A federal judge scolded the Justice Department yesterday for failing to stop leaks describing former Army scientist Steven J. Hatfill as a "person of interest" in the investigation of the anthrax attacks.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton also expressed doubt that the FBI is close to identifying the person behind the mailings that killed five people and sickened 17 others in the fall of 2001. At a court hearing in Washington yesterday, he said he made that assessment after reading a sealed affidavit submitted by the head of the FBI investigation.
"It doesn't seem to me there's a significant likelihood of anything in the near future that's going to change the status quo," said Walton, who is presiding over a civil suit filed by Hatfill that accuses the Justice Department of defaming him and violating his privacy.
Raising his voice and shaking his finger, Walton told government lawyers that he was "extremely troubled" by recent newspaper articles that quote anonymous law enforcement sources as saying the FBI remains interested in Hatfill, 50, a physician and bioterrorism expert who once worked at the Army's infectious disease research lab at Fort Detrick in Frederick.
"They're undermining what this country is supposed to be about -- that is, that we treat people fairly," Walton said of the anonymous sources. "If you don't have enough to indict this man, then it's wrong to drag his name through the mud."
The judge's voice grew even louder as he added: "That's not a government I want to be a part of. It's wrong, and you all need to do something about it."
The Justice Department has repeatedly sought to delay the civil case, contending that the criminal probe is sensitive and complicated. For the first time yesterday, Walton ordered the government to respond to Hatfill's allegations within 30 days. Hatfill filed his suit in August 2003.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft first identified Hatfill as a "person of interest" in 2002. Law enforcement sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recently said that they still have interest in Hatfill along with a small group of other scientists. No charges have been filed in the probe.
Justice Department attorney Elizabeth Shapiro assured the judge that Justice officials have told FBI investigators to try to control leaks. "We agree with you, Judge," she said.
In a statement after the hearing, Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said the leaks are "absolutely disgraceful and need to stop." He said they can damage government credibility and individual reputations.
Hatfill did not attend yesterday's hearing and declined to comment through his attorney.
Earlier this year, Walton granted a postponement in the civil case, saying in March that confidential information from the Justice Department indicated that significant leads could be unearthed by summer. Authorities have been trying to conclude complex lab tests in hopes of tracing the anthrax to its point of origin. The tainted letters were mailed to media and government offices.
During the hearing yesterday, the Justice Department sought to postpone Hatfill's complaint for an additional six months and to prevent his attorneys from going forward with depositions of FBI agents or Justice officials. The government has repeatedly argued that depositions would distract the FBI from the most complicated criminal investigation it has ever conducted.
Walton instead ordered lawyers on both sides to work out a compromise for proceeding with depositions in the near future. If those discussions fail, he said, he will issue an order next month on how to proceed.
"Dr. Hatfill has a right in the foreseeable future to try to vindicate his name," Walton said. "The longer we wait, the more difficult it may be for him to make a case."
Thomas G. Connolly, one of Hatfill's attorneys, told the judge that his client had not been employed for more than a year, and "pretty soon he's going to be indigent."
Connolly complained that Justice and FBI officials continue to engage in a "whisper campaign" against his client. The news accounts that prompted Walton's anger were quotes from confidential sources close to the investigation, published in Washington Post articles in March and July, which Connolly read aloud in court.
Staff writer Allan Lengel contributed to this report.