Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - The FBI admitted Thursday that a phrase it used to characterize the targets of prominent investigations has no defined meaning and that there are no official guidelines on its use. But the bureau denied it was trying to use the media to pressure a potential suspect.
A leading member of the Senate Judiciary Committee is pleased with the agency's candor, but not with its answers to his questions.
It was June 25, 2002 when the FBI got permission from former government bio-weapons expert Steven Hatfill to search his apartment in connection with the investigation of anthrax mailings that eventually killed five people. The bureau found nothing. Not convinced, investigators returned Aug. 1 with a search warrant. They again found nothing.
That did not, however, stop U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft from repeatedly identifying Hatfill to reporters and network television audiences as a "person of interest to the Justice Department."
Hatfill held two news conferences, against the advice of his attorney, to repudiate the "sort of" charges.
"I want to look my fellow Americans directly in the eye and declare to them, I am not the anthrax killer. I know nothing about the anthrax attacks. I had absolutely nothing to do with this terrible crime," Hatfill said Aug. 25.
"This assassination of my character appears to be part of a government-run effort to show the American people that it is proceeding vigorously and successfully with the anthrax investigation," he continued. "My life is being destroyed by arrogant government bureaucrats who are peddling groundless innuendo and half information about me to gullible reporters who, in turn, repeat this to the press under the guise of news."
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) - a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Justice Department - wrote Ashcroft Sept. 18 to determine what procedures the Justice Department had followed and what evidence it had examined in assigning the label, "person of interest," to Hatfill. Grassley received a response Thursday, from Assistant Attorney General Daniel Bryant.
"There is no formal definition for the term 'person of interest' to our knowledge, although we think that it is commonly understood to refer to an individual whom law enforcement officials seek to question in connection with a particular matter," Bryant wrote. "There is no formal or written federal policy governing the use of this term."
Bryant also responded to Hatfill's charge, that the Justice Department's use of the label was an attempt to deflect criticism of its fruitless investigation.
"The phrase was never used by the FBI or the Department of Justice to draw media attention to Dr. Hatfill," Bryant wrote. "On the contrary, the phrase was used to deflect media scrutiny from Dr. Hatfill and to explain that he was just one of many scientists who had been interviewed by the FBI and who were cooperating with the anthrax investigation."
Hatfill has completed his doctoral thesis, but not the actual degree and is frequently misidentified as "Dr. Hatfill" by both media outlets and government officials. He has publicly corrected the mistake on a number of occasions.
Grassley, in his Sept. 18 letter, also expressed his concern about the potential use of the phrase in the future.
"It is important that the government act according to laws, rules, policies and procedures, rather than make arbitrary decisions that affect individual citizens," Grassley wrote. "Does the DOJ/FBI intend to continue to publicly name individuals 'a person of interest?'"
Bryant noted that federal officials had used the term in connection with the Sept. 11 terrorist attack investigation, and would continue to do so.
"The department, including the FBI, will continue to provide information in matters of significant public interest," Bryant wrote.
But part of Bryant's justification for that decision seems to support Hatfill's contention, that the Justice Department named him a "person of interest" to convince the public progress was being made in the investigation.
"Our efforts in this regard are informed by concern for the confidentiality of our investigations, the privacy interests of the individuals who may be involved," Bryant concluded, "and the public's understandable need for reassurance that law enforcement is taking all appropriate steps to investigate criminal misconduct."
Grassley said he appreciates the Justice Department's responses to his questions.
"I also appreciate the department's candidness that the action regarding Mr. Hatfill and his employment is unprecedented, and that there is no formal policy, level of evidentiary standard, procedure, or formal definition for the term 'person of interest,'" Grassley said. Government agencies need to be mindful of the power they wield over individual citizens, and should exercise caution and good judgment when they use that power."
Because of the ongoing criminal investigation, Grassley said he would reserve further comment because he cannot "have a fully-informed opinion about these matters."
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