Leonie Brinkema

The Government Still Doesn’t Say Whether or Not It Has Recordings of James Risen

There’s an interesting passage in this government filing to get Judge Leonie Brinkema to reconsider her guidelines regarding James Risen’s testimony in the Jeffrey Sterling suit. It seems to address Brinkema’s suggestion in her ruling that there might be recordings of Sterling passing classified information to Risen.

The government has not stated whether it has nontestimonial direct evidence, such as email messages or recordings of telephone calls in which Sterling discloses classified information to Risen; nor has it proffered in this proceeding the circumstantial evidence it has developed.

Here’s how the government responds.

There is no non-testimonial direct evidence in this case that can establish what Risen can. There are no recorded telephone calls in which Sterling discloses classified information to Risen, nor are there emails in which Sterling discloses the same. Had there been such recordings or emails, that evidence would have been disclosed in the Bruce Declaration5 or in the government’s response to Risen’s motion to quash the 2010 grand jury subpoena, and the government certainly would have provided such discovery after indictment. There simply is no such evidence.

5 The Bruce Declaration, which the Court has had in an unredacted, classified form since 2008, and which the government adopted and re-submitted in 2010, is an accurate and fair summary of the anticipated trial evidence in this case. See Dkt. 144. The defendant received a redacted, classified version of the Bruce Declaration on June 18, 2011. Pursuant to this Court’s Order of June 28, 2011, the government provided counsel for Risen a redacted, unclassified version of the Bruce Declaration (that remains under seal) on June 29, 2011, so that counsel for Risen would have an adequate factual background for the hearing on July 7, 2011.

Note they don’t say they don’t have any recorded telephone calls between Risen and Sterling. Rather they say, “There are no recorded telephone calls in which Sterling discloses classified information to Risen, nor are there emails in which Sterling discloses the same.” They attribute that claim to their Bruce Declaration, which as they note provides a list of all the evidence they intend to use, not all the evidence they have.

That’s important, because we know they have the content of emails, at least those from Sterling to Risen. The indictment references a March 10, 2003 email from Sterling to Risen suggesting that Risen read an article on Iran.

Defendant STERLING stated, “I’m sure you’ve already seen this, quite interesting, don’t you think? All the more reason to wonder … J.”

The indictment also accuses Sterling of “meeting with Author A in person to orally disclose classified information.

The only two ways I can think of to know that is if, 1) they knew Sterling didn’t pass information via their phone calls because they have all those calls, or 2) if he if specifically referenced meeting to give him information in an email. But the government has introduced no evidence of the latter, at least not publicly.

I suspect Brinkema has good reason to suspect the government has wiretaps of Sterling talking to Risen (if they did, given the circumstances of the case, there’d be a good chance they got those wiretaps from their vacuuming of information at circuits, not from a formal wiretap placed on Sterling’s phone). And now, along with the dance over how much Brinkema will permit the government to ask Risen on the stand, they’re conducting a dance over whether or not the government will have to admit that.

Judge Brinkema Cites Espionage Act to Protect Reporter’s Privilege

Charlie Savage tells the headline story from Leonie Brinkema’s opinion on whether or not James Risen must testify in Jeffrey Sterling’s leak trial.

“A criminal trial subpoena is not a free pass for the government to rifle through a reporter’s notebook,” wrote the judge, Leonie Brinkema of the United State District Court in Alexandria, Va.

But I’m just as interested in a few other things she says. First there’s the way she dismisses the government’s claim that two of the people who testified to the Grand Jury–Jeffrey Sterling’s ex-girlfriend and a former CIA officer with knowledge of the MERLYN operation–would be unable to testify at he trial.

The government had argued that the girlfriend was protected by spousal privilege and that the former CIA officer would be hearsay.

Separate and apart from Risen’s concession regarding the admissibility of his grand jury affidavit at trial, see Mot. p. 45, other evidence relied upon by the Court in its Memorandum Opinion similarly would be inadmissible at trial. For example, the grand jury testimony of the witness cited by the Court at page 7 of its Memorandum Opinion would be inadmissible under Rules 801(c), 802 and 803 of the Federal Rules of Evidence and United States v. Acker, 52 F.3d 509, 514-515 (4th Cir. 1995)(availability of spousal privileges to testifying and non-testifying spouses). The grand jury testimony of the witness cited by the Court at pages 7, 9, 10, 20, and 34 of its Memorandum Opinion – testimony that this Court deemed one of the key facts in its conclusion – is inadmissible hearsay on its face absent some exception; yet Risen treats the admissibility of the testimony of both witnesses as a foregone conclusion.

