In the fall of 2001, a nation reeling from the horror of 9/11 was rocked by a series of deadly anthrax attacks. As the pressure to find a culprit mounted, the FBI, abetted by the media, found one. The wrong one. This is the story of how federal authorities blew the biggest anti-terror investigation of the past decade.
The first anthrax attacks came days after the jetliner assaults of September 11, 2001. Postmarked Trenton, New Jersey, and believed to have been sent from a mailbox near Princeton University, the initial mailings went to NBC News, the New York Post, and the Florida-based publisher of several supermarket tabloids, including The Sun and The National Enquirer. Three weeks later, two more envelopes containing anthrax arrived at the Senate offices of Democrats Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, each bearing the handwritten return address of a nonexistent “Greendale School” in Franklin Park, New Jersey. Government mail service quickly shut down.
The letters accompanying the anthrax read like the work of a jihadist, suggesting that their author was an Arab extremist—or someone masquerading as one—yet also advised recipients to take antibiotics, implying that whoever had mailed them never really intended to harm anyone. But at least 17 people would fall ill and five would die—a photo editor at The Sun; two postal employees at a Washington, D.C., mail-processing center; a hospital stockroom clerk in Manhattan whose exposure to anthrax could never be fully explained; and a 94-year-old Connecticut widow whose mail apparently crossed paths with an anthrax letter somewhere in the labyrinth of the postal system. The attacks spawned a spate of hoax letters nationwide. Police were swamped with calls from citizens suddenly suspicious of their own mail.
Americans had good reason to fear. Inhaled anthrax bacteria devour the body from within. Anthrax infections typically begin with flu-like symptoms. Massive lesions soon form in the lungs and brain, as a few thousand bacilli propagate within days into literally trillions of voracious parasitic microbes. The final stages before death are excruciatingly painful.As their minds disintegrate, victims literally drown in their own fluids. If you were to peer through a microscope at a cross-section of an anthrax victim’s blood vessel at the moment of death, it would look, says Leonard A. Cole, an expert on bioterrorism at Rutgers University, “as though it were teeming with worms.”
The pressure on American law enforcement to find the perpetrator or perpetrators was enormous. Agents were compelled to consider any and all means of investigation. One such avenue involved Don Foster, a professor of English at Vassar College and a self-styled literary detective, who had achieved modest celebrity by examining punctuation and other linguistic fingerprints to identify Joe Klein, who was then a Newsweek columnist, as the author of the anonymously written 1996 political novel, Primary Colors. Foster had since consulted with the FBI on investigations of the Unabomber and Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park bombing, among other cases. Now he was asked to analyze the anthrax letters for insights as to who may have mailed them. Foster would detail his efforts two years later in a 9,500-word article for Vanity Fair.
Surveying the publicly available evidence, as well as documents sent to him by the FBI, Foster surmised that the killer was an American posing as an Islamic jihadist. Only a limited number of American scientists would have had a working knowledge of anthrax. One of those scientists, Foster concluded, was a man named Steven Hatfill, a medical doctor who had once worked at the Army’s elite Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), which had stocks of anthrax.
On the day al-Qaeda struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with hijacked jetliners, Hatfill was recovering from nasal surgery in his apartment outside the gates of Fort Detrick, Maryland, where USAMRIID is housed. We’re at war, he remembers thinking as he watched the news that day—but he had no idea that it was a war in which he himself would soon become collateral damage, as the FBI came to regard him as a homegrown bioterrorist, likely responsible for some of the most unsettling multiple murders in recent American history. His story provides a cautionary tale about how federal authorities, fueled by the general panic over terrorism, embraced conjecture and coincidence as evidence, and blindly pursued one suspect while the real anthrax killer roamed free for more than six years. Hatfill’s experience is also the wrenching saga of how an American citizen who saw himself as a patriot came to be vilified and presumed guilty, as his country turned against him.
“It’s like death by a thousand cuts,” Hatfill, who is now 56, says today. “There’s a sheer feeling of hopelessness. You can’t fight back. You have to just sit there and take it, day after day, the constant drip-drip-drip of innuendo, a punching bag for the government and the press. And the thing was, I couldn’t understand why it was happening to me. I mean, I was one of the good guys.”
Don Foster, the Vassar professor, was among those who set the wheels of injustice in motion. Scouring the Internet, Foster found an interview that Hatfill had given while working at the National Institutes of Health, in which he described how bubonic plague could be made with simple equipment and used in a bioterror attack. Foster later tracked down an unpublished novel Hatfill had written, depicting a fictional bioterror attack on Washington. He discovered that Hatfill had been in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) during an anthrax outbreak there in the late 1970s, and that he’d attended medical school near a Rhodesian suburb called Greendale—the name of the invented school in the return address of the anthrax letters mailed to the Senate. The deeper Foster dug, the more Hatfill looked to him like a viable suspect.
“When I lined up Hatfill’s known movements with the postmark locations of reported biothreats,” Foster later wrote, “those hoax anthrax attacks appeared to trail him like a vapor cloud.”
In February 2002, Foster tried to interest the FBI in Hatfill, but says he was told that Hatfill had a good alibi. “A month later, when I pressed the issue,” Foster wrote, “I was told, ‘Look, Don, maybe you’re spending too much time on this.’”
