Murky past of a US bio-warrior

Two months ago an Internet search for information about Steven Jay Hatfill would have produced less than a dozen results, confined to scientific research bearing his name.

This week surfers can choose from close on 7000 “hits”, ranging from a 50-page diatribe by the Jewish Defence Organisation—which dubs the American doctor “Steven Mengele” and challenges him to sue for defamation—to reports in French, German, Spanish, Danish, even Vietnamese.

The reason for the sudden surge of data about the 48-year-old former United States government bio-warrior is that he has jumped from being one of 30 “persons of interest” to the main focus of FBI investigations into last year’s anthrax-by-mail attacks, which killed five people.

Amid the details of Hatfill’s life that have emerged since the end of June are links to the right-wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) and service with the former Rhodesian security forces. Last weekend Hatfill and the three Washington lawyers he has hired went public for the first time since the FBI turned its spotlight on him, accusing agents of turning his life into a “wasteland” by deliberately leaking “irrelevant” information about his past to the media and making him the scapegoat for their failure to find the real culprit behind the anthrax attacks.

Hatfill has consistently refused to answer questions from the press.

But while Hatfill and his attorneys were at pains to proclaim his innocence and lash out at investigators, they refused to talk about his past.
Yet it is precisely what he did, when and for whom that have raised most of the questions now being asked.

On August 1 the FBI searched his apartment in Frederick, Maryland, for the third time in seven months. They have also searched the home of Hatfill’s girlfriend and a storage locker in Ocala, Florida, where his parents used to own a stud farm. So far neither the searches nor lie-detector tests or hours of questioning have produced any solid evidence that Hatfill sent letters containing weapons-grade anthrax to US senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy last November, but the circumstantial case is mounting against the man who gave firearms training during the late 1980s to members of jailed AWB leader Eugene Terre’Blanche’s shock troops, Aquila.

Hatfill, who was born in St Louis, Missouri, lived in South Africa for 10 years after qualifying as a doctor at the University of Zimbabwe Medical School in 1983. He claims to have spent 14 months in the Antarctic as a member of the South African research team, that he served the South African Air Force as a consultant flight surgeon from 1991 to 1993, and lists two master’s degrees and a doctorate in molecular cell biology from Rhodes University among his qualifications. Last Sunday, however, his attorney, Victor Glasberg, said Hatfill had submitted a thesis to Rhodes and “thought” he had been awarded the doctorate, but had since learned that this didn’t happen and had amended his CV accordingly.

While working in the department of haematology at Stellenbosch University for three years during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hatfill made no secret of his AWB links, using the Milnerton Shooting Association’s shooting range in Table View, Cape Town, to train members of Aquila. When a colleague recognised Hat- fill in a newspaper photograph of Terre’Blanche surrounded by his uniformed bodyguards, the photo was pinned up on a laboratory noticeboard, “where it remained for some time, and led to Hatfill boasting that he was Aquila’s weapons trainer in the Western Cape”.

Another former colleague says Hatfill alienated a number of staff members in the radio-biology laboratory, because “he always carried a 9mm pistol and constantly boasted about his military past”. Female colleagues particularly disliked Hatfill “because he used to invite them to ‘poke and puke’ parties”. According to Lothar Bohm, professor of oncology at Stellenbosch, Hatfill was unpopular because “he just did not respect other people’s lives or their work or their needs in the lab. He was the kind of person who would go into the labs late at night and take pieces of equipment without asking.”

Edward Rybicki, associate professor in Cape Town University’s microbiology department, said Hatfill would “talk about running around in the bush and throwing grenades in Zimbabwe ... boast about shooting up the ANC’s offices”.

How much of what Hatfill claims is true is open to debate. The exact dates and nature of his activities in South Africa—and throughout his career—are vague and filled with anomalies. His CV is riddled with gaps, suggesting that he is either a liar or that his records have been fudged to hide clandestine activities and account for “missing” periods of time. Even his American military records were censored before being released to the media, and there is growing speculation that Hatfill was recruited by a covert US agency while an undergraduate at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas, in the early 1970s, and worked as a double agent throughout his service in crack units such as the Rhodesian Special Air Service and Selous Scouts, and while in South Africa.

