The Hunting of Steven J. Hatfill
Why are so many people eager to believe that this man is the anthrax killer?
Sep 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 01 • By DAVID TELL
1 Who is Steven J. Hatfill?
Hatfill is a 48-year-old scientific researcher who specializes in emerging infectious diseases. Various details on his r sum -- to say nothing of a televised FBI raid on his apartment -- have inspired a mini-industry of speculation that he may somehow be implicated in last fall's deadly anthrax attacks. But as we shall see, much of that speculation pretends to be something more: certainty of his guilt, and certainty that in every nook and cranny of his life must be found some blot or scar or mark of the devil that proves his guilt. The evidence of his biography, that which is publicly available, cannot sustain such absolute conviction. But it is an unusual and interesting biography just the same.
Hatfill was born in St. Louis, attended high school in Mattoon, Illinois, and studied basic biology and chemistry at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. After graduating from Southwestern in June 1975, Hatfill served what Newsweek, citing "a copy of his military records," calls "a three-year stint in the Army, stationed in the United States." The Newark Star-Ledger, also claiming to have reviewed his personnel records, says Hatfill remained on some form of reserve or National Guard duty until January 1981, but by all accounts his regular Army active duty ended in the spring of 1978, and a few months later he moved to Africa, where he would live and work for the next 16 years.
Hatfill spent the first six of those years in Harare, earning his medical degree from what is now the University of Zimbabwe. In June 1984, he relocated to South Africa for his clinical internship and residency -- and for a decade's worth of additional study during which he was awarded three master's degrees (microbial genetics and recombinant DNA, medical biochemistry and radiation biology, and hematological pathology) and completed at least some of the work necessary for a doctorate in molecular cell biology. Hatfill finally left Africa in the summer of 1994 and spent a year doing clinical research at Oxford University before returning home to the States for good.
On a postgraduate training fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, Hatfill worked at NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, and other civilian federal laboratories until the fall of 1997. Then he took another two-year fellowship, this one from the National Research Council, to the nation's top biowarfare defense laboratory, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick in Maryland. There Hatfill investigated therapeutic responses to "filoviridae," the family of primate-borne tropical viruses, Ebola and Marburg specifically, that cause lethal hemorrhagic fever in humans. By the time Hatfill's Fort Detrick grant expired in September 1999, he had already undertaken related research at a private-sector laboratory in McLean, Virginia, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), which does federal biodefense work on contract.
SAIC fired him in March of this year shortly after a newspaper reporter phoned the company seeking a response to rumors that Hatfill, whose name had not yet dribbled into public view, was under FBI investigation in connection with last fall's anthrax murders. Eight months earlier, an unrelated CIA polygraph examination -- which reportedly generated unresolved questions about Hatfill's account of his life in Africa -- had led that agency to refuse him the "top-secret" security clearance necessary for certain SAIC projects. And, pending review of that refusal, Hatfill's basic-level "secret" clearance had been suspended, as well. The extent to which this security issue figured in SAIC's eventual decision to fire Hatfill remains unclear, however, and there are indications that SAIC may have been less than fully confident about the move; Hatfill's attorneys say the company later offered him a financial settlement, and the company itself has acknowledged having retained him, following his formal dismissal, as an outside consultant.
In any case, whatever the exact circumstances of his separation from SAIC, that incident alone had no immediately damaging effect on his career as a whole. Hatfill quickly found a new and important job as associate director of the National Center for Biomedical Research and Training at Louisiana State University. And it was to this new job in Baton Rouge that he was preparing a final move when, on August 1, the FBI -- with whose earlier anthrax-case inquiries Hatfill had, by all accounts, cooperated fully -- suddenly executed a court-issued criminal search warrant at his Frederick, Maryland, apartment. The raid was covered live on national television.
No less authoritative a spokesman than Attorney General John Ashcroft has since confirmed, also on national television, that Hatfill is a "person of interest" to the Bureau's anthrax investigation. Hatfill, for his part, at two public press conferences organized by his attorneys, has vehemently denied any involvement in or knowledge of the anthrax murders. Despite those denials, however, the past month's developments and attendant publicity appear to have overwhelmed him. "My life has been completely and utterly destroyed," he says. Most saliently: "I'm unemployed" and "my professional reputation is in tatters." Early last week, having been advised by the attorney general's Office for Domestic Preparedness not to use Hatfill on programs receiving federal law enforcement funding, Louisiana State University took steps to "terminate the employment of Steven J. Hatfill as associate director of the National Center for Biomedical Research and Training," which depends on the Justice Department for 97 percent of its annual budget. Just for good measure, LSU also fired the man who'd hired Hatfill to begin with. University officials deny that these personnel actions were taken in response to instructions from Washington to "cease and desist" with respect to Hatfill, but LSU chancellor Mark Emmert concedes the school's general desire to "fulfill its contractual obligations to funding agencies."
