Rick Bowmer  /  AP
Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, a bioweapons expert, remains under scrutiny for the anthrax attacks, despite filing a civil suit against the federal government.
NBC News
updated 10/7/2004 6:31:36 PM ET 2004-10-07T22:31:36

Federal prosecutors heard an earful Thursday from the federal judge handling a lawsuit against the government brought by Steven Hatfill, the man publicly identified by Attorney General John Ashcroft as a “person of interest” in the anthrax case.

Hatfill claims the U.S. Justice Department violated his privacy by leaking his name to reporters and harassed him to the point that he can't get a job.  But Thursday the government asked for a delay of at least six more months before any depositions of federal officials can begin in his civil case, saying Hatfill's lawsuit would interfere with its sprawling anthrax investigation.

In court, U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton said he'd consider the request but indicated he thinks the government has stalled already. Hatfill has "the right to vindicate himself, so he doesn't have this taint hanging over his head," Walton said.

In an extraordinary rebuke, Judge Walton, a Republican appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush, took the Justice Department to task for failing to indict or clear Hatfill after nearly three years of investigation.

Thundering from the bench, Walton told a federal prosecutor: "If you don't have enough information to indict this man, you can't keep dragging him through the mud." He added, “That's not the type of country I want to be part of. It's wrong!"

Hatfill was not present in court Thursday. His lawyer, Thomas Connolly, argued that FBI leaks to the media have smeared his client's reputation. A federal prosecutor, Elizabeth Shapiro, said that top Justice Department officials have been trying to stop the whisper campaign against Hatfill. "Leaks have occurred. We don't know who made those leaks," Shapiro said.

Three years have passed since the first anthrax letters were sent through the mail, first to news organizations, including NBC News, then to the U.S. Senate. FBI agents say it's one of their most complex investigations ever.

A spokeswoman for the FBI revealed new figures to NBC News showing the scope of the probe. She says FBI agents have now conducted more than 6,000 interviews, served almost 5,000 subpoenas and searched four dozen separate locations.

In a potentially key new development, the FBI say its agents have now determined that 16 U.S. laboratories actually had the strain of anthrax used in the attacks and the bureau has identified more than 1,000 employees of those labs who had access to it, all of them since questioned.

The most recent analysis, NBC News has learned, has further narrowed the number of potential source labs to four, though officials decline to specify which facilities are on that list.

The FBI remains optimistic that scientific analysis of the spores will help lead to the anthrax mailer, but some experts aren't so sure.

In one sign that there's still a long way to go, the FBI has not yet ruled out the possibility that the anthrax was made overseas.

Jim Popkin is NBC's senior investigative producer. Pete Williams is NBC's justice correspondent.

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