WASHINGTON - Fighting back after more than a year as a public target of the FBI's anthrax investigation, Dr. Steven J. Hatfill filed a federal lawsuit yesterday accusing Attorney General John Ashcroft and other officials of harassing him with relentless surveillance, wrecking his reputation and preventing him from finding work to cover up their failure to find the real bioterrorist behind the 2001 attacks.
Hatfill's 40-page lawsuit asks the federal court to declare that the Justice Department and FBI have violated the Constitution, the Privacy Act and their own regulations by labeling him a "person of interest" and effectively putting him under "roaming house arrest."
It seeks a court order to stop the surveillance and alleged leaks to the media, as well as asking for unspecified monetary damages.
"Dr. Hatfill had nothing to do with the horrific anthrax attacks," Thomas G. Connolly, Hatfill's lead attorney, told reporters outside the federal courthouse here.
"No evidence links Dr. Hatfill to the crime, yet the attorney general and a number of his subordinates have attempted to make him the scapegoat. In the process they have trampled Dr. Hatfill's constitutional rights and destroyed his life."
Hatfill, 49, a physician who worked at the Army's biodefense research center at Fort Detrick from 1997 to 1999 and has trained FBI agents and Special Forces troops on bioterrorism, did not attend the news conference. Connolly noted that he had declared his innocence in two impassioned public statements a year ago and seeks only "the right to be left alone."
The lawsuit adds a few new details to the public knowledge of investigators' pursuit of Hatfill, which the suit says has involved "tens of thousands of man-hours and tens of millions of dollars."
In March, it says, Hatfill went to a job interview in a McLean, Va., hotel. Hatfill's hopes "were dashed, however, when at the conclusion of his meeting, he and his prospective employer walked out of the meeting room and were met by FBI special agents conspicuously videotaping the encounter," the suit says.
"After being subjected to this invasion," it says, "the prospective employer no longer had any interest in hiring Dr. Hatfill and thus, the FBI's harassment had its intended effect."
Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra declined to comment on the suit. He noted that an internal inquiry by the department's counsel, H. Marshall Jarrett, concluded in January that Ashcroft's labeling Hatfill as a "person of interest" in the anthrax case "did not violate any law, regulation or Department of Justice policy or standard."
The FBI also had no comment on the litigation, said Debra Weierman, a spokeswoman for the bureau's Washington Field Office. Van A. Harp, the recently retired head of the office, was named in the lawsuit. He could not be reached last night.
Legal experts said yesterday that the lawsuit poses an unusual challenge to the government, whose pursuit of Hatfill as the sole identified suspect for many months in a major case is virtually without precedent.
"This is not a frivolous lawsuit," said I. Michael Green-berger, a University of Maryland law professor who served in the Justice Department in the Clinton administration.
Greenberger said the Privacy Act claim might pose a particular threat. "The clearest route for Hatfill is the alleged improper release of records to people outside the government," Greenberger said.
If the lawsuit survives an initial government motion to dismiss, "I think with what Hatfill's gone through, he may have a substantial claim to monetary damages," he said.
L. Lin Wood, who represented security guard Richard Jewell in libel lawsuits after Jewell was wrongly identified as a suspect in the Atlanta Olympics bombing case, said Hatfill's situation eclipses that case in several regards.
While the FBI publicly declared Jewell no longer a suspect after 88 days, Hatfill has been the focus of investigators for more than a year with no statement clearing him, Wood said.
In addition, no government official ever publicly referred to Jewell as a "person of interest," as Ashcroft did at least three times last year of Hatfill on national television.
"I'm sure the government probably had an obligation to investigate Dr. Hatfill," Wood said, given the scientist's knowledge of biological weapons. "The problem with the Hatfill investigation is that it's gone on for so long and he's the only one publicly identified by the attorney general of the United States. What does he have to do to find out why the government is treating him this way?"
In the Jewell case, libel claims were settled by NBC, CNN, the New York Post and WABC radio for a reported total of more than $2 million. But Wood did not file suit against the FBI because he and Jewell believed the media were "the real villain," he said.
By contrast, Hatfill's lawsuit names only government officials and agencies as defendants. But the text of the lawsuit accuses a scientist, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, of groundlessly urging the FBI to pursue Hatfill and lists alleged leaks of confidential investigative information to ABC, CBS, Newsweek, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Rosenberg has denied naming Hatfill to reporters or congressional staff members whom she briefed.
Asked whether the media or others might be sued in the future, Connolly said he thought it unwise to speculate about "who might end up in Steven Hatfill's crosshairs."