(CN) – The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have a First Amendment right to view the search warrants and other documents the Justice Department used to justify searching the home of a former Army scientist who was cleared in the 2001 anthrax attacks, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, ruling on a matter of first impression, acknowledged that “there is a First Amendment qualified right of access to warrant materials after an investigation has concluded.”
Lamberth ordered the warrant information unsealed, save portions that might reveal the identity of a confidential informant.
“Although the government has a compelling interest in keeping the identity of informants a secret,” Lamberth wrote, “it has failed to show that it is necessary to seal all of the warrant materials to accomplish that objective.”
The newspapers claimed they had a right to inspect evidence in the now-closed investigation of anthrax-laced letters that were mailed to members of Congress and the media in 2001. The mailings killed five people and sickened 17.
During the government’s “Amerithrax” probe, agents searched the home of Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, a former researcher at the U.S. Army Military Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Hatfill had been named a “person of interest” in the case, but was later exonerated. The FBI and Justice Department eventually pinned the blame on another Army scientist and bioweapons expert, Bruce Ivins, who killed himself in July.
Hatfill won a $5.82 million settlement in June, after he accused the government of violating his privacy and ruining his reputation by leaking investigation details to the media.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, the judge in the settlement proceedings, said: “There is not a scintilla of evidence that would indicate that Dr. Hatfill had anything to do with this.”
The newspapers sought access to the evidence to better understand why the investigation took so long, and why the government initially fingered Hatfill. The Justice Department resisted disclosure, but Judge Lamberth said the law clearly favors disclosure.
“(T)he public has a strong need for access to the documents at issue,” Lamberth wrote. “As conceded by the government, the anthrax investigation was one of the most complex, time-consuming and expensive investigations in recent history. 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.”