WASHINGTON — We thought the FBI's practice of manipulating the news media against its targets had gone out with J. Edgar Hoover, but apparently not. Dr. Steven Hatfill, the germ scientist, has been left to contend with suspicion of involvement with anthrax. That suspicion appears to have been orchestrated by an FBI suffering from a tattered reputation in the war against terrorism.
Dr. Hatfill, who worked in the Army's biological research center in Maryland, was one of many persons questioned by the bureau in its unrewarding search for the mailers of the anthrax letters that killed five people. The FBI stresses that he is not a suspect, only a "person of interest." But twice his home was searched and each time the news media were tipped off in advance, coming with cameras, satellite trucks, and helicopters. The public was left to surmise that he was more than just a person of interest.
Last weekend, Hatfill did something unusual. He launched a retaliatory media strike. He called a news conference to denounce the federal authorities for a smear campaign trying to make him the fall guy for their failure to solve the anthrax puzzle. The FBI denied any such intention.
In the past, targets of FBI media campaigns have found it difficult to respond. Richard Jewell, a security guard at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park in 1996, spotted an abandoned knapsack that turned out to contain a pipe bomb. Before it could be disarmed, the device exploded, killing one person, injuring more than a hundred. Soon, Mr. Jewell was under surveillance, his apartment searched with the media on hand, and he was designated in the press as the FBI's "prime suspect." Eventually he was recognized as the hero, not the villain, of the episode and was left to recover his reputation by lawsuits against his newspaper and television defamers.
Wen Ho Lee, Los Alamos scientist, was under an FBI espionage investigation for 10 years with periodic leaks to the press. He spent 278 days in solitary confinement before the government gave up and accepted a guilty plea on a minor charge. Federal Judge James Parker denounced the FBI and the prosecution for misleading him and made a public apology to the defendant.
Wen Ho Lee's book is titled "My Country Versus Me," and it blames the FBI for the end of his American dream. Whether Steven Hatfill ultimately turns out to be innocent remains to be seen. But he has done what no FBI target has done before: summon the news media to proclaim his patriotism and to put the FBI on the defensive for its manipulation of the all-too-eager media.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.