FBI agents investigating last fall's anthrax attacks searched the Frederick, Maryland, apartment of Steven J. Hatfill, a former U.S. government bio-defense scientist, this past Tuesday. Hatfill is not a suspect in the anthrax case, the FBI says. Rather, law-enforcement officials have told The Associated Press that Hatfill consented to the search in order to clear his name, which The New York Times reports has been much mentioned on Web sites frequented by scientists, journalists, and others who've taken an interest in the anthrax investigation.
Tuesday's search of Hatfill's home by the FBI was reportedly not the first time the bureau has had contact with him in the course of its ongoing investigation. Sources close to the investigation say that he had been questioned on four previous occasions by FBI investigators, and that he'd been given, and passed, a polygraph exam. These sources also say that Hatfill has always been very cooperative with the bureau.
Who is Steven Hatfill? The Prospect has spoken with dozens of biowarfare scientists, other government contractors who work in bio-defense, former medical school associates and colleagues, and sources close to the FBI investigation to get a clearer picture of the Maryland scientist. Hatfill belongs to a small pool of people who have access to and detailed knowledge of how to grow and weaponize the highly lethal, concentrated dry powder spores of anthrax that were sent in letters to media personalities and members of Congress last October. Specifically, by virtue of his government contracts, Hatfill had access to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Frederick, Maryland, up until early March. As one of a handful of places in the country where scientists grow the most lethal germs in order to develop vaccines to defend against them, USAMRIID and its Utah cousin, Dugway Proving Grounds, have been at the center of the eight-month-old FBI investigation. Last month, genetic analysis of the letter-anthrax suggested that it was indistinguishable from a strain developed at USAMRIID.
Hatfill, who was employed as an Ebola researcher at USAMRIID from 1997 to 1999, has since worked as a government contractor who specializes in training U.S. Special Forces, embassy employees, emergency workers, and other government officials to respond to biological attacks. Today, Hatfill continues to perform bio-defense training work, to which his colleagues say he is passionately devoted.
Hatfill's longer biography is riddled with gaps where classified projects presumably belong. The son of a thoroughbred horse breeder, Hatfill was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1953, then raised in Illinois. He studied biology at small Southwestern College in Kansas, taking a year off midway through to work with a Methodist doctor in Zaire. He graduated in 1975, married in 1976, had a daughter, and got divorced in 1978. From 1975 to 1978, he served with the U.S. Army Institute for Military Assistance, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, while simultaneously, his resume says, serving in the Special Air Squadron (SAS) of the white supremacist regime in Rhodesia. He attended medical school in Rhodesia from 1978 to 1984, and then moved to South Africa, where he completed various military-medical assignments while obtaining three master's degrees, studying for a doctoral degree, and practicing in a South African clinic.
"After graduating from Southwestern College," he wrote his alumni newsletter, "Hatfill received a medical degree from the Godfrey Huggins School of Medicine in Rhodesia, with board certification in hematological pathology from South Africa. The South African government recruited him to be a medical officer on a one-year tour of duty in Antarctica, and he completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Oxford University in England His military background includes the United States Army's Institute for Military Assistance, the Rhodesian SAS, and Selous Scouts [Rhodesian counterinsurgency forces]."
There is something curious about Hatfill's claim, on his resume, to have worked concurrently with the U.S. Army Institute for Military Assistance in Fort Bragg and with the Rhodesian Special Air Squadron. Indeed, several of his associates have told the Prospect that Hatfill bragged of having been a double agent in South Africa -- which raises some intriguing questions. Was the U.S. military biowarfare program willing to hire and give sensitive security clearances to someone who had served in the apartheid-era South African military medical corps, and with white-led Rhodesian paramilitary units in Zimbabwe's civil war two decades earlier? Or did Hatfill serve in the Rhodesian SAS, and later in the South African military medical corps, at the behest of the U.S. government?
In any case, when Hatfill returned to the United States in 1995, he took a research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. A former colleague there describes Hatfill as very bright but restless. He jumped from project to project, becoming increasingly interested in the bioterrorism defense work spearheaded by the U.S. Army lab in nearby Frederick. After Hatfill landed his dream job as a research scientist at USAMRIID in 1997, the former NIH colleague says he rarely heard from him again.
But Hatfill only stayed at USAMRIID until 1999. Why did he leave his dream job so quickly? Certainly, Hatfill did not leave for lack of interest in bioterrorism. On the contrary, during his two-year stint at the laboratory, Hatfill became increasingly invested in the issue.
Indeed, Hatfill has been offering the press warnings about bioterror-attack scenarios for several years. His first high-profile media moment came shortly after April 24, 1997, when an 8-by-10-inch manila envelope oozing red gelatinous goo was delivered to the offices of B'nai B'rith International in Washington, D.C.. More than 100 employees were quarantined for eight hours in the building on 17th Street and Rhode Island Avenue, while the two workers who had come into contact with the package were stripped to their underwear and hosed down on the street with decontaminating bleach.
The substance in the envelope turned out to be bacillus cereus -- a non-pathogenic cousin to anthrax that is not widely available outside of hospitals and labs. The envelope came complete with a typed, two-page rambling note that included such statements as "the only good Jew is an Orthodox Jew."
