No Comment — October 14, 2007, 8:05 am

Qwest: Another Political Prosecution?

Last week, a career federal prosecutor friend told me, “Most of us have come to agree that there’s a real problem with political prosecutions on Bush’s watch, and that needs to be addressed, but you need to remind your readers that this is something truly exceptional and that the great mass of cases involve the normal functioning of the law enforcement system, with career professionals who are detached from political considerations.” For the record, I believe that’s true. I’m not sure how widespread the phenomenon of political prosecution is. I believe that it is no longer a question of “whether” such prosecutions have been brought—that’s now very well established. How widespread is this phenomenon? That’s an important question and the answers are unclear.

And this weekend more information has surfaced which would show the practice to be far more common that I first suspected. Last year, a Colorado lawyer told me that I should look at the insider trading litigation surrounding Qwest CEO Joseph P. Nacchio—there was strong evidence in that case of tawdry politics on the prosecution side. Of course, I knew that Nacchio was the only major telecom executive who refused to play ball with the administration on warrantless surveillance. But I did take a look at the case, and I didn’t see the evidence that was suggested.

But as of this morning, I have to admit that I misjudged the situation. It seems that the evidence was lacking because the trial judge suppressed it, not because it didn’t exist. There was a major account in yesterday’s Washington Post, and this morning in the New York Times. These accounts all stack up. Here’s Scott Shane’s summary for the Times:

The phone company Qwest Communications refused a proposal from the National Security Agency that the company’s lawyers considered illegal in February 2001, nearly seven months before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, the former head of the company contends in newly unsealed court filings. The executive, Joseph P. Nacchio, also asserts in the filings that the agency retaliated by depriving Qwest of lucrative outsourcing contracts.

The filings were made as Mr. Nacchio fought charges of insider trading. He was ultimately convicted in April of 19 counts of insider trading and has been sentenced to six years in prison. He remains free while appealing the conviction. Mr. Nacchio said last year that he had refused an N.S.A. request for customers’ call records in late 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks, as the agency initiated domestic surveillance and data mining programs to monitor Al Qaeda communications.

But the documents unsealed Wednesday in federal court in Denver, first reported in The Rocky Mountain News on Thursday, claim for the first time that pressure on the company to participate in activities it saw as improper came as early as February, nearly seven months before the terrorist attacks. The significance of the claim is hard to assess, because the court documents are heavily redacted and N.S.A. officials will not comment on the agency’s secret surveillance programs. Other government officials have said that the agency’s eavesdropping without warrants began only after Sept. 11, 2001, under an order from President Bush. But the court filings in Mr. Nacchio’s case illustrate what is well known inside the telecommunications industry but little appreciated by the public: that the N.S.A. has for some time worked closely with phone companies, whose networks carry the telephone and Internet traffic the agency seeks out for intercept.

The key news here is that the surveillance program goes back to the arrival of the Bush Administration; it seems that the events of 9/11 were quickly taken as a justification for the Administration’s programs—but they was not a causal relationship. And this means, in turn, that the Administration’s characterization of the program, as a hurried response to the disastrous events of 9/11, is a complete fiction.

Let’s put this in sharper focus. Nacchio discovered that the NSA was engaged in a project to gather warrantless surveillance data on millions of Americans. He took advice of counsel. His lawyers told him, correctly, that this was illegal. They probably also warned him that if Qwest participated in the program, it would be committing a felony. So Nacchio said, no, sorry, I can’t work with you on this. But I can help if you want to change the law. And the reaction of the NSA? It was, apparently, to cut Qwest out of a series of contract awards by way of retaliation. (If that charge sticks, it would probably be yet another felony.) And the second reaction? To try to build a criminal case against Nacchio as a means of retaliation against him. (And if that charge sticks, it would probably be yet a third felony–on the part of the Government officials who did it). We are seeing the Government engaging in a sweeping pattern of criminal dealings, and ultimately, one of the biggest crimes of all, abusing the criminal justice process to strike out at an individual who refused to play their crooked game. Oh, and by the way: who was heading the NSA when all of this transpired? Michael Hayden, the man who now runs the CIA, and is busily dismantling the CIA Inspector General’s office because it has apparently raised questions about potentially criminal conduct on his watch there, too.

Shane also explains why Nacchio’s role was so important and why his decision to hold out caused the Bush Administration such distress:

At the same meeting, N.S.A. officials made an additional proposal, whose exact nature is not made clear in the censored documents. “The court has prohibited Mr. Nacchio from eliciting testimony regarding what also occurred at that meeting,” one of the documents states. Another passage says: “The court has also refused to allow Mr. Nacchio to demonstrate that the agency retaliated for this refusal by denying the Groundbreaker and perhaps other work to Qwest.”

