Judge lets Hatfill seek source of leaks

Secrecy waivers sought at Justice in anthrax case

The Nation

October 22, 2004|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Justice Department employees involved in the investigation of biological weapons expert Steven J. Hatfill will be asked to sign a form waiving any confidentiality agreements with reporters, a move proposed by his attorneys to help determine the source of government leaks identifying him as a suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, who has criticized government officials for leaks about Hatfill, agreed to the unusual request in court yesterday.

"I am not prepared to leave this at a status quo," Walton said. "I believe Dr. Hatfill has a right to his day in court."

Hatfill's attorney, Thomas G. Connolly, would not say how he plans to proceed once the waivers are circulated, except that he hopes to narrow the list of 100 or more Justice Department officials and journalists they might want to interview. He would not say whether he plans to call journalists to testify.

Hatfill, who worked at a biological warfare lab at Fort Detrick in Frederick, has never been charged and has long denied any involvement in the anthrax mailings, which killed five people and paralyzed the Postal Service. He is suing Attorney General John Ashcroft and other government authorities who publicly named him as a "person of interest," saying his career and reputation were ruined. Hatfill also has filed a libel suit against The New York Times related to opinion pieces written by Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist Nicholas D. Kristof.

Under Walton's order, Hatfill's attorneys will make a list of news stories that they want to question FBI and Justice Department officials about, and the government will then circulate the list among employees associated with the Hatfill case, allowing them to sign the waiver if they wish.

A similar tactic was used by the government during the investigation into the leaked identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame. Some journalists in that case agreed to talk about their government sources after the sources waived confidentiality agreements.

Two journalists in that case - Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine White House correspondent Matthew Cooper - have been held in contempt of court and face possible jail time for refusing to reveal their sources.

Walton has shown displeasure with the Justice Department's treatment of Hatfill, admonishing government lawyers from the bench and suggesting that they have moved too slowly.

"If you don't have enough information to indict this man, it's wrong to drag his name again and again through the mud," he said during a hearing this month.

Hatfill's lawsuit accuses the government of naming him to draw attention away from its foundering search for the culprit.

Walton, who reviewed some of the government's evidence in that investigation to determine whether investigators needed more time, offered little hope during the earlier hearing that investigators had made progress.

"Candidly, from my review of the classified information, it doesn't seem to me that anything is going to happen in the near future," he said.

Sun staff writer Laura Sullivan and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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