By Carrie Johnson and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 9, 2008
Federal prosecutors yesterday officially "excluded" scientist Steven J. Hatfill from involvement in the deadly 2001 anthrax mailings, formally closing the door on a costly episode that sidetracked the FBI's search for the real culprit for nearly five years.
U.S. Attorney Jeffrey A. Taylor sent a letter yesterday to a lawyer for Hatfill, a onetime Fort Detrick, Md., bioweapons researcher, that essentially cleared Hatfill of a crime in which he was declared "a person of interest" six years ago.
The decision to exonerate Hatfill amounts to an unambiguous acknowledgment by authorities that they misspent thousands of investigative hours fruitlessly trying to link him to the crime. It was only about 18 months ago that the government turned its attention to bacteriologist Bruce E. Ivins, who had become the leading suspect before his death by a drug overdose last week.
As late as a news conference Wednesday, prosecutors had shied away from mentioning Hatfill or characterizing their law enforcement interest in him, despite prodding from the news media. In June, the Justice Department agreed to pay $5.85 million to resolve a lawsuit Hatfill had filed over violations of his privacy rights. But the government did not admit wrongdoing or clear Hatfill at that time, stoking speculation that authorities were withholding information.
The doubt lifted yesterday.
"We have concluded, based on lab access records, witness accounts, and other information, that Dr. Hatfill did not have access to the particular anthrax used in the attacks, and that he was not involved in the anthrax mailings," Taylor wrote.
Forensic techniques that allowed government scientists to genetically match the anthrax used in the bioterror attacks with a batch kept in Ivins's custody did not exist in 2002, when agents searched Hatfill's home, Taylor added.
Lawmakers and legal experts have called on the FBI to release more information about the probe, including when agents determined that Hatfill was not involved and why they did not share that information with a judge overseeing his privacy lawsuit. Critics say the bureau's single-minded pursuit of Hatfill blinded agents to the possibility of another culprit and allowed Ivins to move freely for years in sensitive biodefense labs.
This week, prosecutors and federal agents said their prime and only suspect in the anthrax mailings, which killed five people, was Ivins, who died July 29 after authorities signaled they would move to indict him.
Despite Ivins's death, the investigation continues while federal agents check computers seized from the Frederick library July 31 and pursue new leads. They intend to examine another e-mail account Ivins used and will look for clues to the crimes or to his mental state days before his suicide. Agents also are seeking to determine whether Ivins communicated with others about his plans, according to a government source briefed on the matter.
Also yesterday, the Army announced the creation of a team of medical and other experts to review security measures at the biodefense lab where Ivins worked. Army Secretary Pete Geren said he is asking at least a dozen military and civilian officials to scrutinize safety procedures, quality controls, and other policies and practices at the lab, an Army spokesman said.
Meanwhile, two days after the release of documents in the case, investigators sought to put to rest a nearly seven-year-old controversy over whether the anthrax mailer used special additives to make the concoction even more lethal.
Since the fall of 2001, federal officials have made contradictory statements about whether the powdered anthrax contained a form of the mineral silicon. The presence of silicon dioxide -- also known as silica -- would be highly significant, suggesting that the bioterrorist took additional steps to ensure that the powder would not clump and would penetrate deeply into victims' lungs. Silica was part of the recipe for a particularly deadly anthrax weapon made by Soviet military scientists.
On Nov. 7, 2001, then-Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said at a news conference that the anthrax powder contained silica, a statement that implied that the bioterrorist had access to secret government formulas for making biological weapons.
But in the documents released this Wednesday, the FBI clarified Ridge's statement. The powder contained not silica but silicon, which was present "within the spores," the documents said. There was no silica coating on the spores, as would be expected if someone had deliberately added the material to keep the spores from clumping.
Two government scientists with knowledge of the FBI's investigation said the presence of silicon, while not fully explained, does not appear to be significant. The scientists, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the silicon was probably an inadvertent contaminant and might have been introduced when the bacteria was being grown in the lab.
Still, numerous scientists and biodefense experts continued to complain that the FBI has not publicly addressed questions about silicon as well as other technical facets of the case. Many scientists, including colleagues of Ivins, say the evidence presented so far has not conclusively linked Ivins to the anthrax letters.
"They have got to get some technically competent people to talk about the science," said Tara O'Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "For all I know, they may have it down cold. But they need to be transparent."