EXCLUSIVE: How the FBI Botched the Anthrax Case

The investigative experience of managers in the FBI varies widely. Some bosses may have investigated cases like the anthrax case before, but many may not have. Managers with less experience may devalue or over-value investigative techniques in their comments about an investigation. This can result in amateurish investigative techniques being suggested to more experienced agents, and can result in confusion at the top of the chain about the facts. The second lesson from the anthrax case is that only managers with considerable investigative experience should be making the big decisions or communicating with higher-ups.

Lesson Three: A covert investigation is always better than one rife with leaks.

Hatfill accused the FBI of conducting public and constant surveillance of him, including "bumper locking" him in Georgetown, and running over his foot while following him. He also accused several high-level DOJ officials of giving the media advanced notice of search warrants of his residence in Frederick, MD. Further his complaint alleged that he knew he was being wiretapped in his own home.

Common sense and my experience have taught me that anyone who knows they are being wiretapped is unlikely to make incriminating statements. They are unlikely to go anywhere or do anything that will provide agents following them with any further evidence. If a suspect knows that you are coming to search his house, he can destroy evidence. If a public area is going to be searched, and the public is alerted, people can plant evidence or remove it. The best investigations are covert, where the suspect, the media and the public are not alerted.

Lesson Four: Identifying a suspect before the investigation is complete is always a mistake.

On August 6, 2002, former Attorney General John Ashcroft held a press conference and named Hatfill as a "person of interest."

In 1996, Richard Jewel was named "a person of interest" in the Olympic Park bombings case in Atlanta, GA. In the 14 years that have passed, the term "a person of interest" has become synonymous with word "suspect." Public disclosure of the target or suspect of an investigation is forbidden by the FBI and the DOJ in most instances, with Amber alerts being the obvious common-sense exception.

It is also not smart to name a suspect for practical reasons. Once an individual knows he is suspected of a crime, he will change his patterns of behavior. He will be less likely to contact possible co-conspirators. Where a suspect has been cooperating with an investigation, he will stop. While some helpful leads may come in from the public, there will also be many unhelpful leads that agents will have to wade through. Identifying a suspect puts pressure on agents to prove that the named individual committed the offense. This makes it harder to identify and investigate other possible suspects. If later the "person of interest" is cleared of wrongdoing, it is unlikely that they can ever fully reclaim their reputation. That only serves to damage the reputation of the FBI, an investigative agency that still has as its motto "Fidelity, Bravery and Integrity."

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