Anthrax Persecution

15:39 Thu 22 Apr 2010
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You may remember the antrax mailings of late 2001. From 2002 to 2006, the FBI seems to have spent much of its time focusing on Steven Hatfill, who was later dropped as a suspect. However, while investigating Hatfill, they also apparently waged a campaign of harassment against him, as detailed in “The Wrong Man”.

Hatfill was able to sue the Justice Department (and others) for ruining his reputation, gaining a $5.82 million settlement. So from that perspective it appears that “the system worked”, with Hatfill able to gain compensation for the damage done to him. However, he had to undergo years of was is clearly persectution first. Furthermore, there are two things outlined in the article that I find particularly disturbing. The first is government interference in his work life:

Hatfill was fired from SAIC. The official explanation given was that he had failed to maintain a necessary security clearance; the real reason, he believes, was that the government wanted him fired. He immediately landed the associate directorship of a fledgling Louisiana State University program designed to train firefighters and other emergency personnel to respond to terrorist acts and natural disasters, a job that would have matched the $150,000 annual salary he’d been getting at SAIC. But after Justice Department officials learned of Hatfill’s employment, they told LSU to “immediately cease and desist” from using Hatfill on any federally funded program. He was let go before his first day. Other prospective employment fell through. No one would return his calls. One job vanished after Hatfill emerged from a meeting with prospective employers to find FBI agents videotaping them.

—David Freed. “The Wrong Man”. The Atlantic, May 2010.

Now, one could look at this and claim it makes sense, that if the Justice Department are sure he was responsible for the attacks, they couldn’t in good conscience have him drawing a salary originating in federal funds. And once you start down that path, why let him get paid by anyone?

Of course, the problem is pretty clear: what if they’re wrong? This is the whole reason why a “justice system” exists, to try to ensure that people are only punished if they’ve actually committed crimes. Furthermore, the justice system is supposed to be the entire manager of that process—that is, if it punishes someone, that should be their total punishment, and additional other punishment (such as being prevented from working) should be unnecessary.

One would ideally hope that the Justice Department as a whole, and the individuals working within it, would have some clue about this. Instead, they applied pressure to prevent Hatfill from working, which seems awfully like extra-judicial punishment to me.

It should be clear how dangerous that is. Allowing government officials to apply such pressure without having to prove anything is a recipe for abuse.

The most disturbing incident in my view, however, is this one:

[...] FBI agents in a Dodge Durango, trying to keep up with them, blew through a red light in a school zone with children present. Hatfill says he got out of his car to snap a photo of the offending agents and give them a piece of his mind. The Durango sped away—running over his right foot. Hatfill declined an ambulance ride to the hospital; unemployed, he had no medical insurance. When Washington police arrived, they issued him a ticket for “walking to create a hazard.” The infraction carried a $5 fine. Hatfill would contest the ticket in court and lose. The agent who ran over his foot was never charged.

—David Freed. “The Wrong Man”. The Atlantic, May 2010.

I find this even more disturbing because the injustice is so apparent, because there is no excuse for this whatsoever, because the lack of accountability borders on the insane, and because of the apparent immediate (and instinctive) collusion by the various authorities involved.

Even if Hatfill had been responsible for the anthrax attacks, it would still have been both wrong and illegal for FBI agents to run over his foot. Since no proof of his being the anthrax mailer seems to exist, that makes him an innocent citizen, and innocent citizens shouldn’t suffer random assaults by government agents.

Now, when the Washington police showed up, their actions are profoundly wrong. This is compounded by the fact that Hatfill would lose the case in court. While it’s vaguely possible that he bore some responsibility for getting his foot run over, the driver’s culpability is almost guaranteed to be greater… and the driver was never charged. It seems unlikely that this would have been the case if they hadn’t been an FBI agent.

Hatfill’s comment on this? “This is a police state. The government can pretty much do whatever it wants.” Not 100% true—else he wouldn’t have been able to sue for a settlement—but far, far closer to the truth than most people would care to admit.

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