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Feds granted more time in Hatfill suit

Government seeks dismissal of defamation action

From Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau

Justice Department
Steven J. Hatfill
John Ashcroft

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal judge gave the government another six months before it must prepare for trial in bioweapons scientist Steven Hatfill's defamation lawsuit over its investigation of him in the 2001 anthrax attacks.

Hatfill alleges he is the victim of a coordinated and systematic pattern of conduct designed to intimidate and punish him.

"They've branded him with a badge of infamy," Hatfill attorney Nick Bravin told the court during a two-hour hearing on the government's request to throw out the suit against U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and other officials.

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton ruled "with reluctance" that the government would have until at least early October to pursue unimpeded what he called "a highly complicated process."

Government scientists are attempting to determine the source of the anthrax sent in letters through the U.S. mail that is believed responsible for killing five people and sickening 17 others in the fall of 2001.

"At some point I'm going to say enough is enough, but I don't think that point has occurred yet," Walton told lawyers at the conclusion of the hearing.

The judge said he would issue his formal written ruling "as soon as possible" on the government's motion to dismiss the suit.

Walton signaled he would tentatively allow the case to proceed in a limited fashion, granting Hatfill's attorneys the right to pursue evidence from third parties to the case, such as news organizations.

Hatfill, who denies any involvement in the anthrax attacks, is suing Ashcroft for damages for publicly declaring Hatfill was "a person of interest."

But Walton appeared generally not persuaded that Ashcroft's comment was defamatory.

"He didn't say he committed the crime. He just said he was a person of interest," the judge said.

Bravin said the comment amounted to "a clear implication this is the guy who did it."

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bucholtz insisted Ashcroft was merely responding to a question about whether Hatfill was a "subject" or "target" of the investigation.

Bucholtz said Ashcroft actually discouraged the notion by saying only Hatfill was "a person of interest."

Walton signaled reluctance to take up Hatfill's complaints that federal investigators had been too intrusive.

He agreed with government attorneys that the court should not decide "how many agents are too many" and "how close is too close" during government surveillance.

"I'm not going to micromanage this investigation," Walton said.

The FBI had a 24-hour surveillance and wiretaps on Hatfill for several months following the attacks.

In a May 2003 incident on a Washington street, a vehicle trailing him ran over his foot. Hatfill was not seriously injured, and the scrutiny was cut back. (Full story)

"We're not asking for micromanagement here," said Hatfill lawyer Mark Grannis. "We're asking for our day in court to cover abuses that have already occurred."

Hatfill is seeking unspecified monetary damages and wants to clear his name. (Full story)

He says the Justice Department got him fired in September 2002 from a job at Louisiana State University helping train first responders to a bioterrorism attack. He claims he hasn't been able to find work in his field since.

The firing came after a Justice Department official sent an e-mail to the program director directing him not to use Hatfill on any Justice Department-funded programs; the program Hatfill was working on was one such program.

Walton told the lawyers he is concerned about the impact of the government's involvement in Hatfill's dismissal.

"I'm not unsympathetic to Mr. Hatfill's situation," Walton said. He noted the limited field of bioweapons research and the predominance of government funding for such projects.

"At least by implication, he's disbarred," the judge said. "Nobody's going to hire him," he suggested.

Hatfill once worked as a bioweapons researcher at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. He was not assigned to work with anthrax.

Investigators searched his apartment in Frederick at least three times and later drained a pond eight miles away as part of the probe. (Full story)

Officials said at the time they found no evidence connecting anything found in the pond to anthrax or the anthrax attacks. They also said there is no evidence linking any individual to the deadly anthrax letters.

Hatfill sat quietly through the hearing and avoided news reporters awaiting his departure.

"We don't want a dog-and-pony show here. That's the very kind of thing we're seeking to avoid," said Hatfill lawyer Tom Connally.

Walton told government attorneys to privately provide him with an update on the anthrax investigation on July 6. He set a hearing for October 7.

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