Meanwhile, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a passionate crusader against the use of bioweapons, was also convinced that an American scientist was to blame for the anthrax attacks. In an interview with the BBC in early 2002, she theorized that the murders were the result of a top-secret CIA project gone awry, and that the FBI was hesitant to arrest the killer because it would embarrass Washington. A molecular biologist and professor of environmental science who had once served as a low-level bioweapons adviser to President Clinton, Rosenberg had taken it upon herself to look into the anthrax murders, and her investigations had independently led her to Hatfill. (Hatfill says he believes Rosenberg was made aware of him by a former acquaintance, a defense contractor with whom Hatfill had clashed over a proposed counter-anthrax training program intended for the U.S. Marshals Service.) Rosenberg wrote a paper she called “Possible Portrait of the Anthrax Perpetrator,” which was disseminated on the Internet. Although Rosenberg would later deny ever having identified him publicly or privately, the specific details of her “Portrait” made it clear she had a particular suspect in mind: Steven Hatfill.
Foster says he met Rosenberg over lunch in April 2002, “compared notes,” and “found that our evidence had led us in the same direction.” Weeks dragged on while he and Rosenberg tried to interest the FBI in their theories, but the bureau remained “stubbornly unwilling to listen.” Two months later, her “patience exhausted,” Rosenberg, according to Foster, met on Capitol Hill with Senate staff members “and laid out the evidence, such as it was, hers and mine.” Special Agent Van Harp, the senior FBI agent on what by then had been dubbed the “Amerithrax” investigation, was summoned to the meeting, along with other FBI officials.
Rosenberg criticized the FBI for not being aggressive enough. “She thought we were wasting efforts and resources in a particular—or in several areas, and should focus more on who she concluded was responsible for it,” Harp would later testify.
“Did she mention Dr. Hatfill’s name in her presentation?” Hatfill’s attorney, former federal prosecutor Thomas G. Connolly, asked Harp during a sworn deposition.
“That’s who she was talking about,” Harp testified.
Exactly a week after the Rosenberg meeting, the FBI carried out its first search of Hatfill’s apartment, with television news cameras broadcasting it live.
In his deposition, Harp would dismiss the timing of the search as coincidental.
Beryl Howell, who at the time of the investigation was serving as Senator Patrick Leahy’s point person on all matters anthrax, recently told me that asking Harp and other lead agents to sit down with the “quite persistent” Rosenberg was never meant to pressure the FBI to go after Hatfill. The meeting, Howell says, was intended simply to ensure that investigators cooperated with other experts outside the bureau and objectively considered all theories in the case in order to solve it more quickly.
“Whether or not Rosenberg’s suspicions about Hatfill were correct was really not my business,” Howell says. “It was really law enforcement’s prerogative to figure that one out.”
There was enough circumstantial evidence surrounding Hatfill that zealous investigators could easily elaborate a plausible theory of him as the culprit. As fear about the anthrax attacks spread, government and other workers who might have been exposed to the deadly spores via the mail system were prescribed prophylactic doses of Cipro, a powerful antibiotic that protects against infection caused by inhaled anthrax. Unfamiliar to the general population before September 2001, Cipro quickly became known as the anti-anthrax drug, and prescriptions for it skyrocketed.
As it happened, at the time of the anthrax attacks, Hatfill was taking Cipro.
Hatfill’s eccentricity also generated suspicion among colleagues and FBI agents. Bench scientists tend toward the sedate and gymnasium-challenged. Steve Hatfill was a flag-waving, tobacco-chewing weight lifter partial to blood-rare steaks and black safari suits that showed off his linebacker’s physique, a physician with a bawdy sense of humor and a soldier’s ethos, who told stories over cocktails of parachuting from military aircraft and battling Communists in Africa. While few people who knew him could deny his intellect or his passion as a researcher, some found him arrogant and blustery. Others feared him. Even his allies acknowledge that Hatfill could sometimes come across as different. “If you try to link Steve and the word normal, they’re not going to match up,” says Jim Cline, a retired Special Forces sergeant major and anti-terror expert who worked with Hatfill from 1999 to 2002 at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a large defense contractor.
It also happened that Hatfill was familiar with anthrax. He had done his medical training in Africa, where outbreaks of anthrax infections have been known to occur among livestock herds. In 1999, after going to work for SAIC, Hatfill had a hand in developing a brochure for emergency personnel on ways to handle anthrax hoax letters. In the long run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, he also oversaw the construction of a full-scale model designed to show invading U.S. troops what a mobile Iraqi germ-warfare lab might look like and how best to destroy it. But while he possessed a working knowledge of Bacillus anthracis, Hatfill had never worked in any capacity with the spore-forming, rod-shaped bacterium.
“I was a virus guy,” he told me, “not a bacteria guy.”
Still, when FBI agents asked to interview him 10 months after the anthrax murders, Hatfill says, he wasn’t surprised. In their hunt for what he believed were the foreign terrorists who had sent the letters, Hatfill assumed that agents were routinely interviewing every scientist who’d ever worked at USAMRIID, including those, like himself, who had never set foot in the high-security laboratory where anthrax cultures were kept. Hatfill answered the agents’ questions and willingly took a polygraph test, which he says he was told he passed.
“I thought that was the end of it,” Hatfill says. “But it was only the beginning.”
In June, agents asked to “swab” his apartment. Hatfill complied, feeling he had nothing to hide. On June 25, 2002, after signing a consent form at the FBI’s field office in nearby Frederick, Maryland, he came home to find reporters and camera crews swarming. TV helicopters orbited overhead. “There’s obviously been a leak,” Hatfill says one of the agents told him. He was driven to a Holiday Inn to escape the crush of news media and sat in a motel room, watching incredulously as a full-blown search of his home played out on national television. The experience was surreal.
