Saturday, March 31, 2018

"The constant drip, drip, drip of innuendo"

Remembering Richard Jewell and Steven Hatfill
by Robert A. Waters

In 2007, Richard Jewell died of complications from diabetes.  Only 47, this mild-mannered "mama’s boy" became entrapped in a storm of intrigue orchestrated by the FBI.

An obituary in the New York Times described the affable, Lynyrd Skynyrd-loving security guard: “The heavy-set Mr. Jewell, with a country drawl and a deferential manner, became an instant celebrity after a bomb exploded in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park on the evening of July 27, 1996, at the midpoint of the Summer Games. The explosion, which propelled hundreds of nails through the darkness, killed one woman, injured 111 people and changed the mood of the Olympiad.”  Jewell had discovered the package containing the bomb, alerted his superiors, and moved hundreds of spectators away from danger.

Not content to let a hero be a hero, the FBI quickly set its sights on Jewell.  Through leaks to the press, agents surreptitiously assassinated his character, leading a lynch mob of journalists to accuse Jewell of murder.  Hounding him unmercifully, the Feds hoped to break the mild-mannered security guard.  It soon became evident that he had nothing to do with the bombing, and he was dropped as a suspect.  But by then, millions of Americans still suspected he was the murderous bomber.  In a series of lawsuits, Jewell won millions of dollars from various newspapers and television networks that had libeled him.  Eric Rudolph later pleaded guilty to planting four bombs in Atlanta (including the Olympic nail-bomb) that killed two people.  He is currently serving life in a Federal prison.

The crucifixion of Dr. Steven Hatfill was even worse.  In a profile of the virologist and bio-weapons expert, The Atlantic wrote: “His story provides a cautionary tale about how federal authorities, fueled by the general panic over terrorism, embraced conjecture and coincidence as evidence, and blindly pursued one suspect while the real anthrax killer roamed free for more than six years. Hatfill’s experience is also the wrenching saga of how an American citizen who saw himself as a patriot came to be vilified and presumed guilty, as his country turned against him.”

In 2002, with television cameras rolling and news helicopters swooping low, the FBI searched Hatfill’s apartment twice.  Attorney General John Ashcroft took to the White House podium and named Hatfill a “person of interest.”  For two years, the Feds trailed Hatfill like a pack of feral dogs.  His phone was bugged, surveillance cameras set up around his apartment, and the scientist was hounded everywhere he went.  Hatfill felt backed into a corner.  Again, the FBI purposely set out to break an innocent man.  Hatfill lost his job at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), and when he was accepted for a new job at Louisiana State University, the FBI pressured the institution to rescind its decision.  After one day of employment, the university withdrew its offer.

Hatfill told The Atlantic that “it’s like death by a thousand cuts. There’s a sheer feeling of hopelessness. You can’t fight back. You have to just sit there and take it, day after day, the constant drip-drip-drip of innuendo, a punching bag for the government and the press.  And the thing was, I couldn’t understand why it was happening to me.  I mean, I was one of the good guys.”

Hatfill did muster the resolve to fight back, holding press conferences in which he refuted the lies about him.  After two years, it became obvious that he could not have been the anthrax killer.  Hatfill eventually won more than ten million dollars in lawsuits against the Department of Justice and television networks.

Having been KOed by Hatfill, the Bureau next turned its sinister spotlight on Bruce Ivins.  An eccentric, mentally-fragile scientist who worked in the bio-lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland, he allegedly fit the profile of the anthrax killer.  FBI agents orchestrated a program of harassment designed to break Ivins’ will.  With the media bearing down on him and the Feds threatening to charge him with murder, Ivins could no longer take it.  On July 29, 2008, he downed a whole bottle of Tylenol, killing himself.  That’s all the FBI needed—they pinned the blame for the anthrax letters on him.  Had he been mentally tough enough to withstand the FBI’s constant persecution, Ivins, like Hatfill, would probably be a millionaire today. 

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