Hatfill emerged as the prime suspect behind the anthrax attacks when the FBI learned in June that he and a colleague, Joseph Soukup, commissioned a report in February 1999 from US bio-terror expert William Patrick III on how a hypothetical anthrax attack could be launched by mail, and how it would best be dealt with. At the time, Hat-fill was working for an American defence contractor, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). Although the report uncannily mirrors the actual attacks following the events of September 11 last year, right down to the amount—2,5g—of anthrax that could be placed in an envelope without causing it to bulge, and specifies the same number of spores and microscopic particle size as were found in letters sent to the US senators, it was not turned over to investigators by SAIC at the time of the anthrax scare.

It was not until June 20 that the FBI obtained a copy of the top-secret report, and a week later agents and bio-hazard teams spent more than a day searching his home, removing computer components and half a dozen black refuse bags of videotapes, books and files. On August 1, armed with a search warrant, the FBI searched the apartment again, along with trash cans outside the building, after receiving unspecified “new information”.

Among the many unanswered questions about Hatfill is why, at least until a fortnight ago, he continued to live in an apartment at Detrick Plaza, a civilian complex inside the security perimeter of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, home of some of the deadliest pathogens known to man. Hatfill worked as a virologist at Fort Detrick only from September 1997 to January 1999, but continued to have access to laboratories there and at another military bio-war facility, Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, until at least March this year. Hatfill claims his work at the institute focused on finding new treatments for the killer Ebola and Marburg viruses, but the FBI says he is one of “only a handful” of scientists who had both access and the detailed knowledge needed to culture and weaponise the highly lethal concentrated dry powder anthrax spores posted to the politicians.

Just two months before the first anthrax victim died in Boca Raton, Florida, last October, Hatfill’s security clearance was cancelled by the US Department of Defence. His employers, SAIC, were given no reason for the sudden withdrawal, and sacked Hatfill as a result. He told former colleagues that he had applied for a higher security rating in order to bid for a top-secret government job, and was required to take a lie-detector test, which he failed “on aspects of his earlier activities in Rhodesia”. Hatfill allegedly complained that the polygraph was carried out by “amateurs” incapable of “understanding what Cold Warriors like himself had to do in Rhodesia”.

Several of Hatfill’s acquaintances said he had hinted over the years at having been involved in the world’s worst recorded anthrax outbreak, which killed at least 180 of more than 10 500 human victims between 1978 and 1980 in the Rhodesian Tribal Trust Lands. The outbreak is believed to have been caused deliberately by Rhodesian security forces with the assistance of the late Professor Bob Symington, head of the anatomy department at the Godfrey Huggins School of Medicine in Harare and father of a crude but effective bio-warfare programme launched against guerrilla fighters and confirmed in recent years by senior ex-Rhodesian military officers.

It was Symington who arranged for Hatfill to study medicine in Zimbabwe and served as his mentor. Although serving at the time as a signaller with US Special Forces, Hatfill went to Zimbabwe in 1976 after spending eight months as a “health assistant” at a Methodist mission hospital in Kapanga, Zaire. In October 1976 he married chief medical missionary Glenn Eschtruth’s daughter, Caroline. In April 1977 a group of Cuban-led mercenaries invaded the mission station from Angola, and while eight Americans were later evacuated unharmed, Eschtruth was executed and buried in a shallow grave. Although his marriage ended after less than two years and Hatfill did not even know his wife had given birth to a daughter, Kamin, until she herself had a son in 1996 and tracked her father down, he often told colleagues his father-in-law’s brutal murder had “caused me to undertake some actions other people wouldn’t understand”. However, when Hatfill told the story he claimed Eschtruth had been killed by “terrorists in Rhodesia”.

Details about Hatfill’s war experiences are shrouded in mystery, starting with the fact that he could not have simultaneously served as a member of the US’s “Green Berets” and two Rhodesian military units without high-level official sanction. US military experts say it would also be “just about impossible” for anyone with known links to the last white regime in Zimbabwe and the AWB in South Africa to have gained employment at Fort Detrick—one of the most sensitive facilities within the US military—unless this, too, was part of an official plan.

Whatever the truth about Hatfill’s background, FBI and media interest have caused his newest employer, Louisiana State University, to suspend him on full pay for 30 days before he starts his next job: training emergency personnel and federal agents—possibly including some of those involved in the investigation against him—on how to deal with a bio-terror attack.

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