But as Risen’s lawyer Joel Kurtzberg pointed out during the hearing on Risen’s subpoena, she’s not his wife!

They actually cite in their papers as to the testimony of Mr. Sterling’s ex-girlfriend, suggest that it wouldn’t be admissible because they cite to a Fourth Circuit case about the marital privilege.

And in fact, if you look at the case they cite, the case holds the exact opposite. It holds that if you are not married, even if you have been living together I believe for 26 years in that case, the marital privilege doesn’t apply.

Here’s how Brinkema dismisses this William Welch gimmick.

Although the government argues that the spousal privilege would prevent this witness from testifying, nothing in the record indicates thta Sterling and the witness are married now or were married during the time of Sterling’s alleged statements.

More interesting still is the way Brinkema dismisses the government’s claim that the CIA officer’s testimony would be inadmissible hearsay.

Brinkema starts by citing Federal Rules of Evidence describing the exception for a statement against interest.

A statement is admissible under this exception if: (1) the speaker is unavailable; (2) the statement is actually adverse to the speaker’s penal interest; and (3) corroborating circumstances clearly indicate the trustworthiness of the statement.

After noting that Risen’s testimony would be unavailable if she found that reporter’s privilege prevented his testimony or if he refused to testify, she then invokes the Espionage Act.

Risen’s statements are adverse to his penal interest because receiving classified information without proper authorization is a federal felony under 18 U.S.C. 793(e); see U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual 2M3.3 (providing a base offense level 29 for convictions for the “Unauthorized Receipt of Classified Information.”). 6

6 The government clearly recognizes Risen’s potential exposure to criminal liability and has offered to obtain an order of immunity for him.

Brinkema uses the overzealous interpretation of the Espionage Act the government itself has been floating lately as a way to force the government to have the former CIA officer testify, which I suspect they’d much rather not do.

And note that footnote about immunity. I’m not sure whether we knew the government had discussed offering Risen immunity or not, but particularly given claims they’re pursuing his testimony so aggressively as a way to jail him for protecting his sources, it is an interesting revelation.

Finally, there’s one more passage I find telling. In the middle of a passage discussing whether the government has access to the information Risen would testify to via other means, she notes,

The government has not stated whether it has nontestimonial direct evidence, such as email messages or recordings of telephone calls in which Sterling discloses classified information to Risen; nor has it proffered in this proceeding the circumstantial evidence it has developed.

In a case in which the government has pointed to records of emails and calls, Brinkema notes, the government has never said whether or not it has the content of those emails and calls. Given that this statement is a non sequitur (it appears amid a discussion of circumstantial evidence), and given that Brinkema knows the government may have improperly accessed Risen’s phone records in the warrantless wiretap case, I find her comment mighty suggestive.

Government: Risen Shouldn’t Be Able to Reveal We Want(ed) to Trump Up War against Iran

The government has now responded to Risen’s attempt to quash his subpoena in the Jeffrey Sterling case. I fear the government will succeed in at least getting Risen to the stand, not least because of the gimmicks they’ve used to claim they need information not protected by any confidentiality agreement Risen might have had with Sterling.

But a more interesting political debate–albeit one that likely will be dismissed from a legal standpoint–pertains whether Risen was right to expose a program to deal fabricated nuclear materials to Iran at the moment when the government was using fabricated nuclear materials to try to drum up a war against Iran.

The government’s weak rebuttal to Risen’s harassment claim

I think the government’s subpoena of Risen is still very vulnerable to the argument that they are harassing Risen. The government dismisses the claim by emphasizing that the grand jury approved this indictment, as if that eliminated any animus from the government officials presenting the case to them, or the way that the government could “affirmatively operat[e] with furtive design or ill will” (the government’s own definition for harassment) to jail Risen in pursuit of his testimony.

Moreover, the Indictment in this matter was returned by a grand jury that found probable cause that serious crimes were committed by Sterling, and that Risen was a witness to those crimes. As such, any alleged harassment prior to that time – which the Government denies – is of no moment. Risen does not even attempt to address this central fact, or challenge in any way the detailed allegations against Sterling in the Indictment for which he is an eyewitness.

But Risen’s team would need to emphasize more strongly the extent to which the government is going to shield illegal behavior in the al-Haramain case. Moreover, the question of how the government got a list of Risen’s phone contacts remains a crucial one impacting the proof of harassment.

