Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Steven J. Hatfill, the bioweapons researcher called a “person of interest” in the government’s investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks, is suing Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Department of Justice and the FBI, saying they have wrecked his life.

Mr. Hatfill filed suit in D.C. federal court yesterday, accusing Mr. Ashcroft and others, including Van A. Harp, the former head of the FBI’s Washington field office, of violating his constitutional rights. Mr. Hatfill says he has been made the fall guy for the FBI’s lack of progress in the anthrax probe.

Five persons were killed and 17 injured during the weeks after the September 11 attacks when anthrax-laced envelopes were mailed to media outlets in Florida and New York and to offices on Capitol Hill. No charges have been filed against Mr. Hatfill, and the FBI hasn’t called him a suspect in the investigation.

But the attorney general has referred to him as one among several people of interest in the investigation, and when the FBI repeatedly searched his apartment last year, Mr. Hatfill became the center of news coverage of the probe.

Mr. Hatfill’s attorney, Thomas G. Connolly, told reporters yesterday that “the attorney general and his subordinates … made Dr. Hatfill a prisoner in his own home … without any evidence linking him to the attacks and without bringing any formal charges against him.”

“The public campaign against Dr. Hatfill began last summer when the FBI and DOJ officials tipped off the press that they intended to search Dr. Hatfill’s apartment,” Mr. Connolly said. “Never mind that Dr. Hatfill had consented to the search … the FBI was orchestrating a media event broadcast live to a national audience. The government wanted to show an anxious nation that it was making progress in the anthrax investigation.”

Mr. Connolly refused to attach a dollar figure to the compensation his client is seeking from the government.

The Department of Justice declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did the FBI’s Washington field office, which is leading the probe into who mailed the anthrax.

Interest in Mr. Hatfill apparently stems from work he did at the Army’s biodefense labs at Fort Detrick, Md., for two years until 1999, and another job he took afterwards with defense contractor Science Applications International Corp. in McLean.

As a senior scientist with SAIC until March last year, Mr. Hatfill built mock biological weapons labs to train special-operations personnel on what to look for in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. During that time, he also commissioned a report about anthrax uses. Two pages of the report describe how the poison could be sent through the mail in standard business envelopes.

When Mr. Hatfill, 49, left SAIC, he was asked to take up biomedical research and train staff at Louisiana State University. But he was fired by LSU before the job started. The firing came after the Department of Justice told LSU it could not use Mr. Hatfill on projects funded by grants from the department.

Mr. Hatfill has long denied involvement in the anthrax attacks. Last summer, he stood before a gathering of about 100 reporters and news cameras in Alexandria to announce through teary eyes that the FBI had ruined his life.

In May, Mr. Hatfill said he was struck by a vehicle being driven by an FBI employee who was tailing him in Georgetown. He was not seriously injured.

According to his lawsuit, investigators have subjected Mr. Hatfill “to an unrelenting campaign of harassment, weakly camouflaged as surveillance.” The suit says the FBI has declined Mr. Hatfill’s offer to wear a portable electronic tracking system at all times so agents can know his whereabouts.”

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