The Hatfill Case

Thursday, July 3, 2008

IN 2002, THEN-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft labeled Steven J. Hatfill a "person of interest" in the investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and caused 17 others to fall seriously ill. Those three words transformed Mr. Hatfill's life and the fate of that investigation.

Even before that, news helicopters and dozens of reporters tipped off by administration sources had showed up at Mr. Hatfill's home when FBI agents conducted searches. Top brass at the FBI and Justice Department became obsessed with Mr. Hatfill and ordered him incessantly trailed, despite protests from agents on the front lines that there was not enough evidence to justify focusing the investigation on this one man and that resources should be redirected to other targets. Louisiana State University removed Mr. Hatfill from a job he had just started after the administration complained that the job involved training law enforcement officers to deal with bioterrorism. All of this, mind you, even though the government had not filed a single charge against Mr. Hatfill. Almost seven years after the anthrax attacks, it still hasn't.

Last week the administration agreed to pay Mr. Hatfill $5.8 million to settle a lawsuit he filed in 2003 against Mr. Ashcroft, the FBI and the Justice Department. Taxpayers must now foot the bill for the incompetence of those who presumably were trying to protect them.

Mr. Ashcroft made his declaration about Mr. Hatfill even though Justice Department policy is crystal clear about the need to keep private the names of suspects or "persons of interest." This policy was crafted to prevent smearing a person's reputation and to prevent tipping off suspects or their accomplices. Law enforcement must act with discipline and restraint precisely because of its enormous capacity to affect or even destroy lives. This is true even when -- perhaps especially when -- investigators are convinced that they have identified the culprit but are still gathering evidence to bring charges.

Mr. Hatfill was not charged and thus never had the chance to clear his name in court. The settlement itself is also not proof of innocence. It is, however, testament to how badly the Justice Department and the FBI handled this case. We may never know the truth about the anthrax murders. For that, the Justice Department and the FBI are to blame.


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