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Early anthrax hunches revealed in documents

The unsealed papers show how the FBI came to think Hatfill was responsible for the deadly 2001 mailings.

November 26, 2008|David Willman | Willman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

WASHINGTON — Investigative documents unsealed Tuesday revealed provocative details behind early suspicions that led the FBI to target the wrong man in the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people.

The misguided investigation continued for years into the original suspect, Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, who in June won a $5.8-million settlement from the FBI and the Justice Department for violating his privacy rights. On Aug. 8, the U.S. attorney for Washington explicitly exonerated Hatfill from any involvement in the mailings.

The documents were made public by order of a federal judge in response to a lawsuit brought by the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Lawyers for the newspapers argued that the investigation of the mailings was a matter of high public interest and among the most complex and expensive in the annals of federal law enforcement.

The investigation culminated with the suicide on July 29 of Bruce E. Ivins, a government microbiologist who was about to be charged in the deadly mailings that also sickened or injured 17 people. Authorities said evidence showed Ivins, acting alone, carried out the attacks.

The unsealed documents dealt not with Ivins but with Hatfill, disclosing some of the early mistaken suspicions and false leads behind the troubled investigation.

In a sworn statement seeking a judge's permission to search Hatfill's apartment and other property in July 2002, FBI Agent Mark P. Morin alleged that Hatfill, while employed as a research scientist at Ft. Detrick in Maryland from 1997 to 1999, "had access to the unlocked storage freezers in which the Ames strain" of anthrax was kept.

Later, the FBI found that the unique formulation of anthrax powder used in the mailings was prepared by Ivins and was never accessible to Hatfill.

Morin's affidavit included a curious entry linking Hatfill in an unspecified way to the former Rhodesia. It cited the deaths of anti-government rebels from anthrax exposure. However, the FBI made no allegation that Hatfill had access to anthrax in what is now Zimbabwe.

The affidavit also suggested that Hatfill lied to the FBI about his use of Cipro, a drug that can save the life of a person exposed to inhaled anthrax. According to the sworn statement, in the months before and after the anthrax mailings, Hatfill filled several prescriptions for Cipro. The affidavit added, "During an interview with FBI agents on March 27, 2002, Steven Hatfill denied taking any Cipro during the months of September and October of 2001."

Hatfill's attorney, Thomas G. Connolly, said in an interview Tuesday that he was puzzled by the allegation that his client might not have been truthful about Cipro.

"It's well known that Dr. Hatfill had Cipro prescribed to him after nasal surgery," he said. That surgery, Connolly said, was performed on or about Sept. 11, 2001.

The attorney also issued a statement suggesting the unsealed documents be kept in perspective.

"Search warrant affidavits are designed to raise suspicion. . . . But like so much of what has been written about Dr. Hatfill in the past seven years, the affidavits released today cite sources whose names are unknown and whose credibility cannot be tested," the statement said.

"Our repeated experience has been that people make wild accusations in secret, only to retract them under public questioning. . . . [W]e know in 2008 that Steven Hatfill had nothing to do with the anthrax attacks."

One of the first federal investigators to question Hatfill about the anthrax mailings, now-retired FBI Agent Bradley Garrett, said Tuesday that Hatfill had remained the bureau's "only viable suspect -- until they figured out" Ivins.

Defenders of Ivins, including his lawyers and some former colleagues at the Army's biological weapons research institute at Ft. Detrick, contend that a trial would have exonerated the scientist.

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Times researcher Janet Lundblad contributed to this report.

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