Anthrax agents hunt lab equipment in pond
From Kelli Arena
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- FBI anthrax investigators searched a pond in a Maryland state park Thursday for laboratory equipment that may have been dumped there, sources told CNN.
The sources said the FBI received a tip that former U.S. Army biomedical researcher Steven Hatfill may have disposed of certain laboratory equipment in the pond in Gambrill State Park. The park is in a remote area of Frederick County near a residence where Hatfill once lived.
No evidence has been found to support the allegation that something was dumped into any of the bodies of water in the park, according to a source.
Hatfill, who once worked at the nearby U.S. Army biological lab at Fort Detrick, has been called a "person of interest" in the investigation into anthrax-laced letters that were mailed around the nation last year.
Hatfill's spokesman, Pat Clawson, would not say if Hatfill has ever been to the park that's now being searched but he insisted Hatfill has no connection to the anthrax case.
"The FBI can search the planet until hell freezes over but it will find that Steve Hatfill was never involved in the anthrax attacks," Clawson said. "We would just like to know how many searches it will take to get his reputation and employment back."
Hatfill has not been charged in the case and has not been named a suspect.
A statement from the FBI said the searches were in connection with an ongoing criminal investigation.
"It is important to note that based on water, soil and sediment testing already conducted, there is no indication of any risk to the public health or public safety," the FBI said.
Last fall, several anthrax-laced letters were sent to the offices of U.S. Sens. Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont; to TV network news offices in New York; and to a tabloid's newsroom in Florida. Letters may have been sent to other places, as well.
Five people, including two postal employees in Washington, died after inhaling anthrax spores.
Sources have told CNN that Hatfill is one of about 20 persons considered of interest to investigators.
The term "person of interest" was applied to Hatfill both publicly and privately for a period of several months earlier this year by both the FBI and the Justice Department.
In a statement released Thursday, the Justice Department said, "The phrase was used to deflect media scrutiny from Dr. Hatfill and to explain that he was one of many scientists who had been interviewed by the FBI and who were cooperating with the anthrax investigation."
The statement was in response to concerns from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. Grassley thought that Hatfill was being singled out in the anthrax investigation, even though he had never been charged with a crime. The Justice Department admitted "there is no formal or written federal policy governing the use of this term."
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."
Hatfill had also claimed that pressure from the Justice Department had cost him a job that was to have begun in July at Louisiana State University, where he planned to work at a bioweapons training lab funded by the federal government. The university terminated its relationship with Hatfill in September.
The Justice Department said Thursday it "did not order LSU to not employ or terminate the employment of Mr. Hatfill. LSU was free to continue to employ his professional services on any Justice Department-funded program, so long as he was not employed as a subject-matter expert or course instructor."
The Justice Department also said it knew of no person in the past three years who was not allowed to work under such a federally funded program.
Hatfill, 48, has repeatedly said he had nothing to do with last year's anthrax attacks. Investigators have searched his former Maryland home on a couple occasions and Hatfill has provided blood samples to investigators in an effort to clear his name.
No one has been arrested in the case.