The US legal system, which places a premium on individual privacy rights, has compelled the US Justice Department to make a $5.8-million settlement with a defence scientist Dr Steven Hatfill whom it had earlier accused of being involved in the deadly anthrax attacks seven years back.
Although the former denied violating the privacy rights of the individual, the settlement is ample testimony to the strong ground that defendant Dr Hatfill stood on vis-à-vis the law enforcement authorities.
The US government will pay $4.6 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Dr Steven Hatfill, a former US Army biodefense researcher who was intensively investigated as a "person of interest" in the deadly anthrax letters of 2001, the Justice Department announced on Friday.
The settlement, consisting of $2.825 million in cash and an annuity worth $1.8 million that will pay Hatfill $150,000 a year for 20 years, brings to an end a five-year legal battle.
Effectively, it is a $5.28-million compensation for ''leaking gossip, speculation, and misinformation'' to the media, or so Hatfill's lawyers claimed.
Hatfill, who worked at the army's laboratory at Fort Derrick in Frederick, Maryland, in the late 1990s, was the subject of a flood of news media coverage beginning in mid-2002, after television cameras showed FBI agents in biohazard suits searching his apartment near the army base.
FBI raids were well attended by journalists and consequently, several news outlets speculated that Hatfill was at one time the likely suspect for the attacks
John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, later called him a "person of interest" in the case on national television. For months later, Hatfill was subjected to 24-hour surveillance and was widely identified as the leading suspect in the nation's first bioterrorism attack. However, he was never arrested or charged and a federal judge presiding over his lawsuit said recently that there "is not a scintilla of evidence" linking him to the mailings.
Hatfill had sued the then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and other officials in August 2003, saying that they had violated the Privacy Act by disclosing his name to the media.
But US District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton delayed permitting Hatfill's lawyers to question FBI and Justice officials or news reporters for two more years. The government contended that the depositions of agents and FBI leaders could interfere with the investigation.
Hatfill accused FBI agents and Justice Department officials involved in the criminal investigation of the anthrax mailings of leaking information about him to the news media in violation of the Privacy Act. His lawyers Connolly and Grannis oversaw depositions that eventually elicited sworn testimony from 37 witnesses, including Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.
Former federal prosecutors knowledgeable about the investigation said the government payout to Hatfill signified that, in all likelihood, he would never be charged.
Five people were killed and 17 sickened by anthrax that was mailed to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and members of the news media in New York and Florida just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The hand-addressed letters bore tiny amounts of deadly anthrax powder, and set off new waves of terror in the United States in the weeks subsequent to the Sept. 11 attacks. The first letter arrived at American Media Inc. in South Florida. Then, around 18 September, photo editor Robert Stevens, 63, inhaled spores of the bacterium while examining a letter, and subsequently dies on 5 October.
Other letters laced with the same strain of anthrax were sent to others in the media, including two network anchors, and two were addressed to US senators. Of five anthrax-related deaths, two were US Postal Service (USPS) workers in the Washington area. The anthrax attacks remain unsolved, and Hatfill has denied any involvement.
A spokesman for the Justice Department said the anthrax case "remains among the department's highest law enforcement priorities." Brian Roehrkasse also said in a statement that by agreeing to settle the lawsuit, the government "does not admit to any violation of the Privacy Act and continues to deny all liability in connection with Dr. Hatfill's claims."
"The good news is that we still live in a country where a guy who's been horribly abused can go to a judge and say, 'I need your help,' and maybe it takes a while, but he gets justice," Grannis said. The settlement, he added, "means that Steven Hatfill is finally an ex-person of interest."
Representative Rush D Holt from New Jersey, whose district includes Princeton, where anthrax spores were recovered from a mailbox, said the government's payout to Hatfill confirmed that the investigation "was botched from the very beginning."
"The FBI did a poor job of collecting evidence, and then inappropriately focused on one individual as a suspect for too long, developing an erroneous 'theory of the case' that has led to this very expensive dead end," Holt said in a statement.
Hatfill's attorney Mark Grannis said he was pleased with the settlement, which is "a lot of money.'' Grannis also blamed "a handful of credulous reporters," who he said published or broadcast government leaks of "gossip, speculation and misinformation."
The settlement of Hatfill's case should also bring to an end a contempt of court case against a former reporter who refused to identify, in pretrial depositions, people who linked Hatfill to the anthrax attacks. US District Judge Reggie Walton had ordered former USA Today reporter Toni Locy to pay almost $5,000 a day in fines, and an appeals court heard arguments last month on her appeal. Hatfill's lawyers, in a letter to the appeals court said that he no longer needed Locy's testimony, on account of the settlement.
At a hearing in January, Walton asked attorneys for the government and Hatfill's attorneys to try and settle the case. Later on 19 February, he indicated that he thought the government's pursuit of Hatfill to be questionable, having reviewed four still-secret FBI memos about the status of the anthrax investigation, post which he said that "there is not a scintilla of evidence that would indicate that Dr. Hatfill had anything to do with this.''