By Guy Gugliotta and Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 13, 2002; Page A22
The Justice Department says it did not intend to focus attention on former Army scientist Steven Hatfill by describing him as a “person of interest” in last year’s anthrax attacks, and in fact sought to shield him from unwarranted public scrutiny, according to department documents released yesterday.
The department did, however, defend its right to have Hatfill fired from his job training first responders in a biodefense program the agency funds at Louisiana State University, saying it was exercising “managerial oversight and control.”
The department’s positions were outlined in two letters sent to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), in response to queries he submitted after the LSU firing and after the FBI had three times searched Hatfill’s apartment in Frederick. The letters, dated Oct. 18 and Nov. 4, were posted on Grassley’s Web site yesterday.
Release of the letters apparently had nothing to do with an ongoing FBI search in the Frederick Municipal Forest area. Law enforcement sources said agents were responding to a tip from someone who had spoken to Hatfill hypothetically about biological weapons. One law enforcement source called the expedition “a shot in the dark.”
“The FBI can search the planet until hell freezes over, but it will find that Steve Hatfill was never involved in the anthrax attacks,” said Hatfill spokesman Pat Clawson. Hatfill was aware of the search, Clawson added, but was “utterly clueless about it.”
The Frederick Municipal Forest is a wooded area about four miles northwest of Frederick and Fort Detrick, the Army’s principal biodefense lab. It is adjacent to the Catoctin National Park, which contains the presidential retreat at Camp David.
Fort Detrick has been a focal point in the investigation of the mail-borne anthrax attacks that killed five people last year. Hatfill, 48, worked there from 1997 to 1999 as a virus specialist and lived in an apartment practically next door.
FBI investigators searched the apartment in June with his consent, then again in August with a federal warrant. A few days later the Justice Department effectively asked LSU to fire him. Immediately after that, the FBI searched the apartment a third time.
Throughout the investigation, law enforcement sources, and eventually Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, repeatedly denied that Hatfill was a suspect, identifying him instead as a “person of interest.”
The official attention and the firing, however, prompted a barrage of publicity and news reports digging deep into Hatfill’s background and eventually causing him to say publicly that “my life is being destroyed by arrogant government bureaucrats.”
Grassley wrote Ashcroft on Sept. 18, asking for an explanation of the firing and for a definition of “person of interest.” In a statement yesterday, Grassley said he appreciated the department’s replies.
“I also appreciate the department’s candidness that the action regarding Mr. Hatfill and his employment is unprecedented,” Grassley said, and that “there is no . . . formal definition for the term ‘person of interest.’ “
Assistant Attorney General Daniel J. Bryant said in a letter to Grassley that the department meant no harm in describing Hatfill as a “person of interest.” Instead, the phrase was used “to deflect media scrutiny” and “explain that he [Hatfill] was just one of many scientists” who had cooperated with the FBI.
In a separate letter about the LSU firing, Bryant told Grassley that as principal funding source for the university’s National Center for Biomedical Research, the department was entitled to “substantial involvement” in “the selection of key personnel.” The letter did not say why Hatfill was fired.
Hatfill spokesman Clawson dismissed the department responses as “further proof that John Ashcroft’s Justice Department is accountable to no one. It makes up the rules as it goes along. That’s kangaroo court kind of stuff.”
Staff writer David Snyder contributed to this report.
� 2002 The Washington Post Company