Friday, June 27, 2008

Civil Liberties are indispensable because sometimes the government gets it wrong

Does anyone remember the anthrax attacks that happened in the weeks following the attacks of September 11, 2001? I sure as hell do, because literally everyone in my line of work (clinical laboratory sciences) got looked at very closely. We will not soon be forgetting how quickly we became suspect after our decades of service to the public and, in many, many cases, service in the military in the Medical Officer Corps.

The government really dropped the ball on that one and still haven't caught the culprit(s). They did manage to ruin the life and career of one academic, though. Now they have settled with him, to the tune of $5.8 million dollars.

The Justice Department on Friday agreed to pay more than $5.8 million to Steven Hatfill, the former government scientist once branded by the Justice Department a person of interest in the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001. The legal settlement to Hatfill, in cash and an annual payments, signals the end of a civil lawsuit Hatfill brought against the Justice Department and FBI, accusing them of violating his privacy rights by improperly leaking sensitive information about the anthrax investigation to reporters.

"I think it's a gratifying end to a very sad chapter in [Hatfill's] life and that of the FBI and DOJ,” said Hatfill’s lawyer, Thomas Connolly, of the Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis law firm in Washington, D.C. “I'm hopeful that the settlement is punitive enough that they will learn their lesson" regarding the treatment of future suspects in high-profile criminal cases, he told NBC News.

The settlement language tries to give the government a figleaf by stating that it "should not be construed as an admission of liability or fault on the part of the FBI or Justice Department" but only an idiot will believe it. Lots of us remember the attorney general naming former Army scientist Steven Hatfill as a "person of interest" in the anthrax attacks, we remember that the FBI agents and Justice Department officials leaked key details about the case to willing reporters, according to depositions provided in Hatfill’s civil suit. The FBI kept the pressure on Hatfill by conspicuously tailing him in public, with one agent in an unmarked car once running over his foot. We also remember the resulting media trial as the first anniversary of September 11 drew near.

Hatfill deserves at least as much compensation as he received. And the government officials who leaked the information should face federal civil rights charges. And I would be saying that even if I didn't take Mr. Hatfill's experience so very personally on so very many levels.

And the fact that the government, spurred on by a 24-hour news cycle that encourages speculation and false accusations, gets it so spectacularly wrong so freakin' often (Richard Jewell, anyone?) is exactly why it is so important to jealously safeguard our remaining liberties.

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