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At anthrax base, 'space suits' and haze of suspicion

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Col. Erik Henchal can't wait to begin. Before he's even finished striding from his desk to a conference table, he launches into a tirade – without provocation – on his lab's mission.

That mission, he says, is defensive. Henchal and his fellow scientists at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases – known by the ungainly acronym USAMRIID – have long been the nation's chief line of defense against anthrax and other, more deadly viruses. For 32 years, USAMRIID has delved into the secrets of the deadliest bugs known to humankind, all in the name of developing vaccines, detection methods, and other countermeasures.

But then came last year's deadly string of anthrax letters in the US – just the sort of attack this lab aims to prevent. Worse, it turns out that the bugs used in the envelopes were derived from a strain developed here in the 1980s.

In fact, the FBI is now focusing its search for the anthrax culprit among past and current USAMRIID workers.

Once they were silent heroes. Now, they're possibly dangerous saboteurs. No one here is immune from scrutiny – not even the commander.

"Oh yes, I've been questioned," says the red-faced Col. Henchal, seated in his office during a rare interview.

The FBI has questioned all of the scientists here at this huge, low tan building about a hour north of Washington. Some have been interrogated more than once. Several have been polygraphed. And at least one, sometimes two, FBI agents are on the premises every day.

Henchal was interrogated like everyone else because he had access to the lab rooms where anthrax was present.

"No one wants the perpetrator to be caught more than USAMRIID.... The best thing for the FBI to do is to remove all reasonable doubt," he says, "We have gotten used to the enhanced oversight."

The military set up USAMRIID in the early 1970s, shortly after President Nixon ordered the US offensive biological weapons program to close.

Today, USAMRIID employs 650 people. About 125 are scientists with doctoral degrees, mainly in virology, microbiology, and veterinary medicine.

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