Rights groups probe charges of FBI spying in ‘terror war’ (FCN, 12-30-2004)

NEW YORK (IPS/GIN) – U.S. law enforcement agencies and prosecutors are using a term that has no standing in law, but nonetheless can turn lives upside down, ruin careers, and place people in a long-term legal limbo somewhere between innocence, “suspect” and “target.”

The term is “person of interest.” It seems to have appeared in the 1970s and, while national statistics are not available, it reportedly is being applied hundreds of times each year to aid criminal investigations across the country.


Law enforcement officers say the phrase is neutral–it could mean potential suspect, it could mean witness. But some legal experts say the term is intentionally vague to encourage the public and the media to equate “person of interest” with “suspect.”

“Unfortunately, this practice will continue as long as it’s a win-win for almost everyone involved,” said Brian Foley, a professor at the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Fla.

“The government wins by appearing to make progress in the investigation. The public wins by feeling safer, believing that someone has been identified and is being watched. The media win by having a person, rather than an event, to write about. The only loser is the person of interest,” Mr. Foley told IPS.

Outcomes have been varied for those labeled as persons of interest. Last year, two bodies were found on a dirt driveway in Hillsborough County, Fla. Detectives began searching for an ex-convict with a lengthy criminal record. The ex-convict was labeled a person of interest, but later cleared in the double homicide.

But not all cases are so clear-cut.

Steven Hatfill, a former researcher at the Army’s infectious disease research laboratory at Fort Detrick in the state of Maryland, has been under FBI scrutiny since the 2001 anthrax attacks killed five people and sickened 17 others. John Ashcroft, then-attorney-general, publicly called him a “person of interest” in the anthrax probe, but he has never been charged with a crime.

The former Army researcher has denied involvement in the attacks, in which the anthrax spores were mailed to victims in media and government offices. He has claimed that he was fired from a job because of media coverage of the case.

His apartment and rubbish bins have been searched several times. He has been under 24-hour surveillance.

Mr. Hatfill sued Ashcroft and the FBI, accusing the government of unfairly singling him out for “a campaign of harassment.” He also sued the New York Times Co. and columnist Nicholas Kristof, claiming the paper defamed him in a series of columns that identified him as the likely culprit.

The lawsuit said Mr. Kristof identified him as the anthrax killer to “light a fire” under investigators in their probe of the anthrax-spore mailings. No one has ever been charged in the investigation.

At the end of September 2003, nearly two years after the attacks, the new head of the FBI anthrax investigation said it was troubling that top law enforcement officials had publicly branded Mr. Hatfill as a “person of interest.”

“The anthrax investigation has been beset by a number of leaks,” he said, adding that this was “unfortunate.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Hatfill remains unemployed, and perhaps unemployable.

Critics of the “person of interest” label often cite another high-profile case from 1996 as evidence of the damage the term can do.

That case involved Richard Jewell, who was working as a security guard at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Ga. A number of legal authorities and civil liberties groups see what happened to Mr. Jewell as part of a disturbing pattern of behavior by law enforcement agencies.

Mr. Jewell spotted a suspicious object and reported it to police. Before it could be retrieved, it exploded, killing a spectator and injuring others. He was hailed as a hero whose quick thinking summoned authorities and prevented the bomb from killing or injuring many more. TV networks and newspapers interviewed him and it was hinted he might have a bright future in law enforcement.

But only three days after the explosion, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper published a story saying police were investigating the possibility that Mr. Jewell had planted the bomb. He was designated a person of interest. FBI agents interviewed him and searched his apartment as journalists and TV crews looked on.

Mr. Jewell told reporters he was innocent. But Janet Reno, the U.S. attorney-general at the time, declined to clear him. It was not until the following October that a federal judge said he thought Mr. Jewell was not a suspect. Prosecutors then told him that he was no longer under investigation.

In August 1997, a year after the event, Ms. Reno publicly apologized to Mr. Jewell and deplored the FBI leak to the media that branded him a suspect in public. But by that time, Mr. Jewell had lived for months in fear of being arrested for a crime he did not commit.

Having been cleared, he sued for and won at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements–the exact amount has not been disclosed–claiming his reputation was forever ruined.

Labeling someone as a person of interest is “sending a signal without saying the words,” said Mr. Jewell’s attorney, L. Lin Wood of Atlanta. “No individual’s name should be publicly discussed simply because they’re being investigated. A lot of innocent people are investigated.”

Even so, the term became more widely used after the Jewell case.