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Consumer Reports

Did he do it? FBI intensifying interest in bio-war expert thought involved with the anthrax letters | (UPI) Fifteen months after a series of anthrax-laced letters killed five Americans, the FBI again intensified its acknowledged interest in bio-war expert Stephen Hatfill, conducting a search of a Maryland state park and openly tracking him around Washington streets, despite emerging concern over their methods.

Hatfill told United Press International in an interview last week that beginning on Dec. 17, shortly after the FBI completed a search of Gambrill State Park in Maryland believed linked to him, he was subjected to day and night surveillance by unmarked vans and cars. He said the agents had nearly run into his car at times as he drove on Washington's Beltway, following him during such mundane missions as meeting a friend to pick up a container of homemade soup.

"The cars were on my bumper," Hatfill told UPI.

Hatfill said he has no connection with the anthrax letters and has tried to cooperate with the investigation. He has not been charged with a crime or named a suspect or been called before a federal grand jury, but early last summer the FBI began making searches of his apartment in Rockville, Md., family storage space in Florida and the apartment of his girlfriend in the Washington area. The searches were highly publicized and the FBI was accused of leaking information on their efforts to the press.

When asked at the time why the FBI was conducting these searches, a spokesman at their headquarters confirmed he was a "person of interest," to the bureau. Later Attorney General John Ashcroft used exactly the phrase in a news conference that was broadcast around the world.

On Monday, the FBI field office in charge of the investigation declined to comment on whether Hatfill was still a "person of interest," or on the new surveillance of him and the search of the state park.

Many former FBI agents and federal prosecutors claim that there is no legal meaning to the phrase "person of interest" within the FBI and that it unfairly raises suspicion about someone without evidence. In October, Sen. Charles Grassley, D-Iowa, inserted himself into the case asking the Justice Department what the phrase meant. An assistant attorney general at the Justice Department responded in a letter dated Nov. 4, 2002, that there was "no formal definition" for the term and that it is "commonly understood to refer to an individual whom law enforcement officials seek to question."

The phrase was applied to Hatfill after he had had numerous voluntary interviews with the bureau, he and his associates pointed out.

Hatfill claims the attention by the FBI has "ruined my life." He lost a $150,000 year job with a government contractor, he said, and an appointment to teach about defense against biological warfare at Louisiana State University. He also lost assignments to assist American government and military forces in defending themselves. He has been unemployed for four months and does not believe that he will be able to work in his field of defense against biological terrorism and attack.

Hatfill said he has no idea why there has been a sudden resurgence of surveillance. Pat Clawson, a former television news reporter who has been assisting Hatfill, said he believes the surveillance is so obvious and so provocative that it amounts to harassment.

On several separate evenings, Hatfill and Clawson said, a virtual caravan of cars set out behind Hatfill, some racing ahead while others kept on his bumper. Hatfill believes that his telephone is wiretapped and that the night he received a telephone invitation to meet a friend and get some fresh, homemade potato soup, the FBI agents heard the call and set out after him. He said he believes five cars followed him. He met his friend at a restaurant in Northern Virginia and had an ice tea. While he was in the restaurant two people came in who he believes were FBI agents.

After he picked up the soup and started to leave, he said his friend approached a black Mustang with two men it and offered them his business card, but they refused to talk to him. Later in the evening, after Hatfill returned home, a surveillance car drove past his residence with a video camera openly pointed out the window.

"That's not surveillance. That's harassment," said Clawson.

At no time, Hatfill said, have any of these people identified themselves as law enforcement officers.

The next night, Clawson approached several people sitting in cars near Hatfill's home and took pictures of their license plates. One woman sitting in her car turned her face away to avoid having her picture taken. Later, Clawson said, a Washington Metropolitan Police car with plainclothes officers came by and told him he could not take photos without the woman's permission.

Hatfill and others have said that the FBI has presented no evidence to him privately or in public that would link him and the anthrax-laced letters that were mailed to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy and members of the news media.

Last year, the FBI publicly issued a profile that they had formed of who might have perpetrated the anthrax attacks. Profiling has been severely criticized in several other cases. Hatfill's supporters say the profile does not match Hatfill in several significant features and without any forensic evidence or witness testimony implicating him, the attention to him is unjust.

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© 2002, UPI