No longer a ‘person of interest’

After almost seven years, former biological warfare scientist Steven Hatfill is finally, in the words of one of his lawyers, "an ex-person of interest." He and his legal team will also collect a cash payout of $2.825 million from the Justice department and the department will also buy Hatfill an annuity that will pay him $150,000 a year in recognition of the fact that its heavy-handed and ultimately futile investigation made him all but unemployable.

Hatfill became the center of the FBI’s investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks — and for all we know the bureau’s only suspect — after Attorney General John Ashcroft identified him as "a person of interest." The term should have raised flags because it was the same one used when Richard Jewell was wrongly named in the 1996 Atlanta bombing case.

The Hatfill-centric investigation that followed was almost comically intense. His apartment and his girl friend’s apartment were ransacked, a pond was drained in rural Maryland at considerable expense and Hatfill trailed everywhere by a small motorcade, one following so closely, he said, that the agents ran over his foot.

In 2003, Hatfill sued the Justice department for violating his rights under the Privacy Act by leaking information about him to reporters. That threatened to become another crossroads reporter confidentiality case when a judge imposed a ruinous $5,000 a day fine on former USA Today reporter Toni Locy for not revealing those who leaked to her.

The Justice department had little to say about the embarrassing settlement, which was disclosed late Friday, the Bush administration’s preferred time for letting slip bad news. The public is owed an explanation as to how this investigation was so badly bungled that taxpayers must pay a penalty of almost $5 million, on top of the millions the still-open probe itself has cost.

A spokesman said only, "By entering into this agreement, the United States does not admit to any violation of the Privacy Act and continues to deny all liability in connection with Dr. Hatfill’s claims."

Writing on the ABC News Web site, former FBI agent Brad Gannon, based on firsthand experience, offered this explanation: "The anthrax investigation, almost from the beginning, was hampered by top-heavy leadership from high ranking, but inexperienced FBI officials, which led to a close-minded focus on just one suspect and amateurish investigative techniques that robbed agents in the field the ability operate successfully."

The FBI says the investigation continues with 17 agents and 10 postal workers. Almost seven years later, we still don’t know who sent those anthrax-laced envelopes that killed five, including two postal workers.