A federal judge ordered the Justice Department yesterday to begin providing testimony to attorneys for Steven J. Hatfill, the former Army scientist who is suing the government for identifying him as "a person of interest" in the anthrax investigation.
For months, the Justice Department had opposed Hatfill's attempts to begin deposing government witnesses, citing the sensitive nature of the investigation. Hatfill's attorneys said that stalled their efforts to identify the source of leaks in the massive probe.
Steven J. Hatfill, shown in 2002, is a bioterrorism expert. He did not attend yesterday's hearing.
(Hyungwon Kang -- Reuters)
Until yesterday, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton deferred to the government's concerns. But Walton also said that Hatfill must eventually have an opportunity to explore the subject, and the Justice Department told the judge that it is now willing to permit some questioning.
Hatfill filed suit in 2003, alleging that then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and other federal officials defamed him and violated his privacy. No one has been arrested for the anthrax-laced mailings that killed five people and sickened 17 in the fall of 2001, and Hatfill has said that he had nothing to do with the crime.
Earlier this week, in a significant shift, the government notified Walton that it was willing to permit the questioning of some witnesses on Hatfill's claim that the leaks violated the Privacy Act. Yesterday, Walton ordered government lawyers to immediately start laying the groundwork to set up the depositions.
Hatfill, a physician and bioterrorism expert, worked from 1997 to 1999 in the Army's infectious diseases laboratory at Fort Detrick. He did not attend yesterday's hearing at the federal courthouse in Washington.
The government, in its written submission to the court and in its statement yesterday, sought to preclude Ashcroft and other individual defendants from being deposed because the judge is still considering their claims of immunity.
But Hatfill's attorney, Thomas G. Connolly, objected, saying the exclusion of such key witnesses would further delay the case. Walton agreed and ordered the process to go forward, with some limitations.
It was unclear from the court filings and statements what led to the government's turnabout. Last year, Walton expressed doubts that authorities were on the verge of solving the case. The government said in a filing this week that the investigation into the anthrax attacks is "active and ongoing." But law enforcement sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there have been no significant new developments.
Hatfill's ability to question government officials could have broader implications. Thwarted until now in his effort to obtain the testimony of federal law enforcement officials, Hatfill had subpoenaed reporters from several news organizations, including The Washington Post, seeking information about their sources for stories concerning Hatfill and the investigation.
But yesterday, Connolly told Walton that the change in the government's position could resolve, for the time being at least, Hatfill's standoff with the news media, which have sought to quash the subpoenas. He said he was in talks with attorneys for the news organizations and hoped to notify the court soon of a resolution.
Staff writer Allan Lengel contributed to this report.