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Last Updated

22 Aug 2003

Source: Washington Post, August 13, 2002.


Mr. Hatfill's Complaint

If Steven Hatfill is not responsible for the anthrax-by-mail attacks last year, then a deep injustice has been done him. Mr. Hatfill, a biological weapons expert who worked for the Army, has been widely speculated about as a possible perpetrator of the attacks. While the FBI has not labeled him a suspect, the government has said that he is one of a number of persons of interest to investigators. Agents have searched his home. He has lost one job and been suspended from another. On the Internet and in the press there has been much speculation about his guilt. But at the moment, the public evidence against Mr. Hatfill is far from compelling. Will he become another Richard Jewell -- the man whom authorities publicly, and wrongly, focused upon as the Olympic Park bomber in Atlanta? The bureau needs to be exceedingly careful to avoid further stigmatizing someone whom prosecutors are not prepared to charge.

Unlike Mr. Jewell's case, in this one, the steps the FBI has taken so far seem appropriate. Though he apparently has not worked with bacteria -- just viruses -- he possesses many of the skills necessary to do the job and, as a government worker, may have had access to key materials. Press reports have indicated that the manuscript of a novel concerning a biological weapons attack was found on the hard drive of his computer. He was involved at one point in preparing a report on responding to an anthrax-by-mail incident. His résumé apparently contains some embellishments. He lost a security clearance prior to the anthrax mailings. And he seems to fit the profile of a disgruntled American biological weapons expert that the FBI believes key to the case.

Yet none of this makes him a terrorist, and while any real assessment of the case is impossible without access to the bureau's evidence, the apparent commitment to the lone-domestic-perpetrator theory is a bit troubling. Back in 1993, the FBI developed a profile of the Unabomber, then still at large. The bureau got some key facts right. But it also determined, as the New York Times paraphrased it, that the man who turned out to be Ted Kaczynski was a "neat dresser who leads a meticulously organized life," would be "an almost ideal neighbor" and "probably has had menial jobs." Mr. Kaczynski's sartorial style, as things turned out, was not about to land him in GQ, and his menial jobs included a faculty position at one of the world's great math departments. If the science of profiling is inexact enough to confuse a Berkeley math professor living in a shack in Montana with a well-dressed menial laborer, it is probably capable of confusing an American biological weapons scientist with, say, an al Qaeda operative. Until more evidence is in hand, both the bureau and the public should refrain from drawing firm conclusions about Mr. Hatfill and should not rule out other suspects, foreign or domestic.