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Anthrax court docs detail fed's interest in scientist Hatfill

Court documents unsealed yesterday provide insight into why federal lawmakers had trouble fingering the person they believe to be the true culprit in the 2001 anthrax mailings and wrongly suspected government scientist Steven Hatfill of the attacks that took five lives and sickened 17 other people. The nearly seven-year investigation culminated with the apparent suicide in August of fellow scientist Bruce Ivins, 62, who once worked with Hatfill at a federal biodefense research lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland and who reportedly took a fatal overdose of pills as FBI agents had planned to arrest him for the crime.

Hatfill, 54, who claimed to be the victim of repeated leaks of investigation details to the media that implicated him as law enforcement's prime suspect in the mailings, in June won a $5.8 million lawsuit in which he charged that the FBI and Justice Department had violated his privacy rights.

The Los Angeles Times reports today that FBI agent Mark Morin alleged–in a July 2002 sworn statement seeking a judge's permission for a warrant to search Hatfill's apartment and other property–that Hatfill "had access to the unlocked storage freezers in which the Ames strain" of anthrax was kept while he worked as a Fort Detrick research scientist between 1997 and 1999. The FBI later found that the unique formulation of anthrax powder used in the mailings was prepared by Ivins (whom the feds wanted to arrest when he allegedly took his life in early August) and that Hatfill did not have access to it, according to the Times.

According to the court papers, government agents were also suspicious of Hatfill because they discovered that he was taking Cipro–an antibiotic used to prevent or treat anthrax infections–prior to the anthrax mailings. Hatfill's lawyers had argued that the scientist had been taking the antibiotic, also used to treat other bacterial conditions, to prevent an infection following nasal surgery he received in September 2001.

The newly released documents also show how federal agents tried to link a severe outbreak of anthrax in 1979 and 1980 in Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia) to Hatfill, because he served in a then-Rhodesian military unit in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Washington Post reported today. Although the details of Hatfill's Rhodesian military service are unclear, he began living in that country following his time as an enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army.

The New York Times reported yesterday that the documents show that Hatfill also told an acquaintance that it would take a "Pearl Harbor-type attack" to convince the United States of the bioterrorist threat, and that he kept a substance resembling simulated anthrax in his apartment, where investigators seized biological equipment, glass laboratory slides, plastic tubing and a gun silencer.

With help from researchers at Sandia National Labs in New Mexico and in other locations, the federal government in 2002 learned that the anthrax spores used in the mailings most likely were not delivered by international terrorists, a revelation that  prompted them to turn their attention to U.S. scientists with access to the bacteria.

The feds were closing in on Ivins when he died, reportedly committing suicide August 1 by ingesting massive amounts of prescription Tylenol with codeine. Ivins had worked for 18 years at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick. Investigators were planning to charge Ivins with bioterrorism at the time of his death. Within a week of Ivins's death, the U.S. attorney for Washington exonerated Hatfill from any involvement in the mailings.

(Image courtesy of iStockphoto)

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