$5.8m payout draws line under FBI's anthrax screw-up
Seven years and a bioterror defense industry later...
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.
In what would appear to be an attempt to placate Kristof, Rosenberg and other newspapers jumping on the bandwagon of blaming Hatfill circumstantially, the government did turn up the heat. The Department of Justice instructed Louisiana State University not to hire Hatfill as the supervisor of its counter-terror program, one funded by government grant. A raid on Hatfill's apartment was televised. Another leaker told Newsweek anthrax-sniffing dogs had gone nuts over the unemployed scientist. (The dogs were later deemed to be unreliable witnesses.) A pond was dragged and drained, allegedly to find evidence Hatfill was said to have disposed of. And, at one point, FBI men tailing him in a car even ran over his foot.
A touch of the Olivers
The Hatfill boondoggle resulted in Rosenberg's effective separation from the Federation of American Scientists, a sober and well-known public information group which did not appreciate being attached to someone who'd gone 'Oliver Stone' with a conspiracy theory. Since then the microbiologist has not appeared in any major news stories on bioterrorism, except those mentioning her role in the Hatfill case. The obsession with "Mr. Z" appears to have smoked her reputation, a case of collateral damage in the tarring of Hatfill.
Hatfill and his lawyer subsequently moved to sue the New York Times for defamation in Kristof's columns. A judge dismissed the suit early last year in finding that Hatfill was a public official and had not shown that the newspaper had published information it reasonably may have believed to be false.
Unlike Judith Miller, who was thrown onto the tracks for bringing embarrassment on the Times for untrue stories on weapons of mass destruction, Kristof remained at his post.
In the wake of Amerithrax and 9/11, the biodefense industry took off. Although only five people had died, the anthrax mailings generated great hysteria. Newspapers, magazines and television shows filled with experts playing the fear card for all it was worth, predicting it was only a matter of time until a mass death incident resulted. Biological weapons, it was claimed, were trivially easy to make.
In the intervening seven years, biological weapons have killed zero people and been shown, somewhat empirically, not to be so easy to make after all. In any case, a great deal of the biodefense industry in the United States now works with very little oversight. Think of it as scientific welfare for those who often claim to be defending the country against a clear and present danger.
Who was responsible for the anthrax mailings? There still exists a cottage industry in theories: stories about incriminating emails between boffins at Fort Detrick, arguments over the nature of the anthrax powder and its similarity or dissimilarity to an anthrax bioweapon once made by the United States, and hoary tales about Detrick scientists stealing microbes, their personal beefs and entrances into the lab after hours. All of it pretty much unconvincing gossip.
What would seem certain is that the anthrax must be long gone, along with much of the forensic value the samples once had for the investigation - and that the FBI will need miracles, an extremely lucky break or unexpected confession to solve the case. ®
George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.