2. Why is Hatfill a "person of interest" to the FBI?
That designation, which has no formal legal meaning or consequence, is not exactly unprecedented in federal law enforcement practice. But it is nevertheless extremely uncommon, and the Justice Department has so far declined to offer any official public explanation for its current application to Hatfill. Nor, apparently, has the department clarified the matter privately to Hatfill's attorneys, whose multiple letters of complaint have yet to win a substantive response. Even when speaking on background to reporters, Justice "sources" routinely defend the propriety of their approach to Hatfill by insisting that he has not received "any more attention than any other person of interest to the investigation." But no other such "person of interest" has ever been identified by name. And one particularly candid FBI official has conceded to the Washington Post that "we're obviously doing things related to [Hatfill] that we're not doing with others. He is obviously of more interest to us than others on the list at this point."
It's possible to fashion a reasonably educated guess about why that might be. Most basically, Hatfill -- along with hundreds, if not thousands, of other people -- fits the FBI's "behavioral analysis" suspect profile, announced as the anthrax investigation was just getting underway last November. (For an extensive and skeptical consideration of that profile, see "Remember Anthrax?" in The Weekly Standard of April 29, 2002.) More precisely, for a window on particular evidence the FBI may believe makes Steven Hatfill uniquely interesting among American scientists with training and experience in agents of biological warfare, we now have at our disposal Newsweek's exclusive report on the Bureau's August 1 apartment search.
The FBI had conducted an earlier, prearranged and consensual search of the place in late June and had apparently come up empty. But during the final week of July, Newsweek says, two things happened that made the Bureau think it ought to try again. First, agents exposed police bloodhounds to a set of "scent packs" which had been "lifted from anthrax-tainted letters mailed to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy . . . hoping some faint, telltale trace of the perpetrator's smell still remained months after the fact." The dogs were brought to a series of locations "frequented" by Hatfill, including a Denny's restaurant in Louisiana, and at each spot, according to "one law-enforcement source," the beasts "went crazy." Around the same time, surveillance teams posted outside Hatfill's apartment building noticed him chucking great lots of stuff into a backyard trash bin and became worried that he was attempting to destroy evidence. These two factors, "the dogs and the dumpster," the Newsweek story suggests, are what prompted the FBI to obtain permission for an involuntary, unannounced criminal search of Hatfill's property.
Inside the dumpster, agents found only innocuous personal belongings that Hatfill explained he was purging in anticipation of his move to Baton Rouge. Inside the apartment, on the hard drive of Hatfill's computer, agents found the draft of a never-published Tom Clancy-like thriller the scientist had once toyed with writing in his spare time. Initial, partial descriptions of the book -- this bit of the story was broken, very excitedly, by a local television station in Washington, D.C. -- made it out to involve a deadly biological attack on Congress with eerie and frightening parallels to the real-life events of last September and October. Subsequent accounts of Hatfill's novel, however, their accuracy confirmed to The Weekly Standard by one man who has read the entire manuscript, suggest a plot centered around mad cow disease and bubonic plague, not anthrax, with no mention at all of pathogenic powders delivered by mail.
Still, there are the bloodhounds, one of whom is reported by Newsweek to have "excitedly bounded right up to Hatfill" on August 1, inspiring an FBI observer to exclaim, "Damn!" The dogs have since become a fixture of news features about the Hatfill case, invariably accorded the status of potentially incriminating physical evidence. Realistically, though, the "potential" here is limited at best, and many forensic experts seem inclined to think it nonexistent. For one thing, Scott Shane of the Baltimore Sun has phoned the managers of all 12 Denny's restaurants in the state of Louisiana, each of whom insists that no such bloodhound search as is recounted by Newsweek has ever been performed on his premises. Furthermore, Shane and the handful of other journalists who have troubled to consult technical specialists knowledgeable on the question all report considerable skepticism about the possibility that any kind of "scent evidence" from the anthrax letters might at this point remain available for use in a police dog's nostrils.
