WASHINGTON - A former Army scientist investigated in the three-year old anthrax attacks subpoenaed several news organizations yesterday seeking information about the government sources they used to write stories linking him to the probe.
The subpoenas, directed at The Washington Post, the Associated Press and National Public Radio, among others, are part of a lawsuit that Steven J. Hatfill filed against the Justice Department and the FBI.
The suit alleges that U.S. officials, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, smeared Hatfill's reputation through a series of public statements and private leaks that implicated him in the investigation of the anthrax-laced letters that killed five people in late 2001.
The mystery of who sent the deadly letters remains unsolved. No charges have been brought in the case. Hatfill - once described by Ashcroft as a "person of interest" in the case - has strongly denied any involvement.
Lawyers for Hatfill, a physician and bioterrorism expert, have tried for more than a year to interview FBI and Justice Department employees who the attorneys suspect of leaking the damaging information to reporters. The judge overseeing Hatfill's civil suit, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, has refused to authorize such questioning while the criminal investigation into the attacks is still in progress.
But in October, Walton approved a plan permitting Hatfill to question journalists who wrote about the anthrax investigation. As part of that arrangement, the government secured pledges from a number of officials releasing journalists from any agreements they had to protect anonymous sources.
Yesterday, those receiving the subpoenas said they would nonetheless decline to cooperate.
"News organizations are supposed to gather news, as opposed to spending their time performing research and testifying in court on behalf of various parties with axes to grind," Dave Tomlin, the assistant general counsel for the Associated Press, said in a report published by the wire service.
Sources said as many as a dozen news organizations, none of which has been named as a defendant in the case, could be targeted for questioning.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.