ANTHRAX PROBE RAISES DOUBTS ON FBI



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Last Updated

25 Aug 2003

Source: Boston Globe, September 23, 2002.

Anthrax probe raises doubts on FBI

By Wayne Washington, Globe Staff

WASHINGTON - On June 18, four FBI agents and a handful of senior staff aides to three US senators met in a hearing room at the Dirksen Senate Office Building and listened as a top US scientist alleged that investigators were not aggressively pursuing a possible suspect in the deadly anthrax mailings.

Even now, the questions linger: Has the FBI found the suspect? Or has there been a rush to judgment?

The June briefing, given by Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, chairwoman of the Federation of American Scientists' Chemical and Biological Arms Control Program, lasted for more than an hour, according to three congressional aides familiar with it. Months had gone by since someone stepped up the post-Sept. 11 fears by lacing letters with anthrax, but no arrests had been made.

Rosenberg did not mention former government biowarfare scientist Steven J. Hatfill by name, but she told staff members that she believed the anthrax killer was a microbiologist who used to work at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., and that his government ties were protecting him.

After she left the room, the FBI agents forcefully denied to the congressional aides - some of whom worked for two Democratic senators who had been targets of the anthrax killer, Thomas A. Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota and the majority leader, and Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and the Judiciary Committee chairman - that they would overlook anyone suspected of causing five deaths. But the media were reporting Rosenberg's concerns as well, citing circumstantial evidence that pointed to a government employee, and were chiding the FBI for its lack of progress.

A week later, Hatfill's life became a public nightmare. FBI agents searched his Frederick, Md., apartment as television crews, alerted by an unknown tipster, filmed the scene. Attorney General John Ashcroft named him a ''person of interest'' in the nationwide manhunt for the anthrax killer. On Aug. 1, the Justice Department ordered Louisiana State University not to use Hatfill on a department-funded grant program. Hatfill called two press conferences, tearfully protesting FBI tactics, to assert his innocence.

''After eight months of one of the most intensive public and private investigations in American history, no one, no one has come up with a shred of evidence that I had anything to do with the anthrax letters,'' Hatfill said Aug. 11.

And so, one year after the anthrax killings, with no other ''person of interest'' publicly identified, the mystery continues. Some wonder whether, as in the saga of Richard Jewell, branded as a suspect in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing, and Wen Ho Lee, said to have committed nuclear espionage, the FBI opened itself up, once again, to lawsuits and contentious oversight hearings on Capitol Hill.

''Obviously, the bureau is under tremendous pressure to nail the anthrax murderer,'' said Athan G. Theoharis, a history professor at Marquette University who has written extensively about the FBI. But given the damaging fallout that the FBI suffered in previous cases, ''one would have thought they would have announced the arrest or indictment of Hatfill before publicly naming him as a person of interest.''

FBI probe was frame-up, Hatfill supporters allege

Pat Clawson, a Hatfill friend and spokesman, said that the June 25 apartment search marked the beginning of a coordinated, consistent effort by the Justice Department to tar Hatfill as a suspect in the anthrax killings in order to soothe a jittery public, placate the media, and address the concerns of the senators and their staff members, who want answers.

And at least one knowledgeable congressional aide said that while there is no proof of an effort to frame Hatfill, the public relations benefits of conducting a well-publicized search are impossible to ignore. ''There's nothing like having a bunch of guys in FBI windbreakers carting out someone's stuff'' to give the media and the public the impression that something is being accomplished, the aide said.

On Wednesday, Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department, wrote Ashcroft a letter demanding answers to a series of questions about the anthrax case. Grassley asked Ashcroft to define the term ''person of interest'' and explain how such a person is different from a suspect in a criminal investigation. The Iowa senator also asked Ashcroft to spell out what legal right the department has to direct grant recipients like LSU not to employ certain individuals, and he asked him to explain what standards are used in deciding when someone should be removed from a government project.

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

But Grassley stops short of alleging FBI misconduct. ''Since I have no knowledge of the information on which DOJ relied to take these steps, I have no views as to the appropriateness of DOJ's actions regarding Mr. Hatfill,'' Grassley wrote.

A congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there is concern on Capitol Hill about Hatfill's treatment, but contended that ''Nobody is going to come to this guy's defense until it's all been resolved.''

FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said the bureau did not tip the media off to the apartment search. Nor is the bureau, he said, trying to mount a campaign to convince the public that progress is being made in the investigation. ''There's no contrived plan on the part of the FBI to win some sort of public relations battle,'' Bresson said. ''That's ridiculous.''

But the charge is gaining currency among some conservatives who think, as a Wall Street Journal editorial put it, that the government is being led down a ''yellow brick road'' by folks like Rosenberg, a former Clinton administration adviser, when it should be focusing on Al Qaeda or Iraq.

Clawson said that Hatfill has already spent his life savings trying to counter the impression that he had something to do with the anthrax murders and that Hatfill will sue the FBI. ''We have quite a bit of information'' to use in a lawsuit, Clawson said.

Bresson said the Justice Department only confirmed that Hatfill was a person of interest in the investigation in response to a media inquiry. He said it is ''unfortunate'' that Hatfill's name has become known.

Theoharis said the bureau has a pattern of leaking information about someone it believes has a connection to a particular crime, even if agents don't have enough evidence to make a case. But Bresson said ''by no means'' is its interest in Hatfill ''a campaign to turn up the heat on any particular person.''

Friend says party joke may have led to probe

Since this spring, when Hatfill's name first popped up in connection to the anthrax killings, he has been written about extensively and the circumstances of his personal and professional life examined for links and clues. The American-born scientist lived and went to school in Zimbabwe, near the Greendale neighborhood in the city of Harare. The return address on the letters to Leahy and Daschle listed the ''Greendale School.'' Hatfill lectured and spoke frequently about the possible threats from bioterrorism as part of his government job and commissioned a report while employed for a defense contractor on what would happen if a terrorist distributed anthrax in the mail, according to Army and industry spokesmen.

On the other hand, Hatfill argues, and a spokesman for Fort Detrick confirms, that he specialized in viruses, not anthrax bacteria. ''I have never worked with anthrax,'' Hatfill said. ''I know nothing about this matter.''

Beyond his statements rejecting any connection to the anthrax killings, Hatfill has kept quiet. Clawson would not discuss his friend's past, other than to contend vehemently that Hatfill is the killer.

''You'd have to be a sociopath or a nut to do that,'' Clawson said. ''Steve is a healer.''

Clawson said he believes the FBI has focused on his friend because of Rosenberg's opinions, the work of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, and other journalists who have compiled a roster of circumstantial evidence that points at someone like Hatfill. The bureau was aware of Hatfill by late October 2001, Clawson contends, when Hatfill, Clawson, and several friends and acquaintances met during a skeet shooting party at a friend's house in Virginia.

Clawson, who said he works on a radio show with Oliver North, the retired Marine lieutenant colonel, said he had his own anthrax scare a few weeks earlier when he inadvertently opened mail left on his desk for North. The letter, he said, came from a radical Jewish organization and was postmarked Trenton, N.J., where the anthrax letter was mailed to Daschle.

Clawson said the letter to North seemed like a crank letter, but he was concerned when he noticed gray powder in the envelope. At the skeet shooting party, Clawson said, he asked his scientist friend, Hatfill, whether he should take Cipro, a drug used to prevent people exposed to anthrax from becoming sick. Clawson said Hatfill and the men at the house joked that since Cipro could also help prevent venereal diseases, they all should start taking it.

Clawson said he thinks someone from the skeet shooting party, several of whom did not know Hatfill, told the FBI about the joke, which took on far more sinister connotations as agents desperately searched for the anthrax killer. Clawson said agents could have come to the erroneous conclusion that Hatfill was trying to protect his friends from deadly mailings he was sending out.

Clawson said he fears that the FBI will arrest Hatfill and charge him with a lesser offense, leaving in the public mind the false impression that the anthrax killer has been taken off the streets.


For the record

By Globe Staff, 9/24/2002

Correction: Because of editing errors, a Page One story in yesterday's Globe incorrectly stated that Steven J. Hatfill's friend and spokesman, Pat Clawson, has contended that Hatfill is the anthrax killer. Clawson has denied that Hatfill sent the anthrax-laced letters. Also, a letter received by Oliver North was unsigned and alleged Jewish control over the media.