Agents conducted a second search five weeks later amid a repeated media circus. This time they came equipped with a warrant and bloodhounds. The dogs, Hatfill would later learn, had been responsible for false arrests in other cases. Hatfill says he innocently petted one of hounds, named Tinkerbell. The dog seemed to like him. “He’s identified you from the anthrax letters!” Tinkerbell’s handler exclaimed.
“It took every ounce of restraint to stop from laughing,” Hatfill recalls. “They said, ‘We know you did it. We know you didn’t mean to kill anyone.’ I said, ‘Am I under arrest?’ They said no. I walked out, rented a car, and went to see an attorney about suing the hell out of these people.”
The FBI raided Hatfill’s rented storage locker in Ocala, Florida, where his father owned a thoroughbred horse farm; the agency also searched a townhouse in Washington, D.C., owned by his longtime girlfriend, a slim, elegant accountant whom Hatfill calls “Boo.” (To guard her privacy, he asked that her real name not be used.) Agents rifled through Boo’s closets and drawers, breaking cherished keepsakes. “They told me, ‘Your boyfriend murdered five people,’” she said to me recently, unable to talk about it without tears.
Hatfill was fired from SAIC. The official explanation given was that he had failed to maintain a necessary security clearance; the real reason, he believes, was that the government wanted him fired. He immediately landed the associate directorship of a fledgling Louisiana State University program designed to train firefighters and other emergency personnel to respond to terrorist acts and natural disasters, a job that would have matched the $150,000 annual salary he’d been getting at SAIC. But after Justice Department officials learned of Hatfill’s employment, they told LSU to “immediately cease and desist” from using Hatfill on any federally funded program. He was let go before his first day. Other prospective employment fell through. No one would return his calls. One job vanished after Hatfill emerged from a meeting with prospective employers to find FBI agents videotaping them. His savings dwindling, he moved in with Boo.
By this time, the FBI and the Justice Department were so confident Hatfill was guilty that on August 6, 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly declared him a “person of interest”—the only time the nation’s top law-enforcement official has ever so identified the subject of an active criminal investigation. Agents grilled Hatfill’s friends, tapped his phone, installed surveillance cameras outside Boo’s condo, and for more than two years, shadowed him day and night, looking for any grounds on which to arrest him.
Many of Hatfill’s friends, worried for their own reputations, abandoned him as the FBI gave chase. Certain of Hatfill’s innocence, his former colleague Jim Cline was among the few who stood by him, afraid that his increasingly socially isolated friend would kill himself to escape his torment. “When you have the world against you,” Cline says, “and only a few people are willing to look you in the eye and tell you, ‘I believe you’—I mean, to this day, I really don’t know how the guy survived.”
Virtually everywhere Hatfill went, the FBI went too, often right behind him—a deliberately harassing tactic called “bumper locking.” Hatfill believes that local authorities joined in tormenting him at the behest of the Justice Department. Coming home from dinner one Friday night, he was pulled over by a Washington, D.C., police officer who issued him a warning for failing to signal a lane change. Three blocks later, another cop stopped him, again for not using his turn signal. The officer asked if he’d been drinking. Hatfill said he’d had one Bloody Mary. He was ordered out of his car. “Not unless you’re going to arrest me,” Hatfill says he responded indignantly. The officer obliged. Hatfill spent the weekend in jail and would later be ordered to attend a four-day alcohol counseling program. The police, he says, refused to administer a blood-alcohol test that would have proved he wasn’t drunk.
Connolly, Hatfill’s attorney, offered to have Hatfill surrender his passport and be outfitted with a tracking device, to have FBI agents ride with him everywhere, to show them that they were wasting their time. The offer was rejected. “They were purposely sweating him,” Connolly says, “trying to get him to go over the edge.”
Much of what authorities discovered, they leaked anonymously to journalists. The result was an unrelenting stream of inflammatory innuendo that dominated front pages and television news. Hatfill found himself trapped, the powerless central player in what Connolly describes as “a story about the two most powerful institutions in the United States, the government and the press, ganging up on an innocent man. It’s Kafka.”
With Hatfill’s face splashed all over the news, strangers on the street stared. Some asked for his autograph. Hatfill was humiliated. Embarrassed to be recognized, he stopped going to the gym. He stopped visiting friends, concerned that the FBI would harass them, too. Soon, he stopped going out in public altogether. Once an energetic and ambitious professional who reveled in 14-hour workdays, Hatfill now found himself staring at the walls all day. Television became his steady companion.
“I’d never really watched the news before,” Hatfill says, “and now I’m seeing my name all over the place and all these idiots like Geraldo Rivera asking, ‘Is this the anthrax animal? Is this the guy who murdered innocent people?’ You might as well have hooked me up to a battery. It was sanctioned torture.”
Hatfill decided to redecorate Boo’s condo as a distraction from the news. He repainted, hung wallpaper, learned to install crown molding. He also began drinking.
An afternoon glass of red wine became three or more. At night, Hatfill would stay up late, dipping Copenhagen tobacco and getting drunk while waiting in a smoldering rage for his name to appear on television, until finally he would pass out and wake up gagging on the tobacco that had caught in his throat, or stumble around and “crash into something.” Boo would help him to bed. After a few anguished hours of sleep, Hatfill would see her off to work, doze past noon, then rise to repeat the cycle, closing the blinds to block the sun and the video camera the FBI had installed on a pole across the street. For a while, Boo bought newspapers, so the two of them could fume over the latest lies that had been published about him. But soon he asked her to stop bringing them home, because he couldn’t take it anymore.
