The Justice Department has agreed to pay former Army scientist Steven Hatfill almost $6 million to settle his claims that the government violated his privacy rights during its investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks.
In August 2002, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft named Hatfill as a person of interest in the mysterious mail attacks, which had further frightened a nation still reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that had been carried out just weeks before.
The anthrax attacks left five people dead and 17 sickened after mail containing the toxin arrived on Capitol Hill and at news organizations in Florida and New York.
Hatfill claimed the Justice Department had violated his rights because officials there spoke to reporters about the case. He was never charged in connection to the still-ongoing investigation.
Friday evening FBI officials declined to say whether the settlement officially cleared Hatfill in the bureau's investigation, deferring to the Justice Department. Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse released a statement Friday that said the government "remains resolute in its investigation into the anthrax attacks," but noted, "By entering into this agreement, the United States does not admit to any violation of the Privacy Act and continues to deny all liability in connection with Dr. Hatfill's claims."
The terms of the settlement require the Justice Department to pay $2.825 million "in cash to plaintiff and his attorneys, to be apportioned between them as they agree," and a $3 million annuity that will pay Hatfill $150,000 per year for 20 years.
Attorney Mark A. Grannis released a statement on behalf of Hatfill's legal team, eviscerating government officials and the media.
"Our government failed us, not only by failing to catch the anthrax mailers but by seeking to conceal that failure," the statement said. "Our government did this by leaking gossip, speculation and misinformation to a handful of credulous reporters.
"The collusive relationship between unethical officials and uncritical reporters, which caused such great damage to Dr. Hatfill's personal life and professional reputation, must not be treated by journalists as if it were a respectable method of newsgathering," the statement added.
Hatfill now conducts most of his research independently, and the settlement money will help him to carry out his work, according to the statement.
As for the ongoing investigation into the attacks, called Amerthrax, the FBI has served 75 search warrants, conducted more than 9,100 interviews and served in excess of 6,000 subpoenas to date.
According to the FBI, the anthrax task force is currently comprised of 17 FBI special agents and 10 U.S. Postal Service inspectors.
The bureau has not commented extensively on the investigation, but in the fall of 2006, FBI scientist Doug Beecher, a member of the bureau's Hazardous Materials Response Unit based at the its laboratory at Quantico, Va., wrote in an article indicating that no specialized equipment or specialized knowledge of bioengineering was needed to pull off the 2001 attacks.
Beecher's article, which appeared in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, is a rare example of the FBI disclosing information on the anthrax investigation.
On Friday evening, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jason Pack told ABC News, "It is still an active investigation; we are committed to solving it."
In April, FBI Director Robert Mueller said at a press conference, "I have confidence that will be resolved."
According to Homeland Security officials, President Bush occasionally asks how the investigation is proceeding during his morning intelligence briefing.