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Steven Hatfill had just about disappeared from American media attention until last August. That was when the former US Government virologist filed suit against Attorney General John Ashcroft and the US Justice Department for carrying out an unprecedented campaign of harassment, invading his privacy and ruining his reputation.
You may recall that the Justice Department named Dr. Hatfill “a person of interest” in the still-unsolved 2001 anthrax attacks. As a result, his suit contends, he has been under 24-hour surveillance and the subject of wiretaps by the FBI. Hatfill has denied any role in the attacks and has never been charged with any crime. His lawsuit seeks to clear his name and recover unspecified monetary damages.
Hatfill once worked as a researcher at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. Hatfill says he never worked with infectious diseases such as anthrax, however. His lawyers contend that the government linked him to the attacks to make it seem that the investigation was making progress. The attacks consisted of anthrax-laced envelopes being sent to government and media offices. Five people died and 17 others were sickened.
In August 2001, Hatfill lost his security clearance after a CIA-administered polygraph test yielded inconclusive results. After losing his clearance, Hatfill appealed the decision, but his employer terminated him in March 2002 as the FBI intensified its scrutiny.
According to the lawsuit, Hatfill is still under 24-hour surveillance, leaving him unable to freely talk to his girlfriend, family or friends. "He has been a target of a coordinated campaign to publicly implicate him in a crime he did not commit," Hatfill's attorney told a news conference. Hatfill also said the Justice Department was responsible for his firing last August from a job directing bioterrorism research at Louisiana State University. The lawsuit says he's been unemployed since and that other potential employers have been scared off from hiring him because he is followed by a team of five to seven FBI agents. His lawyer said federal authorities "have trampled Dr. Hatfill's constitutional rights and they have destroyed his life."
Citing the ongoing criminal investigation and concerns about national security, the Justice Department has sought to have Hatfill’s suit dismissed and, meanwhile, is trying to persuade a Federal judge to delay it. Disclosure of what the FBI knows about the deadly attacks could enable terrorists to engineer biological weapons to escape detection, the FBI says. Richard L. Lambert, the FBI inspector in charge of what is being called the "Amerithrax" investigation, says in a court document that Hatfill's lawsuit could jeopardize the probe and expose national secrets related to US bioweapons defense measures.
The judge hearing Dr. Hatfill's suit said he "is not convinced that allowing (the suit) to proceed will endanger the FBI's investigation of the anthrax letters". He said the government has not persuaded him to postpone the suit until the anthrax case is solved, as Justice Department lawyers requested. "Is Mr. Hatfill still a suspect? Are there any suspects? ", The judge asked. He added: " At some point…if Mr. Hatfill did not commit this crime, he should get his life back." The judge is expected to issue a written ruling on the government's request to freeze the lawsuit or hold an additional hearing.
According to Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, even if the case gets to Court, Hatfill faces an uphill battle. Prosecutors are allowed to publicly identify a person they are seeking to interview in a criminal investigation. Therefore, Hatfill would have to prove that his name was singled out with malicious purpose, Turley said. That usually requires a so-called "smoking gun" document that rarely exists, he said.
Meanwhile, a Federal grand jury has been empanelled and, in recent months, many of Hatfill's friends and colleagues and his former employers report that they have provided documents under grand jury subpoena. In its court filings responding to Hatfill’s suit, the FBI stopped short of saying that Hatfill is still being investigated, and other Federal officials have said Hatfill is not a suspect and that they have no evidence directly linking him to the attacks
Frustrated FBI officials say the anthrax investigation is still ongoing – a frustration doubtless made even more intense by the recent discovery of the poison toxin Ricin in the mailroom of the Senate Majority Leader. The FBI insists that every investigative technique available to them has been employed in the anthrax investigation, including: round-the-clock surveillances; eavesdropping and searches conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; agents conducting 5,000 interviews and serving more than 1,700 grand jury subpoenas; hundreds of polygraphs; agents compiling minute-by-minute chronologies of the lives of some subjects, examining their whereabouts when the letters were sent; involvement by 40 of the FBI's 56 field offices and many of its 44 overseas legal attachés; establishing 112 separate databases to store information about the case; and offering a reward of $2.5 million. The FBI also has hired a former Hatfill colleague, who provided the bureau with information about him. Legal experts have characterized this as an unusual move that could pose an appearance of conflict of interest if the government tries to use the employee as a prosecution witness.
Whether or not he is ever charged with or convicted of anything, the Hatfill saga is a chilling reminder of what can – and does -- happen to ordinary US citizens during times of extraordinary national fear and anxiety. “Temporary” suspension of Constitutional protections have occurred many times in US history. Over time, most -- though not all – of these abuses have been corrected. But ‘over time’ offers little consolation to people whose names are widely publicized but who are never charged. That is why the Constitution provides for specific charges and speedy trials. It is time to prohibit law enforcement from using the phrase ‘person of interest’. That language does not establish guilt or innocence; it does not even designate a person as a suspect. Rather, it places the victim in a kind of legal limbo tantamount to having been accused, tried and convicted. It is time for the Justice Department to either charge Dr. Hatfill, or publicly apologize to him and let him get on with his life.