Steven Hatfill was born on October 24, 1953, and raised with a younger sister in Mattoon, Illinois. His father designed and sold electrical substations. His mother dabbled in interior decorating. He studied piano, soloed a glider at 14, and wrestled for the varsity team in high school. By his own admission, he was a poor student. “I never took a book home,” Hatfill says. But he read plenty on his own, especially about science and the military. In 1971, he enrolled at Southwestern College, a small liberal-arts school in Kansas affiliated with the Methodist Church, where he majored in biology and signed up for a Marine Corps summer leadership course with dreams of piloting jet fighters. But when his vision was measured at less than 20/20, he opted out of the program rather than accept a navigator slot. Midway through his sophomore year, he left college and went to Africa.
Hatfill says he always wanted to help people in the developing world. He got his chance at a remote Methodist mission hospital in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he learned blood chemistry, parasitology, and basic hematology in a rudimentary lab. A year later, he returned to the United States; he graduated from Southwestern in 1975, and signed up for the Army.
He took a direct-enlistment option to join the Green Berets, attended parachute school, trained as a radio operator, and was assigned to the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. When a back injury eventually disqualified him from serving with an operational A-Team, Hatfill reentered civilian life. He joined the National Guard, married the daughter of a Methodist surgeon he had worked with in Africa, and returned to Mattoon to work the night shift as a security guard at a radiator factory. His marriage soon faltered. After they separated, his wife delivered their only child, a girl. Hatfill would not see his daughter for 27 years.
From 1978 to 1994, Hatfill lived in Africa. He earned a medical degree from the Godfrey Huggins School of Medicine in Salisbury, Rhodesia, and saw combat as a volunteer medic with the territorial forces of the Rhodesian army, eventually being attached to a unit called the Selous Scouts, which was renowned for its ruthlessness in battle. While he was in Rhodesia, Hatfill says, a truck he was riding in was ambushed by Marxist insurgents. Leaping from the truck, he landed on his face, badly breaking his nose. For decades afterward he would have trouble breathing—which is why, in September 2001, he finally elected to have surgery on his sinuses, an operation that would lead doctors to prescribe him Cipro, to guard against infection.
Following his medical internship in Africa, he spent 14 months as the resident physician at an Antarctic research base. He went on to obtain three master’s degrees in the hard sciences from two South African universities and finish a doctoral thesis in molecular cell biology that described a new marker for radiation-induced leukemia.
Hatfill returned once more to the United States in 1994. He painted barns for six months on his father’s horse farm before taking a one-year fellowship to study a cancer protein at Oxford University. He parlayed the Oxford fellowship into a job researching cancer, HIV, and Lyme disease at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. In September 1997, Hatfill accepted a two-year fellowship as a medical doctor and hematologist to study Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers at USAMRIID. He was earning $45,000 a year.
Part of his research involved fatal viral experiments on macaque monkeys. Sometimes, with permission from staff veterinarians, Hatfill would slip the animals Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to assuage his own guilt over helping cause them harm. He found his USAMRIID assignment both anguishing and rewarding. Some months, he never took a day off. “It’s altruism, in a way,” Hatfill says. “You’re trying to find cures for diseases to help people who have no other means of help. It was a privilege just to be there.”
The FBI would later speculate that Hatfill had somehow gained access to anthrax cultures while working at USAMRIID, perhaps through an inadvertently unlocked door. Drawing in part on the work of the Vassar professor Foster and the anti-bioweapons activist Rosenberg, federal investigators began trying to connect bits of circumstantial evidence, assembling them into a picture of Hatfill as the anthrax killer.
He’d been in Britain and Florida, respectively, when two letters with fake anthrax were mailed from those locations. His girlfriend was Malaysian-born—and a hoax package had been sent from Malaysia to a Microsoft office in Nevada. He’d been in Africa during a major anthrax outbreak in the late 1970s. Rhodesia’s capital city has that suburb called Greendale—and, as noted, “Greendale School” was the return address on the anthrax letters sent to Daschle and Leahy. He’d written that unpublished novel, which Don Foster had unearthed, about a bioterror attack on Washington. He was close to Bill Patrick, widely recognized as the father of America’s bioweapons program, whom he’d met at a conference on bioterror some years earlier. And, of course, he’d taken Cipro just before the anthrax attacks.
The government became convinced all of it had to amount to something.
The FBI’s sleuthing had produced zero witnesses, no firm evidence, nothing to show that Hatfill had ever touched anthrax, let alone killed anyone with it. So thin was the bureau’s case that Hatfill was never even indicted. But that didn’t stop the FBI from focusing on him to the virtual exclusion of other suspects.
In law enforcement, there is a syndrome known as “detective myopia.” Former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates told me he suspected that FBI agents had succumbed to this condition, becoming so focused on Hatfill that they lost their objectivity. “This mostly happens when the case is important and there is pressure to solve it,” Gates says. “In the case of the FBI, the pressure most certainly can be, and is, political. When a congressman may be a victim of anthrax—well, the case needs to be solved or the suspect made impotent.”
Special Agent Harp, who initially headed the anthrax investigation, conceded after Hatfill sued the government in August 2003 that the FBI had been sensitive to accusations that it had stumbled in other high-profile investigations, and that it had consciously sought to assure the public that it was working hard to crack the anthrax murders. Part of providing such assurance involved actively communicating with news reporters. Questioned under oath, Harp admitted to serving as a confidential source for more than a dozen journalists during the case, but he insisted that he had never leaked privileged information about Hatfill, or anyone else for that matter.
