For more than two years, Steven Hatfill has lived life in legal limbo. Publicly branded a “person of interest” in the anthrax case, he’s never been charged with any crime. Now Hatfill is striking back, in a libel lawsuit against one of his many armchair accusers.
Court documents show that Hatfill has filed suit against Donald Foster, an English professor at Vassar College who wrote about Hatfill in the October 2003 issue of Vanity Fair. Hatfill claims Foster and other defendants defamed him by leaving “no doubt in the minds of reasonable readers that he was imputing guilt for the anthrax attacks (as well as some anthrax hoaxes) to Dr. Hatfill.” The lawsuit seeks $10 million in damages and, along the way, makes folly of a novel investigative tool called “literary forensics.”
In the fall of 2001, someone mailed anthrax-laced letters to two U.S. senators and to a number of media organizations, including NBC News. The finely milled anthrax spores were remarkably buoyant, and five people who inhaled them were killed.
Foster's ‘literary forensics’
Enter Donald Foster. A practitioner of “literary forensics,” Foster is perhaps best known for fingering the author of the political novel “Primary Colors.” Foster is skilled at identifying the authors of anonymous texts by examining word usage, grammar, punctuation and slang. His usual suspects, he jokes, are dead poets — Shakespeare and Wordsworth. But in October 2001 the FBI contacted the English professor to examine some documents in the growing anthrax investigation.
Foster eagerly jumped in, examining letters the FBI sent him and then snooping around on his own. “I searched for stories of past so-called hoaxes — and uncovered a trail of seemingly related biothreat incidents,” he writes. After months of Internet research and collaboration with molecular biologist Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, Foster says he became interested in virologist Steven Hatfill: “Steven Hatfill was now looking to me like a suspect, or at least — as the FBI would denote him eight months later — ‘a person of interest.’ When I lined up Hatfill’s known movements with the postmark locations of reported biothreats, those hoax anthrax attacks appeared to trail him like a vapor cloud,” Foster writes in Vanity Fair.
One example Foster cites took place in August 1998, in Wichita, Kan., when someone spread powder throughout several floors of the Finney State Office Building. Without presenting evidence that Hatfill was anywhere near Kansas in 1998 or that his handwriting matched that of the author of an anonymous letter later taking credit for the threat, Foster seems to draw a link. He notes that the Finney building is “40 miles southeast of Southwestern College, Hatfill’s alma mater.” Hatfill graduated from Southwestern in the 1970's.
Hatfill’s legal response
“Each of these implied accusations is false,” Hatfill's lawsuit states, and the article “betrays complete inattention to even a rudimentary sense of balance or fairness toward Dr. Hatfill.”
The lawsuit also attacks comments made prior to publication of the article, that suggest Foster at first believed a foreigner was responsible for the anthrax mailings. In a Dec. 26, 2001, article in The Times of London, for example, Foster says: “It is my opinion that the documents are at least compatible with that of a foreign speaker of Urdu or Arabic — although it's quite possible that it's someone using it as a smokescreen. There are some other indications that this person may be a Pakistani.”
The suit concludes that Foster failed to mention any contradictory statements in the Vanity Fair piece “because Foster’s purpose was to portray ‘literary forensics’ as a valuable technique and Don Foster as a skilled practitioner of that technique.” It takes Vanity Fair’s editors to task for not challenging Foster’s methodology and conclusions: “When a professor of English literature says that he has identified a criminal who has eluded the FBI for two years, deep skepticism is warranted.”
Foster concedes in Vanity Fair that when the FBI first approached him, “I was perfectly willing to believe that the anthrax was ‘garden variety’ and that it had been sent by Muslim extremists.” He changed his mind, he writes, after plotting Hatfill’s travels next to the delivery dates of several suspicious hoax letters, reading old interviews of Hatfill in which he warned how easy it would be to carry out a biological attack and after reviewing Hatfill’s unpublished novel, "Emergence." The novel, Foster writes, revolves around an Iraqi virologist who launches a bioterror attack on the United States.
The coincidences are too much for Foster, as is the FBI’s incompetence in the case. He writes: “I have worked with the FBI for only six years, on no more than 20 investigations. But never have I encountered such reluctance to examine potentially critical documents.” Foster concludes that Hatfill is not being unfairly targeted like Richard Jewell, an early FBI suspect in the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta. The FBI is on the right track with Hatfill, Foster writes, referring to the unemployed scientist as “my suspect.”
Don Foster is out of the country and did not return a phone message. His lawyer would not comment to NBC News. A separate lawyer representing Conde Nast Publications, which publishes Vanity Fair, stands by the story. “We intend to vigorously defend the story,” the lawyer tells NBC News, adding that Conde Nast has until Oct. 20 to file a response to the suit in federal court.