WASHINGTON -- Dr. Steven Hatfill may or may not be the killer who sent anthrax through the mail last year. But something smells about the way the FBI is handling this matter.
Without arresting him, a researcher who never worked with anthrax, and even without calling him a suspect -- merely one of 20 or 30 "people of interest" -- the FBI apparently tipped off the press when it made a scheduled search of Dr. Hatfill's apartment.
When the FBI agents arrived, they were accompanied by satellite trucks and news helicopters buzzing overhead. What if they are wrong? Will the press ever correct with the same vigor that it misreports? Almost never -- the Richard Jewell case being the only exception that leaps to mind, and he had to sue.
More often, the unjustly accused have no recourse. In the immortal words of Ray Donovan, Ronald Reagan's secretary of labor, who was acquitted of corruption charges in a court of law after a prolonged trial by the media, "Where do I go to get my reputation back?"
A spokesman for the FBI denies tipping the press, but those helicopters and news trucks did not arrive due to clairvoyance. Not only does it look like the FBI was fingering a man against whom it has very little evidence in order to obscure the FBI's lack of progress in finding the anthrax terrorist or terrorists, it further looks like the FBI has bull-headedly followed only one possible scenario -- the lone American scientist -- in its search.
The Weekly Standard's David Tell has waged a lonely battle to challenge the FBI on this. In a series of detailed articles (see The Weekly Standard, April 29), Mr. Tell has examined the FBI's peculiar reliance on a research professor at the State University of New York named Barbara Hatch Rosenberg. She has apparently encouraged the FBI to believe that a disgruntled American scientist loosed anthrax on the political and media elite last year.
Her views sound a bit loopy to the dispassionate observer. She apparently told the BBC that the FBI has known the true identity of the anthrax mailer for some time but won't arrest him because "he knows too much."
Well, let Mr. Tell tell: "Last fall, you see, the man's Langley masters supposedly decided they'd like to field-test what would happen if billions of lethal anthrax spores were sent through the regular mail, and it was 'left to him to decide exactly how to carry it out.' The loosely supervised madman then used his assignment to launch an attack on the media and Senate 'for his own motives.' And, this truth being obviously too hot to handle, the FBI is now trying hard not to discover it." Okaaaay.
Then there is the matter of Syed Athar Abbas, a Pakistani picked up for defrauding two banks out of $100,000 and running a sophisticated check-kiting scheme. Mr. Tell reports that when the FBI checked him out, it discovered that he had purchased a "fine food particulate mixer" (the sort that might be used for making biological weapons) for about $100,000 in cash. Was the FBI interested, or was it too busy chasing Dr. Hatfill?
To read Dr. Hatfill's statement is to suspect very strongly that the man is innocent. If I were wrongly accused, I think I'd write a statement like his. Some excerpts:
"I've devoted much of my professional career to safeguarding men, women and children from the scourge of different types of disease, from leukemia to infectious disease. ... I am appalled at the terrible acts of biological terrorism that have caused death, disease and havoc in the great country starting last fall. ... I wish the authorities Godspeed in catching the culprit or culprits. I do not object to being considered a subject of interest by the authorities because of my knowledge and background in the field of biological warfare defense. ...
"This does not, however, give them the right to smear me and gratuitously make a wasteland of my life. ... If I am a subject of interest, I'm also a human being. I need to earn a living [he's been fired from two jobs because of this investigation]. I have a family, and until recently, I had a reputation and a bright professional future."
If the FBI has screwed this up, heads should roll.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.