Those letters were mailed nearly a year ago, by a perpetrator who apparently left no trace of his fingerprints and no recoverable sample of his DNA. And, crucially, as Newsweek itself mentions in passing, without elaboration, those letters have been "long since decontaminated." Decontamination (by irradiation) would structurally transform or outright destroy any organic material left on a piece of paper -- like the skin cells or body oils necessary to construct an evidentiary "scent pack." So if the scents supposedly lifted from the anthrax letters were obtained by the FBI after such a decontamination procedure, they are very likely worthless as a tool of identification. And that appears to be the case.
Without exception, news reports from late last year, when preliminary examination of the anthrax letters was still underway, describe a process by which federal investigators first collected all extant bacterial spores for biochemical and physical analysis, next decontaminated the envelopes and Xeroxed enclosures, and only then delivered that paper evidence to FBI laboratories for forensic testing and development. In fact, the FBI more or less admits straight out that it was unable to pursue its standard evidentiary protocols with the anthrax letters until after they'd been permanently altered by irradiation. Posted on the Bureau's informational "Amerithrax Investigation" website is an interview to that effect with Joseph A. DiZinno, chief of the FBI Laboratory's Scientific Analysis Section (www.fbi.gov/anthrax/dizinno/transcript.htm).
Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Justice Department has somehow managed to recover a microscopic trace of the killer's characteristic aroma, where the FBI's sniffer canines have gone barking with the stuff should be interpreted with a measure of caution. History suggests that bloodhound evidence is a feast or famine enterprise. It has sometimes, miraculously, helped track down and save the lives of kidnapped children. But it has sometimes, disastrously, helped track down and falsely accuse an innocent man. In September 1998, a dog named TinkerBelle, her nose full of a "scent pack" very much like the ones employed by the FBI at Hatfill's apartment, led local police to a Long Beach, California, recreation department staffer named Jeffrey Allen Grant -- who on the basis of TinkerBelle's wagging tail was promptly arrested, and advertised throughout the state, as a serial rapist. He would spend three pretrial months in jail before anyone thought to test his blood against DNA evidence retrieved from three separate crime scenes. Grant, it turned out, was not the rapist.
In short: As a bill of particulars against Steven J. Hatfill, the dogs and the dumpster and the dime-store novel are rather less than a bolt of lightning. So federal investigators must have, or must think they have, some further solid reason to make Hatfill a special focus of anthrax-case attention. We do not know for certain what that reason might be. But we have a wide array of would-be reasons to consider, in a variety of combinations. This because, feeling liberated to do so by Hatfill's public outing as a "person of interest," American journalism has lately rushed before the nation's eyes almost every unflattering story and rumor and outr theory that anyone has ever privately advanced against the man -- up to and including the possibility that he has a history of white-supremacist violence.
One would like to think that the FBI long ago tracked down and resolved what's true and false in all this "information." Whether what's true in it actually ties Hatfill to a multiple murder, of course, is another matter entirely.
3 Where does the notion that Hatfill is a racist come from?
Hatfill has lived in two different African countries formerly ruled by white minority regimes, and he appears in the past to have claimed a "military background" or "combat experience" in one of those countries, and "reserve" and "consultant" relationships with the army of the other. What these claims might mean, and what part of them is true, are wide open questions that probably can't and won't be settled until Hatfill comes forward with a clarification. For now, he is operating under an attorney's instructions not to answer media inquiries about his past. So there remains a quite considerable leap of speculation between what is known for certain about Hatfill's student days, on the one hand, and the widely circulating charge, on the other, that he "served in the armed forces of two white racist governments," as New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof has put it. Documentary and testimonial corroboration of this "fact" (sometimes attached to vaguely sourced "suspicions" that Hatfill helped the racists kill black people with germs) is very hard to find, as it happens. And, oddly enough, what little, shaky evidence there is, insofar as anyone ever bothers to cite it, inevitably traces from -- or through, or back to -- an outfit called the Jewish Defense Organization (JDO).
That group's current role as a central clearinghouse of Hatfill demonology is never acknowledged by mainstream reporters who make use of the material -- and for obvious reasons. JDO is located at the farthest, shadowy margins of American public life. It was founded in the 1980s as a radical, breakaway faction of Meir Kahane's already-quite-radical Jewish Defense League (JDL) by a man named Mordechai Levy. And under Levy, JDO has established a long record of scurrilous, sometimes even homicidal attacks on its real or imagined enemies. One day in August 1989, for example, when process servers attempted to present him with legal papers in a libel action brought against the JDO by a leader of the rival JDL, Levy mounted the roof of a Manhattan apartment building and opened fire on his visitors with an automatic rifle, missing the intended targets and wounding a 69-year-old bystander instead. For which crime Levy was sent to prison. More recently, in April 2000, Levy pled guilty to charges of assault after a 12-year-old boy told police that the man had kicked him in the face and testicles.
