WASHINGTON – A judge admonished government lawyers Thursday after being told officials investigating the 2001 anthrax attacks (search) still are talking to the media about a bioterrorism expert who has not been charged in the case.
Dr. Stephen Hatfill (search) has filed a defamation lawsuit against Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) and other government authorities who publicly named him as a "person of interest" in the attacks. He said his reputation has been ruined and is seeking unspecified monetary damages.
At a hearing before U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton (search), Hatfill attorney Thomas Connolly said investigators continue to leak his client's name.
"I am troubled," Walton said, his voice escalating in anger. "It undermines what this country is about: that people are treated fairly."
"If they didn't have the information to indict him, it's wrong to drag his name through the mud. And if the innuendo and whisper campaign is continuing, that's what they're doing," he said. "That's not a government I want to be a part of. It's wrong, and you need to do something about it."
Justice Department attorney Elizabeth Shapiro responded that top Justice officials have told FBI investigators to control leaks.
Hatfill's lawsuit claims officials named him to deflect attention from their inability to find whoever was responsible for the October 2001 attacks, which killed five people and sickened 17 others. He still is the only publicly named "person of interest" in the case.
Hatfill worked as a researcher at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. The facility housed the strain of anthrax found in the envelopes sent to the victims, though Hatfill maintains he never worked with the bacterium.
The FBI had Hatfill under 24-hour surveillance for months following the attacks and in one incident, agents in a vehicle trailing Hatfill ran over his foot on a Washington street. Government lawyers have said Ashcroft named Hatfill as a "person of interest" to dampen speculation that he was a suspect.
Justice Department officials have repeatedly sought delays in making FBI investigators available for depositions in preparation for trial on the lawsuit, citing the potential risk of disclosing sensitive information in an ongoing investigation.
Shapiro emphasized that government officials aren't opposed to providing written responses to Hatfill's attorneys.
Walton in March granted the government a six-month stay in the case, but expressed impatience Thursday after Shapiro requested another six months.
Walton told both sides to reach an agreement in two weeks, or face a court order. He also ordered government lawyers to file a written response to Hatfill's allegations — made more than a year ago — within 30 days.
Under a proposal submitted to Walton this week by Hatfill, government investigators would be shielded from depositions for an additional six months. However, Justice officials would be asked to sign waivers of any confidentiality agreements with reporters, so that Hatfill may depose them for information about the leaks.
Shapiro countered that the proposal was too broad and overly coercive, and Walton said he wanted both sides to seek a compromise and report back to him on Oct. 21.