A bioterrorism expert who was named by government authorities as a “person of interest” in the 2001 anthrax attacks has sued The New York Times, saying the newspaper ruined his reputation by pointing to him as the culprit.
Steven J. Hatfill filed the lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. He charged that a series of columns by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof was irresponsible by failing to seek, or rejecting, statements of denials from Hatfill.
In several columns in 2002, Kristof faulted the FBI for not actively investigating a scientist he identified as “Mr. Z.” Descriptions of the “Mr. Z” were detailed enough that readers could recognize him as Hatfill and subsequent columns later identified him, the complaint states.
“It was inconsequential to defendant Kristof whether it turned out that his designated culprit was guilty or innocent, how reckless his allegations and insinuations were, or how injurious they were to his victim,” the lawsuit alleges. “What was at issue ... was to help ’light a fire’ under the federal investigators.”
The lawsuit said the newspaper declined to print a letter to the editor and an op-ed article from Hatfill’s lawyer, Victor Glasberg, that responded to the charges, according to the complaint.
A Times spokesman, Toby Usnik, said the lawsuit lacked merit. He noted that Hatfill had already been identified by government authorities as a “person of interest” by the time Kristof’s columns ran.
“While encouraging the FBI to investigate the matter, Mr. Kristof was careful to note that Dr. Hatfill was presumed to be innocent,” Usnik said. “We believe in a case like this, the law protects fair commentary on an important public issue.”
Hatfill also has a lawsuit pending against Attorney General John Ashcroft and other government authorities who named him as a “person of interest.” U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton in Washington is expected to rule soon on a government request to have that lawsuit dismissed.