It’s been seven years since the anthrax attacks. The FBI has dropped “hundreds of thousands of agent-hours on the case,” says its website. Nine thousand interviews have been conducted; 6,000 grand jury subpoenas have been issued; and 67 searches completed. The result? On Friday afternoon, the Justice Department settled with biological weapons scientist Steven Hatfill—the FBI’s longtime lead suspect in the case, famously declared a “person of interest” in 2002 by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft—for $5.82 million. The move, skillfully buried in weekend news coverage, amounts to a public confession from the FBI that its anthrax investigation has gone cold.

The Justice Department, far from admitting the colossal nature of its screw-up, refused to admit legal liability for dragging Hatfill’s name through the mud, but, according to a spokesman, settled the case “in the best interest of the United States.” Hatfill continues to press libel cases against the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times, and columnist Nicholas Kristof. He has already reached private settlements with Vanity Fair and Reader’s Digest for their coverage of the case.

The Los Angeles Times and ABC News have both published post-mortems of the FBI investigation in recent days, trying to answer the question of what went wrong. The latter, written by Brad Garrett, a former FBI investigator on the anthrax case, points to inexperienced supervising agents interfering in the case, widespread leaks of confidential information (which sometimes enabled news crews to arrive at the scene before the feds), and the mistake of naming a suspect in the investigation prematurely. “If later the ‘person of interest’ is cleared of wrongdoing, it is unlikely that they can ever fully reclaim their reputation,” writes Garrett. “That only serves to damage the reputation of the FBI.” Remember supposed Olympic Park bomber Richard Jewel? The money he and Hatfill received in recompense from the FBI does not even begin to repair the damage done their names.

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