized equipment. The level of the specialized equipment may vary, depending on the quantity. If you were producing quantities of warfare application, you’re going to be dealing with larger pieces of equipment and perhaps even more sophisticated. The level that we’re seeing in this case is at a lesser scale but still there is specialized equipment involved.

GWEN IFILL: So the question who then focuses on who has access to this kind of equipment, who has access to this kind of material. Does it have to be a state sponsor?

DR. RICHARD SPERTZEL: The access to the equipment, if you know what it is is needed, anybody could theoretically buy it, it’s not specialized made, it’s commercially available, but it’s a very specific type, perhaps and hopefully not known to most people. The knowledge related to that is limited to individuals who either have developed that over an extended period of time or have related to programs in which they have accomplished that. And there are today a few states with that capability.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me cut to that chase because you spent some time with UNSCOM investigating the possibility of this sort of stash in Iraq. Do you believe that Iraq is capable of this?

DR. RICHARD SPERTZEL: Iraq is certainly capable of producing weapons grade material, and specifically I would say weapons grade anthrax.

GWEN IFILL: And do you believe they have a connection to Osama bin Laden or anybody else?

DR. RICHARD SPERTZEL: Yes, I do — as a personal individual. Now that is not based necessarily on the technical aspects of what we know so far, the scientific aspects of the strains. But it’s related to a lot of things including the Iraq – bin Laden connection, or Atta’s connection in Prague, as an example.

GWEN IFILL: Attorney General Ashcroft said today that it has now become the Department of Justice’s responsibility to prevent and protect. How do you prevent, that seems like the toughest part of this question?

DR. RICHARD SPERTZEL: Prevention, prevention is truly the toughest part. Unless you have information, intelligence, in which you can interrupt and prevent it from ever happening, it’s pretty difficult otherwise to prevent an attack happening. And I believe that future terrorists, such terrorist events will happen. Now, that’s not a reason for alarm, because if the system responds properly as it appeared to do this time, cases will be identified early enough, therapy, appropriate therapy can be initiated early enough, and you’ll minimize the effect and hopefully prevent any deaths from occurring.

GWEN IFILL: Now, the investigation part of this, is there a way to trace this, is it a waste of time or is it the best use of time to trace this directly to the kinds of states you’re talking about or to those kinds of experts, or should there be a broader net thrown?

DR. RICHARD SPERTZEL: I’m not sure I totally understood the question. But if, to attempt to trace the specific strains to a certain country may be extremely difficult, what the identification of the strains can do would be to narrow the range of suspects that would have to be looked at.

GWEN IFILL: You understood the question; you answered it perfectly. So do you think in the end that there’s going to be a connection that is going to be made between the events of September 11th and the events that are happening today – now, with the anthrax dissemination?

DR. RICHARD SPERTZEL: I’m one of those individuals who think there is a very definite connection going to be may. I find it far too coincidental that a series of letters, both fake ones, such as received by the "New York Times", and one at the NBC headquarters, and actual letters would go out, that is actual letters containing anthrax spores, in a very narrow time frame in mid, late September. That’s coincidence far too much.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you very much, Dr. Spertzel.