Nearly a year after Dr. Steven J. Hatfill went before the press to proclaim his innocence in the anthrax case and denounce FBI harassment, the bureau continues to focus its costly investigation on him but has not found evidence to solve the case.
Now, with no breakthrough from the $250,000 draining of a Frederick-area pond, Hatfill's lawyers are preparing a civil suit to fight back, a New Jersey congressman wants answers from the FBI and the bureau may be at a crossroads in the case.
"It's getting to the point that the FBI either should bring charges against him or end this constant surveillance," said David Siegrist, who studies bioterrorism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and knows Hatfill professionally. "It was perfectly fair for the FBI to follow someone for a time. But now it's more than a year and it's really moved from investigation to harassment."
Rep. Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat and physicist who has criticized the investigators' slow pace, said he was encouraged after a private FBI briefing in April, but now fears the investigation has lost steam. His district includes both the Princeton mailbox where the deadly letters were mailed and a Trenton mail processing center now undergoing decontamination.
"My constituents need and deserve a resolution to this," Holt said. "Swift apprehension and justice, criminologists will tell you, is particularly important for deterrence. In this case it's already gone on for two years."
Holt, who said the fact that it took agents nine months to find the contaminated mailbox "verged on incompetence," said he is asking the FBI for a new briefing on the status of the case.
Debra Weierman, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington field office, declined to comment on progress in the case. "The investigation is continuing," she said.
One law enforcement official who asked his name not be used acknowledged that "there's a lot of pressure on us to do something one way or the other" regarding Hatfill. He said investigators have never abandoned other areas of inquiry, but they may now broaden their efforts.
"We're trying not to be so narrow-minded as to look only at [Hatfill]," the official said. "We're going to go back and see what we have. We may reinterview some people."
Another source said scientists have made progress in fine-tuning genetic analysis to help the FBI trace the mailed anthrax to a particular lab.
Meanwhile, tests on mud, water and junk taken from a pond near Frederick drained by the FBI in June have detected no spores of anthrax, The Washington Post reported yesterday. The law enforcement official confirmed the report, while cautioning that not all tests are complete.
The pond draining, based on a tip about Hatfill, accounts for only a small fraction of the money expended by the FBI and Postal Inspection Service to trail Hatfill, search places he's lived and trace his activities before the anthrax letters were mailed in 2001.
In two news conferences last August, Hatfill tearfully insisted he had nothing to do with the anthrax attacks and accused the FBI of targeting him to give the impression of progress in the politically sensitive case.
He since has been fired from a job as a bioterrorism trainer and has been unable to find new work. He has been followed regularly by FBI cars, one of which knocked him down in May after he approached with a camera.
Now Hatfill's attorneys are preparing a civil lawsuit targeting those he blames for his plight, ranging from members of the media to scientists who have spoken to the FBI, according to people with general knowledge of the preparations.
Hatfill's legal team is headed by Thomas G. Connolly, a litigator with a Washington law firm, who handled high-profile espionage and fraud cases in 10 years as a federal prosecutor.
Also representing Hatfill are Victor M. Glasberg, an Alexandria, Va., attorney who has handled employment and civil rights cases, and Nick Bravin, a colleague of Connolly in the Washington law firm of Harris, Wiltshire and Grannis.
Connolly declined to comment on Hatfill's legal plans and Glasberg did not return a reporter's call. Other sources would not specify the targets or theory of the planned legal action.
A one-year statute of limitations on libel cases in Washington, Maryland and Virginia, where he has lived and worked, would put much of the early news coverage of Hatfill beyond legal reach, said Bruce Sanford, a Washington attorney specializing in media law.
But claims that others invaded Hatfill's privacy or placed him in a "false light" have a longer statute of limitations and would not be precluded, he said.
One obstacle to any Hatfill lawsuit might be his history of exaggerating his credentials, including providing employers with a fake Ph.D. certificate and falsely claiming to have served in an Army Special Forces unit. Without reference to Hatfill, Sanford said: "Jurors don't like people who fabricate and then accuse other people of making mistakes and fabricating."
Ronald Kessler, author of a 2002 history of the FBI titled The Bureau - The Secret History of the FBI, said "It's certainly highly unusual for this much effort to go into a single possible suspect." But he cautioned against "playing the blame game" and assuming the FBI has been negligent or reckless in its pursuit of the anthrax mailer.
He said the FBI has 11,500 agents, compared with 40,000 police officers in New York City alone, and the bureau has been subjected to unprecedented demands since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
"The anthrax case is one of the biggest the FBI's ever had, given the targeting of members of Congress and the impact on the whole country," Kessler said. Still, he added, "The FBI not only has to investigate terrorism and anthrax, but Enron, kidnappings, organized crime, bank robberies and espionage."
But experts on bioterrorism call the failure to find and punish the anthrax mailer an ominous development.
"The whole biodefense community is disturbed that this crime has not been solved," said Siegrist, of the Potomac Institute. "It encourages potential perpetrators to think that they can attack America in this way and get away with it."