Hatfill’s attorney has his doubts. After taking Harp’s deposition, Connolly says, he went home and half-jokingly told his wife, “We’re building a bomb shelter. If these are the guys in charge of our national security, we’re all in serious trouble.”
In their own depositions, both John Ashcroft and Robert Mueller, the FBI director, said they had expressed concern to underlings about news leaks that appeared to single out and smear Hatfill. Both, however, denied any knowledge of who specifically was doing the leaking.
In August of 2002, following the searches of his apartment, Hatfill held two press conferences to proclaim his innocence. He offered to undergo, and eventually took, blood and handwriting tests in an attempt to help clear his name. “I want to look my fellow Americans directly in the eye and declare to them, ‘I am not the anthrax killer,’” Hatfill told reporters. “I know nothing about the anthrax attacks. I had absolutely nothing to do with this terrible crime. My life is being destroyed by arrogant government bureaucrats who are peddling groundless innuendo and half-information about me to gullible reporters, who in turn repeat this to the public in the guise of news.”
One newspaper reporter even called Boo’s former in-laws in Canada, inquiring whether Hatfill had had anything to do with the death of her late husband—who had succumbed to a stroke a year before Boo met Hatfill. The call, Boo says, prompted her former brother-in-law to fly to Washington and demand, “What are you doing, living with this murderer?”
Months passed with Hatfill cloistered in Boo’s condominium, watching television and drinking alone. He binged on chocolate and fried chicken, putting on weight, growing too lethargic and depressed to even get on the bathroom scale. He developed heart palpitations. He wondered whether he was losing his mind.
Remembering what her boyfriend was like back then, Boo grows emotional. “I got tired of cleaning up your vomit,” she tells him over dinner at an Indian restaurant down the street from her condo. Tears stream down her cheeks. Hatfill chokes up too, the trauma still raw nearly eight years later.
“Every human being has to feel a part of a tribe,” he explains. “It’s programmed into us. And you have to feel that you’re contributing to something. They tried to take all that away from me. No tribe wanted me. I just didn’t feel of value to anything or anyone. I had Boo. Boo was my only tribe.”
The next morning, driving through Georgetown on the way to visit one of his friends in suburban Maryland, I ask Hatfill how close he came to suicide. The muscles in his jaw tighten.
“That was never an option,” Hatfill says, staring straight ahead. “If I would’ve killed myself, I would’ve been automatically judged by the press and the FBI to be guilty.”
Some journalists became convinced there was plenty pointing to Hatfill’s guilt. Among those beating the drum early and loud, in the summer of 2002, was Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times. At least initially, Kristof stopped short of naming Hatfill publicly, instead branding him with the sinister-sounding pseudonym “Mr. Z.” Without identifying his sources, in a July column Kristof wrote:
If Mr. Z were an Arab national, he would have been imprisoned long ago. But he is a true-blue American with close ties to the U.S. Defense Department, the C.I.A. and the American biodefense program. On the other hand, he was once caught with a girlfriend in a biohazard “hot suite” at Fort Detrick, surrounded only by blushing germs.
With many experts buzzing about Mr. Z behind his back, it’s time for the F.B.I. to make a move: either it should go after him more aggressively, sifting thoroughly through his past and picking up loose threads, or it should seek to exculpate him and remove this cloud of suspicion.
One of those threads, Kristof reported, pointed to the possibility that Mr. Z was a genocidal racist who had carried out germ warfare to slaughter innocent black Africans. Kristof addressed his column directly to the FBI:
Have you examined whether Mr. Z has connections to the biggest anthrax outbreak among humans ever recorded, the one that sickened more than 10,000 black farmers in Zimbabwe in 1978–80? There is evidence that the anthrax was released by the white Rhodesian Army fighting against black guerrillas, and Mr. Z has claimed that he participated in the white army’s much-feared Selous Scouts. Could rogue elements of the American military have backed the Rhodesian Army in anthrax and cholera attacks against blacks?
Kristof didn’t mention that the majority of soldiers in the Rhodesian army, and in Hatfill’s unit, were black; or that many well-respected scientists who examined the evidence concluded that the Rhodesian anthrax outbreak emerged naturally when cattle herds went unvaccinated during a turbulent civil war. Kristof also failed to mention that Mr. Z had served in that war as a lowly private. To have been involved in some sort of top-secret Rhodesian germ-weapons program “would’ve been like a Pakistani army private being brought in to work on a project at Los Alamos,” Hatfill says today.
Kristof wrote that Mr. Z had shown “evasion” in repeated FBI polygraph examinations. He also claimed that following the anthrax attacks, Mr. Z had accessed an “isolated residence” that Kristof described as a possible safe house for American intelligence operatives where, the columnist reported, “Mr. Z gave Cipro to people who visited it.” Other journalists would later describe this mysterious residence as a “remote cabin,” a kind of Ted Kaczynski–style hideout where a deranged scientist could easily have prepared anthrax for mailing.
In fact, the “cabin” was a three-bedroom weekend home with a Jacuzzi on 40 acres of land in rural Virginia owned by a longtime friend of Hatfill’s, George R. Borsari Jr., an avuncular Washington communications lawyer and retired Army lieutenant colonel. Borsari says he found speculation that his place had been a haven for spies or bioterrorists laughable.