If secret unrebutted witnesses claim something is false, then journalists have to testify

I’m also amused (or perhaps disgusted) by a new tack the government takes here, by insisting that Risen must disclose his source because–they argue–the grand jury has found that his reporting included false information.

Risen’s beliefs that his confidential source(s) provided him truthful information, no matter how sincerely held, do not alter the indisputable fact that the grand jury found otherwise.

Aside from the fact that the government does not dispute that some of what it claims Sterling told Risen is true, the grand jury, of course, is not a confrontational proceeding. Sterling and his Russian asset did not, to the best of my understanding, testify before the grand jury. No final judgment on whether Sterling lied or not has been rendered.

And of course, the government would adamantly refuse to make any information with which the jury could assess such information available in court (indeed, I doubt they have made it available to Judge Brinkema here). In other words, the government wants to be able to force a reporter to testify based solely on its unrebutted assertion–endorsed by a grand jury–that Sterling lied. Given the asymmetry of access to classified information, given the government’s repeated success in withholding information from such trials, that is a very dangerous approach to allow to stand.

Risen’s efforts to prevent another war

But I’m most interested in the government’s weak response to Risen’s claim to have published the information because it was newsworthy. They don’t deal with the substance of Risen’s claim to newsworthiness, which basically argues he published the information in 2006 because the government was threatening to trump up another war, this time against Iran.

I gave this type of serious consideration to my publication of the information contained in Chapter 9 of State of War. I actually learned the information about Operation Merlin that was ultimately published in Chapter 9 of State of War in 2003, but I held the story for three years before publishing it. I made the decision to publish the information about Operation Merlin only after: (1) it became clear that the main rationale for fighting the Iraq War was based on flawed intelligence about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, including its supposed nuclear program; (2) the press, patiicularly The New York Times, had been harshly criticized for not doing more independent investigative reporting before the Iraq War about the quality of our intelligence concerning Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; (3) the March 31, 2005 Report to the President by the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction described American intelligence on Iran as inadequate to allow finn judgments about Iran’s weapons programs, making it clear that the CIA’s intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iran was just as badly flawed as it had been on Iraq; and (4) there was increasing speculation that the United States might be planning for a possible conflict with Iran, once again based on supposed intelligence concerning weapons of mass destruction, just as in Iraq. After all of this, I realized that U.S. intelligence on Iran’s supposed weapons of mass destruction was so flawed, and that the information I had was so important, that this was a story that the public had to know about before yet another war was launched.

Instead, they just talk about how dangerous (because trumped up wars aren’t dangerous) it would be excuse Risen from testifying because he published information that was newsworthy.

Moreover, the practical effect of a court’s engaging in such an analysis, by explicitly recognizing “good leaks” of classified information, would effectively destroy the system through which the country protects that information. It would encourage government employees who are provided access to classified information to betray their commitment to safeguard it by suggesting that they, too, should undertake their own independent analysis of the effect of their disclosure of that information should they desire to do so. It would also provide a ready-made defense for every disgruntled intelligence community employee or contractor who discloses such information to the press because he harbors a grudge against the institution for which he works.

(They also revert to their unproven claim that Sterling provided Risen with false information.)

But consider the environment in which Risen published this. Just a month before the publication of Risen’s book, it was becoming increasingly clear that the government had been trying for a year to generate support for actions against Iran by using a dodgy dossier and selectively tailored presentations based on non-traditional intelligence analysis.

The Bush Administration (or at least State Department officials) may not have believed that intelligence was ready for prime time a year ago. But they apparently believe it is ready now. In September we learned BushCo had itself another powerpoint presentation, this one titled “A History of Concealment and Deception” (did they get the same guy who came up with the name for the WHIG product, “A Grave and Gathering Danger” to name this one?):

The PowerPoint briefing, titled “A History of Concealment and Deception,” has been presented to diplomats from more than a dozen countries.

[snip]

Several diplomats said the slide show reminded them of the flawed presentation on Iraq’s weapons programs made by then-secretary of state Colin L. Powell to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003.

BushCo may think this is ready for prime time. But some people who have seen the presentation are not so sure.

Several diplomats said the presentation, intended to win allies for increasing pressure on the Iranian government, dismisses ambiguities in the evidence about Iran’s intentions and omits alternative explanations under debate among intelligence analysts.

The presenters argue that the evidence leads solidly to a conclusion that Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at producing weapons, according to diplomats who have attended the briefings and U.S. officials who helped to assemble the slide show. But even U.S. intelligence estimates acknowledge that other possibilities are plausible, though unverified.

