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How anthrax case stalled

Leaks and senior officials' fixation on one suspect plagued the FBI investigation.

June 29, 2008|David Willman | Times Staff Writer
  • Former U.S. Army bio-scientist Steven J. Hatfill issues a statement outside his attorney's office in 2002 in Alexandria, Virginia.
Former U.S. Army bio-scientist Steven J. Hatfill issues a statement outside… (Mark Wilson / AFP/Getty…)

WASHINGTON — The federal investigation into the deadly anthrax mailings of late 2001 was undermined by leaks and a premature fixation on a single suspect, according to investigators involved in the case.

More than six years after the mailings, no one has been charged, and the top suspect, former Army scientist Steven J. Hatfill, was all but exonerated Friday when the U.S. Justice Department agreed to pay him $5.82 million to settle a lawsuit.

The anthrax mailings killed five people, crippled mail delivery in some areas and closed a Senate office building for months, heightening anxiety on the heels of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Now, dozens of interviews by the Los Angeles Times and a review of newly available testimony from Hatfill's lawsuit reveal a flawed investigation marked by abnormal tactics and internal dissent.

Behind the scenes, FBI agents chafed at their supervisors' obsession with Hatfill, who in 2002 was publicly identified by then-Atty. Gen. John D. Ashcroft as "a person of interest." The preoccupation with Hatfill persisted for years, long after investigators failed to turn up any evidence linking him to the mailings. Other potential suspects and leads were ignored or given insufficient attention, investigators said.

One official who criticized Ashcroft for singling out Hatfill was rebuked by the FBI director's top aide.

When Hatfill, now 54, landed a government-funded university job, the Department of Justice forced his dismissal. Ashcroft and FBI officials testified that they knew of no precedent for such intervention.

Investigators also questioned orders from their bosses to share confidential information with political leaders -- a departure from normal procedure. The security of information within the probe was so lax that FBI agents found news helicopters racing them to the scenes of searches. One exasperated agent called the leaks to the media "ridiculous."

When an official proposed using lie-detector tests to find the source of the leaks, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III dismissed the idea, saying it would be "bad for morale," according to testimony by one of the lead agents on the case.

The previously undisclosed testimony by agents and their supervisors is from depositions conducted by Hatfill's lawyers. In his lawsuit, filed in 2003, Hatfill alleged that the FBI and Justice Department violated his privacy and damaged his reputation and prospects for employment.

According to its website, the FBI has "devoted hundreds of thousands of agent-hours to the case," conducted more than 9,100 interviews, obtained about 6,000 grand jury subpoenas and completed 67 searches.

A federal judge who reviewed details of the anthrax investigation, including still-secret FBI summaries, declared earlier this year: "There is not a scintilla of evidence that would indicate that Dr. Hatfill had anything to do with this."

FBI leaders had remained fixated on Hatfill into late 2006, agents said.

"They exhausted a tremendous amount of time and energy on him," said one of the FBI agents involved with the case who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.

"I'm still convinced that whatever seemed interesting or worth pursuing was just basically nullified in the months or year following when 'person of interest' came out about Hatfill," he said. Other possibilities got short shrift, he said, because of assumptions within the FBI that "sooner or later they'll have this guy nailed."

Said another investigator: "Particular management people felt, 'He is the right guy. If we only put this amount of energy into him, we'll get to the end of the rainbow.' Did it take energy away? It had to have. Because you can't pull up another hundred agents and say, 'You go work these leads [that] these guys can't because they're just focused on Hatfill.' "

Mueller testified in a deposition that the probe posed tall obstacles. With no obvious suspect initially, he said, the FBI had to conduct "preliminary initial investigations" of a "universe of individuals" with access to the strain of anthrax used in the attacks. He said he had told aides "to take what steps were necessary to prevent leaks," which he believed had "undercut" the investigation.

An FBI spokesman, Michael P. Kortan, said Mueller would not comment for this article. The spokesman added that "solving this case is a top priority for the FBI. Our commitment is undiminished."

A plume of powder

On Oct. 15., 2001, Mueller assigned the anthrax investigation to Van Harp, a 32-year veteran of the FBI. That morning, an aide to the U.S. Senate majority leader, Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.), opened an envelope on Capitol Hill, releasing a plume of powdery material. A photo editor in Florida had died mysteriously from anthrax 10 days earlier.

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