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Last Updated

16 Sep 2003

Source: Washington Post, September 15, 2003

Reporter Interview on Steven Hatfill Article

Marilyn Thompson, whose article about Hatfill's case appeared in the September 14 Washington Post Magazine, fielded questions and comments about the article.

Thompson, a Post investigative reporter, is the author of "The Killer Strain: Anthrax and a Government Exposed."

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.


Galveston, Tex.: Regardless of the guilt or innocence of Hatfill, I'm disturbed by the FBI's narrow-minded methods. What if Hatfill is innocent and they have invested all their time and effort in the wrong guy? I used to debug network software for a living and trying to leap frog to a solution without investigating all the possibilities usually wastes time and causes embarrassment eventually.

Marilyn Thompson: The FBI contends that it has pursued many other avenues, with thousands of interviews all over the country. Many months ago, the FBI made a couple of publicized searches of scientists' homes in Chester, Pa., and Milwaukee. They focused considerable attention on a former USAMRIID anthrax researcher who now lives in New Jersey. Agents say that they continue to put certain interesting people on the investigative "hot seat" from time to time to update their information and theories. The recent re-interviewing of inhalational anthrax victim Ernesto Blanco is a sign of their strategy -- to keep revisiting people and places looking for possible new clues or details missed during the initial hurried sweep.

Yes, of course the bureau faces the prospect of major humiliation if this case remains unsolved, but officials talk confidently of bringing it to closure. They make clear that they operate on their own careful timetable and will not rush the case just to appease the public.


Fredericksburg, Va.: Ms. Thompson,

Thank you for helping keep the anthrax investigation alive. Hypothetical question: What if the anthrax mail was prepared by Hatfield, but delivered by another person?

While many red flags do point to Hatfield, I am convinced he could escape prosecution with the workplace timecard alibi. Being hours away from the New Jersey mailbox where anthrax spores were found, and from where the notorious mail was postmarked, certainly pales the other circumstantial evidence piled against him at this time.

While this defense argument seems to rest on the fact he cannot be placed in the vicinity of the mailings, it does not preclude the notion, however, that he could have prepared the package and an accomplice mailed it.

Do you think more emphasis should be placed on investigating this possibility? Did two (or more) persons working together on some high-scale bioterrorism project, create and commit this "perfect crime"?

Marilyn Thompson: I believe that the FBI has thought for some time that the commission of this crime involved more than one person. It is likely that an accomplice or accomplices helped mail the letters from their scattered locations. If you recall, a few bore a St. Petersburg postmark but the most virulent were stamped in Trenton. Hoax letters from other locations are believed to be involved.


College Park, Md.: There seem to be numerous instances in which Hatfield seems easily connected with the anthrax mailings. So what evidence does the FBI actually need in order to make an arrest?

Marilyn Thompson: Ideally, the FBI needs hard physical evidence - actual spores found in the possession of a suspect. The bureau does not have such evidence. That means that it would have to present a less convincing body of facts to a jury and run a higher risk of losing the case.


Baltimore, Md.: So, how does someone with dim credentials -- no Ph.D. and difficulty in med school -- work his way from studying viruses in 1997 to reportedly having "close ties to U.S. military intelligence or the CIA?" Why did Leahy's committee have to prod the FBI to investigate this guy?

Marilyn Thompson: Good questions. Mr. Hatfill seems to have benefitted from inattentiveness to detail and to some loopholes. The Phd. certificate he submitted to NIH could have easily been tracked back by authorities and exposed as a forgery, but it was overlooked and Hatfill's credentials helped him gain access to sensitive government agencies. USAMRIID allowed him in as a contract researcher because it depended on his funding agency to vet his credentials, and so on and so on. As for the influence of Leahy's committee, I think it is safe to say that this FBI investigation has been more closely watched and prodded than any other -- since two of the intended victims were members of the U.S. Senate.


Chicago, Ill.: Has Dr. Hatfill even been notified that he is a target of the grand jury?

Marilyn Thompson: His attorneys say that he has not.


Washington, D.C.: They dredged and drained a pond. They surveilled him for over two years. They have taken apart every computer the man ever touched.

Please -- remind me -- exactly what further evidence against Hatfill do they purport to have? Is it lawful for them to continue hounding him?

