Early anthrax suspect doubts guilt of Ivins

Frederick News-Post | September 07, 2008
By Nicholas C. Stern

Ayaad Assaad was in Australia visiting relatives the day before his former colleague and friend, Bruce Ivins, died from an apparent suicide in Frederick in July.
Ivins, a Fort Detrick anthrax specialist, had become the sole focus of a seven-year FBI investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five and injured 17. The FBI has since released evidence it claims proves Ivins' guilt, but has admitted much of it is circumstantial.

Assaad, who worked in a U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease lab at Fort Detrick from 1989 to 1997 developing a vaccine for ricin, said in an interview Saturday he does not believe Ivins was guilty.

"He's a great man. He's honorable, sincere, honest and most important, he didn't kill five people and he didn't kill himself," Assaad said.

Assaad, an Egyptian-born toxicologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was called in for questioning by the FBI regarding accusations of biological terrorism shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"I know what Bruce went through, because I went through it too," he said.

FBI meeting

On Oct. 1, 2001, about two weeks after the first anthrax letters were mailed, Assaad received a phone call from the FBI requesting his presence. The next day, he and his lawyer drove to the FBI's Washington field office.

The day Assaad was meeting with the FBI, Robert Stevens, a photo editor for the Florida-based tabloid Sun, was admitted to a hospital for complications from anthrax. He died soon after.

About a week later, in the second round of attacks, letters containing anthrax were sent from New Jersey to two U.S. senators.

Assaad said on top of his fears from not knowing why the FBI wanted to speak with him; many Arab-Americans were leery of ethnically motivated retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I was scared to death," he said. "I was about to have a heart attack."

Agents J. Gregory Lelyegian and Mark Buie brought Assaad and his lawyer, Rosemary McDermott, into what he described as a vault-like interrogation room with an electronically sealed metal door and a two-way mirror.

Laid out on a table before him were fingerprint sheets and papers that Assaad said gave him the impression they were planning to detain him.

Buie read to Assaad a letter received by the FBI in Quantico, Va., from an unidentified person who claimed Assaad was planning a biological terrorist attack on America.

The letter referenced Assaad's previous experience at USAMRIID and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County.

Assaad said the letter claimed Assaad was a Muslim -- he's actually a Coptic Christian -- and informed the FBI of Assaad's security clearance, his current duties at the EPA, even the location of his office -- and the train line he would take to work (which was incorrect).

The letter also claimed Assaad had made arrangements with his two sons, classmates of Ivins' children in Frederick, to carry out the attacks should he die.

Assaad said he broke down in tears when Buie read the letter, professing his love for the United States, which provided him citizenship, scholarships and the freedom to practice his religion.

He said Saturday the FBI agents were polite and apologized, mentioning they receive thousands of hoax letters. The questioning lasted about 40 minutes and he was free to go.


When Assaad arrived at Fort Detrick in 1989 to work on the ricin vaccine, he tried to blend in at his new workplace.

He shrugged off slights for being an Arab-American from both military and civilian co-workers for a while.

"I tried to blend in and ignore so I could be accepted, but there was no way," he said.

He said what started as subtle discrimination turned into consistent harassment and intimidation. In 1991, he filed a complaint with his supervisor after discovering an eight-page poem in his mailbox filled with derogatory language.

After an investigation, Army officials at Fort Detrick reprimanded several researchers for harassing Assaad.

Assaad said his lawyer filed a Freedom of Information Act request as part of the investigation. Documents revealed the existence of the "Camel Club," a group of military and civilian scientists at Fort Detrick dedicated, in part, to mocking and humiliating Assaad. Aside from the poem, the "Camel Club" configured a stuffed camel with exaggerated genitals as its mascot.

The documents also revealed unauthorized anthrax research after hours, Assaad said.

"This anthrax issue is part of a much bigger issue," Assaad said. "The roots of corruption are so deep in (USAMRIID), and this is the thing that the people in Frederick don't understand."

One possible motive for the Quantico letter was revenge, Assaad said. After he was fired in 1997, he filed an age discrimination lawsuit against the Army. It was dismissed about two years ago.

For Assaad, questions about the letter's author and provenance remained unanswered.

When former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft described the anthrax letters as part of a concerted attack, Assaad said he immediately called the FBI, asking for further investigation into the author of the Quantico letter.

When the FBI refused to provide him with a copy, citing the ongoing investigation, he and his lawyer filed a Freedom of Information Act request, which was denied. He said the FBI did not believe the letter was related to the attacks.

Assaad said his career at the EPA has since been adversely affected. He has been passed up for promotions and has not been asked to join committees, such as the Hazard Identification Assessment Review Committee, of which he was a former member.