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Last Updated

07 Jul 2003

Source: Washington Post, July 3, 2003

Anthrax Investigation

With Marilyn Thompson, Assistant Managing Editor, Investigative, The Washington Post

Even as the FBI was seriously scrutinizing Steven J. Hatfill as part of its anthrax investigation, various government agencies employed him on a number of secret bioweapons programs, including training DIA teams that went into Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction. The Pentagon's insistence on using Hatfill as an expert even as the FBI was investigating puzzled some agents on the case.

Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Marilyn Thompson will be online Thursday, July 3 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss her story in today's Washington Post and the government's conflicted treatment of Hatfill.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Morganton, N.C.: Why does the Pentagon does not view Hatfill as a possible bad guy? Does the Pentgon know more about Hatfill's actions than what it is saying? Is there a background of Defense Dept. dissatisfaction with bioweapons defense funding? Is Hatfill so much of a patriot that he would undertake actions at huge risk to himself, actions that could result in the death of some people, to promote the greater good of preparing the nation for this threat? I recall a New Yorker article of a couple of years ago that made the point that we were woefully unprepared for bioweapons defense, that the issue had been ignored. Was there an organized constituency in the defense establishment for increased funding? What was Hatfill's relationship to such a constiuency?

Marilyn Thompson: Many questions here. I will try to respond in an all-encompassing way. Steve Hatfill has been an insider in a tight circle of bioweapons consultants who have believed for some time that our government is not prepared for an encounter with weapons of mass destruction and that funding is woefully inadequate. They have made this point repeatedly in many different forums, including a few public "demonstrations" by Hatfill and others of how easy it would be to carry out an attack. In one very memorable photo, Hatfill wrapped himself in garbage bags and wore a gas mask to show how one could concoct a biological weapon in the kitchen. Hatfill was welcomed into the bioweapons cabal in the late 90's upon his return to the U.S. from South Africa. He became a protege to Bill Patrick, considered by many to be America's leading bioweaponeer and the holder of several secret patents for the anthrax weaponization process. Hatfill was involved in numerous Pentagon "black" projects through his role as a consultant for Science Applications International, and the Pentagon appears to have been pleased with his work. The Pentagon seems to have been largely unaware of Hatfill's growing problems at work -- including his loss of a security clearance after a failed polygraph in the summer of 2001. Again, we see a case of one government agency not knowing -- or pressing to find out -- about the security concerns surfacing in another federal agency.


Rockville, Md.: Why hasn't the government collected samples of handwriting from this "person of interest?" It seems like that's the only thing left to tie him, or anyone, to the actual letters. The anthrax "leads" have all been played out.

Marilyn Thompson: The government has many samples of Hatfill's cursive handwriting and printing pulled from government files and work records. These have been analyzed and reanalyzed, and apparently bear no resemblance to the distinctive and creepy script used on the anthrax envelopes. Of course, the FBI for some time has theorized that this crime was not a one-person operation -- that whoever did it probably had help with some of the detail work.

You may remember that Hatfill in his August 2002 press conference offered to supply handwriting samples to prove his innocence. This was not necessary -- the FBI already had plenty of material.


San Jose, Calif.: The plastic box that was found in the pond has received a wide range of descriptions in the media -- from what sounds like a practical containment device (hermetically sealed with two large holes to accommodate gloves) to what sounds more like a kid's homemade turtle trap (a K-Mart storage box with a snap on lid and ONE hole cut in one end).

Can you tell us which description of the box best fits what you know about it?

Marilyn Thompson: Yes, this box has had a wide range of descriptions. Hatfill's supporters have suggested that the FBI dredged up nothing more than a minnow trap -- that agents were so dumb they did not know what they had found.

My understanding of the box is that it is a plastic or plexiglass box about the size of a small cooler made into a crude or makeshift glove box. It has holes in the sides for gloves. I have researched lightweight portable glove boxes that are commercially available and shown pictures of these to sources who have seen the evidence. I am told that these boxes are much more sophisticated than the one the FBI has found.

My personal feeling is that the FBI would risk nothing by making its photo of the evidence public. In fact, it might produce valuable information about what this box is and how it could have been designed.


Dallas, Tex.: Marilyn - thanks for your continued coverage of this very important story. Don't you think the key to finding out who made the anthrax is forensic analysis not of the genetic sequence of the anthrax but of the chemical and physical signatures of the weaponization process?

