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.

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