Probe of Anthrax Attacks Casts Shadow on Brothers

(By David Swanson -- Philadelphia Inquirer)
By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 7, 2006

CHESTER, Pa. -- On Nov. 15, 2001, Irshad and Masood Shaikh found themselves standing under the darkest cloud imaginable: The brothers had become suspects in the worst bioterrorism attack in American history.

An FBI SWAT team battered down their front door, pointed semiautomatic rifles at Irshad's wife and carried out the first raid on a private home in the federal investigation of the anthrax attacks. Agents in moon suits carted out the Shaikhs' computers, medicines and books and swabbed the television set for anthrax spores.

But the FBI had acted on a bad tip. By every account available, agents found no evidence implicating the brothers, who are widely respected public health experts.

Since then, the Shaikhs have suffered consequences great and small. Irshad Shaikh, 44, who is Chester's health commissioner and has worked on humanitarian missions in Iraq and Afghanistan with U.S. officials, has been blocked by the FBI from obtaining a federal contract with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Immigration officials canceled his scheduled interview for U.S. citizenship. And whenever Irshad returns to the United States from abroad, federal agents escort him off the airplane and interrogate him for hours.

Masood Shaikh, 46, serves as the Chester city epidemiologist. Like Irshad, he obtained a medical degree in Pakistan and a master's degree and a doctorate in public health from Johns Hopkins University. Two years ago, Masood was selected to work on removing land mines from Iraq. But the federal government refused to extend Masood's work visa pending a "security clearance." The clearance never came through, and Masood could not leave the country.

Masood, once poised to apply for American citizenship, now faces the expiration of his work visa and a return to Pakistan after 15 years in the United States.

The brothers acknowledge that they cannot prove that the government is behind every one of these roadblocks, but they point to a pattern.

"Our whole life has been turned upside down since 9/11," Irshad said by telephone from Cairo, where he is working with the World Health Organization. "For God's sake, they are welcome to search my house anytime. I will give them the key."

No one could argue with the FBI's urgency in trying to find the anthrax killers. The mail attacks in September and October 2001 claimed five lives and left 17 people gravely ill. The assailant possessed one of the deadliest bioweapons, and, with the slightest tweak in delivery, the anthrax spores might have caused tens of thousands of deaths. As the years passed and the FBI turned its searchlight on half a dozen people, careers and lives have been shattered.

The FBI designated Steven J. Hatfill, a Washington infectious disease researcher, as "a person of interest," and Louisiana State University dismissed him in 2004. In August 2004, FBI teams searched the home of Kenneth Berry, a New York physician who held three patents related to bioterrorism. He has lost his job and now lives in New Jersey.

Neither Hatfill nor Berry has been charged with a crime. Both vehemently deny any involvement with the anthrax letters, and Hatfill has sued the Justice Department.

But few suspects so unequivocally lack any connection to anthrax research as do the Shaikh brothers. They have never done biowarfare research. Their attorney, former prosecutor Anthony F. List, describes a Kafkaesque maze in which federal officials argue that they cannot be expected to "clear" men who, officially, are accused of nothing.

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