WASHINGTON -- A federal judge on Monday ordered the Justice Department to release the information it used to persuade the courts to let it search the home of a former Army scientist who was exonerated in the 2001 anthrax attacks.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said the government's search warrants and supporting documents relating to former Army scientist Stephen Hatfill and his then-girlfriend Peck Chegne should be made public.
The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times asked for the materials to be released, contending 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 anthrax investigation was one of the most complex, time-consuming and expensive investigations in recent history," Judge Lamberth said. "As a result, the American citizens have a legitimate interest in observing and understanding how and why the investigation progressed in the way that it did."
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.
Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft identified Hatfill as "a person of interest" in the investigation, and 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. He was eventually cleared in the anthrax attacks and was awarded $5.8 million in settlement of a lawsuit accusing the Justice Department of violating his privacy.
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 attacks.
Chegne's search warrant material for her apartment and car should also be released,Lamberth said. She has not made her information public like Hatfill did with his lawsuit against the Justice Department. The judge said there were no "highly intimate or personal details of the kind that would present a compelling interest in not releasing the materials."
Hatfill and Chegne did not appear to argue that the material should be kept private. Justice Department lawyers, however, asked Lamberth to let Hatfill "get on with his life."
"The public has made a strong showing of need for the materials, much of the information is already in the public forum and there is no possibility of prejudice to an investigation or a future defendant," Lamberth said in the opinion. "These considerations, weighed against the government's generalized assertion that Dr. Hatfill has a privacy right to 'get on with his life,' mean that the Times would prevail even under a common law standard."
The Justice Department will be allowed to redact information that would identify a confidential informant used in the case, Lamberth said.