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$5.8m payout draws line under FBI's anthrax screw-up

Seven years and a bioterror defense industry later...

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When the US Department of Justice agreed to pay Steven J. Hatfill $5.82 million in damages for trashing his life and reputation late last week, it was another big low in the mess that's been the Amerithrax 2001 case. With the de facto exoneration of Hatfill, who had been dubbed a "person of interest" by the FBI, bystanders can conclude the agency has no evidence and no valid notion of who may have been responsible for the mailings of anthrax powder which resulted in five deaths seven years ago.

If one summarizes where the investigation went wrong, an obvious place to start was the FBI's reliance on scientists who were nothing more than prating busybodies, and on its own culture of leakers. Agents and administrators were only too happy to telegraph to the media the name of someone the agency thought was the culprit. Hatfill ranks with Richard Jewell, now deceased, and Wen Ho Lee, among those tarred by FBI leaks and convicted in the newsmedia. Jewell, who was initially named as the prime suspect in the Atlanta Olympic bombing case, sued a number of media outlets and won significant sums before his death at age 44. Lee also sued the government, as well as the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and ABC, winning a collective settlement of $1.6 million for their roles in defaming him as a nuclear spy.

All the smears that fit...

Hatfill was fingered in 2002 by New York Times opinion page columnist Nicholas Kristof, on the say-so of microbiologist Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a Federation of American Scientists advisor on biological weapons.

Kristof and the Times went after Hatfill hard, mentioning him in at least three different columns, all aimed at goading the FBI over the anthrax investigation. Kristof referred to Hatfill as "Mr. Z," a name used by Barbara Hatch Rosenberg in her briefings and writings addressing the man she thought was the anthrax mailer. "I just decided never to use names," she told one newspaper.

"Mr. Z" was an insider in the shadowy world of the nation's biodefense effort, insisted Kristof on July 2, 2002. Z had shown evasion in a polygraph and been caught in flagrante delicto with his girlfriend in a microbial hot room at Fort Detrick, America's premier biodefense installation. If Z were an "Arab national," thundered Kristof, he'd be in jail, intimating the US government was covering up.

Kristof named the source for his inside information as "people in the biodefense field" who'd given Hatfill's name to the FBI. The FBI needed to get after "Mr. Z" more aggressively, added Kristof. "When do you shift into high gear?" he asked angrily.

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