The man falsely accused by the FBI of sending letters laced with deadly anthrax spores has received a big settlement from the government, but never an apology for destroying his life.
What’s more, Dr. Steven J. Hatfill told TODAY’s Matt Lauer during his first interview since the September 2001 attacks, neither the Justice Department nor the FBI have been held accountable for breaking the law and lying in their pursuit of him.
“I love my country,” Hatfill, 56, told Lauer. But, he added, “I learned a couple things. The government can do to you whatever they want. They can break the laws, federal laws, as they see fit … You can’t turn laws on and off as you deem fit. And the Privacy Act laws were put in place specifically to stop what happened to me. Whether we’re at war or have been attacked, the foundation of society is that you hold to the laws in place. I used to be somebody that trusted the government. Now I really don't trust anything.”
“Did they ever apologize?” Lauer asked.
“No, they don’t do that. My father asked them, very early on in the investigation. He said, ‘When all this is over, and you find that my son had nothing to do with this, are you going to apologize?’ And Bob Roth says, ‘No, we don't do that,’ ” Hatfill said, referring to the FBI’s lead investigator in the case, Bob Roth.
“We’ll send Martha Stewart to jail for making false statements. What about these senior people? Nothing’s happening. Is the Justice Department incapable of regulating itself? Without strong regulation, the privileges we give them to investigate us, to conduct their normal anti-crime things, can spiral out of control.”
Hatfill said that at his worst, while unable to get a job and living with his girlfriend, he turned to drink, the glass of wine he took to help him relax turning into two glasses and more.
“I've been in a lot of stressful situations over the years. And it ends. This didn't end. It kept going, going, going, getting worse, worse, worse,” he said of the investigation.
The anthrax attacks began in September 2001, a week after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Letters filled with deadly anthrax spores began arriving at media outlets and at the offices of federal lawmakers. Five people would die in the attacks, and at least 17 others would be infected. Among those to whom letters were addressed was NBC’s Tom Brokaw.
In 2008, the government would finally settle with Hatfill for $5.8 million, although a Justice Department spokesperson said the department “does not admit to any violation of the Privacy Act and continues to deny all liability in connection with Dr. Hatfill's claims.”
Another researcher, Bruce Edwards Ivins, was identified as the prime suspect. Ivins committed suicide after his name was made public.
Wake of 9/11
In 2001, the immediate assumption was that the anthrax attacks were orchestrated by Al Qaeda. Amid intensive media attention, investigators attempted to determine the source of the letters.
As someone who was working on biological warfare-related projects for a defense contractor, Hatfill, a respected researcher, said he expected to be among those questioned. So he wasn’t surprised when agents came by to ask him a few questions.
Eventually, they asked if they could take a look at this apartment in Frederick, Md.
“I'm cooperating. I didn't get a lawyer or anything,” Hatfill told Lauer. He said agents asked to swab surfaces in the apartment and promised, “It'll be very discreet, quiet."
“Sure,” he replied. “Knock yourself out."
But when Hatfill walked out of his apartment with the agents, “there were already news cameras filming me walking to the car.” Overhead, helicopters hovered taking aerial footage. “I was really angry,” he said.
Hatfill cooperated fully in the early stages because he had nothing to hide. He even took a polygraph test, even though he knew that polygraphs are not reliable and sometimes return false positive results.
‘Person of interest’
In July 2002, Hatfill was named a “person of interest” by Attorney General John Ashcroft.
As Hatfill found himself vilified in the media, his anger grew. He told Lauer he blamed the media for the false reports about him, not understanding that the media was reporting false information that came from anonymous government sources.
“I didn't know this at the time. I just thought it was the press sensationalizing things. It wasn't till much, much later we learned that it was actually intentionally done by the Justice Department,” Hatfill said.
Hatfill said he survived only because he had faithful friends who refused to abandon him, even when ordered to by the FBI.
“I was fortunate that I had a band of brothers and they never left my side. I still work with them to this day. Patriots, soldiers, highly decorated men. And that gives you the strength, just to be in their company, to carry on.”
He is angry that the government feels that it can tell people to abandon their friends.
“I don't know of any law that permits the FBI to go by your closest friends and say, ‘You're not to associate with Dr. Hatfill.’ What they're trying to do is socially isolate you as part of the stress.”