Justice Department Settles Anthrax Probe Suit

Scientist Steven Hatfill, who was named a "person of interest" by the Justice Department in the anthrax attacks of 2001, said his career and reputation were ruined. The Justice Department has just settled a lawsuit from Hatfill for almost $6 million. David Willman of the Los Angeles Times reports.

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MIKE PESCA, host;

The anthrax attacks of 2001, which killed five people and quite literally terrorized the nation so close on the heels of the 9/11 attacks, have never been solved. Seven letters are believed to have been mailed, five to news organizations, two to U.S. senators. At the time, then Attorney General John Ashcroft, named scientist Steven Hatfill as a person of interest, which meant what exactly? Well, it meant a media feeding frenzy at first, and has now totaled almost six million dollars for Mr. Hatfill. The Justice Department just settled with him.

He brought a lawsuit in which he claimed the department and the FBI invaded his privacy, and that the person of interest label and FBI press leaks had ruined his career and reputation. The Justice Department doesn't admit to any wrongdoing, but it did pay Mr. Hatfill off. Joining us now is David Willman of the LA Times. He's been reporting on the case. Thanks for joining us, David.

Mr. DAVID WILLMAN (Reporter, Los Angeles Times; Winner, 2001 Pulitzer Prize, Investigative Reporting): Good to be with you, Mike.

PESCA: Fill us in. Who was Steven Hatfill at the time?

Mr. WILLMAN: Steven Hatfill was a research scientist who had worked at the U.S. Army's facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland. After leaving Fort Detrick, he was working in the private sector. I should say that while at Fort Detrick, he among his - part of his work up there was researching how to best respond to, or prevent physical harm and infection from, certain viruses, including from Ebola and Marburg virus, which are, you know, very potentially-lethal biological agents, if used in an offensive context. So, that's who Steven Hatfill was. He'd had a varied career, and when the anthrax mailings occurred, he came on to the FBI's radar screen.

PESCA: And what did the FBI say about him, on and off the record, to the media?

Mr. WILLMAN: Well, I can't speak to the totality of that, but I - as we reported in Sunday's Los Angeles Times, Hatfill had his first contact from the FBI in December of 2001, and at least two FBI agents kept in regular contact from - with him from that point on. And they were interviewing him and they have testified under oath, and I reported that on Sunday, that he was cooperative during that period.

There was a - I think, Hatfill burst into public view beginning with the columns that were written by Nick Kristof in the New York Times, in which he was referred to as an anonymous Mr. X. Kristof ultimately acknowledged in The Times that he had been referring throughout to Hatfill. He didn't do that until later in 2002. But on June 25th, 2002, there was a search of Mr. Hatfill's apartment in Frederick, Maryland, and that search was covered by legions of multimedia...

PESCA: Right.

Mr. WILLMAN: Yeah, helicopters...

PESCA: So the dot connecting was there. Kristof named him Mr. X. You have the legions of media, you know with helicopters overhead, looking through his mail. Everyone who was paying attention, got the idea that the FBI was considering Steven Hatfill for this crime.

Mr. WILLMAN: No question about it. And you know, there are a lot of articles in between there, which we don't have time to speak to in their entirety...

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. WILLMAN: And then fast forwarding it up, Mike, to August 6th, of 2002, which was five days after the second sort of frenzied covered - coverage of the surge of Hatfill's apartment, but it was on August 6th, 2002, that then Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly labeled Hatfield a quote, unquote, "person of interest." He said that in response to questions on two separate morning-network programs. One of them was CBS "Early Show." And then, I don't know, 10 days or so later, Ashcroft held a press conference, I believe, in Philadelphia - it might have been in Newark, I'm sorry - and re-injected this terminology about person of interest.

PESCA: In law enforcement, does "person of interest" have a real meaning? It seems official.

Mr. WILLMAN: It appears to mean different things to different people. It was very interesting reading though the sworn testimony gathered in Hatfill's lawsuit. It literally means different things to different people. It does not have an official definition within the Department of Justice or the FBI. So, it's clearly an ambiguous term.

PESCA: We know - correct me if I'm wrong, but I think now we have more and greater knowledge about the kinds of anthrax spores that were used. And originally it was thought they were weaponized and very sophisticated. And then I think other experts were brought in to look at these spores, and they said actually though deadly, they were kind of run-of-the-mill spores. That's relevant, because if they were weaponized spores, it is a very small pool of people who could have weaponized them, and Hatfill maybe was in that pool. But if we had a more accurate picture of the spores, it might have opened the gates to very many more people being suspects. Am I getting that right?

Mr. WILLMAN: Well, you're touching on a fascinating area of this unsolved case, which, by the way, has implications beyond the, you know, terrible harm done to those people and families, who you cited at your opening. But I'm of the opinion, Mike, that the term "weaponized," again, means different things to different people. To some people, weaponized - in order to be weaponized means that the spores would have to be coated with silicone...

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. WILLMAN: And I know there's no dictionary definition that says that's what has to happen. In other words, to have spores that are going to kill a maximum number of people, they have to be a very - the powdered refined form of the anthrax has to be very, very tiny grains that suck deeply down in to the airwaves. And you don't have to have silica coating to accomplish that. You do have to have a skilled drying process, and this anthrax that was used in these attacks and not all of it was of the same texture, from what we gather, but it was very high quality material.

It was all of the Ames strain and that's important. In other words, that you trace the first victim in Palm Beach County, Florida, through the last victim, and you trace it to the powder that was fortunately recovered from the mailings to the two senators here in Washington. And you come up with the same generic strain. It's Ames strain, and that is of a fairly finite universe of potential original sources.

PESCA: Right. You know, there's a big - there's the law enforcement aspect of it, obviously. We don't know who did this. It terrorized the country. It killed a lot of people. The trail seems to have gone cold. There's the media aspect of it also, since you cover law enforcement, but work in the media, is it really a cautionary tale? Do you think that the labeling a person of interest will cause members of the media to pause, especially when it's done in a public forum? Like, if the attorney general says it in a press conference, how do you not report on that guy?

Mr. WILLMAN: Well, first of all, I think that like with much - many of the things that we do in life, there are lessons to be learned, and I know that there are lessons to be learned obviously for the Justice Department and the FBI, and clearly, in my opinion, there are for the media as well. Now, as for the media's role and reporting person of interest, you know, I don't think the media has any choice but to report that the attorney general in the United States, and on other occasions other officials referred to Steven Hatfill as a person of interest that you do that. I mean, that is an official person of the government who is putting that distinction on a person - on a target of an investigation.

PESCA: Mm.

Mr. WILLMAN: The harder choices come into - with a lot of the other leaks that were given wide amplification that were highly prejudicial over Hatfill that turned out to be very lacking in substance. If you go back, I mean, all of the sound and theory over these bloodhounds that were brought in to Steven Hatfill's apartment, and if you read various media counts were brought in to other locations where Hatfill was, and the veracity of some those representations by the...

PESCA: Caution, and watch out who you name the next Mr. X. Well, thank you, David Willman.

Mr. WILLMAN: Yeah.

PESCA: Investigative reporter for the LA Times. Thank you.

Mr. WILLMAN: Thank you, Mike.

PESCA: Coming up, Napoleon's privates on the BPP on NPR.

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