When an FBI agent asked Borsari if he would allow a search of the property, Borsari said no. “I told him, ‘I’m not going to be a part of your publicity game,’” Borsari says. No search was ever conducted, but by then the damage to Hatfill had been done.
In late 2001, before being publicly implicated in the anthrax attacks, Hatfill had attended a weekend dinner party at Borsari’s Virginia retreat along with more than a dozen other guests, including some of Hatfill’s co-workers at the defense contractor where he was then employed. Borsari, who’d read a recent article about anthrax-fighting drugs, said he jokingly asked Hatfill, “Hey, by the way, we’re your friends. How come we don’t have any Cipro?” Hatfill advised him to go to a hospital if he felt he’d been exposed to anthrax. In subsequent news reports, Hatfill was alleged to have warned everyone to begin taking Cipro, as if to suggest that another attack was imminent. “You can’t make this stuff up,” Borsari later told me. “But, apparently, they did.”
Though he cannot prove it, Hatfill says he believes that a friend-turned-political-enemy heard about the Cipro conversation from a co-worker who was at Borsari’s house that night, misconstrued it, and passed it on to federal agents. The same former friend, Hatfill asserts, also was responsible for undermining his efforts to secure a higher security clearance that would have enabled him to work on top-secret CIA projects when he was employed at SAIC.
The former friend, who works today at a high level within the intelligence community and requested anonymity after I contacted him, denies Hatfill’s version of events. He says he never approached the FBI regarding Hatfill, but would not discuss whether he ever talked with agents about him, suggesting instead that simmering workplace conflicts between Hatfill and former colleagues at USAMRIID could have prompted someone there to “drop a dime to the bureau.” “Steve always saw himself as having the purest of motivations. I don’t think that was always apparent to everyone around him,” the former friend says. “There’s a line from Tom Jones, ‘It’s not enough to be good. You have to be seen as being good.’ I don’t think Steve ever learned that lesson.”
Though the two have not spoken in more than a decade, he says he still regards Hatfill warmly.
The feelings are hardly mutual. Hatfill believes that his former friend helped perpetuate false and damaging rumors about him. As evidence for this assertion, Hatfill says he once confided to him about having taken a shower with a female colleague inside the decontamination area of a USAMRIID lab. The story, according to Hatfill, was a fiction meant to amuse and titillate. He says he told the story to no one other than this one friend. As the FBI began focusing on Hatfill in July 2002, The Times’s Nicholas Kristof would report Hatfill’s fictitious laboratory dalliance as fact.
Hatfill would later sue The New York Times for that and a host of other alleged libels. The case would eventually be dismissed, after a judge ruled that Hatfill was a public figure. To successfully sue for defamation, public figures must prove that a publication acted with “actual malice.”
In late 2002, news bulletins reported that either an unnamed tipster or bloodhounds, depending on which report was to be believed, had led FBI agents to a pond in the Maryland countryside about eight miles from Hatfill’s former apartment. There, divers discovered what was described as a makeshift laboratory “glove box.” Reports speculated that Hatfill, a certified scuba diver, had used the airtight device to stuff anthrax microbes into envelopes underwater to avoid contaminating himself. The Washington Post reported that “vials and gloves wrapped in plastic” also were recovered from the water. Tests to determine the presence of anthrax produced “conflicting results,” The Post reported, yet so “compelling” were these finds that the FBI would later pay $250,000 to have the pond drained in search of more evidence. Nothing retrieved from the pond ever linked Hatfill, or anyone else, to the murders. According to some news reports, the laboratory “glove box” turned out to be a homemade turtle trap. But the pond story helped keep alive the public perception that FBI agents were hot on the trail, with Hatfill in their sights.
At Connolly’s urging, Hatfill reluctantly agreed to a few informal, one-on-one get-togethers with journalists to show them he was no monster. The effort did little to stanch the flow of negative reporting. Two weeks after Hatfill met with CBS correspondent Jim Stewart, in May 2003, Stewart aired a story on the CBS Evening News. The anchor, Dan Rather, read the lead-in:
Rather: It has been more than a year and half now since the string of deadly anthrax attacks in this country, and still no arrests, even though investigators believe they know who the culprit is and where he is. CBS News correspondent Jim Stewart is on the case and has the latest.
Stewart: Bioweapons researcher Dr. Steven Hatfill, sources confirm, remains the FBI’s number-one suspect in the attacks, even though round-the-clock surveillance and extensive searches have failed to develop more than what sources describe as a “highly circumstantial” case.
And now one possible outcome, sources suggest, is that the government could bring charges against Hatfill unrelated to the anthrax attacks at all, if they become convinced that’s the only way to stop future incidents. Not unlike, for example, the income-tax evasion charges finally brought against Al Capone, when evidence of racketeering proved elusive.
After watching Stewart’s report that night, Hatfill recalls, “I just lost it.” He left an angry message on Stewart’s voice mail, vowing to sue. It was, as Hatfill looks back, the last straw. “I just decided I wasn’t going to let it get to me anymore. Screw ’em,” Hatfill says. “I mean, what more could the press and the FBI do to me than they already had?”
Plenty, as it turned out.
Boo was driving Hatfill to a paint store a week later when FBI agents in a Dodge Durango, trying to keep up with them, blew through a red light in a school zone with children present. Hatfill says he got out of his car to snap a photo of the offending agents and give them a piece of his mind. The Durango sped away—running over his right foot. Hatfill declined an ambulance ride to the hospital; unemployed, he had no medical insurance. When Washington police arrived, they issued him a ticket for “walking to create a hazard.” The infraction carried a $5 fine. Hatfill would contest the ticket in court and lose. The agent who ran over his foot was never charged.