A flurry of press attention followed. Among the reports was a piece in The Washington Times by a contributor named Fred Reed. "A sort of terrorism that hasn't gotten a lot of attention, but may yet, is bio-terrorism," Reed wrote in the article, published August 11, 1997. He continued:
A fellow I know is Steve Hatfill, a medical doctor with years of experience in the Third World, and therefore with the diseases to be found there. What would happen, he wonders, if terrorists, with or without the support of governments like Iraq's, tried to use diseases as biological weapons against America? How would they do it? Dr. Hatfill has thought carefully about bio-terrorism. He made some intriguing points. To wit:
There exist at least four reasonably distinct levels of possible biological attack.
The first is the B'nai B'rith variety, in which no real organisms are used.("Hello. This is Abdul. We have put anthrax in the food at Throckmorton Middle School." In fact, Abdul hasn't.) We empty public buildings for bomb threats. How about for anthrax threats? After all, sooner or later one might be real.
The second level consists in the release of real bacteria or viruses, but without the intention of infecting many people. For example, a bad guy might spray plague bacteria around the men's room in the World Trade Center. Probably only a few people would get it, and perhaps none would die -- but it would take only one plague case to shut down the entire building, especially if the bug had been sprayed on several floors.
The same year, Hatfill posed for a photo in his kitchen, decked out in an Army supply gas mask and protective body gear made of white trash bags. The photo appeared in Insight magazine's January 26, 1998, special issue on bioterrorism preparedness. An accompanying caption asserted that a determined terrorist could grow deadly plague harvested from wild prairie dogs, and process the germs using household supplies purchased from a grocery story, nurtured in a broth culture heated carefully in his own oven.
In the same issue of Insight, Hatfill commented on two mysterious 1997 incidents that shut down Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., airports, respectively, due to unidentified gases that made some waiting passengers ill. "Hatfill says these types of incidents could be a form of testing for a possible future terrorist attack -- perhaps next time using anthrax," journalist Timothy Maier wrote in his story. "It could be a simple procedure of slipping a chemical into a paint sprayer, [Hatfill] says."
In all his appearances in The Washington Times, Insight, and other print sources, Hatfill stressed a single, consistent message: The United States is woefully under-prepared for an inevitable biological terrorism scenario. It's a sentiment shared by many of Hatfill's colleagues in the U.S. bio-defense community -- in particular, William C. Patrick, one of the founders of the U.S. biological weapons program.
In January 1999, Hatfill went to work for Scientific Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a large defense contractor. As a specialist in biological defenses working on contract for various government agencies, Hatfill continued to have access to the Fort Detrick lab; the Army's chemical weapons defense testing facility in Edgewood, Maryland; Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah; and other government labs and military facilities depending on his assignments.
While colleagues at SAIC say that Hatfill's clients adored him, some of them grew concerned about Hatfill this February, after The (Baltimore) Sun ran a story -- not mentioning Hatfill -- about a scientist who was seen taking biosafety cabinets from USAMRIID, at the same time that Hatfill lost his government-issued security clearance and consequently his job at SAIC. Why did he lose his clearance? One military official recounts the story he says Hatfill told him. In this telling, the difficulties began last summer, when Hatfill allegedly applied for a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI) security clearance in order to bid for a top-secret contract with a government agency, perhaps the CIA.
To qualify for this clearance, he was reportedly required to take a polygraph test. Hatfill allegedly told the military official that he failed the polygraph on questions concerning his activities in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The people conducting the polygraph were amateurs, Hatfill allegedly complained to his interlocutor; they couldn't understand what Cold Warriors like himself had to do in Rhodesia. The military official recalls Hatfill as saying that his father-in-law had been killed by rebels in Rhodesia, and that he had consequently undertaken some actions that caused concern when he was given his polygraph test.
Hatfill has appealed the loss of his security clearance in a process that is pending. In the meantime, some former SAIC colleagues have gone to the FBI with concerns that nagged them in the wake of October's letters. They have pointed out that Hatfill was in the UK around November 15 for a business meeting at the very place and time from which a little-publicized hoax anthrax letter was apparently sent to Senator Tom Daschle. One colleague recounts specific comments Hatfill made about the mistakes made by the anthrax-letter perpetrator in his or her planning. For instance, Hatfill allegedly said that anyone who knew "how to grow anthrax spores of one to three microns had to know that the hole in an envelope is 10 microns and that the spores would escape."
It's not easy to shine a light into the secretive world of U.S. military bio-warfare defense work. And it's awfully hard to tell suspicious activities from ordinary ones when you're casting about in the dark. For instance, as previously mentioned, in August 2000 scientists at USAMRIID saw Hatfill taking some old biosafety cabinets from a hallway, throwing them in the back of his car, and driving off. Theoretically, the cabinets could have enabled a knowledgeable user to cultivate deadly germs off-site. One scientist reported the incident to the FBI with understandable concern. But a spokeswoman for the U.S. Special Forces told the Prospect that Hatfill was authorized to take the cabinets as props for a then-classified training session, in which he was to show Special Forces how to recognize a makeshift germ lab. The cabinets were destroyed after two demonstrations, the spokeswoman said.
The cabinets episode raises important questions about the concerns some of Hatfill's colleagues have raised. Do they reflect, as some Hatfill acquaintances feared, suspicious actions and statements, or just the musings of an expert during an extraordinary time of public scrutiny in his very field of study? Were Hatfill's colleagues right to be concerned, or were they seized by the mood of paranoia then gripping the nation? By several accounts, Hatfill appears to believe that such speculations and the snooping of journalists cost him his job. Whether the FBI's assertion earlier this week that Hatfill is not a suspect in the case will quiet these suspicions remains to be seen.
You may also like:
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)