A number of news outlets are now reporting that Steven Hatfill has settled his Privacy Act lawsuit against the Department of Justice and the FBI. Some of the reports have also suggested that our press statement was perhaps a bit more scolding than usual. Reasonable minds can judge for themselves.
STATEMENT ON TODAY’S SETTLEMENT
The settlement announced today closes a very unhappy chapter in this nation’s public life. Our government failed us, not only by failing to catch the anthrax mailers but by seeking to conceal that failure. Our government did this by leaking gossip, speculation, and misinformation to a handful of credulous reporters.
Our journalists also failed us, by putting aside their professional skepticism and shoveling the leaked information all too willingly into publication without questioning the accuracy of the information, the motives of the leakers, or the fairness of the government’s tactics. As an innocent man, and as our fellow citizen, Steven Hatfill deserved far better.
Six years later, the United States government has agreed to pay for some of the damage which the government and the press collaborated in causing. The leakers, their accomplices in the press, and a handful of conspiracy theorists deprived Dr. Hatfill of his professional reputation and the employment he could otherwise have expected. As a result of the media circus they created and sustained, Dr. Hatfill must now carry on his scientific work largely independently. This settlement will help him to do so.
To be clear, this was not a case in which a courageous whistleblower called government malfeasance to the public’s attention. It was instead a case in which the government used the press, violating federal privacy laws in the process. Almost no one in the press recognized this at the time, and an alarming number of journalists refuse to admit it even today. Journalists who genuinely aspire to serve a “watchdog” function by alerting the public to abuses of government power must understand that if they pass this kind of information along, they are allowing themselves to become tools of oppression. The collusive relationship between unethical officials and uncritical reporters, which caused such great damage to Dr. Hatfill’s personal life and professional reputation, must not be treated by journalists as if it were a respectable method of newsgathering.
We can only hope that the individuals and institutions involved are sufficiently chastened by this episode to deter similar destruction of private citizens in the future – and that we will all read anonymously sourced news reports with a great deal more skepticism in the future.
In response to one question I received by e-mail: Yes, this does end the litigation against the government. No, it does not alter my opinion that the reporter’s shield legislation currently being considered by Congress is an outrage. We need to do much, much more to protect privacy and reputation in this country, and whatever laws we pass for those purposes become totally unenforceable if reporters get a license to obstruct justice.