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Last Updated

25 Aug 2003

Source: Washington Post, September 5, 2002.


Blacklisting Steven Hatfill

THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT has pointedly refused to call Steven J. Hatfill a suspect in the anthrax-mailing cases. While Attorney General John D. Ashcroft has labeled him a "person of interest" to investigators in the matter, the department and the FBI have emphasized that he is only one of a number of such people and that his guilt is not being presumed. Yet the pious public presumption of Mr. Hatfill's innocence has apparently not prevented the Justice Department from going after his job.

Early this summer, Mr. Hatfill, an expert on biological warfare, was offered the position of associate director of the National Center for Biomedical Research and Training at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The center provides bioterrorism training to law enforcement personnel, largely on contract from the Justice Department. Yet on Aug. 1, the same day that FBI agents executed a search warrant at Mr. Hatfill's apartment, the department e-mailed the center's director, instructing him not to use the scientist on any government-sponsored work. The following day, Mr. Hatfill was placed on paid leave, and he was dismissed this week. According to Greg Vincent, vice provost for academic affairs at the university, the department's demand was unrelated to Mr. Hatfill's suspension or his firing; in fact, Mr. Vincent says, university administrators were unaware of the e-mail until this week. But the university refuses to disclose the reason for Mr. Hatfill's dismissal.

Whatever impact government pressure may have had, what excuse can there be for the Justice Department to blacklist an unindicted non-suspect? A department official explains that, under the center's contract, the department's Office of Domestic Preparedness retains overall management and that it determined Mr. Hatfill should not be involved under the circumstances. But if the FBI has evidence that Mr. Hatfill committed a crime, he should be charged. Even short of that, if the government means to impede his ability to earn a living, it should do so openly and give him a chance to respond.

The anthrax attacks warrant the most vigorous of investigations. Regrettably, vigorous investigations sometimes have negative consequences for innocent people who come under suspicion. Investigators often must pry into the affairs of many people to find one guilty person. But investigators don't need to do more than pry. They don't need to smear.