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Last Updated

25 Aug 2003

Source: USA Today, September 19, 2002.

Proof of 'person of interest' sought

By Toni Locy, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON A U.S. senator has asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to explain his repeated description of former Army scientist Steven Hatfill as "a person of interest" in the probe into last year's deadly anthrax attacks.

In a letter to Ashcroft on Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, sought written proof of the existence of Justice Department policies that define the term "person of interest" and explain its use.

Veteran FBI agents say they are unfamiliar with the term.

Ashcroft has used it in news conferences and in several television appearances to explain the focus on Hatfill, 48, a former researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md.

Hatfill was one of about 40 scientists in the United States who had both access to anthrax and the expertise on how to handle it.

Five people died and 22 others were infected last fall when five letters were mailed to the media and two U.S. senators. Hatfill has been the focus of an ongoing investigation and has complained about Ashcroft's description. He also blames Justice officials for his firing on Sept. 3 from a department-funded bioterrorism training program at Louisiana State University.

Grassley, a frequent FBI critic, said he has "no views" about the FBI's focus on Hatfill.

"It is important that the government act according to laws, rules, policies and procedures, rather than make arbitrary decisions that affect individual citizens," he said.

Bryan Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman, declined comment on Grassley's request.

Pat Clawson, a spokesman for Hatfill, said Grassley's questions are "right on target and go to the core of the abuses of civil liberties here."

Traditionally, the FBI has used terms such as "suspect," "subject" and "target" to describe people under investigation. The terms are used at different stages of a probe and differ legally.

A USA TODAY search of the U.S. Attorneys' Manual -- the handbook for federal prosecutors on the Justice Department's Web site Wednesday yielded no hits on the term "person of interest."

The manual contains several references to suspects, subjects and targets. A suspect is used generally to describe anyone who comes under suspicion by law enforcement. A subject is defined as "a person whose conduct is within the scope" of a grand jury probe. A target is "a person as to whom the prosecutor or the grand jury has substantial evidence linking him or her to the commission of a crime."

Grassley asked Ashcroft to provide examples of others who have been publicly named in the past three years as "a person of interest" in an investigation.

The senator also requested information about Justice's policy on seeking the removal of a person from a department-funded program.