The problem, acknowledged one U.S. official, is that the evidence is not definitive. Briefers “say you can’t draw any other conclusion, and of course you can draw other conclusions,” said the official, who would discuss the closed-door sessions only on condition of anonymity

Sounds familiar, huh? Omitting alternative explanations … again? But the most important line from this passage is this: “But even U.S. intelligence estimates acknowledge that other possibilities are plausible, though unverified.” Quick, someone tell Condi that somewhere deep in the bowels of the agency there are people who doubt this intelligence, because she will deny it later, mark my words.

We’re in the middle of arguments about the intelligence used to get us into the Iraq War, where Republicans try to prove that BushCo didn’t withhold information and Democrats point out that the Administration suppressed the doubts within the IC. But why are we having the argument about the last war, when they’re doing it again??? The Bush Administration is withholding information in the present–regardless of what it did in the past.

One more thing. This slide show? You’d think it’d reflect the consensus opinion of the IC, right? Well, no. Rather, it looks a lot more like the product of the reincarnation of OSP or WHIG than something respectable intelligence professionals (if there are any left who haven’t been hounded out by BushCo) would buy off on:

The presentation has not been vetted through standard U.S. intelligence channels because it does not include secret material. One U.S. official involved in the briefing said the intelligence community had nothing to do with the presentation and “probably would have disavowed some of it because it draws conclusions that aren’t strictly supported by the facts.”

The presentation, conducted in a conference room at the U.S. mission in Vienna, includes a pictorial comparison of Iranian facilities and missiles with photos of similar-looking items in North Korea and Pakistan, according to a copy of the slides handed out to diplomats. Pakistan largely supplied Iran with its nuclear infrastructure but, as a key U.S. ally, it is identified in the presentation only as “another country.”

Two months ago, the Bush Administration presented an explicitly politicized presentation to diplomats from other countries in an attempt to drum up support for a hardline against Iran.

Since that time, the IAEA has received evidence that the “laptop of death” on which this fearmongering was based might be a fabrication. Later, evidence came out to suggest the laptop of death came from the MEK (the same terrorist group the neocons are trying to rehabilitate, oddly without being prosecuted for material support for terrorism) via Mossad.

In other words, Risen published a story about the US providing fabricated nuclear plans to Iran. He published it–in spite of the government’s earlier success at persuading the NYT not to publish it–because the US had since been proven to have used fabricated intelligence to trump up a war against Iraq, and the government was in the process of using probably-fabricated materials (which included fabricated blueprints) to trump up action against Iran.

Now, I think Leonie Brinkema will do what District Court judges tend to do when the government says judges are unqualified to measure the importance of secrecy: I think she’ll cede to the government’s argument, no matter what she does on the other legal arguments.

But that doesn’t mean the conflict shouldn’t be one of the primary  topics of public discussion about this case.

The government is basically arguing that Risen shouldn’t have published information that helped us (so far) avoid a trumped-up war against Iran. It is quite possible he will end up spending time in jail–for protecting his sources–for having done so (as well as for having exposed illegal wiretapping that has never been punished). While the legal arguments may not work in Risen’s favor, that is what is at stake.

William Welch’s Gimmick and the Harassment of James Risen

As Josh Gerstein reports, Leonie Brinkema has unsealed her November 2010 ruling quashing the government’s subpoena of James Risen to testify before the grand jury. Gerstain describes several interesting details revealed in the ruling–including that the government withheld information, including details surrounding the 2005 testimony of, apparently, a Senate staffer. Go check out those details.

There are a couple of things I wanted to add to Gerstein’s analysis, though.

First, when the subpoena was first announced, I suggested that it appeared that the government’s inclusion of ticky tack charges like mail fraud seemed like an effort to invent a reason to require Risen’s testimony.

It appears likely they planned to [subpoena Risen again] all along and crafted the charges against Sterling accordingly. For example, they claim they need Risen to testify, in part, to authenticate his book and the locale where alleged leaks took place.

Risen can directly identify Sterling as the individual who illegally transmitted to him national defense information concerning Classified Program No. 1 and Human Asset No. 1. Because he is an eyewitness, his testimony will simplify the trial and clarify matters for the jury. Additionally, as set forth below, Risen can establish venue for certain of the charged counts; can authenticate his book and lay the necessary foundation to admit the defendant’s statements in the book; and can identify the defendant as someone with whom he had a preexisting source relationship that pre-dated the charged disclosures. His testimony therefore will allow for an efficient presentation of the Government’s case.

