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CNN AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

Interview with Armstrong Williams

Aired August 12, 2002 - 08:06   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Now on the anthrax investigation. The FBI says he's not a suspect, but the way Dr. Steven Hatfill sees it, he is the designated fall guy in the FBI's anthrax investigation. At his news conference yesterday, the former Army scientist declared he had nothing to do with the deadly string of anthrax mailings last fall.
Here's Jeanne Meserve.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Dr. Steven Hatfill strode before the cameras to declare himself innocent.

DR. STEVEN HATFILL, FORMER ARMY SCIENTIST: I have had nothing to do in any way, shape or form with the mailing of these anthrax letters and it is extremely wrong for anyone to contend or suggest that I have.

MESERVE: Government sources say Hatfill is one of about 20 people they're looking at in connection with the October anthrax attacks. One reason for their interest, between 1997 and '99 Hatfill was a scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute in Ft. Detrick, Maryland, once headquarters for the U.S. biological warfare program.

Hatfill, who's an expert in viruses, says he did not work with anthrax, the bacteria. Hatfill says although he has been cooperative, he's been a victim of "defamatory speculation and innuendo in the media" because of leaks from the FBI. He cited media coverage of two searches of his apartment.

HATFILL: I acknowledge the right of the authorities and the press to satisfy themselves as to whether I am the anthrax mailer. This does not, however, give them the right to smear me and gratuitously make a wasteland of my life in the process. I will not be railroaded.

MESERVE: His attorney rebutted some recent reports. Sources told CNN bloodhounds took a scent off the Capitol Hill anthrax letters and reacted strongly to Hatfill and places he'd been. His attorney called the technique "bogus." Sources said Hatfill was recently seen dumping material from his apartment. The attorney says he was cleaning in preparation for a move. His attorney confirms authorities found a novel about a bioweapon attack on Hatfill's computer, but says the only thing that proves is that the FBI is leaking information. MESERVE (on camera): An FBI spokesman says credible allegations concerning the mishandling of evidence will be investigated thoroughly. But he says the FBI does not alert the news media to the service of search warrants and the agency is unaware of any employee who has named anyone a suspect in the anthrax investigation.

Jean Meserve, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And several years ago, Hatfill was a guest on Armstrong Williams' radio show. Last week the FBI questioned the talk show host about Hatfill.

And Armstrong Williams is with us this morning from Washington.

Good morning. Welcome back.

ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, NATIONALLY SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Good morning.

Thank you, Paula.

It was the television show.

ZAHN: The television show.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

ZAHN: Sorry. You did both.

WILLIAMS: Oh, that's OK. That's OK.

ZAHN: A man of many mediums here.

WILLIAMS: No, no, no, no, that's OK.

ZAHN: So what was the FBI most interested in?

WILLIAMS: You know, it was one of my few experiences, Paula, with the FBI. I mean, during the course of their questioning me in, no way did I at any time feel that this man was the definitive suspect. They just wanted to know about his personality, about the several interviews that we had with him.

Now, he was on the radio but they were questioning me about the television. I just wanted that further clarification.

ZAHN: Sure.

WILLIAMS: And so, you know, I talked about his personality, about our experience, because he was a guest several times. And so they were just trying to find out more about the person, just gather -- it was just an information gathering service, session. I found them to be very polite, very professional. They did not try to engage me in areas to try to indict this man. It was just, they was just gathering information.

ZAHN: Were they curious about what he said his level of expertise was in when he was a guest on your show?

WILLIAMS: Well, they only, they were interested in the content of the show and asking about the content of the show, and certainly you would get into that. And Mr. -- Dr. Hatfill is someone that you would not forget. I found him to be very bright. I found him to be a patriot, someone who loved the country. And he wanted to discuss the threat of anthrax and bioterrorism and we did get into anthrax.

But he wanted to do it as a precautionary measure to warn Americans that this could be a deadly threat in the future. And so, you know, being a host, I wanted to engage him somewhat to find out just how somebody would go about doing this. And so he got into the substance of how it could be done.

