News & Criticism

What Price Justice?

Linked to the 2001 anthrax attacks, Steven Hatfill has finally had his day in court.

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You want a happy ending. You want to say that everything eventually worked, that the system got it right in the end, that the latest twist in the seven-year long anthrax attack saga is a turn for the better. Except you can't.

On June 27th former federal bioweapons researcher Steven Hatfill essentially won his dispute with a federal government that had suspected him of unleashing anthrax letters on America in the fall of 2001. While admitting no wrongdoing, the feds agreed to pay Hatfill $5.8 million. In other words, the feds admitted they screwed up. Big time.

This sounds like a victory, and it surely is for Hatfill, who was hounded by the FBI and identified by hapless Attorney General John Ashcroft as a "person of interest" in the case. But the bigger picture remains bleak.

Most striking is the fact that the masterminds behind bold acts of terrorism—Osama bin Laden and the anthrax killer—remain at large despite untold of amounts of blood and treasure spent to catch them. Moreover, the anthrax attacks, unlike the use of airliners as guided missiles, remains an eminently repeatable mode of mass mayhem. Authorities still do not know exactly how the deadly compound was formed, where, or by whom.

The investigative missteps in the anthrax case were huge and there is no sign that procedures have changed in such a way as to avoid repeat. In fact, counter-terrorism measures have only become more hair-trigger and susceptible to political or panicked influence from outside the immediate investigation.

Former FBI agent Brad Garrett, who was part of the original anthrax investigation, recently reflected on how top brass in D.C. tried to micromanage every step of the investigation. FBI Director Robert Mueller demanded and received daily briefings on the case, which predictably tried to convey "progress" even if the facts suggested otherwise. This, of course, is not investigation, but ass-covering.

Any semi-complex problem requires getting smart people together and then leaving them alone to solve it. Trust, it turns out, is a key investigative tool. But the FBI didn't trust itself or others in 2002 and there is little reason to believe that anything has changed.

Instead, the FBI turned from trust to fear, now the defining element in America's counter-terrorism toolkit—from shock-and-awe to waterboarding. Clumsy and obvious surveillance was maintained on Hatfill with hopes of cracking him. Then a wholly implausible circus of "anthrax alerting" bloodhounds was staged to further ratchet up the pressure. In all likelihood, the "results" of these dog sweeps were fabricated by the feds, then leaked to gullible reporters to further pressure Hatfill.

This mind-set does not look for evidence or leads, let alone the truth. Such activity is not investigative, but prosecutorial. Guilt has been decided, the only question is how to make the case. It is no coincidence that a unitary executive branch that claims the power to imprison without the need for independent review or verifiable evidence produced and sanctioned this approach in the anthrax case.

There are now several distinct possibilities in the anthrax mystery, all with backers on the Internet and elsewhere. One is that the feds have no clue who might have been responsible. This is possible, beyond depressing to consider. Disputes over whether the anthrax spores themselves were "weaponzied" took up an inordinate amount of investigative energy, perhaps allowing the killer to cover all tracks leading back to him or her.

Then there is the case-making theory. This is the notion that the government has a suspect or suspects, but has yet to come up with enough evidence to merit an arrest. A close cousin of this view is the "Central New Jersey" theory; the idea that the anthrax used in the attacks was cooked up in the Garden State among a narrow range of possible circumstances.

Finally, we have most tin foil-plated view, one that on my blacker days I can readily see. Namely, the anthrax attacks were undertaken by a person or persons with ties close enough to the federal government that it is effectively impossible to prosecute them. Too many secrets would spill out.

All of these possibilities are dysfunctional enough for the next occupant of the Oval Office to undertake a top-to-bottom reform of America's counter-terrorism efforts. Otherwise, justice will remain elusive and arbitrary for citizens like Steven Hatfill.

Contributing Editor Jeff Taylor writes from North Carolina.