Locale issues stem from mail fraud charges that appeared ticky tack charges up to this point. But the government is now arguing that that information–as distinct from whether Sterling served as a source for the information at issue–is critical to these ticky tack charges. Which, it seems they hope, would get them beyond any balancing test on whether Risen’s testimony is crucial for the evidence at question.

As it turns out, Brinkema’s opinion makes it clear that the biggest window she left the government to call Risen at trial was authentication.

Although the government might have a plausible argument that such authentication may be necessary at trial, it cannot argue that the government has a compelling interest in authenticating chapter 9 during grand jury proceedings.

But given that she has rejected the government’s venue articles, it appears the mail fraud charges are a cheap attempt to enlarge the possible window of necessity of calling Risen for authentication.

In other words, it appears likely that Welch is just using a gimmick to try to force Risen to testify.

Which brings us to Risen’s claim the government is harassing him. Of note, Brinkema dismisses the claim that a new Attorney General couldn’t harass Risen, because some of the other lawyers on the case might be Bush dead-enders.

The issuance of the 2010 subpoena under a new Attorney General does not remove the specter of harassment, because we do not know how many of the attorneys and government officials who sought Risen’s testimony in 2008 are still in their jobs and to what extent, if any, they advised the new Attorney General about approving the subpoena.

She also notes that requesting all his book proposals supports a harassment charge; I would suggest it does so more so when you consider the possibility they were harassing Risen for the warrantless wiretap story that would also have been in the book proposal. But Brinkema doesn’t consider the way the Obama Administration has made some crazy ass arguments to defend Bush against illegal wiretap charges, which shows Obama’s DOJ is protecting the program itself as fiercely as Cheney did. In addition, she doesn’t consider Welch’s history of being a sloppy, overly aggressive prosecutor (though her disapproval of the broad scope of the Welch subpoena suggests she’d be open to such an argument).

But given my suspicion that a community of interest subpoena in this case might have served as a fishing expedition for the government’s investigation in the warrantless wiretap case, I’m particularly interested in the date the grand jury was convened in this case.

A grand jury sitting in the Eastern District of Virginia began investigating the disclosures about the [MERLIN] operation in

or about March 2006.

That’s not surprising, mind you. But it does date when a grand jury subpoena asking for a community of record might have been issued. And it does suggest that this investigation started at the same time as the government was going apeshit over their exposure on the illegal wiretap front.

The Timing of the Ramzi bin al-Shibh Tapes

I wanted to point out two details of timing on the Ramzi bin al-Shibh tapes:

  • The tapes were made after CIA started getting worried about making interrogation tapes
  • The tapes were disclosed after the CIA started trying to figure out what happened to the Abu Zubaydah tapes

The tapes were made after CIA already started getting worried about making interrogation tapes

The AP says the tapes were made while al-Shibh was in Morocco for the first time–sometime between September 17, 2002 and March 7, 2003.

When FBI agents finally had a chance to interview Binalshibh, they found him lethargic but physically unharmed. He projected an attitude suggesting he was unconcerned he had been caught.

Before the FBI made any real headway, the CIA flew Binalshibh on Sept. 17, 2002, to Morocco on a Gulfstream jet, according to flight records and interviews.

Current and former officials said this was the period when Binalshibh was taped. His revelations remain classified but the recordings, the officials said, made no mention of the 9/11 plot. It’s unclear who made the tapes or how they got to the agency’s Langley, Va., headquarters.

In March 2003, Binalshibh was moved to a Polish facility code-named Quartz soon after his mentor, Mohammed, was nabbed in Pakistan.

This would mean al-Shibh arrived in Morocco (and therefore the tapes were made) sometime after some people met at Langley and decided they should destroy the Zubaydah tapes.

On 05 September 2002, HQS elements discussed the disposition of the videotapes documenting interrogation sessions with ((Abu Zubaydah)) that are currently being stored at [redacted] with particular consideration to the matters described in Ref A Paras 2 and 3 and Ref B para 4. As reflected in Refs, the retention of these tapes, which is not/not required by law, represents a serious security risk for [redacted] officers recorded on them, and for all [redacted] officers present and participating in [redacted] operations.

[snip]

Accordingly, the participants determined that the best alternative to eliminate those security and additional risks is to destroy these tapes [redacted]

The CIA appears to have already been manipulating briefing records, possibly to give the appearance of Congressional support for either the program or the destruction of the tapes.

