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Last Updated

30 Sep 2003

Source:  Washington Post, September 30, 2003

D.C. FBI Chief Regrets Leaks and Labels in Anthrax Case

By Carol D. Leonnig, Washington Post Staff Writer

The new director of the FBI's Washington field office said yesterday it was unfortunate that former military scientist Steven J. Hatfill was named a "person of interest" in the investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks, adding that he generally finds the phrase to be vague and unhelpful.

Michael A. Mason, an 18-year FBI veteran who took over the 700-agent office this month, said he regretted that the investigation had been "beset by leaks" about Hatfill being under the FBI's scrutiny. He said Attorney General John D. Ashcroft was responding to such leaks when he told reporters that Hatfill was a "person of interest" in the probe.

Mason, 45, said he objects to that phrase in all cases and prefers to identify people only when they are formal suspects and the FBI has enough evidence to charge them with a crime. Naming someone as a person of interest does not help an investigation, he said, and can unfairly harm a person's reputation.

"It's very hard to take that back if you're wrong," Mason said, citing the case of Richard Jewell, who was wrongly accused in the 1996 Olympics bombing. "In my mind, there is absolutely zero value to coming forward with names or definitions of persons of interest."

Mason made his comments in a session with reporters that covered a wide range of topics. In an interview later, Mason said Ashcroft "may have had his back against the wall" when reporters questioned him about Hatfill.

Hatfill has not been charged in connection with the anthrax attacks, which killed five people and sickened 17 others, and he has denied any involvement. Last month, Hatfill filed a federal lawsuit accusing Ashcroft and the FBI of unfairly making him a public target and engaging in a "patently illegal campaign of harassment" to cover up their failure to solve the case.

Tom Connolly, Hatfill's attorney, yesterday called Mason's remarks "a step in the right direction."

"His comments are at least an acknowledgement of the obvious: that the FBI's torrents of leaks and the attorney general's unprecedented use of the term 'person of interest' was wrong," Connolly said.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment, citing Hatfill's lawsuit.

A federal grand jury has been empaneled in the anthrax case under the supervision of Roscoe C. Howard Jr., U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. In recent months, many of Hatfill's friends and colleagues and his former employers have said that they provided documents under grand jury subpoena.

Mason also told reporters yesterday that he was not sure whether the anthrax case would be solved.

"Whether or not we bring it to a successful resolution, it has been a remarkable investigation," he said, describing the scientific and analytical skill brought to the task.

In contrast, Ashcroft pledged in an ABC interview Aug. 3 that the case would be solved.

When the FBI first searched Hatfill's home in June 2002, the media were on hand to videotape agents taking boxes out of the building. Mason said that it is hard to know who might have leaked the information about the search or why.

In August 2002, Ashcroft was asked by reporters whether Hatfill was a suspect. Ashcroft responded that he was a "person of interest."