“People think they’re free in this country,” Hatfill says. “Don’t kid yourself. This is a police state. The government can pretty much do whatever it wants.”
Sitting alone day after day, Boo’s condo by now completely redecorated, Hatfill realized that he needed something else to keep his mind occupied while waiting for his day in court. He decided to act as though he were starting medical school all over. He dug out his old textbooks and began studying. The hours flew by.
“I was back on familiar ground, something I knew and understood. It was therapy,” Hatfill says. “There wasn’t any doubt in my mind that there would be a payday eventually,” from lawsuits against those who had destroyed his reputation. “At that point, it became a waiting game for me. Everything else became tolerable.”
One afternoon, Hatfill was reading a scientific publication about problems researchers were having in developing promising new antibiotics, when he had a life-changing thought. Many antibiotics and anti-cancer agents, he knew, are synthesized from plants or derived from fungi found in jungles and rainforests. Instead of transporting samples to the lab, why not take the lab to the samples? The concept so excited him that Hatfill ran out and bought modeling clay to begin crafting his vision of a floating laboratory. FBI agents tailed him to a local hobby shop and back.
In the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people, Hatfill joined a relief effort and flew to Sri Lanka in early 2005. Tending to the sick and injured reminded him that he still had something to contribute to the world. Finally, he says, he stopped worrying about the press and the FBI. He stopped constantly looking over his shoulder.
By early 2007, after fresh investigators were brought in to reexamine evidence collected in the anthrax case, the FBI came to believe what Hatfill had been saying all along: he’d never had access to the anthrax at USAMRIID; he was a virus guy. The FBI, meanwhile, began to focus on someone who had enjoyed complete access: senior microbiologist Bruce Edward Ivins.
Ivins had spent most of his career at USAMRIID, working with anthrax. Agents had even sought his advice and scientific expertise early in their investigation of Hatfill. Now they subjected Ivins to the same harsh treatment they’d given Hatfill, placing Ivins under 24-hour surveillance, digging into his past, and telling him he was a murder suspect. Soon Ivins was banned from the labs where he had labored for 28 years. In July 2008, following a voluntary two-week stay in a psychiatric clinic for treatment of depression and anxiety, Ivins went home and downed a fatal dose of Tylenol. He was 62.
Less than two weeks later, the Justice Department officially exonerated Steven Hatfill. Six years had passed since he was first named a person of interest.
As it had done with Hatfill, the press dissected the pathology of Ivins’s life, linking him, however speculatively, to the murders. Ivins was a devout Catholic, which could’ve explained why anthrax was sent to two pro-choice senators, Daschle and Leahy. Reports said that Ivins harbored homicidal urges, especially toward women. He had purportedly been obsessed with a particular sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, ever since being rebuffed by one of its members while attending the University of Cincinnati, which could’ve explained why the anthrax letters were mailed from a box near a storage facility used by the sorority’s Princeton chapter. Ivins, of course, was no longer alive to defend himself. But in him, the FBI had found a suspect against whom tangible evidence existed.
Ivins had been the sole custodian of a large flask of highly purified anthrax spores genetically linked to those found in the letters. He had allegedly submitted purposely misleading lab data to the FBI in an attempt to hide the fact that the strain of anthrax used in the attacks was a genetic match with the anthrax in his possession. He had been unable to provide a good explanation for the many late nights he’d put in at the lab, working alone, just before the attacks. Agents found that he had been under intense pressure at USAMRIID to produce an anthrax vaccine for U.S. troops. A few days after the anthrax letters were postmarked, Ivins, according to the FBI, had sent an e-mail to a former colleague, who has never been publicly identified, warning: “Bin Laden terrorists for sure have anthrax and sarin gas,” and have “just decreed death to all Jews and all Americans.” The language was similar to the anthrax letters that warned, “We have this anthrax … Death to America … Death to Israel.”
Following his suicide, some of Ivins’s friends insisted that the FBI had pressured him into doing what Hatfill would not. Ivins’s own attorney, Paul F. Kemp, disagrees. “Dr. Ivins had a host of psychological problems that he was grappling with, that existed long before the anthrax letters were mailed, and long after,” Kemp told me.
Though Hatfill’s apartment in Frederick was less than a quarter mile from Ivins’s modest home on Military Road, and both men worked at Fort Detrick at the same time, Hatfill says the two never met. Hatfill was surprised when the FBI ultimately pinned the anthrax murders on a fellow American scientist.
“I thought it would eventually be proven that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks,” he says.
In the years since the attacks, postal officials have equipped more than 270 processing and distribution centers with sensors that “sniff” the air around virtually every piece of incoming mail to detect deadly biohazards. The sensors have never picked up so much as a whiff of anthrax, according to a Postal Inspection Service spokesman, Peter Rendina. “Your mail,” Rendina says, “is safer today than at any other time in our history.”
The same, Hatfill believes, cannot be said about American civil liberties. “I was a guy who trusted the government,” he says. “Now, I don’t trust a damn thing they do.” He trusts reporters even less, dismissing them as little more than lapdogs for law enforcement.