Note, too, that there are only two video tapes (plus the “audio” tape I’ve raised questions about here). If the audio tape were, in fact, just an audio tape, that would leave two video tapes. Which is how many tapes existed of Rahim al-Nashiri’s interrogations, at least by the time they did the inventory. That’s presumably because al-Nashiri was taken into CIA custody after the point when–on October 25, 2002–HQ told the Thai black site to record over tapes every day.

It is now HQS policy that [redacted] record one day’s worth of sessions on one videotape for operational considerations, utilize the tape within that same day for purposes of review and note taking, and record the next day’s sessions on the same tape. Thus, in effect, the single tape in use [redacted] will contain only one day’s worth of interrogation sessions.

Now we know they kept two (or maybe three) tapes for al-Nashiri (presumably taking notes off one day’s tape while the other was being used to record new interrogations) because the tape inventory shows the following:

Detainee #2

[Tape] 91 [Redacted]tape and rewind #2

[Tape] 92 3 [Redacted] use and rewind #3 [redacted] final

While obviously we have no such inventory showing the al-Shibh tapes, it is possible that they were used in the same manner as the al-Nashiri tapes were–to collect just one day’s worth of interrogation to assist in transcription or note-taking. (And remember, ultimately there were transcriptions made of the al-Shibh tapes, though we don’t know when that happened). It’s possible then–though this is just a wildarsed guess–that the existence of just three tapes suggests they were started after HQ decided to tape over tapes (so after October 25), or that they first implemented the policy for al-Shibh sometime before October 25.

Also note the content of the last three–presumably chronologically–tapes of Abu Zubaydah. Tapes 89 and 90 are “use and rewind” #1 and #2. But the tape just before that–tape 88–has “no video but there is sound.” Thus, the last three tapes from Abu Zubaydah consist of two video tapes and one “audio” tape, just like the three tapes from al-Shibh.

If in fact the 2-3 al-Shibh tapes only include the last days of his interrogation on which taping was used, then the AP source’s claim that they simply show him sitting in a room being interrogated doesn’t mean that the tapes contained no forensic evidence of something else–more abusive interrogations that happened on earlier days. After all, the tapes would no longer “show” what had happened during earlier interrogation sessions.

One more note about this early period. One question the AP raises is when and how the tapes were moved from Morocco to Langley.

It’s worth remembering that the Zubaydah and al-Nashiri tapes were also moved at one point. In a cable from HQ to the field (we know this from Vaughn Indices that described this cable before it was released) written on December 3, 2002, just days after John McPherson reviewed the torture tapes and presumably discovered they had been tampered with, someone says:

It was a mistake to move [redacted] tapes [redacted] in light of Ref C guidance.

Notably, given that this refers to tapes being moved in the past tense on December 3, this may suggest the tapes were moved from the black site before it was finally closed. Mind you, the detail may be completely irrelevant to al-Shibh’s tapes, but they do suggest people in the field were moving tapes without clear approval from HQ.

The tapes were disclosed after the CIA started trying to figure out what happened to the Abu Zubaydah tapes

As I noted here, the story the AP’s sources told (that a person stumbled across a box under a desk with all three al-Shibh tapes in it) and the story DOJ told Leonie Brinkema (that they learned first of one tape, and then, after asking CIA to make sure there were no more) differ in key ways.

But that difference gets all the more interesting given indications that CIA was trying to figure out what had happened to the Zubaydah tapes in precisely the same time period. Continue reading

Were the Ramzi bin al-Shibh Tapes Altered Like the Abu Zubaydah Tapes Were?

Given that the AP has filled in some details about the Ramzi bin al-Shibh tapes someone had hidden under a desk at CIA, I wanted to look back at the letter DOJ wrote to Leonie Brinkema in 2007, when the government first admitted it had been sitting on those tapes.

AP says the tapes were found all at once while DOJ only learned about them over a month’s time

As you recall, DOJ sent this letter on October 25, 2007, to tell Judge Leonie Brinkema (who had presided over the Zacarias Moussaoui trial) and a judge who had presided over appeals in that case that two CIA declarations DOJ had submitted–on May 9, 2003 and on November 14, 2005–”had factual errors.”

Here’s how the AP describes the tapes and their discovery:

The CIA has tapes of 9/11 plotter Ramzi Binalshibh being interrogated in a secret overseas prison. Discovered under a desk, the recordings could provide an unparalleled look at how foreign governments aided the U.S. in holding and questioning suspected terrorists.The two videotapes and one audiotape are believed to be the only remaining recordings made within the clandestine prison system.

[snip]

When the CIA destroyed its cache of 92 videos of two other al-Qaida operatives, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Nashiri, being waterboarded in 2005, officials believed they had wiped away all of the agency’s interrogation footage. But in 2007, a staffer discovered a box tucked under a desk in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and pulled out the Binalshibh tapes.

