Who's suspect here?

August 16, 2002

IT COULDN'T be any clearer if novelist Richard Preston had previewed it in his latest bioterrorism thriller.

Any federal investigator trying to unearth the anthrax mailer who terrorized the nation last fall would want to speak with Dr. Steven J. Hatfill.

He's a scientist knowledgeable about anthrax who commissioned a study on the danger of an airborne attack of the bacteria. He has worked at the nation's top biodefense laboratory and described the ease with which deadly germs can be cooked up at home. He has decried the United States' vulnerability to an attack.

Given that profile, who wouldn't take a look at Dr. Hatfill?

But there's a difference between that and exposing someone's life to the harsh glare of negative media publicity in a case that is as sensitive and unsolved as the anthrax murder case is.

The FBI says it is looking at 20 to 30 "people of interest" in the national search to determine who sent the anthrax letters. But no other names have surfaced.

Why? Does the case against Steven Hatfill -- who hasn't been arrested or charged -- mirror the FBI's myopic and mistaken pursuit of security guard Richard Jewel in the Atlanta Olympics bombing case?

Dr. Hatfill and his lawyer would have Americans believe so, and he has so accused the FBI. That's called taking the offensive. His contention that no physical evidence links him to the mail attacks remains uncontested, despite leaks that bloodhounds linked him to the sent letters.

Still, the doctor's background underscores the reasons he's a "person of interest."

He witnessed an outbreak of anthrax while studying medicine in Zimbabwe; a suburb of the capital Harare bears the same name as the fictional school listed in the return address on two anthrax letters. He lost his government security clearance a month before the attacks, and lost his job with a defense contractor because of it. He claimed a doctoral degree and Special Forces training that he never completed. There's enough there to warrant inquiry.

If agents or other government officials are irresponsibly leaking case material to impugn Dr. Hatfill's credibility, then they should be disciplined. And the doctor may be owed more than an apology.

But if investigators are merely narrowing their list of suspects, they should complete the work and arrest the culprit on the evidence needed to prove guilt. That may take longer than Dr. Hatfill or another "person of interest" might like, but the importance of solving this case takes precedence.

The case may not conclude as novelist Richard Preston would have scripted it. But, in the end, it's the integrity of the investigation that must hold up.

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