The Mad Hatter

Pity the hat.  It continues to be perched jauntily atop the pile of metaphors-used-in-cliches, and yet… no one wears it anymore.  It is getting to the point that if we want to pass the hat round to help some unfortunate, the collection must be aborted for want of the requisite headgear.  In one recent case, however, the government managed to fill the hat quite adequately, paying 5.8 million dollars in damages to Mister Hatfill.

Hatfill, you may recall, once wore the hat of a government researcher at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, known by the handy acronym (I kid you not) of USAMRIID.  He was entrusted with keeping secrets of biological warfare under his hat.  Eventually he hung up his public-sector hat and went to work for Science Applications International Corporation, a consulting company whose biggest client is said to be the CIA.  While there, he coauthored a report on the possibility of a terrorist anthrax attack using the mails.

As it turned out, his report was startlingly prescient.  Some of his projections were eerily close to the format of the 2001 anthrax letters.  Instead of taking their hats off to his foresight, and blaming themselves for not having been vigilant, the FBI tossed his hat into the ring of suspects.  Then-Attorney-General John Ashcroft jumped up at the drop of a hat to make a press conference declaring Hatfill a suspect.  Instead of pulling a rabbit out of his hat, Ashcroft wound up talking through his hat.

The consequences for Hatfill were apparently significant, affecting his job and his reputation.  He began to mutiny against the scrutiny, claiming to be a man of principle who should not be considered a “person of interest”.  He pressed a suit against the Department of Justice, settled this past weekend for the 5.8 million.  This strikes me as the closest we can get to Uncle Sam eating his hat.

It is easier to judge the case of the late Richard Jewell, who was publicly humiliated by investigators and news agencies who branded him the Olympic City bomber in Atlanta back in 1996.  In actuality, he was a hero who saved many lives by alertly discovering the bomb.  It was later determined that Eric Rudolph was the guilty party, and Jewell received some compensation.  In Hatfill’s case, however, he has not yet been fully exonerated, in that there has never been an arrest in the case.

Once again we find ourselves confronting the absurd idea of suing the government.  Undoubtedly the personnel at various levels of the Department of Justice did a personal disservice to Mister Hatfill.  They had no business doing their thinking out loud.  Yet just as undoubtedly those same officials did a general disservice to the nation by botching the investigation.  Announcing a suspect by name is poor technique when trying to gather evidence discreetly.  We can all recall how Wen Ho Lee walked free despite his guilt, because overwrought publicity undermined the integrity of the prosecution.

How, then, does justice demand that we, the taxpayers, pay as perpetrators for an offense in which we were fellow victims?  The legal theory that every Federal employee, whether elected or appointed or hired, serves as our agent in all their duties, is very remote from the way reality happens.  People working for the government should either have personal responsibility, as in cases of flagrant and intentional abuse, or be granted immunity – but the taxpayer should never be liable.

To add to the lunacy, these settlements are negotiated by government lawyers.  So we pay the employees who mess up, we pay the attorneys who defend them and we pay the judgments.  All this for some guy who shows up in D.C. with a resume and gets a job after an interview, the same as any schnook hiring on at, say, General Motors.  We become cosigners for every mess-up and blow-up he perpetrates in our name.

It would be moderately tolerable if there was at least some penalty being levied against the abuser of power.  Instead the only loss is that his particular agency gets to spend less that year on its stated responsibilities.  Hard to see a winner in this picture.

It is fair to say that Mister Hatfill was treated badly.  Even if in time he is proven guilty, liberties were taken with his liberties.  It is no feather in the government’s cap, but neither should the taxpayers get hit over the head.  It is time to eliminate this sort of suit; it is old hat.