When recent reports in The Sun and other publications revealed that former Army bioweapons scientist Dr. Steven J. Hatfill had claimed a Ph.D. he had not received, he offered an explanation.
He had completed the work for the degree at Rhodes University in South Africa and assumed it had been granted, he said through his spokesman, Pat Clawson. Later, when he learned the degree had not been awarded, he stopped listing it on his resume, he said.
But when applying for a research job in 1995, Hatfill provided to the National Institutes of Health a handsome Rhodes University Ph.D. certificate in molecular cell biology with his name on it, signed by the university vice chancellor and other officials.
The Ph.D. certificate, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun from the NIH under the Freedom of Information Act, is a forgery, Rhodes officials say. The university seal is not in the right place, the vice chancellor's signature has the wrong middle initial and other names are made up, they say.
"Our parchment doesn't even look like that," says Angela Stuurman, assistant to the registrar at Rhodes University. "It's most definitely a forgery."
Hatfill's attorney, Victor M. Glasberg, declined to comment on the degree, saying in an e-mail: "We are not feeding the media frenzy on collateral issues. If you ask me whether Dr. Hatfill was standing on the grassy knoll when JFK was shot, I will give you the same answer."
Indeed, the forged Ph.D. sheds no light on whether Hatfill had anything to do with the anthrax letters, which he has adamantly denied.
But it is an example of the kind of intriguing episodes from Hatfill's past that have attracted intense interest from the FBI and the news media. In fact, Hatfill's own past description of his credentials may have contributed to the FBI's focus on him in the anthrax case.
His 1999 resume claims "working knowledge ... of wet and dry BW [biological warfare] agents, large-scale production of bacterial, rickettsial, and viral BW pathogens and toxins, stabilizers and other additives, former BG [Bacillus globigii] simulant production methods."
Such knowledge would be quite relevant to the preparation of the dry anthrax powder in the envelopes. Bacillus globigii is a nontoxic relative of the anthrax bacterium and is often used as an anthrax simulant. Anyone who knows how to grow Bacillus globigii and turn it into a simulant powder could do the same with anthrax, scientists say.
But does Hatfill really have such knowledge? His official research at the NIH and later at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick involved viruses, chiefly Ebola and Marburg. In his statements to the news media complaining of being unfairly targeted, he has insisted that he has no experience with anthrax or other bacteria.
Asked whether Hatfill really has the knowledge he claims on his resume, Glasberg said "working knowledge" did not imply actual hands-on experience with biological agents, but rather familiarity with the "principles" of biodefense. He suggested further that because Hatfill had nothing to do with the anthrax letters, there is no justification for the news media's interest in his resume and his past.
It is certain that Hatfill's false claims about his past, his 15-year sojourn in Rhodesia and South Africa and his penchant for dramatizing the bioterrorist threat in a novel and in interviews have made him of great interest to reporters and scientists who are following the investigation.
Add the timing of the devastating suspension of Hatfill's security clearance last year - a month before the anthrax letters were mailed - and it is easy to see why the FBI took an interest.
It is harder to say why that interest continues nine months after agents first interviewed him and administered a polygraph. And the FBI won't comment.