FBI's bullying tactics are growing tiresome

August 29, 2002


Photographs produced Sunday by former government scientist Steven J. Hatfill, purporting to show his ''girlfriend's'' apartment trashed by FBI agents, evoked an uneasy sense of recognition among law enforcement experts. Applying pressure on loved ones of an investigative target is a favorite method by the bureau, and rough treatment in the execution of a search warrant is a familiar application of that pressure.

The problem with the FBI, however, goes beyond strongarm tactics. Since the FBI has affirmed that Hatfill is not a suspect in last year's anthrax murders, why is he subjected to such treatment? Why have the news media been tipped in advance of repeated searches of his home? These unanswered questions spawn unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that testify to the FBI's deteriorating prestige.

FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft will say nothing about what they are up to, and congressional investigators generally get no cooperation in seeking answers from this Justice Department. But the handling of the Hatfill affair has aroused the interest of Republican Rep. Dan Burton, whose investigations have uncovered some of the FBI's unsavory past.

Hatfill has had a checkered career, including service among white mercenaries in Rhodesia. Last year, he lost his government clearance and then his job for undisclosed problems that may have been unrelated to the anthrax attacks. That background, however, hardly justified the media feeding frenzy when the FBI search of his living quarters was leaked.

Hatfill has compared himself to Joseph K., doomed by unspecified charges in Franz Kafka's The Trial. Although no official charges are filed, Hatfill reports FBI agents are indicting him to close friends--especially his unnamed girlfriend. ''Her apartment was wrecked,'' he said Sunday, ''while FBI agents screamed at her that I had killed five people and that her life would never be the same again.''

Neither the Justice Department nor the FBI responded to this, either immediately or when I sought a reply from them this week. Indeed, Kafka is recalled in the attorney general's opaque comments about Hatfill.

Ashcroft was asked on ''The Early Show'' on CBS Aug. 6 whether Hatfill was a suspect. The FBI had said he is not, but Ashcroft replied: ''Well, he's a person of interest. . . . I'm not prepared to say any more at this time other than the fact that he is an individual of interest.''

Veteran FBI watchers suggest the bureau, looking at Hatfill off and on for nearly a year, does not have the goods on him. Law enforcement sources confirm that he passed a polygraph test administered by the FBI last fall.

What the Justice Department and the FBI have in mind here is a mystery. Apparent absence of evidence suggests either incompetence at the level of false accusations in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Park bombing--or something worse. By calling attention to its investigation of the scientist, the FBI invites speculation about an effort to divert attention from the unsolved anthrax case.

It surely bothers Burton, no ACLU zealot but a traditional Indiana conservative. Speaking of the Hatfill case, Burton told me: ''It always worries me when the accusations and investigations are put out in advance of solid evidence.''

The day is long gone when knowledgeable conservatives worship at the FBI's altar. As chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, Burton was stunned when he learned of FBI complicity in the wrongful conviction in 1968 of four men (two of whom died in prison) for murder committed by FBI informants in Boston. To protect these sources, Director J. Edgar Hoover sent innocent men to prison. Before the current congressional recess, Burton introduced a bill to remove Hoover's name from national FBI headquarters.

Ashcroft's Justice Department resisted surrendering FBI files relating to this outrage by claiming executive privilege but gave up after Burton threatened to cite President Bush for contempt of Congress. Ashcroft is even more intractable than his predecessor, Janet Reno, in refusing information to the legislative branch. He is currently stonewalling requests by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, about Justice's administration of the anti-terrorist Patriot Act. Predictably, efforts to get to the bottom of the Hatfill affair will meet the same resistance.