WASHINGTON — A federal court on Tuesday unsealed documents that shed new light on why F.B.I. anthrax investigators spent years pursuing the wrong man, Steven J. Hatfill, who was exonerated by the government this year and received a $4.6 million settlement.
Search warrant affidavits said that Dr. Hatfill filled prescriptions for the antibiotic Cipro, the preferred drug for treatment of anthrax, two days before each of the mailings of anthrax-laced letters in September and October 2001. Under questioning by agents for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he denied taking Cipro at that time, the affidavits said.
The documents report that Dr. Hatfill spoke of serving in a Rhodesian military unit accused of starting an anthrax epidemic in 1979, told an acquaintance that it would take a “Pearl Harbor-type attack” to awaken the United States to the bioterrorist threat and kept an anthrax simulant in his apartment. They said Dr. Hatfill had access to the Ames strain of anthrax used in the attacks while working at the Army biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., from 1997 to 1999.
In August, after the suicide of another researcher who worked at the same Army laboratory, Dr. Bruce E. Ivins, the F.B.I. said it had concluded that Dr. Ivins alone had carried out the anthrax attacks, which killed 5 people and sickened 17 others.
The Justice Department then made public search warrant affidavits laying out circumstantial evidence against Dr. Ivins, including symptoms of mental illness, late hours in the laboratory before the mailings and genetic evidence linking the mailed anthrax to a supply in his laboratory. But no definitive evidence has tied Dr. Ivins directly to the letters or to the site of the mailings in Princeton, N.J., and many of his colleagues and friends have said they do not believe he committed the crime.
The Hatfill search warrant material shows how an accumulation of claims from acquaintances can cast an innocent person in a highly suspicious light, said Mark A. Grannis, a lawyer for Dr. Hatfill. As an example of how innocent details can be made to look suspicious, Mr. Grannis said Dr. Hatfill was taking Cipro, a widely prescribed antibiotic, after sinus surgery in 2001.
Search warrants, Mr. Grannis said, often use hearsay and unconfirmed information to convince a judge that a suspect is worthy of further investigation.
“Whether or not it was right for the government to rely on this kind of information to obtain a search warrant in 2002, we know in 2008 that Steven Hatfill had nothing to do with the anthrax attacks,” Mr. Grannis said.
The F.B.I. affidavits were used to obtain a search warrant in August 2002 for Dr. Hatfill’s apartment and a basement storage room in his building in Frederick, Md., as well as his car and a storage locker he rented in Ocala, Fla. The agency had conducted a search with Dr. Hatfill’s permission two months earlier, but it was considered inconclusive.
In searching Dr. Hatfill’s apartment, investigators seized biological equipment, glass laboratory slides, plastic tubing and a gun silencer, among other belongings, the documents say.
Dr. Hatfill was never charged in the anthrax case, but the searches and government leaks identifying him as a leading suspect drew widespread news coverage. He lost a teaching job at Louisiana State University after officials at the Justice Department, which was paying for the courses, objected to his employment. For months, F.B.I. surveillance teams followed Dr. Hatfill every time he left home.Dr. Hatfill later sued the F.B.I. and the Justice Department for leaking information about him. A separate lawsuit he filed against The New York Times was dismissed and a lawsuit against Vanity Fair magazine was settled.
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