Originally created 08/13/02

Hatfill of concern

You want to believe what your government says. You want to think government officials have things well in hand. You hope federal law enforcement agents know what they're doing. You hope against hope they will bend over backward not to hurt one of us with reckless accusations.

Then you remember Richard Jewell.

After singling him out in the investigation of the Olympic Park bombing of 1996, and inciting a near media riot, the Justice Department ultimately sent the former security guard a letter clearing him.

The letter stopped short of apologizing, but that's just as well. How can you apologize for smearing a man?

Pray the same scenario isn't being played out all over again in the FBI's investigation of the mysterious anthrax attacks of last fall.

But at this point, it sure doesn't look encouraging.

Steven J. Hatfill, a former federal scientist, has become a Richard Jewell-like figure in the anthrax case. Agents have scoured his Fort Detrick, Md., apartment twice, among other things, and this weekend he was surrounded by reporters and felt compelled to testify to his patriotism.

Mr. Hatfill claims an FBI agent told Hatfill's girlfriend that "I killed five people and that her life would never be the same."

Hatfill says he passed a polygraph test, and notes that "after eight months of one of the most intensive public and private investigations in American history, no one has come up with a shred of evidence that I had anything to do with the anthrax letters."

For its part, the FBI hasn't even labeled Hatfill a suspect - only one of perhaps 30 "persons of high interest."

The news media's job is simple, really: to tell what they know, when they know it. There's not much getting around that.

Thus, investigators at every level must take the utmost caution. When they mention someone's name in connection with an investigation, they'd better have good reason to do so.

Reckless accusations can be toxic, just like anthrax.


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