The media’s general willingness to report what was spoon-fed to them, in an effort to reassure a frightened public that an arrest was not far off, is somewhat understandable considering the level of fear that gripped the nation following 9/11. But that doesn’t “justify the sliming of Steven Hatfill,” says Edward Wasserman, who is the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, in Virginia. “If anything, it’s a reminder that an unquestioning media serves as a potential lever of power to be activated by the government, almost at will.”
In February 2008, Reggie B. Walton, the U.S. District Court judge presiding over Hatfill’s case against the government, announced that he had reviewed secret internal memos on the status of the FBI’s investigation and could find “not a scintilla of evidence that would indicate that Dr. Hatfill had anything to do with” the anthrax attacks.
Four months later, the Justice Department quietly settled with Hatfill for $5.82 million. “It allowed Doc to start over,” Connolly, his lawyer, says.
For Hatfill, rebuilding remains painful and slow. He enters post offices only if he absolutely must, careful to show his face to surveillance cameras so that he can’t be accused of mailing letters surreptitiously. He tries to document his whereabouts at all times, in case he should ever need an alibi. He is permanently damaged, Hatfill says. Yet he still professes to love America. “My country didn’t do this to me,” he is quick to point out. “A bloated, incompetent bureaucracy and a broken press did. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if I didn’t still love my country.”
Much of Hatfill’s time these days is devoted to teaching life-saving medical techniques to military personnel bound for combat. They are his “band of brothers,” and the hours he spends with them, Hatfill says, are among his happiest. He also serves as an adjunct associate professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University.
Then there is his boat.
Hatfill has committed $1.5 million to building his floating genetic laboratory, a futuristic-looking vessel replete with a helicopter, an operating room to treat rural indigenous peoples, and a Cordon Bleu–trained chef. Hatfill intends to assemble a scientific team and cruise the Amazon for undiscovered or little-known plants and animals. From these organisms, he hopes to develop new medications for leukemia, and for tuberculosis and other diseases that have been growing increasingly resistant to existing antibiotics. Any useful treatments, he says, will be licensed to pharmaceutical companies on the condition that developing nations receive them at cost. Hatfill hopes to christen the boat within two years. Scientists at USAMRIID, where the FBI once suspected him of stealing anthrax, have expressed tentative interest in helping him mount his expedition.
In addition to suing the Justice Department for violating his privacy and The New York Times for defaming him, Hatfill also brought a libel lawsuit against Don Foster, Vanity Fair, and Reader’s Digest, which had reprinted Foster’s article. The lawsuit led to a settlement whose dollar amount all parties have agreed to keep confidential. The news media, which had for so long savaged Hatfill, dutifully reported his legal victories, but from where he stands, that hardly balanced things on the ledger sheet of journalistic fairness.
Three weeks after the FBI exonerated Hatfill, in the summer of 2008, Nicholas Kristof apologized to him in The New York Times for any distress his columns may have caused. The role of the news media, Kristof wrote on August 28, is “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Instead, I managed to afflict the afflicted.”
Many others who raised critical questions about Hatfill have remained silent in the wake of his exoneration. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, the molecular biologist who spurred the FBI to pursue Hatfill, retired two years ago. Through a former colleague, she declined to be interviewed for this article. Jim Stewart, the television correspondent whose report compared Hatfill to Al Capone, left CBS in 2006. Stewart admitted in a deposition to having relied, for his report, on four confidential FBI sources. When I reached the former newsman at his home in Florida, Stewart said he couldn’t talk about Hatfill because he was entertaining houseguests. When I asked when might be a good time to call back, he said, “There isn’t a good time,” and hung up.
“The entire unhappy episode” is how Don Foster, the Vassar professor who wrote the Vanity Fair article, sums up Hatfill’s story and his own role in it. Foster says he no longer consults for the FBI. “The anthrax case was it for me,” he told me recently. “I’m happier teaching. Like Steven Hatfill, I would prefer to be a private person.”
Foster says he never intended to imply that Hatfill was a murderer, yet continues to stand by his reporting as “inaccurate in only minor details.” I asked if he had any regrets about what he’d written.
“On what grounds?” he asked.
“The heartache it caused Hatfill. The heartache it caused you and Vanity Fair.”
Foster pondered the question, then said, “I don’t know Steven Hatfill. I don’t know his heartache. But anytime an American citizen, a journalist, a scientist, a scholar, is made the object of unfair or inaccurate public scrutiny, it’s unfortunate. It’s part of a free press to set that right.”
This past February, the Justice Department formally closed its investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks, releasing more than 2,500 pages of documents, many of them heavily redacted, buttressing the government’s assertion that Bruce Ivins was solely responsible for the anthrax letters.
When I asked FBI spokesperson Debra Weierman how much money had been spent chasing Hatfill, she said the bureau was unable to provide such an accounting. She would neither confirm nor deny that the FBI ever opened any administrative inquiries into the news leaks that had defamed him. The FBI, she said, was unwilling to publicly discuss Hatfill in any capacity, “out of privacy considerations for Dr. Hatfill.” Weierman referred me instead to what she described as an “abundance of information” on the FBI’s Web site.
Information about the anthrax case is indeed abundant on the bureau’s Web site, with dozens of documents touting the FBI’s efforts to solve the murders. Included is a transcript of a press conference held in August 2008, a month after Ivins’s suicide, in which federal authorities initially laid out the evidence they had amassed against him. But beyond a handful of questions asked by reporters that day, in which his last name is repeatedly misspelled, and a few scant paragraphs in the 96-page executive summary of the case, there is no mention anywhere on the FBI’s Web site of Steven Hatfill.