It has clearly been demonstrated by the Armed Forces Pathology (AFIP) Lab that silica was used to weaponize the anthrax. This can be seen here: Detecting Environmental Terrorism.

And yet even today many media reports deny that silica was present. Have you pressed any of your sources for more details on the weaponization technique?

Marilyn Thompson: Of course, we are constantly pressing for details of this material -- with limited success. The FBI has now had this material analyzed by numerous expert labs -- yet even last week, work surfaced that the agency would send it out for more cutting-edge analysis.

Certainly this is an important process. but it is only one aspect of a very important case. The FBI also needs hard evidence of how, where and when this material was packed into envelopes. It needs to know more about who stuffed the letters into a postal box in New Jersey. This information seem to be more difficult to come by.


Racine, Wis.: Why is this story about Dr. Hatfill training soldiers to identify bioweapons labs suddenly "news?" It's been known for well over a year that one of the reasons Dr. Hatfill was suspected by Dr. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg and others is because he took three non-functioning biosafety cabinets from USAMRIID. This was explained in detail by Scott Shane in the Baltimore Sun on Feb. 22, 2002:

"Among others, the agents asked about a former Fort Detrick scientist who returned a few years ago and took discarded biological safety cabinets, used for work with dangerous pathogens. Like some other military lab workers, the scientist has expertise on weaponizing anthrax and has been vaccinated against it, sources say."

"The scientist acknowledged that several years ago, with Army permission, he took three biosafety cabinets that were being discarded at Fort Detrick, but he said they were for use in a classified Defense Department project that he could not discuss."

Isn't this whole story just an attempt to generate "news," at Dr. Hatfill's expense, about "clandestine" U.S. projects that some scientists see as violating the BTWC?

Marilyn Thompson: I do not see it as an attempt to "generate" news. The picture of Steve Hatfill's work for the government will be important in unraveling the real story of an FBI investigation that has cost the taxpayers many millions of dollars and dragged on for nearly two years. And as always, it is important to know how our federal agencies communicate -- or fail to communicate -- on issues of security.


Washington, D.C.: How non-operational were the bioweapons labs that Hatfill constructed?

If the weapons lab was simply used for training purposes so that special forces would know how to spot one when they encountered it in Iraq, why was it necessary to include our current level of technology into it?

Were any of the components connected electrically to a power source that could cause them to become operational with the flip of a switch?

Why does Hatfill insist he doesn't know anything about anthrax production when he built a mobile weapons lab in September 2001?

How many labs could you pack into a C-140 and deliver to theater in a week?

Marilyn Thompson: These are all good questions and observations. The Special Forces folks insist that the labs were non-functional, only to be used for commando training. The idea was to teach soldiers what to do if they found one of these very dangerous and complex labs in the field. I do not know if they had a power source. I do know that the FBI wanted to inspect them, just in case the real equipment could have been used at one time and cleaned and decontaminated.

Hatfill has stated on his resume that he was familar with bioweapons production of wet and dry agents. This was knowledge apparently passed on to him by other, more seasoned experts, including Bill Patrick, the father of the weaponization process.


Washington, D.C.: Do SAIC employees corroborate his alibi for the September mailing as he claims (pointing to his timesheets for 9/17 and 9/18 evidencing 13 hour days)?

Marilyn Thompson: Officially, SAIC has not commented on the time records produced by Hatfill to show his whereabouts on these critical dates. My sources who know and worked with Hatfill believe personally that he was on duty at SAIC during those hours.


Morganton, N.C.: Who is Hatfill's (ex-?) employer and how is that entity related to the Pentagon? Would that employer have a stake in increasing funding for bioweapons defense? Did Hatfill have an equity interest in that company?

Marilyn Thompson: Science Application International is an employee-owned consulting firm based in California, with a major office in McLean, Va. It does many projects with numerous government agencies and is very active in the field of bioweapons training and preparations. Many of its projects are secret, and employees who work on them have to have security clearance from the CIA. I do not know about Hatfill's personal finances, so I cannot comment at this time on whether he had any financial stake in the company.


Nederland, Colo.: Did you hear the account (DemocracyNow.Org this morning) that Dr. Hatfill is routinely aggressively tailgated by the FBI SUVs? One time he confronted an agent, who then ran over Hatfill's foot and drove off, only to be prevented from leaving by witnesses. When the police arrived, they fined Dr. Hatfill!

The biochemical evidence apparently indicates government origin of the anthrax. So Dr. Hatfill may legitimately be a "person if interest" -- along with how many other government bioscientists, would you say?