Levy and the JDO have not yet threatened Dr. Hatfill with bodily harm, though visitors to the organization's website -- every American reporter on the anthrax beat has surely been there -- immediately discover that its top-featured section (www.jdo.org/hatfill.htm) includes a lovingly imagined account of some future day, very soon, when "Dr. Steven 'Mengele' Hatfill," having first "attempted suicide," will be "awakened at 4 a.m. and transported to a cold, damp, and dirty holding cell," then tried, convicted, and given a lethal injection, "just like the lethal injection his former boss, Wouter Basson, gave to hundreds of black South Africans." This and much, much else besides is contained in an extraordinary, 50-some-page, always expanding dossier, "soon to be a paperback book," entitled The Bioevangelist and purporting to prove that "he did it."
To wit: Hatfill is a "Nazi" who "participated in genocide." Hatfill's "mentor" at the Godfrey Huggins School of Medicine was supposedly one Robert Burns Symington, "father of Rhodesia's biological warfare program." Hatfill helped Symington and the "white supremacist regime" start an epidemic of anthrax "in the latter phase of Zimbabwe's liberation war." The White Man having lost that war, Hatfill then took his wares to the "Medical Special Operations Battalion of the South African Army founded in 1981 by Wouter Basson," the Afrikaner regime's notorious biowarfare capo. While in South Africa, Hatfill was a "close associate of Eugene Terre Blanche," head of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement and a convicted murderer. And so on.
Trouble is, nothing in the many, impressive-looking footnotes appended to The Bioevangelist substantiates these assertions. Nothing links Hatfill to Robert Burns Symington. Nothing links Symington to anthrax, and nothing explains how Hatfill, then a first-year medical student with no biochemical laboratory training, could have helped Symington weaponize anthrax spores in the first place. Nothing links Hatfill to a "Special Operations Battalion" in South Africa. Nothing links Hatfill to Wouter Basson. And nothing links Hatfill to Eugene Terre Blanche (Terre Blanche denies the connection) -- except a risibly amateurish South African news-service story, which cites a photograph that no one can find, and an unnamed "former colleague" who says Hatfill once claimed to have run a Resistance Movement training session (whose leader denies that).
Trouble is, too, that transparent innuendo like this -- in sanitized, journalism-school, "some say," "is alleged" form -- has now entered the American news-media bloodstream (thanks most prominently to New York Times columnist Kristof), casting an awful cloud of "racism" over Steven Hatfill's head.
Asked by e-mail for his name, and for additional evidence to buttress his case against Hatfill the "Nazi," the author of The Bioevangelist has sent The Weekly Standard a reformatted version of the same essay, with many additional but entirely peripheral citations, and he has identified himself as A.J. Weberman.
4. Who is A.J. Weberman?
During the 1970s, A.J. Weberman was briefly famous (in certain circles) for having decided, by virtue of extremely close, drug-fueled analysis of the lyrics to Bob Dylan songs, that Dylan was a heroin addict. In an effort to prove the point, Weberman then began collecting . . . things. He took out newspaper classified ads: "If anyone has a sample of Dylan's urine, please send it to me." He once broke into Dylan's home to confront the singer. And, most notably, he developed a habit of going through Dylan's garbage can and publicizing whatever he found. Weberman retains a casual interest in Dylan even today, it would seem. (A Dylan song plays in the background on the JDO Bioevangelist web page, if you have the right browser.) But Weberman eventually suspended his full-time practice of Dylan "garbology," moving on to the trash bins of such as Jackie Kennedy and Norman Mailer. And Weberman then, at some point, abandoned garbology altogether -- and hooked up with Mordechai Levy and the JDO.
It was from the rooftop of A.J. Weberman's apartment building that Levy sprayed lower Manhattan with automatic rifle fire that day in 1989; the two men were named co-defendants in the libel action Levy was attempting to evade. And it was with A.J. Weberman as named co-defendant that Levy and his organization were very recently and successfully sued for libel again -- by a man whom JDO's website had called a "pathological liar" and "psychopath." Six months ago, a Brooklyn, New York, jury unanimously assigned Weberman responsibility for $300,000 of a total $850,000 judgment.
