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Newspapers seek government documents in anthrax inquiry

November 12, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Two newspapers asked a federal judge Wednesday to make public several documents relating to a former Army scientist at Fort Detrick who was named as a person of interest in the 2001 anthrax attacks and later exonerated.

The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times want the government's search warrants and supporting documents involving Stephen Hatfill, who was eventually cleared in the anthrax attacks and was awarded $5.8 million in a lawsuit accusing the Justice Department of violating his privacy.

Normally, search warrants would be sealed for a person who has not been charged or indicted, lawyers said. But the public has a right to know why investigators wanted to search Hatfill's home and on what basis the courts agreed to allow those searches, the newspapers argued in U.S. District Court.

"The public has a right to know why he was targeted," said Jeanette Melendez Bead, lawyer for the newspapers.

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Five people were killed and 17 sickened when anthrax was mailed to Capitol Hill lawmakers and members of the media just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

After the attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft identified Hatfill as "a person of interest" in the investigation. An FBI search of Hatfill's apartment was televised live. Hatfill worked at the Army's infectious diseases laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., from 1997 to 1999.

Bruce Ivins, the Army scientist eventually accused of carrying out the 2001 anthrax attacks, committed suicide in July as prosecutors prepared to charge him in the anthrax attacks.

Government lawyers argued Wednesday that Hatfill's right to privacy trumps the people's right to know in this case. "At some point, enough is enough," government lawyer Rachel Carlson Lieber said.

The newspapers also want documents involving the search of the Washington apartment of Hatfill's girlfriend, Peck Chegne.

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