Marilyn Thompson: From the beginning of the case, Hatfill was considered to be one of a select group of experts -- not more than 25 to 50 -- who could have had the know-how to commit these crimes. As the FBI pursued the case, the field gradually narrowed. I know of no other person being subjected to the same level of scrutiny as Dr. Hatfill, and he, of course, claims that he is being unfairly harassed by the government and the media.


Syracuse, N.Y.: Marilyn, do you know if Dr. Hatfill contemplates litigation as he had threatened? It would seem that most claims with a 1 year cause of action may now be time-barred.

Marilyn Thompson: Dr. Hatfill continues to threaten legal action against the government and various members of the news media, but as far as I know, no case has been filed. He has filed a formal complaint with the Justice Department for being deemed a "person of interest" by Attorney General John Ashcroft.


Sandusky, Ohio: Do you have any sense as to whether the FBI has focused almost exclusively on Hatfill, or have they placed a "side bet" of some personnel resources on the working of other persons and parties of interest? Hatfill is intriguing, but it is not hard, after the Richard Jewell debacle, to wonder if the FBI has bet on the wrong horse.

Marilyn Thompson: The FBI in recent months has narrowed its focus to Dr. Hatfill and a very few of his close associates. The prospect of the FBI targeting another "Richard Jewell" has loomed large over this investigation. Some sources have acknowledged privately that the FBI will soon have to put up or shut up and leave Dr. Hatfill alone.


Arlington, Va.: Can you describe precisely what you currently believe was found of significance in the pond? What kind of box? (One hole? Two holes? Make-shift glove box according to experts experienced with such devices? Turtle trap? Minnow trap? Survey for Crofton Snakehead infestation from last summer? Live bait dispenser?) If a make-shift glovebox, how precisely is it imagined it would be used?

Vials? (Wrapped in plastic? Found in box? Near box? Far away from box?)

Gloves? (Vinyl? Rubber? Cloth? Found in box?

Near box? Far away from box?)

Thank you. We appreciate the hard work by you, your colleagues and the other reporters digging up new information. We have no need to know but it is what makes reading the Washington Post so fun.

Marilyn Thompson: I wish that I could describe it precisely, and as I said earlier, I believe that the FBI would benefit from making more details of these findings public in the hopes of generating new insights and observations. The box is described at a makeshift glove box -- obviously a homemade attempt at creating a protected space. It has two holes, according to my sources. USA Today has described a rope; we have not independently confirmed that finding. Our sources (and here I must credit my colleague Allen Lengel) have described vials wrapped in plastic and gloves wrapped in plastic.


Columbia, Md.: My question is whether this is a case where law enforcement is focusing so obsessively on one possible suspect that they are not perhaps missing other possibilities. The example of case of the Atlanta Olympics bombing and Richard Jewell for example.

Marilyn Thompson: We can only hope that the FBI knows what it is doing and that after nearly two years of rigorous investigation that has involved hundreds of agents around the globe, the agency has a good sense of what happened in this case. No one wants to see a repeat of the Richard Jewell debacle.


Miami, Fla.: Marilyn, do you think it's possible that a group of scientists from both the U.S. and South Africa are in any way guilty of a "conspiracy of gossip" against Steve Hatfill? Do you think the FBI have taken certain irrelevant incidents from his past too seriously?

Marilyn Thompson: You are correct that much of the material that has surfaced about Hatfill's past involves gossip and mischaracterizations. Most people who have been quoted about his exploits now deny saying things attributed to them -- and many of them have been contacted by Hatfill's legal team. It is a complex picture and extremely difficult to sort out.


Sacramento, Calif.: "after he failed a polygraph..."

Surely government scientists are aware that lie detectors don't work. Are they also going to hire someone to read the bumps on the heads of people to renew security clearances?

Marilyn Thompson: No, I doubt that in a time of reduced budgets, any agency could afford to hire bump readers. Government relies on available tools.


Rhinelander, Wis.: From what you know of the case what is your opinion of Mr. Hatfield? Is he likely involved? What additional steps do you feel the government should take at this point?

Marilyn Thompson: Reporters try extremely hard not to have opinions about such matters -- but to delve into the facts and present them to the public. This investigation is a matter of keen public interest. Five people died horrible deaths, and their survivors deserve to know what happened, as does the American public. I only hope that the FBI brings resolution to this mystifying and awful murder case.