[snip]

The CIA first publicly hinted at the existence of the Binalshibh tapes in 2007 in a letter to U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema in Virginia. The government twice denied having such tapes, and recanted once they were discovered. But the government blacked out Binalshibh’s name from a public copy of the letter. [my emphasis]

The DOJ letter describes a slightly different (though not necessarily inconsistent) chronology. It claims the CIA informed DOJ first of one videotape, and then roughly a month later, of the second videotape and audiotape.

On September 13, 2007, an attorney for the CIA notified us of the discovery of a video tape of the interrogation of [1.5 lines redacted] On September 19, 2007, we viewed the video tape and a transcript [redacted] of the interview. The transcript contains no mention of Moussaoui or any details of the September 11 plot. In other words, the contents of the interrogation have no bearing on the Moussaoui prosecution. The evidence of the video tape, however, is at odds with the statements in two CIA declarations submitted in this case, as discussed in detail below.

After learning of the existence of the first video tape, we requested the CIA to perform an exhaustive review to determine whether it was in possession of any other such recordings for any of the enemy combatant witnesses at issue in this case. CIA’s review, which now appears to be complete, uncovered the existence of a second video tape, as well as a short audio tape, both of which pertained to interrogations [redacted]. On October 18, 2007, we viewed the second video tape and listened to the audio tape, while reviewing transcripts [redacted] Like the first video tape, the contents of the second video tape and the audio tape have no bearing on the Moussaoui prosecution–they neither mention Moussaoui nor discuss the September 11 plot. We attach for the Courts’ review ex parte a copy of the transcripts for the three recordings.

At our request, CIA also provided us with intelligence cables pertaining to the interviews recorded on the two video tapes. Because we reviewed these cables during our discovery review, we wanted to ensure that the cables accurately captured the substance of the interrogations. Based on our comparison of the cables to the [redacted] videotapes, and keeping in mind that the cables were prepared for the purposes of disseminating intelligence, we found that the intelligence cables accurately summarized the substance of the interrogations in question. [my emphasis]

So the AP’s sources suggested that a staffer simply pulled out a box [Christmas in September!] and found all three tapes–presumably at the same time–whereas DOJ only found out about one tape at first, then sent CIA back to see if there were more. If, as the AP suggests, the CIA found the tapes all at once, then it suggests that the CIA withheld two of the tapes from DOJ until DOJ asked for them specifically. Given that DOJ reviewed the first tape on September 19 and the second and third on October 18, there seems to have been a delay in getting those second two tapes, which might either suggest the tapes weren’t found at the same time, or CIA was very slow in turning over tapes they already knew existed.

Continue reading

Did Mitchell and Jessen Have the Three OTHER Torture Tapes? Or the Egyptians?

Update: Aeon makes an important point: the tapes may have been in foreign custody.

I thought it might be useful to go back and see what DOJ said to Brinkema about the ones that didn’t get destroyed.

The position of the CIA is that only AZ and al-Nashiri were videotaped. (grain of salt time — It is also their position that they recorded over all tapes every two days — thus explaining why only 92 tapes were destroyed.)

A Feb 2008 Mazzetti article about the subject of your post here adds some detail:

But federal prosecutors told a judge in October that the C.I.A. possessed two videotapes and one audiotape documenting the interrogations of detainees suspected of having been Qaeda operatives. In recent weeks, some government officials have indicated that the C.I.A. may have obtained those tapes or others from foreign intelligence services.

So another detainee could very well have been shown on these three tapes especially if obtained from a liaison service. But also the interrogation in question may have been then conducted by the same foreign intel service.

Moussaoui also asked for material from Ibn Sheikh al-Libi. Who, of course, was in Egyptian custody. That might explain why the transcripts were suspect, and it might explain why one part of CIA had contact with the people who had the tapes.  Thanks Aeon!


Since we’re back on torture tapes, I wanted to return to the letter DOJ sent to Leonie Brinkema to tell her they had found three torture tapes they had neglected to mention when she asked about tapes in November 2005. There’s much that remains obscure about this letter, but the whole thing makes a lot more sense if Mitchell and Jessen had been in possession of the three "discovered" tapes.

DOJ writes:

Recently, we learned that the CIA obtained three recordings (two video tapes and one short audio tape) of interviews of [four lines redacted]. We are unaware of recordings involving the other enemy combatant witnesses at issue in this case [half line redacted, must be the names of those Moussaoui asked to testify]. Further, the CIA came into possession of the three recordings under unique circumstances involving separate national security matters unrelated to the Moussaoui prosecution.

