Scientist Officially Exonerated in Anthrax Attacks
WASHINGTON — Six years after labeling Steven J. Hatfill a “person of interest” in the anthrax attacks, the Justice Department formally exonerated him on Friday and told his lawyer it had concluded that Dr. Hatfill “was not involved in the anthrax mailings.”
The department agreed in June to pay $4.6 million to settle Dr. Hatfill’s lawsuit against the government, but until Friday it had conspicuously avoided declaring that he had nothing to do with the attacks.
Jeffrey A. Taylor, the United States attorney for the District of Columbia, said in the letter to Dr. Hatfill’s lawyer that “we have concluded, based on laboratory access records, witness accounts and other information, that Dr. Hatfill did not have access to the particular anthrax used in the attacks, and that he was not involved in the anthrax mailings.”
The lawyer, Thomas G. Connolly, declined to comment Friday, except to say that “the letter speaks for itself.”
The formal exoneration underscored the wrong path that the investigation had taken before the F.B.I. began looking two years ago at a colleague of Dr. Hatfill, another military scientist named Bruce E. Ivins.
The Justice Department said this week that it was now convinced that Dr. Ivins — who died 11 days ago after taking an overdose of painkillers — was the anthrax killer and that he had acted alone in a crime that killed five people and shook the country.
Leading lawmakers have promised to examine the course of the F.B.I.’s investigation and called on the Justice Department to explain how a scientist who appeared to have been hiding in plain sight was missed for so long. Dr. Ivins, who had specialized in anthrax vaccines at a military research facility at Fort Detrick, Md., assisted the F.B.I. in the early stages of its investigation, but his mental instability and suspicious habits appeared to have been well known to many acquaintances and co-workers.
Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who sits on the Judiciary Committee and has been a critic of the pace of the F.B.I.’s anthrax investigation, said in a telephone interview Friday that Congress needed to conduct hearings to determine what went wrong in the investigation.
“We’ve had a seven-year investigation and $15 million spent on it and one of the ‘people of interest’ bought off for $5.8 million over what was obviously an F.B.I. screw-up,” Mr. Grassley said. “We need answers.”
The F.B.I. bought Dr. Hatfill an annuity that will be worth $5.8 million to him and his lawyers.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee will expand its investigation into the risks of government laboratories to include the screening of personnel at Fort Detrick and elsewhere, said the committee chairman, Representative John D. Dingell, and the chairman of the investigations subcommittee, Representative Bart Stupak, both Democrats of Michigan. They urged a moratorium on construction of laboratories housing research into highly infectious agents.
Beginning in 2002, within months of the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001, Dr. Hatfill became the sole suspect publicly linked to the case, in part through news reports and in part through the public statements of the authorities. John Ashcroft, who was then the attorney general, said in an unusual pronouncement in August 2002 that Dr. Hatfill was “a person of interest” in the anthrax investigation.
Dr. Hatfill declared his innocence from the start, saying the notoriety threatened to ruin his career and his life. “I am not the anthrax killer,” he declared outside his lawyer’s office in an emotional pronouncement a week after Mr. Ashcroft’s statement.
But the F.B.I. searched his home and maintained nearly round-the-clock surveillance on him for years.
In June, the Justice Department agreed to the multimillion-dollar settlement with Dr. Hatfill to end the lawsuit he had brought alleging that his privacy was violated by the government’s leaks linking him to the case. Dr. Hatfill also sued The New York Times and the columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, saying that columns Mr. Kristof wrote about the case had libeled him by suggesting that he might be the anthrax mailer. That lawsuit was dismissed last year, but Dr. Hatfill has appealed the dismissal.
The Justice Department’s announcement of its settlement with Dr. Hatfill, unlike some of its past agreements with people wrongfully suspected in investigations, did not include any exoneration of Dr. Hatfill or an apology to him. Officials said later that when they reached the settlement, they did not want to alert Dr. Ivins to their possible interest in him by declaring that they had cleared Dr. Hatfill.
At a news conference on Wednesday laying out the case against Dr. Ivins, officials went out of their way to avoid mentioning Dr. Hatfill by name, and they stopped short of clearing him.
“With respect to the other individual you mentioned,” Joseph Persichini Jr., the head of the F.B.I.’s Washington field office, told a reporter who asked about Dr. Hatfill, “we were able to determine that at no time could that individual be put in the presence of that flask from which these spores came.”
But Dr. Hatfill’s lawyers were said to be unsatisfied and pressed the department for an explicit exoneration, according to one person close to the case who spoke on condition of anonymity.