5. A.J. Weberman aside, might Hatfill actually have served a role in the Rhodesian or South African armed forces?
Yes, but the facts are murky and the "racism" now being automatically ascribed to Hatfill in this context is unsubstantiated.
Hatfill first traveled to Africa as a college undergraduate when he took eight months off from school -- at the recommendation of his Methodist pastor, friends say -- to change the bedpans of indigent villagers at a volunteer mission hospital in Zaire. Which is not the sort of thing one would expect to find in the background of a man who, three years later, is supposed to have taken up arms on behalf of Rhodesian white supremacists. Be that as it may, Hatfill next showed up in Africa around the summer of 1978 to begin his M.D. program in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), drawn, those same friends say, by the interest in tropical medicine he'd developed in Zaire, and by the convenience of study in an English-speaking country. Now floating around the Internet is what appears to be a version of Hatfill's curriculum vitae dating from sometime after 1998, and that document refers to "active combat experience with C Squadron Special Air Service" during his medical school years. Also floating around the Internet is what appears to be a biographical sketch Hatfill may once have sent his Southwestern College alumni magazine, which mentions a "military background" in both the SAS and another Rhodesian unit, the Selous Scouts. Finally, Newsweek says that interviews and "military records in Zimbabwe" indicate that Hatfill "did serve in the military in Rhodesia" in some unspecified capacity.
But here things get tricky. Nothing has yet emerged to corroborate Hatfill's association with the Selous Scouts. The Associated Press reports that "sources linked to Rhodesian security forces have no memory of [Hatfill]." A.J. Weberman reports, without explanation or comment, that an "SAS web site" has "denied that [Hatfill] was ever a member" of that squadron. And National Public Radio reports that a forthcoming United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research study by South African expert Chandr Gould will throw "cold water" on any suggestion that Hatfill fought with elite troops of the "white minority government" of Rhodesia -- or had anything to do with an anthrax epidemic. Gould has apparently located and interviewed the man who was Hatfill's direct superior in the Rhodesian army, and that man rejects the notion that Hatfill's duties were at all unusual or important or sinister.
Which stands to reason. Because, though the fact appears to have escaped the attention of everyone else who has so far publicly commented on the subject, by the time Steven Hatfill enrolled at medical school in Rhodesia, the country was no longer governed by a white-minority regime. African Methodist bishop Abel Muzorewa had already taken charge of a biracial transition government, whose majority-black army was fighting a desperate counterinsurgency war against Soviet-bloc-backed guerrillas led by the hideous Robert Mugabe. Before Hatfill's first year of med school was done, Muzorewa had been elected prime minister outright, in a successful popular election protected from violence by the Rhodesian army. And ten months later, in another election, this one highly irregular but also, nevertheless, protected by the Rhodesian army, Mugabe replaced Muzorewa as prime minister and quickly imposed a dictatorship on the newly renamed Zimbabwe. Hatfill would stick around for another four years.
The curriculum vitae alluded to above indicates that while Hatfill was subsequently living in South Africa, which was itself then undergoing a troubled but ultimately triumphant transition to majority rule, he may have been "assigned to" a reserve medical unit of that country's army, and may also have been a "consultant flight surgeon" with an air/sea rescue squadron of its air force. No independent confirmation of these claimed experiences has yet appeared, and nothing more is known about what they might have entailed -- or when, exactly, they might have occurred. It might bear mentioning, however, that Nelson Mandela was president of South Africa when Hatfill finally departed for England and home.
Then, too, it might bear mentioning that some -- or more than some -- of the military adventures attributed to Hatfill could well represent pure fancy or embellishment on his part. Newsweek reports that the U.S. Army Special Forces duty he once claimed on a r sum submitted to NIH was exaggerated; an Army spokesman says Hatfill "flunked out" of Special Forces school after just one month. Relatedly, and potentially more damaging a reflection on his character, the Ph.D. Hatfill listed on that same r sum has never actually been awarded to him for some reason -- though his dissertation research seems incontrovertibly real, having been published and cited in more than one medical journal or report, and though he later took steps to correct his federal personnel records.
Just the same, however discreditable they might be, and assuming that's what we're dealing with here, inaccurate boasts about past accomplishments, even when a man is attempting to secure a government job, are not enough to raise an inference that the fellow is a racist or a murderer.