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Last Updated

13 Dec 2002

Source: Baltimore Sun, December 13, 2002.

FBI investigators search Md. forest for anthrax

Justice Department letter says 'interest' label wasn't meant to implicate Hatfill

By Scott Shane, Sun Staff

FBI anthrax investigators began a search for evidence yesterday in a forest northwest of Frederick, apparently following up on a tip concerning former Army bioterrorism expert Dr. Steven J. Hatfill.

Agents informed local police they would be searching through the weekend in the City of Frederick Municipal Forest, a sprawling watershed in the Catoctin Mountains about 10 miles south of the presidential retreat at Camp David.

Investigators have excavated part of a clearing, and FBI divers searched in some of the dozen small ponds in the watershed.

A brief statement issued by the FBI indicated that investigators have already conducted sampling for anthrax in the area, which is frequented by hunters, anglers, hikers and mountain bikers. The search appears to be aimed at finding traces of the bacteria or equipment used to make it.

"The FBI is conducting forensic searches on public land located within the City of Frederick, Maryland," the statement said, adding: "It is important to note that based on water, soil and sediment testing already conducted, there is no indication of any risk to the public health or safety."

As in the past, FBI officials would not confirm that the search is related to Hatfill, the 49-year-old physician and virologist who has been the focus of investigators for months.

But Pat Clawson, a friend of Hatfill's who acts as his spokesman, said he had heard the investigators were following up on a tip that Hatfill had been seen in the watershed. Hatfill worked at the Army's biodefense center at Fort Detrick in Frederick from 1997 to 1999 and lived near the base until last summer.

Clawson said Hatfill told him yesterday that he had spent time in the parks around Frederick only while volunteering with a local Boy Scout troop.

"He's just mystified," Clawson said.

Hatfill, who was fired by a bioterrorism training program at Louisiana State University last summer after FBI agents searched his apartment, continues to deny that he had anything to do with the anthrax attacks. Letters mailed to two U.S. senators and media organizations killed five people and sickened at least 17 last year.

"The FBI can search the planet until hell freezes over, but it will find that Steve Hatfill was never involved in the anthrax attacks," said Clawson, a former CNN reporter who works for a radio production company. "We'd just like to know how many searches it takes to get his reputation and employment restored."

Also yesterday, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, released two letters from the Justice Department answering his queries about its treatment of Hatfill. He had asked why Attorney General John Ashcroft called Hatfill a "person of interest" in the anthrax investigation, and why the department prohibited LSU from employing Hatfill on its training contracts.

In the replies, Assistant Attorney General Daniel J. Bryant said the "person of interest" label was not intended to imply that Hatfill was a suspect.

"The phrase was never used by the FBI or Department of Justice to draw media attention to Dr. Hatfill," Bryant wrote. "On the contrary, the phrase was used to deflect media scrutiny from Dr. Hatfill and to explain that he was just one of many scientists who had been interviewed by the FBI and who were cooperating with the anthrax investigation."

Bryant acknowledged that LSU was told not to hire Hatfill "as a subject-matter expert or course instructor" on Justice-funded programs. He gave no explanation for the ban.

Hatfill had previously obtained a federal research job using a forged Ph.D. certificate from a South African university.

Clawson said Bryant's letters were "bureaucratic gobbledygook" showing that Ashcroft's Justice Department "is utterly shameless about trampling on due process and civil liberties."

He said Hatfill, who had completed training as a United Nations biological weapons inspector, is living in Washington and searching for work.

Investigators blocked off a mile and a half of an icy two-lane road bordering the park. Two tents were set up in a field, and plastic sheeting was spread over a hole dug in the clearing, the Associated Press reported. About 15 investigators could be seen.

William C. Staley, a retired Department of Natural Resources police officer who lives nearby, said most of the watershed is covered with thick brush. "It's pretty wild," said Staley, 74. "Some places you can't walk through it."

He said the area is dotted with about a dozen small ponds, up to an acre in size and about 10 feet in depth.