Ashcroft sued in anthrax probe
WASHINGTON — The bioterrorism expert under scrutiny in the 2001 anthrax attacks sued Attorney General John Ashcroft and other government officials Tuesday, accusing them of using him as a scapegoat for their failure to make an arrest in the case.
Dr. Steven J. Hatfill said Ashcroft and other federal authorities destroyed his reputation and ruined his job prospects by labeling him a “person of interest” in the case, circulating his photo and improperly leaking aspects of the investigation to the media.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, said Hatfill is under 24-hour surveillance, leaving him unable to freely talk to his girlfriend, family or friends.
“The attorney general and his subordinates have taken Dr. Hatfill’s life as he knows it,” Hatfill’s attorney, Thomas Connolly, said at a news conference at the federal courthouse. “They have made him a prisoner in his own home. All this without any evidence linking Dr. Hatfill to the attack and without bringing formal charges against him.”
Hatfill wants his name cleared and seeks unspecified damages from Ashcroft, the Justice Department, the FBI and other current and former FBI and Justice Department officials.
FBI officials declined to comment. Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo also declined to discuss the case, but released a January memo from H. Marshall Jarrett, a counsel with the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility.
Jarrett dismissed Hatfill’s charges that Ashcroft engaged in professional misconduct by describing Hatfill as a person of interest. “We concluded that your statements did not violate any law, regulation or Department of Justice policy or standard,” Jarrett wrote in a memo.
Federal officials have said Hatfill is not a suspect and that they have no evidence directly linking him to the October 2001 attacks in which anthrax-laced envelopes were sent to government and media offices. Five people died and 17 others were sickened.
Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, said Hatfill faces a stiff challenge in court.
“The problem with these lawsuits is this falls into an area of discretionary conduct by Justice Department officials,” Turley said. “It’s the type of area that courts are loathe to enter into.”
Because prosecutors are allowed to publicly identify a person they are seeking to interview in a criminal investigation, Hatfill would have to show his name was singled out with malicious purpose, Turley said. That usually requires a so-called “smoking gun” document that rarely exists, he said.
Turley said the government likely would try to have the case dismissed before it could be ordered to give Hatfill access to Justice Department documents from the investigation.
Hatfill once worked as a researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. The facility housed the strain of anthrax found in the envelopes sent to the victims, though Hatfill repeatedly has said he never worked with the infectious disease.
The lawsuit claims federal officials orchestrated a public campaign beginning in June 2002 to link Hatfill to the attacks because the investigation had stalled and it was politically necessary to make it look like the government was making progress.
Part of that effort involved an FBI leak to the media that it would search Hatfill’s home in Frederick on June 25, 2002, despite the fact that Hatfill consented to the search, the lawsuit states.
“They wanted to show an anxious nation that they were making progress in this investigation,” Connolly said.
Hatfill also said the Justice Department was responsible for his firing last August from a job directing bioterrorism research at Louisiana State University.
Hatfill has been unemployed since and says in the lawsuit that other potential employers have been scared off from hiring him because he is constantly followed by a team of five to seven FBI agents.