No Comment — February 25, 2011, 11:03 am

Justice Cranks Up Its Covert War on Whistleblowers

As noted previously, candidate Barack Obama promised to protect whistleblowers who come forward with information disclosing government waste, abuse, and inefficiency. Unfortunately, President Obama has done exactly the opposite. Obama’s real policies are exposed in documents filed in the prosecution of former CIA agent James Stirling.

According to federal prosecutors, Stirling was the source behind reports published by New York Times reporter James Risen (identified as “Author A” in its pleadings) that exposed a horribly botched, indeed hare-brained plot by the CIA designed to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program. In particular, one chapter in Risen’s book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, describes a CIA-authored scheme to use a Russian double agent to deliver to the Iranians a set of technical drawings that had been carefully doctored so as to be worthless. However, the double agent turned on the CIA in the end, disclosing the flaws that had been built into the design. The end result: the CIA operation had actually advanced Iran’s nuclear project. So what was the purpose of the strenuous U.S. government effort to punish Stirling for making it public? Justice contends that the disclosure harmed national security. But the decision to go after Sterling seems to have more to do with his violation of the intelligence community’s code of omertà, under which no agent ever speaks about another’s mistakes.

In a well-crafted discussion of the case, Josh Gerstein at Politico reports:

In a motion filed in federal court in Alexandria, Sterling’s defense lawyers, Ed MacMahon Jr. and Barry Pollack, reveal that the prosecution has turned over “various telephone records showing calls made by the author James Risen. It has provided three credit reports—Equifax, TransUnion and Experian—for Mr. Risen. It has produced Mr. Risen’s credit card and bank records and certain records of his airline travel.”

The revelation alarmed First Amendment advocates, particularly in light of Justice Department rules requiring the attorney general to sign off on subpoenas directed to members of the media and on requests for their phone records. And Risen told POLITICO that the disclosures, while not shocking, made him feel “like a target of spying.” “We’ve argued that I was a victim of harassment by the government. This seems to bolster that,” Risen said. “Maybe I should ask them what my credit score is.” Sterling’s attorneys and a Justice Department spokeswoman declined POLITICO’s request for comment…

Risen was twice subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury to testify about his sources, but the first grand jury dissolved before a judge acted on Risen’s motion to quash the subpoena. Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema sided with Risen and quashed the second subpoena, though details of her reasoning haven’t been made public.

Did the Justice Department circumvent the ruling of a federal judge and grab Risen’s records even after its subpoena had been quashed? That’s the way it looks. And that would be entirely consistent with the victory-at-all-costs mindset so prevalent these days at Justice.

What role did Eric Holder play in these escapades? During the 2008 presidential campaign, Holder repeated to audiences, including once in my hearing, that the Justice Department would tread lightly on the First Amendment rights of reporters. Subpoenas issued against reporters would need the attorney general’s approval, he pledged. So did Holder approve the Department’s secret seizure of Risen’s personal records?

The Justice Department is telling us that it has weighed the people’s right to know, embodied in the Constitution, against the right of senior CIA officials not to be embarrassed through the public disclosures of their mistakes, a right which has no legal basis whatsoever. Guess which “right” always comes out on top?

Glenn Greenwald has a good take on the same developments here.

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