And then also, you know, he had a lot of compassion about this. It was well thought out. And obviously during that time -- it was a call in show and we had many doctors and scientists who watched the show and they were really impressed by the knowledge of Dr. Hatfill. Now, so many people found him pretty scary, but, you know, about his level of knowledge and some of the things that he was saying.

ZAHN: Well, how knowledgeable did he appear to be about anthrax?

WILLIAMS: He was quite knowledgeable about anthrax. Actually, I think it was 1997, Paula, there was an anthrax scare at B'Nai Brith here in Washington, D.C. In fact, I think it, for me, it was one of the first times that I was really aware of anthrax on that level. I knew about anthrax growing up on a farm because it would get in the soil and get on the animals and my parents taught us how to clean animals. That was my experience with anthrax.

And so he, after that anthrax scare, I think a major news organization, I think it was "U.S. News & World Report," in November of 1997, they did a cover story on the threat of terrorism. And Dr. Hatfill, who watched our show -- at the time he lived in Frederick -- called and said that he had some thoughts off on it because we started in January of '98 doing shows on it and he offered himself.

But that was not out of the ordinary. This was a man who really felt that the country was not listening and the American people could be caught off guard blindly and could suffer the consequences.

And so he came on to discuss this issue about anthrax. But I'll tell you, he was very knowledgeable. He was quite knowledgeable.

ZAHN: All right, well, this is an interesting perspective to have because yesterday this is what he told reporters about his knowledge of anthrax.

Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HATFILL: After eight months of one of the most intensive public and private investigations in American history, no one, no one has come up with a shred of evidence that I had anything to do with the anthrax letters. I have never worked with anthrax. I know nothing about this matter.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: All right, Armstrong, for a guy who said he never worked with anthrax, does that strike you as a contradiction based on what he shared with your listeners and viewers about that?

WILLIAMS: You know, you have to weigh what he said. He knew -- he had no knowledge of the anthrax letters being sent in the mail. He said that he never worked as a professional with anthrax. But I don't think that you can take from that that he did not have knowledge of anthrax and how anthrax works. I think this man, I mean I think he's accurate there, but I think if you were to sort of pursue it a little more, Dr. Hatfill did have knowledge of anthrax. Even in the conversations that we had on the telephone leading up to the interviews, even after the show was over, even during the breaks. Because I remember it, because he's the only guy -- because we had him on. I mean he was so thorough. He became what we term a very good guest, a very knowledgeable guest. And so we wanted to have him back.

But there's no doubt in my mind that he had knowledge about anthrax. But that does not say -- as he said -- that he is the culprit for what took place several months ago following 9/11.

ZAHN: Well, I guess what he told you was sufficiently interesting to the FBI. They needed to talk to you about it.

Did they treat you OK, Armstrong?

WILLIAMS: Paula, actually, as I said earlier on, I couldn't have asked for a better representation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They were very respectful and as I said, again -- and I'm not here to defend the FBI -- but I walked away from the interview in having a healthy respect for the FBI. So when I was listening to Dr. Hatfill and his lawyers and others talk about the FBI and -- it just certainly wasn't the FBI that I experienced.

And, you know, his press conference, the FBI -- I will say this, given my experiences in talking to Dr. Hatfill -- and I think Dr. Hatfill acknowledged this yesterday during his press conference -- that it's quite understandable why the FBI decided to pursue Dr. Hatfill, among others. Because if I were in their shoes, he certainly would be someone that I would want to have a discussion with further about his involvement with anthrax and his knowledge on what took place following 9/11.

ZAHN: Yes, I guess there's...

WILLIAMS: So they're definitely not out of line.

ZAHN: Yes, his grievance is not so much that they came to talk to him. He understand that. He just feels, I guess, he's been indicted in the process.

WILLIAMS: And...

ZAHN: Armstrong Williams, thanks for joining us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: We've unfortunately got to move along here to our next segment.

WILLIAMS: I understand.

ZAHN: We look forward to having you back.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

ZAHN: Take care.

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