U.S. Wants Suit on Anthrax Probe Tossed
Monday March 29, 2004 9:16 PM
By JONATHAN D. SALANT
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Government lawyers on Monday contended that Attorney General John Ashcroft named Dr. Steven J. Hatfill a ``person of interest'' in the 2001 anthrax attacks to dampen speculation that the bioterrorism expert was a suspect.
Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bucholtz said ``it's clear the attorney general was trying to downplay'' federal investigators' suspicions that Hatfill sent anthrax-laced envelopes to government and media offices in October 2001.
Hatfill lawyer Mark A. Grannis scoffed at the idea the government was trying to help his client.
``Mr. Ashcroft acted to protect both the department and his own political image at the expense of Dr. Hatfill's constitutional rights,'' Grannis said at a hearing on the government's request that U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton throw out Hatfill's suit against Ashcroft and other government officials.
Hatfill claims the officials named him to deflect attention from their inability to find whoever was responsible for the attacks, which killed five people and sickened 17 others. He still is the only publicly named ``person of interest'' in the case.
Walton said he would rule later on the motion, but agreed to a government request to delay most trial preparations until October. The government said Hatfill's requests for documents and interviews to prepare for trial could hinder the probe.
``At some point, Dr. Hatfill is going to have to have his day in court,'' Walton said. ``I don't think that point has occurred yet.''
Hatfill, who has denied any role in the attacks, wants to clear his name and recover unspecified monetary damages. His lawsuit claims the Justice Department got him fired from a job directing bioterrorism research at Louisiana State University, and that he has been unable to find another position in his field.
Hatfill once 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, Bacillus anthracis, that causes the infectious disease.
The FBI had Hatfill under 24-hour surveillance for months following the attacks. In one incident, agents in a vehicle trailing Hatfill ran over his foot on a Washington street. Hatfill was not seriously hurt, and the surveillance was curtailed.
Last week, FBI Director Robert Mueller declined to say whether Hatfill still is considered a person of interest in the anthrax investigation.
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