June 30, 2008 -- 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.
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."
The vast majority of FBI agents follow this motto and are committed to seeking the truth by all lawful means. When they are handicapped by leaks and managerial failings, it prevents them from doing their jobs and protecting the public. They learned the lessons from the anthrax investigation long before any settlement was ever paid to Hatfill.
Brad Garrett retired from the FBI and is now an ABC News consultant. Garrett obtained confessions from two international terrorists. He was the lead investigator in the Starbucks triple homicide, the Chandra Levy case and was one of the key investigators in the anthrax mailings. Garrett holds a PhD and was the hostage negotiation coordinator for the FBI's Washington Field Office.