A federal judge dismissed two claims yesterday in former Army scientist Steven J. Hatfill's suit against the Justice Department but left open the possibility that Hatfill can hold officials accountable for comments about him during the anthrax investigation.
Hatfill sued the Justice Department, the FBI, then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and other officials in 2003, claiming that his civil rights were violated when he was labeled a "person of interest" in the investigation into the anthrax attacks. He has denied having any part in the anthrax-laced mailings of 2001, which killed five people. No arrests have been made in the case.
In his suit, Hatfill alleges that some officials leaked discrediting and false information about him to the media, harmed his reputation and damaged his chances of obtaining employment. Ashcroft, former FBI official Van A. Harp and Justice Department employees Timothy Beres and Daryl Darnell had asked the court to dismiss three claims in Hatfill's suit that seek to hold them individually responsible.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton dismissed two claims involving the individuals. But he kept intact a third claim, which seeks a court declaration that Ashcroft and the others unconstitutionally deprived Hatfill of employment opportunities. That claim also seeks an injunction that would bar officials from future violations. It does not expose the individuals to monetary damages.
A fourth claim, seeking monetary damages from the federal government for alleged Privacy Act violations, also remains. It was not part of yesterday's ruling.
A Justice spokesman said last night that officials were reviewing the ruling and had no immediate comment.
Hatfill, a physician and bioterrorism expert, worked from 1997 to 1999 in the Army's infectious diseases laboratory at Fort Detrick. Ashcroft identified him as a "person of interest" in 2002.
Hatfill's attorneys said yesterday that his suit has always centered on the larger allegations that the department violated his privacy. They said they still have a chance to get a declaration against individual officials.
"Thanks to Judge Walton's ruling, Dr. Hatfill can now proceed not only against the government itself, but against individual government officials whose actions deprived him of his constitutional rights," said Mark Grannis, one the attorneys.