On September 13, 2007, an attorney for the CIA notified us of the discovery of a video tape of the interrogation of [one and a half lines redacted]. On September 19, 2007, we viewed the video tape and a transcript [redacted] of the interview. The transcript contains no mention of Moussaoui or any details of the September 11 plot. In other words, the contents of the interrogation have no bearing on the Moussaoui prosecution [footnote to a comment, "the recording from (redacted)"]. The existence of the video tape is at odds with statements in two CIA declarations submitted in this case, as discussed in detail below.

After learning of the existence of the first video tape, we requested the CIA to perform an exhaustive review to determine whether it was in a possession of any other such recordings for any of the enemy combatant witnesses at issue in this case. CIA’s review, which now appears to be complete, uncovered the existence of a second video tape, as well as a short audio tape, both of which pertained to interrogations [redacted]. On October 18, 2007, we viewed the second video tape and listened to the audio tape, while reviewing transcripts [redacted, with unredacted footnote saying, "The transcript of the audio tape previously existed and was contained within an intelligence cable."] Like the first video tape, the contents of the second video tape and the audio tape have no bearing on the Moussaoui prosecution–they neither mention Moussaoui nor discuss the September 11 plot. We attach for the Courts’ review ex parte a copy of the transcripts for the three recordings. Continue reading

Torturous Logic

I agree with Jeff. Given the news that the torture tapes never entered the US, given Porter Goss’ apparent command not to destroy the torture tapes "in Washington," and given the terms of the Federal Records Act

Mansfield did not explain why the CIA didn’t find the destroyed videotapes to be "records" as defined under the law. But agency officials could be relying on another provision of the records law that permits an agency, during wartime, to destroy records outside the continental United States that are judged to be "prejudicial to the interests of the United States."

I think the CIA and the Administration stretched logic with each and every request for the torture tapes so as to claim they never were required to hand over the tapes.

We’ve already seen such tortured logic in the Administration response to Judge Kennedy’s alarm that they had destroyed tapes that may have been responsive to an order he gave them.

Kennedy ordered the administration in June 2005 to safeguard "all evidence and information regarding the torture, mistreatment, and abuse of detainees now at the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay."

Five months later, the CIA destroyed the interrogation videos. The recordings involved suspected terrorists Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri

Government lawyers told Kennedy the tapes were not covered by his court order because Zubaydah and al-Nashiri were not at the Guantanamo military prison in Cuba. The men were being held overseas in a network of secret CIA prisons. By the time President Bush acknowledged the existence of those prisons and the prisoners were transferred to Guantanamo, the tapes had been destroyed.

And whoever pointed Isikoff to the loophole in the Records Act that tapes overseas can be destroyed would presumably believe that negated the ACLU FOIA request for records on detainees held in US custody overseas. Continue reading

Emptywheel Twitterverse
bmaz @joshgerstein @hbottemiller @ObamaFoodorama Were they screwing or drinking the sushi?
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bmaz @CBSAndrew @MikeSacksEsq Joined; good to see Mike back.
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bmaz And I still maintain Naverette has far greater Constitutional significance than Schuette. It deserves more attention.
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bmaz Here's @ScottGreenfield on why Navarette is such a heinous decision, and why Scalia's dissent is praiseworthy http://t.co/JkFbebz4tC
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bmaz The dragnet too. Getting snitches big FBI goal RT @adamgoldmanwp Lawsuit: FBI using no-fly list to recruit informants http://t.co/TqeLQT8gPO
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bmaz This quote by Guantanamo lead prosecutor Andrea Lockhart is proof of the total farce that are the Gitmo Show Trials https://t.co/NmvPfzWXdZ
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bmaz @carolrosenberg So she has never practiced in federal, state or local courts?
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JimWhiteGNV With Removal of Materials Under CW Agreement Nearly Complete, Concern in Syria Over Chlorine Use http://t.co/FuRNs7bmpT
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bmaz @ScottGreenfield @VolokhC @OrinKerr That will be one of the saddest moves imaginable in the legal blogging community.
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emptywheel Reup: Back Door Searches: One of Two Replacements for the Internet Dragnet? http://t.co/17vCc9ZbRe
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bmaz @michaelwhitney Have you considered meth?
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bmaz @EdgeofSports FYI: A look at Pat Tillman the man, apart from football and Army http://t.co/LHFaQOUS99
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