The anthrax investigation, almost from the beginning, was hampered by top-heavy leadership from high ranking, but inexperienced FBI officials, which led to a close-minded focus on just one suspect and amateurish investigative techniques that robbed agents in the field the ability operate successfully.
I saw it firsthand as one of the FBI agents assigned to the anthrax case and directly involved in the investigation of Dr. Steven Hatfill. While I cannot comment on the guilt or innocence of Hatfill, I think I have a sense of some of the things that went wrong inside the FBI and what lessons can be learned from this embarrassing case.
Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to pay $5,825,000 to Hatfill, whom former Attorney General John Ashcroft once described as "a person of interest" in the investigation into the anthrax murders of seven people in 2001.
The vaguely-worded settlement agreement appeared on the online docket of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on Friday. The original complaint accused several government officials, including Ashcroft, of deliberately leaking information about the criminal probe into Hatfill in order to harass him and to hide the FBI's lack of hard evidence. The written settlement agreement contained no admissions of leaks or wrongdoing by government officials, however.
There are many lessons learned from the missteps in the anthrax investigation. As an FBI agent for more than 20 years with experience on other high profile cases, I was involved in the anthrax investigation along with countless other hard-working, decent FBI agents, federal prosecutors, and investigators.
Lesson One: Stay focused and professional regardless of the atmosphere.
The FBI's motto, "Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity," cannot be ignored, even in times of high anxiety. The anthrax case was unprecedented even in terms of other high-profile cases: two members of Congress, Sen. Tom Daschle (D-ND) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and a prominent member of the television media, Tom Brokaw of NBC received anthrax-laced letters. A letter is also believed to have been mailed to ABC News, where the young child of a producer there was infected, though no letter was ever found.
U.S. Postal employees who handled mail died from anthrax contamination, along with five other people. The mailings took place in the weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks. America's nerves were frayed and the FBI was responding to accusations that it had failed to connect-the-dots that might have prevented the deaths of nearly 3,000 people.
Lesson Two: Let only the most experienced chart the course.
Agents pounding the streets in the investigation were required to give daily briefings of their progress to FBI management, including the director, Robert Mueller. In high profile cases, as information about the investigation passes from one boss to the next, each supervisor weighs in on what investigative actions should be taken next. As the information works its way to the top, each boss adds comments and translates the original information.