Steven Hatfill, if indeed he is responsible for the anthrax campaign in the United States last year, is a villainous criminal of the deepest dye, who deserves the harshest punishment the courts can impose.  Yet even if his guilt should be established by some future trial, the way in which the case has been investigated—and especially the role of the media—should still be seen as a deeply sinister abuse of official power.  If Hatfill, however, is innocent, then the official campaign of vilification against him over the past few months must be counted among the most horrendous legal scandals in modern American history.  The only reason we are not speaking in terms of
“McCarthyism” and “witch-hunt” is that the worst media culprits are located firmly on the liberal end of the spectrum, and, as we all know, only conservatives can be guilty of hysterical yellow journalism.

Following the anthrax attacks in the fall of 2001, suspicion immediately fell upon Middle Eastern enemies, above all Iraq, a linkage that made a U.S. attack upon that country almost certain.  Soon, however, federal agencies began publicizing their belief that the anthrax originated within the United States, probably from a “lone wolf” scientist with ultra-right views.  Since this theory immediately took the heat off Iraq, it was wonderful news for administration doves, especially in the State Department.

Over the past year, federal law-enforcement agencies leaked a series of stories aimed directly at establishing the guilt of Steven Hatfill, who had the misfortune to head their list of suspects.  Of course, any story that actually named Hatfill would have been libelous, so the New York Times used a pseudonym, “Mr. Z.”  (Apparently, the name “Josef K” had already been taken.)  On July 2, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published what amounted to a brief for the prosecution.  The story not only argued strongly for the guilt of “Z” in the 2001 attacks but implied his involvement in earlier acts that can only be termed “genocidal.”  Kristof publicly asked the FBI, “Have you examined whether Mr. Z has connections to the biggest anthrax outbreak among humans ever recorded, the one that sickened more than 10,000 black farmers in Zimbabwe in 1978-80?”  Of course, even if Hatfill were arrested, such a claim would never surface in a trial; it would, however, float in the background of leftist conspiracy theory, polluting the minds of any conceivable jury, convincing them that they were dealing not just with a Hatfill but with a Mengele redux.  Have you stopped exterminating your minorities?

By August, the federal law-enforcement/media complex was ready to strike, and the FBI undertook a massively publicized search of Hatfill’s apartment.  Mean-while, the news media—the Justice Department’s entertainment division—were full of stories more or less proclaiming that we have our man.  Had he not even written an unpublished novel strikingly prophetic of the actual anthrax attacks?  An arrest and trial must be imminent: The lone wolf was caged.

And then things started to fall apart.  No worthwhile evidence against Hatfill came to light, and many of the associations of time and place that seemed to connect him to the crimes proved false or misleading.  Even the much-vaunted novel that foretold the attacks proved to be irrelevant, except to the extent that, like a hundred other thrillers from the 1990’s, it dealt with the general theme of biological warfare against the United States.  Hatfill repeatedly offered to take medical tests that would measure his exposure to anthrax, and he basically did everything he reasonably could do to prove he had nothing to do with the attacks.  That’s right: Hatfill had to prove his innocence, to establish that he had not committed the crimes, actual and rumored, that were surfacing almost randomly in the media.  In the process, any concept of “innocent until proven guilty” was ignored.

Perhaps the lowest point in the whole outrageous story occurred in Nicholas Kristof’s column immediately following the Justice Department’s open naming of Hatfill as a lead suspect.  Recalling his earlier stories about “Mr. Z,” “the overwhelming focus of the investigation,” Kristof noted smugly that “I didn’t name him.  But over the weekend, Mr. Z named himself: He is Steven J. Hatfill.”  Note the suggestion that Hatfill’s name came to light not because of systematic leaks from the FBI or the Justice Department but because he decided—presumably on a whim—to place himself at the center of this horrible story.

Seeing how slavishly media outlets like the New York Times reproduce official statements, I sometimes refer to that newspaper half-seriously by the name of American Pravda.  Following this latest affair, I would like to apologize to Pravda.