Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Botched Investigation And Its Cost

Today's Los Angeles Times has a lengthy article on the FBI investigation into the anthrax attack launched shortly after 9/11. The Justice Department has just agreed to pay $5.82 million to the primary (and apparently the only) suspect in the case, Steven J. Hatfill, who brought a case against the department for its violation of his privacy. The reason for the cave by Justice? It became clear as the case progressed that after nearly six years of dogging Mr. Hatfill they had exactly zero evidence against him.

...dozens of interviews by the Los Angeles Times and a review of newly available court documents 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.

The investigation, and that term really doesn't seem appropriate given the shoddy nature of the FBI's handling of the case, was marred almost from the start with then Attorney General Ashcroft's identification of Hatfill, and it went downhill from there.

When Hatfill, now 54, landed a government-funded university job, the Department of Justice forced his dismissal. Ashcroft and FBI officials testified in the lawsuit 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.

Hatfill earned his settlement the hard way: his career was essentially ruined, his name was bandied about as belonging to a terrorist, his home became a magnet for TV cameras and news helicopters, and this went on well into 2006. But even with all the attention paid to Mr. Hatfill, one federal judge who reviewed the FBI investigation (including some classified FBI summaries) concluded that "there 'is not a scintilla of evidence that would indicate that Dr. Hatfill had anything to do with this.'"

That means that all of that time and energy was wasted because somebody was obsessed with Hatfill. It also means that the crime still has not been solved.

"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.' "

So the real culprit(s) are still out there, and, after six years of ignoring other trails and evidence, will probably remain out there.

It almost looks deliberate, doesn't it?

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Blogger QL in NY said...

Diane, good piece. It doesn't answer the "why" though. Why were they so focused on Hatfill? Was he politically targeted for telling the truth about the administration?

4:52 AM  
Blogger kelley b. said...

Hatfill was a warm body who didn't vote Republican.

Cover-up? Only because the anthrax was a strain from the Army- an illegal germ weapon it was supposed to have destroyed- maintained by the CIA.

Not that the CIA would do anything illegal.

1:50 PM  
Anonymous Ross said...

A 2 minute movie uploaded a couple days before the announcement of the settlement summarizes who leaked the hyped stories about Hatfill and Al Qaeda's infiltation of US and UK biodefense -- and addresses the current status of Amerithrax.

The leaks look deliberate and purposeful to me.

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who would possibly be motivated to attack a tabloid journalist who wrote articles about the Bush twins, Dem senators and news anchors?

Trashcroft did his job diverting the investigation away from someone very close to Bush, assisted by the pointy-haired incompetent micromanagers at the FBI.

12:23 PM  

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