Monday, November 17, 2008

Public wins right to see documents in anthrax case

Now that a federal judge has ordered the Justice Department to release documents explaining why investigators suspected Steven J. Hatfill in the 2001 anthrax mailings, we the people could learn why the FBI mounted a dogged pursuit of an innocent man that cost taxpayers nearly $6 million in damages. U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth ruled Monday that the public had a "strong need" to review the documents filed under seal, including the grounds for searching the homes of Hatfill and his girlfriend, according to the Reuters international news service. The anthrax mailings, which were sent to politicians and news organizations shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, killed five people and sickened 17. The FBI focused exclusively on Hatfill for years, even though investigators eventually concluded that another U.S. Army scientist, Anthrax expert Bruce Ivins, was solely responsible for the mailings. Ivins killed himself in July. Early in the investigation, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly identified Hatfill as a "person of interest." In a 15-page ruling, Judge Lambert said the public need outweighed the privacy concerns raised, perhaps ironically, by the Justice Department. "In this case, the public has a strong need for access to the documents at issue," Lambert wrote. "As conceded by the government, the anthrax investigation was one of the most complex, time-consuming and expensive investigations in recent history. As a result, American citizens have a legitimate interest in observing and understanding how and why the investigation progressed in the way that it did." The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times that sought access to the documents. Hatfill sued the government for violating his privacy rights and was awarded $5.85 million in a settlement in June.

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