Friday, June 27, 2008

Steven Hatfill and Me

The Justice Department has made a nearly $6 million settlement with Steven Hatfill, the former Fort Detrick researcher and longtime "person of interest" in the FBI's 7-year-old anthrax investigation. To which I say, about bloody time. I have some personal interest in thic story from my news reporting days.

It's not that Hatfill is as pure as the wind-driven snow; his background of work in Zimbabwe and South Africa is the stuff that conspiracy theories are made of, and as far as I know, he's not the nicest guy in the universe. Read more about the background of Hatfill and the investigation here (there's also a Part 2).

The point is that the FBI botched this investigation from day one. With five people having died from letters containing anthrax in late 2001, the Bureau was desperate for a suspect, but I guess it didn't learn enough from the Richard Jewell fiasco. Circumstantial evidence seemed to point to Hatfill, and then Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly proclaimed Hatfill a "person of interest," a phrase that few outside the J. Edgar Hoover Building had heard before. This allowed the Bureau to implicate Hatfill without naming him a suspect.

One scorching hot day in August 2002, I got word that the FBI was busy searching Hatfill's former apartment outside Fort Detrick. Being in radio, however, I came away with nothing; at least my TV counterparts had plenty of video of agents rooting through the dumpsters. After the agents left in their fleet of black Crown Vics, the property manager threatened to call the police if the media tried to enter the apartment. Why I went with them, I don't know; I wouldn't have had any sound of any consequence.

The FBI said nothing that day. My one cow-orker later told me there was a news conference coming that evening outside the apartments, but she was confused by the TV news stations doing standups for the 6 PM newscasts.

The next time the FBI came to town was in June 2003 when it acted on a tip that something to do with the anthrax case might be hidden in a pond deep within the city watershed north of Frederick. Out came the black vehicles again; I followed them up as far as I was allowed. Again, everyone was tight-lipped. So I voiced a few reports about the area where the Bureau was looking, and at least one of them wound up on ABC News Radio.

All the while, my news director and I kept saying that the FBI had to fish or cut bait with Hatfill, but still the Bureau remained silent, to its detriment. Meanwhile, Hatfill sued both the DOJ and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof; the latter suit was dismissed.

But at least Hatfill got his day in court and now has some compensation for what he's been through. The FBI, meanwhile, suffered yet another PR blunder and is probably no closer to solving the anthrax case than it was when it decided it had to make Steven Hatfill its scapegoat.


Ross said...

I never stop to think the difference the media makes and the importance of sound to radio.

A 2 minute short movie was uploaded to YouTube a few days before the settlement was announced. It addresses the leaks about Hatfill and Al Qaeda’s infiltration of UK and US biodefense. The link is at