EVIDENCE LACKING AS PROBE INTENSIFIES
05 Jan 2003
Source: Washington Post, August 15, 2002.
Evidence Lacking as Probe of Scientist in Anthrax Scare Intensifies
By Susan Schmidt, Washington Post Staff Writer
More than a dozen FBI agents have been diverted from white-collar criminal cases in the past two weeks to work on the intensifying investigation of whether bioterror expert Steven Hatfill had any role in last fall's anthrax attacks, according to law enforcement sources.
The former government scientist is under frequent surveillance, according to his spokesman. In Princeton, N.J., agents have been going door to door with his photograph in the neighborhood where traces of anthrax were detected on a mailbox late last week. It was the only one of 561 New Jersey mailboxes to test positive in the intensive search for the source of last fall's deadly anthrax letters postmarked in Trenton.
Yet, even as some FBI investigators are intrigued by what they have found, no physical evidence has been found linking Hatfill to the attacks that killed five people and sickened 13 others last fall, sources said. No grand jury has begun hearing evidence, according to people close to the investigation, and interviews with Hatfill have yielded little.
Some of the information that initially aroused suspicion about Hatfill looks more innocuous on closer inspection. This includes a novel Hatfill co-wrote about a bioterror attack on Congress and reports that he frequented a remote cabin where he cautioned visitors to take Cipro, the antibiotic used to treat anthrax.
The FBI continues to take pains publicly to tamp down speculation that it has zeroed in on Hatfill, describing him only as a "person of interest" -- one of many who have risen to the top of an ever-revolving list of scientists and others who may have had access to the deadly anthrax.
On Sunday, Hatfill publicly read a statement vehemently denying his involvement in the attacks and accusing the FBI of ruining his reputation.
"It's grossly unfair to focus so directly on this one man," Hatfill's attorney, Victor M. Glasberg, said yesterday. "He's never been in Princeton. Period."
Law enforcement sources said some senior FBI officials are encouraged by the information they have collected about Hatfill after months of dead ends in the investigation. But some investigators and Justice Department officials remain unconvinced that Hatfill, a former scientist with the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, had any involvement in the anthrax attacks.
FBI officials say Hatfill is receiving the same treatment as others they have investigated. But to date, they are not known to have subjected others to techniques used in the Hatfill investigation: Bloodhounds have sniffed Hatfill's home and a storage locker he rents in Florida; his apartment has been searched twice; and his photo was the only one circulated in Princeton, merchants there said.
Authorities' interest in Hatfill appears to derive largely from his scientific expertise and quirks in his background, fueled in the media by the speculation of some scientists and former colleagues.
There have been media reports suggesting that Hatfill had access to a remote cabin where he could have produced anthrax, and that he told people who came to the cabin to take Cipro.
George Borsari, a Washington communications lawyer and a Hatfill friend who owns a weekend house near Edinburg, Va., was questioned by the FBI a month ago. He said he is astounded at the idea that Hatfill used the house as a clandestine anthrax lab. The house has never been searched, he said.
"I am so mad about the way this thing is going it's not even funny," he said. "Steven Hatfill is not any kind of wacky guy."
Hatfill has been an occasional weekend guest, he said, part of a large social circle at the house. Borsari and Pat Clawson, a former CNN reporter and friend of Hatfill, said they were with Hatfill and others at the country house in October, at the height of the anthrax scare. Each described conversations they had with him about anthrax, including discussions of Cipro.
Borsari said he asked Hatfill, who has a medical degree, if he could get him some Cipro. "He said he could get it if we really wanted it but said, 'What would you do with it anyway?' " Borsari recalled.
Clawson recounted another raucous conversation with Hatfill and friends that weekend in which Cipro was being lauded as a cure for sexually transmitted diseases. "We were kidding around and he said, 'I'm your doctor, and I urge you to take Cipro.' "
Clawson described Hatfill's social circle as conservative intelligence officials, military officers and defense contractors, most of them gun enthusiasts who get together for target practice and skeet shooting, as well as parties.
Hatfill, who studied and worked abroad from 1978 to 1995, spent two years at USAMRIID, a primary repository of the Ames strain of anthrax contained in the letters sent last fall. Later, while working at defense contractor Science Applications International Corp., he and a colleague commissioned a study that described the effects of anthrax sent by mail.
Some claims that Hatfill reportedly made on a 1997 résumé -- that he earned a doctorate at Rhodes University in South Africa and served with the U.S. Army Special Forces -- appear inflated and have fueled suspicions about him. Hatfill had some Special Forces training, according the the Army, but he never served in a Special Forces unit.
Hatfill has said he prepared a doctoral thesis and believed he had been issued a degree. He said he amended his résumé when he belatedly learned a degree had not been issued.
Hatfill also has written a novel about a bioterror attack on the United States, titled "Emergence" and set in Washington. The weapon used in the fictional attack is bubonic plague.
In the manuscript, an Iraqi terrorist acquires a significant cache of the bacteria, then builds a wheelchair with a hidden spray gun, which he dispenses while touring the White House.
The manuscript goes into minute detail about the size of the droplets in the spray and how many bacteria each droplet holds. The novel's protagonist, an American biodefense scientist, helps bring the epidemic under control.
The novel is in a computer seized along with other Hatfill possessions by the FBI. The U.S. copyright office also has a draft of the unfinished work.
"I know I floated the idea that he do a novel on bioterror," Clawson said this week. "I suggested Washington as a setting."
Staff researcher Rob Thomason and staff writer Tom Jackman contributed to this report.