Marilyn Thompson: The FBI contends that it is lawful for the agency to watch anyone that it considers a public threat, and certainly, under the new powers of the Patriot Act, the bureau has authority to pursue anyone suspected of any connection whatsoever to a terrorism act. That being said, I think that the FBI is increasingly aware that it needs to produce a case or back off of this particular individual.


Washington, D.C.: Doesn't it seem a little suspicious that Hatfill threatened The Post reporter's career, a la John Mitchell during Watergate? It seems that an innocent man wouldn't mind the news media -- during their fact-finding stages -- talking to his acquaintances. Any thoughts on this?

Marilyn Thompson: Of course, I have many thoughts on this. Having worked on many stories of this kind over far too many years, threats of this sort are fairly unusual and more than a little unsettling.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Does it seem credible to you that John Ashcroft's handling of the Hatfill affair could have been unaffected by input from his boss, President George W. Bush?

Marilyn Thompson: I certainly believe that this case is being monitored by the highest levels of government. The President, however, has made no public comment on it since the early days of the attacks.


Ilion, N.Y.: Does Attorney Glasberg still represent Dr. Hatfill (in addition to the lawyers at the other firm)? His presentations in the summer of 2002 were very impressive.

Marilyn Thompson: Yes, Dr. Hatfill's press conferences were very well managed, mostly due to the input of his then-spokesman Pat Clawson, a former television investigative reporter with media savvy. Glasberg is a civil lawyer and Hatfill consulted him early on about possible lawsuits against the media and government agencies. His new team specializes in criminal law but also is handling his lawsuit against the Justice Department and FBI.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Have you been able to confirm the story which appeared in SEED magazine and the The Observer newspaper that Hatfill fabricated his MSc research? Do you know who fed that story to researchers, and what their motivation is?

Marilyn Thompson: I do not know who fed that story to SEED magazine or leaked an old email in which Hatfill's Professor Bohm was complaining about the student's research techniques. Dr. Bohm declined to speak with me but did tell me that he understands Hatfill's research has now been successfully duplicated.


Angers, France: Can you tell us anything about the status of the grand jury? Thank you for the story!

Marilyn Thompson: Numerous friends and associates of Dr. Hatfill told me that they have received document subpoenas from a federal grand jury supervised by U.S. Attorney Roscoe Howard. I have found no one who has actually been called to testify.


Virginia: How many lawyers and spokesmen does he have? They seemed to changed all the time. Must be stressful to work for.

Marilyn Thompson: I think there has been some tension in the legal team, resulting recently in Pat Clawson's decision to have nothing more to do with the case. This followed on the heels of a very lively City Paper story in which Hatfill and Clawson allowed a reporter to ride with them while they were purportedly pursued by the FBI. Usually, criminal defense lawyers frown on this kind of antics, which may not sit well with a federal judge.


West Chester, Pa.: Ms. Thompson --

Thanks for your continuing scientific investigation of the anthrax story. Your detailed description of Steven Hatfill's pinpointing by the FBI was the most comprehensive account I've seen. However, equally as plausible is to take the notes in recovered envelopes at face value and assume that the perpetrator(s) is(are) Muslim extremists.

Some points perhaps worthy of note:

1. Each of the postmarks recovered was on a Tuesday (following soon after 9/11, a Tuesday);

2. Bob Stevens, the first anthrax casualty, worked for a tabloid which had recently published a scathing article regarding unsavory habits of the Saudi royal family;

3. Two of the highjackers (Atta and el-Shehhi) had rented an apartment in Ft. Lauderdale from an AMI editor's wife while taking flight lessons; and

4. One of the highjackers had presented himself to a doctor in Ft. Lauderdale with a black-scabbed skin lesion in July 2001, which, in retrospect, the doctor admitted could have been cutaneous anthrax.

I'd like your opinion on this alternative scenario, which, I believe, has as much credence as the trumped up case against Steven Hatfill.


Marilyn Thompson: I appreciate your question. I wrote extensively about the hijacker theory in a book I did on the anthrax attacks. The FBI contends that it pursued a hijacker connection in the early days and became convinced that they were not involved in these mailings -- mainly because the anthrax strain used was a military research strain. Many people in Florida, however, who know about the hijackers' movements in that part of the country in the months before 9/11, do not believe the FBI pursued this with enough vigor.


