WASHINGTON -- A federal judge decided on Monday to make public sealed court records relating to a former U.S. Army scientist who initially was named as a person of interest in the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks and later cleared.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth ruled in favor of The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times newspapers, which sought the search warrants and other related documents involving Steven Hatfill.
FBI investigators initially focused for years on Hatfill. He was never charged and the Justice Department agreed in June to pay him $5.85 million to settle his lawsuit claiming government officials had violated his privacy rights.
The FBI and Justice Department said in August that another U.S. Army scientist, Bruce Ivins, an anthrax expert who killed himself in July, was solely responsible for mailing the anthrax-laced letters to politicians and news organizations shortly after the September 11 attacks.
The mailings killed five people and sickened 17.
After the attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft identified Hatfill as "a person of interest" in the investigation, and the FBI searched Hatfill's residence.
Lamberth in a 15-page ruling rejected the Justice Department's argument that Hatfill's generalized privacy right to get on with his life outweighed the public's right to access to the documents.
"In this case, the public has a strong need for access to the documents at issue. As conceded by the government, the anthrax investigation was one of the most complex, time-consuming and expensive investigations in recent history," he wrote.
"As a result, American citizens have a legitimate interest in observing and understanding how and why the investigation progressed in the way that it did," Lamberth said.
The judge ruled that documents involving the search of the Washington apartment and car of Hatfill's girlfriend, Peck Chegne, should also be made public.
He said the Justice Department can delete from the sealed documents limited parts that would reveal the identity of a confidential informant.
© Thomson Reuters 2008 All rights reserved