In a strongly worded letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales demanding an FBI briefing for members of congress on the ongoing investigation into the anthrax attacks five years ago, thirty-three lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle, joined Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., in demanding investigators tell them what they have learned in the unsolved case.
The FBI has, so-far, refused, citing concerns about possible leaks. But the lawmakers say in their letter that the FBI's response - a blanket prohibition against any further anthrax briefings - is out of line. The letter states that FBI agents themselves may have been leaking sensitive information about the case to the news media when a former scientist who once worked at the Army's infectious disease laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., became the focus of the investigation.
"Given recent revelations that FBI agents were the anonymous sources for New York Times stories casting suspicion on "person of interest" Stephen Hatfill, it appears that the FBI may itself be responsible for the inappropriate disclosures of sensitive case information," according to the letter sent today to the Justice Department.
Libel suits still pending
Hatfill, the only person ever publicly identified by federal authorities as a "person of interest" in the case has filed three federal lawsuits.
He has a libel suit pending in Virginia against The New York Times. He has another suit in Washington against former Attorney General John Ashcroft. And he has a third lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court in White Plains, New York against Vassar College professor Donald Foster, Conde Nast Publications, Vassar College and The Reader's Digest Association, which is based in Chappaqua.
Earlier this month, in Alexandria, The New York Times asked a federal judge to dismiss the libel lawsuit, saying in court documents that Hatfill is a public figure because of his visibility in administering bioterrorism programs. Hatfill said the newspaper defamed him in coverage of the 2001 anthrax attacks. Public figures generally have a higher burden to prove defamation.
Columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a series of articles on the anthrax mailings that killed five people. Hatfill said details in the columns, which only referred to an individual as "Mr. Z," provided enough detail for readers to figure out he was the person being discussed.
Dozens of exhibits included in the newspaper's filing made several FBI internal memorandums public for the first time, as well as some e-mails sent to and from Kristof.
The White Plains case is currently in mediation, according to court records. If that fails, it will head toward trial.
And in Washington Hatfill has sued Ashcroft and others and is trying to track down suspected leakers at the FBI and the Justice Department who made him the focus of news coverage regarding the anthrax-laced letters mailed to members of the press and to two United States senators.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton ruled that Hatfill can sue for emotional damage he claims resulted from being accused of masterminding the bioterrorism attacks. Hatfill has not been charged in the anthrax attacks and maintains his innocence.
Last week, Grassley a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, grilled FBI director Robert Meuller on the FBI stonewalling congress about the investigation. In a statement today Grassley said, "In one of the most important terrorism investigations ever undertaken by the FBI, it is unbelievable to me that members of Congress, some who were targets of the anthrax attacks, haven't been briefed for years,"
Information 'vital' for oversight
"As an institution, Congress cannot be cut-off from detailed information about the conduct of one of the largest investigations in FBI history," the lawmakers wrote. "That information is vital in order to fulfill its Constitutional responsibility to conduct oversight."
The letter is signed by members of both parties and members of both chambers of Congress including the outgoing chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the panel's top Democrat and its next chairman, was one of the targets of the attacks in fall of 2001, getting an anthrax-filled letter sent to his office.