Easton, Md.: Good article. Thank you. In the current issue of Vanity Fair, literary analyist Don Foster infers that Hatfill was present in a part of Africa that suffered a devastating outbreak of anthrax, where no anthrax had been before. Would you care to comment on Professor Foster's article?

Marilyn Thompson: I have read Mr. Foster's article with great interest. His frustrations with the FBI are shared by other consultants who have worked on the peripheries of this case. I believe you are referring to Mr. Hatfill's years in Rhodesia at the time of a massive outbreak of anthrax poisoning the Tribal Trust Lands, an event that has been extensively analyzed as a possible bioterror event.


Angers, France: Yes, the issue of Pat Clawson is interesting. He was such a passionate supporter of Mr. Hatfill. Is there any info on what caused him to abandon his support (or at least his public support)?

Marilyn Thompson: He has not abandoned his support of Hatfill. He truly believes that Hatfill had nothing to do with these crimes and is being unfairly targeted. But he has differed with the new lawyers on several crucial issues -- including how much Hatfill should be allowed to say publicly in his own defense.


Washington, D.C.: I heard that at the time of Barbara Rosenberg's meeting with Senators Leahy and Daschle, many Senators had publicly made it known that they were displeased with how the FBI had handled domestic terrorism cases and were considering turning those responsibilities over to another government agency. Do you think this had anything to do with why the FBI turned up the heat on Hatfill in the following weeks?

Marilyn Thompson: Yes, there had been much displeasure on the Hill with the FBI's performance on terrorism cases. I do not know about your theory that the responsibilities could have been turned over to others. But it seems very clear that the FBI cannot afford to have a high-ranking Senator, at that time the Judiciary Committee chairman, convinced that it was not aggressively pursuing leads and trying to solve this important case. The pressure from Capitol Hill continues to be intense.


Bethesda, Md.: Great article! Way to present both sides throughout the story. It is hard to tell whether he did it or not, you seem to have created a planned the confusion in your article. It seemed to really represent the confusion of the FBI in the investigation. Being a graduate with a degree in Biology and working in the research field, this was a very interesting article. Everything seems to be pointing to Hatfill, but somehow and someway the FBI can't pin-point him or anyone else for that matter. If I were a betting man, which I am not, I would say it was someone that is close to Hatfill and that new his actions, and by knowing his location, especially in London, the blame and evidence could be traced to Hatfill and not the real perpetrator. Again, great article. Thank you

Marilyn Thompson: Thanks for your feedback. Yes, confusion has been a very real factor in this investigation. Confusion over the science especially. As I reported, lab analysis alone has cost $13 million and it is not yet complete.


McLean, Va.: If Hatfill does not have either an MD or a Ph.D, why do you continue to refer to him as "Dr. Hatfill?"

Marilyn Thompson: Hatfill has a medical degree. The Phd. is the one in question.


Deale, Md.: Greeting, Marilyn:

Sandra here at Bay Weekly. Is this person of interest or someone else indeed likely to get away with a "perfect crime?" It's vastly puzzling -- as curious as the twists and turns of the investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy -- that that organization with the world's most sophisticated investigative array could continue to be outfoxed. Please comment on possible reasons for this.

Marilyn Thompson: The FBI has made it clear that it considers solving this case extremely important, partly because of the message it wants to send to anyone else who would ever contemplate using a deadly agent against American citizens. Let's hope the agency is successful in solving it. Death by anthrax is a ghastly proposition.


Long Beach, Calif.: Two questions:

1. If Mr. Hatfill seemed to often talk hypothetically about how to conduct bio-terror attacks, perhaps someone close to him learned techniques from him. Has this avenue been explored?

2. Isn't it interesting that the letters were sent to news organizations and Democratic politicians. Has anyone investigated Mr. Hatfill's political leanings, or anyone elses, that would lead a would be attacker to target such individuals?

Marilyn Thompson: Yes, the avenue you describe has been explored. As for political leanings, the FBI has said from the start that it believes this person is of a conservative bent, which might explain the intended targets to some degree.