FBI screwups still haunt anthrax investigation

Few incidents seem to exemplify the governmental excesses and the difficulties controlling them in the atmosphere of fear following 9-11 than the five-year investigation into the anthrax attack that took the lives of five Americans, made 17 gravely ill and was a potential threat to thousands of others.

In its frustratingly unsuccessful attempts to discover the source of the deadly bio-terrorism assault, the FBI seems not only to have failed to identify the person or persons behind it, but also to have gone off in the wrong direction after misreading the sophistication of the material. The result of that blunder has been the pure and simple ruination of innocent lives and a clear indication that the agency supposed to be the first line of defense against terrorism is no closer to solving the mystery than it was when the first germs were sent through the mail _ a fact that should frighten us all.

Meanwhile, the FBI is being sued by one of those it has tarnished while others have had to try to pick up the pieces of their lives after undergoing public humiliation brought on by bad tips and just plain incompetence. Now that the bureau has announced that it is expanding its investigation of the terrifying incident to account for the fact that the grade was not military quality as it initially thought, but a much cruder form, there are concerns about how many more civil rights it will trample.

The most prominent of the FBI’s apparent victims is Dr. Steven Hatfill, an infectious disease expert, who was named as a “person of interest” early on and who was dogged by random searches of his property and generally harassed publicly for months in an inquiry that provided not one shred of evidence against him. On at least one occasion, the press was tipped that his residence would be searched and showed up in force. Even a pond was drained to no avail in connection with the case. Hatfill’s career was shredded and he lost his teaching and research job at Louisiana State University. He has sued the Justice Department.

Another of those investigated but never charged is a former New York physician who worked in the bio-terrorism field but has vehemently maintained his innocence. The bureau searched his home two years ago and although the exercise apparently failed to turn up any evidence against him, he lost his job.

At least the fact both men had been involved in the development of biochemical weapons could provide the bureau with some reason to look into their activities. In the process, however, there clearly were excesses, not the least of which was stubborn refusal to let go when nothing was found to incriminate them. But recent news reports about the treatment of two highly respected immigrant physicians from Pakistan with no connection whatsoever to the field of bio-weaponry has stirred the ghosts of J. Edgar Hoover’s discredited COINTELPRO and sent shivers through civil libertarians.

The two doctors, brothers born in Islamabad to a family of distinguished physicians, are graduates of Johns Hopkins University. One serves as health commissioner for the city of Chester, Pa., and the other as the city’s epidemiologist. Both have made major contributions in public health and other areas to this country’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan working on government assignment.

Within a few days after 9-11, which was followed quickly by the Anthrax mailings, the FBI visited them, acting reportedly on a bad tip. An FBI swat team burst into their home in Chester, awakened a sleeping wife, and handcuffed her at gunpoint. According to reports, agents at the same time also smashed into a downstairs office rented by the AIDS Care Group of Chester, even handcuffing a carpenter working there. Of course, no evidence of any wrongdoing was discovered.

The harassment of the two respected public health officials has continued with agents questioning them when they travel and forcing one brother to stay out of the country to avoid the hassle. Both have been forced to reconsider their plans to become citizens of the United States despite 15 years of public service here.

Of course the FBI should be zealous in its efforts to uncover the origin of this worst sort of attack, but that zeal should be tempered with both common sense and constitutional care. Too often these days, the paranoia gets out of hand and produces actions that closely resemble the kind of disregard for basic rights and fairness seen in totalitarian societies. That was the case during the Red scare of the Cold War and it seems to be repeating itself in this one.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)