Another document, a transcript of an interview that the F.B.I. conducted with Mr. Payne in 2006, stated that the N.S.A. pressed its request for months afterward. “Nacchio said it was a legal issue and that they could not do something their general counsel told them not to do,” Mr. Payne told the F.B.I. “Nacchio projected that he might do it if they could find a way to do it legally.” Mr. Payne declined to comment.

In support of Mr. Nacchio’s accusations, his lawyers quoted from one of several lawsuits filed against telecommunications companies, accusing them of violating their customers’ privacy. That lawsuit, filed last year against several companies, asserts that seven months before the Sept. 11 attacks, at about the time of Mr. Nacchio’s meeting at the N.S.A., another phone company, AT&T, “began development of a center for monitoring long distance calls and Internet transmissions and other digital information for the exclusive use of the N.S.A.” The lawsuit contends that the center would “give the N.S.A. direct, unlimited, unrestricted and unfettered access” to phone call information and Internet traffic on AT&T’s network.

The claims about the defense are stridently—and very unconvincingly—countered by the lead prosecutor, Cliff Stricklin, who called them simply a “lie.” Were that so, of course, the Government should have let the information in and countered it. The fact that it chose a different path, namely invoking classifications to exclude it, suggests a strong concern that the accusations were truthful. The trial judge, Edward Nottingham, was a politically active Republican appointed to the bench by President Bush 41. The Denver Post profiled him as a judge who was “tough on lawyers.” In the Nacchio case, however, his legendary toughness has been reserved for defense counsel, whom he accused of filing frivolous motions. His rulings have consistently aligned the court with the prosecution, and he has been particularly supportive of Government views on secrecy issues.

In light of the current disclosures, however, the question is exactly what secrets the court and the Government are trying to conceal? Using alleged national security concerns to deprive a criminal defendant of a robust defense undermines confidence in the entire legal process, and gives rise to an appearance of a court and government participating in a vendetta instead of administering justice. Certainly these disclosures suggest improper conduct on the part of the Government: first, that the contract award process was skewered to punish Qwest and its shareholders because of Nacchio’s views—which were, in the view of most U.S. legal professionals, entirely correct. And second, they raise a fair issue whether the prosecution itself was not launched as an act of retaliatory malice. At this point, the number of such politically directed prosecutions is growing, and the Nacchio case may well be just another example. Of course the Nacchio case went to trial before evidence had come to the surface that detailed just how pervasive and entrenched the phenomenon of polticially dictated prosecutions was.

I have no view of whether Nacchio is guilty or innocent of the charges brought. But the way they were brought and their timing now seems very disturbing.

Whose interests are protected when a Republican judge excludes evidence that suggests wrongdoing on the part of a Republican administration? Certainly not the most fundamental interest. That is in justice.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2017

Preaching to The Choir

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Monumental Error

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Star Search

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Pushing the Limit

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bumpy Ride

Bad Dog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Article
Star Search·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 3, 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump was elected president, Amanda Litman sat alone on the porch of a bungalow in Costa Rica, thinking about the future of the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton’s director of email marketing, Litman raised $180 million and recruited 500,000 volunteers over the course of the campaign. She had arrived at the Javits Center on Election Night, arms full of cheap beer for the campaign staff, minutes before the pundits on TV announced that Clinton had lost Wisconsin. Later that night, on her cab ride home to Brooklyn, Litman asked the driver to pull over so she could throw up.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Bumpy Ride·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

One sunny winter afternoon in western Michigan, I took a ride with Leon Slater, a slight sixty-four-year-old man with a neatly trimmed white beard and intense eyes behind his spectacles. He wore a faded blue baseball cap, so formed to his head that it seemed he slept with it on. Brickyard Road, the street in front of Slater’s home, was a mess of soupy dirt and water-filled craters. The muffler of his mud-splattered maroon pickup was loose, and exhaust fumes choked the cab. He gripped the wheel with hands leathery not from age but from decades moving earth with big machines for a living. What followed was a tooth-jarring tour of Muskegon County’s rural roads, which looked as though they’d been carpet-bombed.

Photograph by David Emitt Adams
Article
Bad Dog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abby was a breech birth but in the thirty-one years since then most everything has been pretty smooth. Sweet kid, not a lot of trouble. None of them were. Jack and Stevie set a good example, and she followed. Top grades, all the way through. Got on well with others but took her share of meanness here and there, so she stayed thoughtful and kind. There were a few curfew or partying things and some boys before she was ready, and there was one time on a school trip to Chicago that she and some other kids got caught smoking crack cocaine, but that was so weird it almost proved the rule. No big hiccups, master’s in ecology, good state job that lets her do half time but keep benefits while Rose is little.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Tons of invasive carp that the Australian government plans to eradicate by giving them herpes:

1,137,000

Contact lenses change the microbiome of the eye such that it resembles skin.

A reporter asked Trump about a lunch the president was said to have shared the previous day with his secretary of state, Trump said the reporter was “behind the times” and that the lunch had occurred the previous week, and the White House confirmed that the lunch had in fact occurred the previous day.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today