SECURITY AT ISSUE IN WIDOW'S CASE
29 Sep 2003
Source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel, September 28, 2003
Security at issue in widow's case
By Kathy Bushouse, Staff Writer
National security issues have hindered Maureen Stevens' hunt for answers about her husband's death (case 5) two years ago from inhalation anthrax.
As Stevens moves ahead with a wrongful-death lawsuit that could embarrass the U.S. government and provide insight into the ongoing investigation of the fall 2001 bioterrorism attacks, it's certain those same national security arguments will take center stage.
Stevens filed the case Wednesday in federal court in West Palm Beach.
That will give her subpoena power, and experts say the federal government won't be able to withhold information simply by making unspecific claims of national security interests.
Bruce Winick, a University of Miami law professor, said it will be up to a federal judge -- not government officials -- to decide whether turning over information related to the anthrax investigation creates a security risk.
"The speculation about it will occur in a way where, if they assert that sort of a privilege, a federal district judge will rule on it," Winick said. "[The judge] won't just take the government's assertion at face value."
That's what Richard Schuler, an attorney for Stevens, could be counting on.
Since Stevens' husband, Bob (case 5), died Oct. 5, 2001, from inhalation anthrax and became the nation's first victim of a bioterrorist attack, information for the family has been lacking.
Stevens, a tabloid photo editor for American Media Inc., died after coming into contact with an anthrax-laced envelope mailed to the company's Boca Raton office. Who did it, and where the anthrax came from, remains unknown.
A U.S. attorney handling the anthrax case recently visited Maureen Stevens but revealed little of what the government knows about who killed her husband.
Thus the lawsuit, which claims that anthrax samples were known to be missing from an Army laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., as early as 1992 and accuses the government of failing to adequately secure them.
"The bottom line is that a lot of our [Freedom of Information Act] requests were not acknowledged or were not answered or responded to," Schuler said. "By filing the lawsuit, we have subpoena power."
Schuler plans to use that power to get documents thus far unavailable to him and to produce witnesses who could back his theory about government negligence ultimately leading to Bob Stevens' death.
Among the potential witnesses on Schuler's list:
Don Foster, an English professor at Vassar College who wrote a scathing piece about the anthrax investigation in the October edition of Vanity Fair magazine.
Dr. Steven Hatfill, a bioterrorism expert labeled a "person of interest" in the anthrax investigation. In August, Hatfill sued U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and other officials, seeking to clear his name in connection to the case.
Dr. Ayaad Assaad, a former researcher at Fort Detrick, who has publicly alleged lax security at the lab and is involved in an age-discrimination suit after he lost his job there.
Federal investigators made two trips to the contaminated AMI building in their search for clues, removing hundreds of letters and office machinery.
Little else has ever been made public about the case.
The investigation's seemingly slow pace could benefit Stevens. It might make a judge less willing to grant the government any kind of exceptions to handing over information, said William Banks, a professor at Syracuse University's College of Law. "What's the justification for the continuing secrecy if you're not going anywhere in the investigation?" Banks said.
Still, a judge might grant a government request to withhold information concerning government labs such as Fort Detrick, Banks said. The case might reach a point that the government chooses to settle the lawsuit rather than turn over sensitive information, Winick said.
"I suppose if [the case] causes the government to reveal info it doesn't want to reveal, ... the natural thing would be for the government to settle," he said.
Schuler said the Stevens family hopes to get both information and monetary damages from the case.
The family has been through an ordeal few can comprehend, he said. They watched from behind a window as Stevens lay in isolation at the hospital.
Their back yard was dug up by investigators trying to determine whether the anthrax bacteria came from there. His clothes and personal items were hauled away as evidence.
Months later, Maureen Stevens had to write to the government to get his shoes returned. They arrived in a big box with no note attached, Schuler said.
"There were a lot of indignities," he said. "It's just been horrendous."
Despite that, Schuler said they would love nothing more than to see progress in the federal investigation.
"Hopefully, there will be an arrest. We're on their side," Schuler said. "We want them to find the person or persons who did this, and prosecute them. Anything we can do to help, we'll do."