DC Circuit Reinstates Blackwater Nisour Shooting Prosecution

On December 31, 2009 DC District Judge Ricardo Urbina dismissed the indictment against five Blackwater defendants involved in what is commonly referred to as the Nisour Square shootings occurring on September 16, 2007. Urbina’s decision was 90 pages in length and was further supported by a three week long Kastigar hearing in his court October of 2009. A Kastigar hearing is an evidentiary inquiry based upon Kastigar v. United States, 92 S. Ct. 1653 (1972), “where a party has been compelled to relinquish his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in reliance on the government‘s promises of immunity, the government bears the―affirmative duty to prove that the evidence it proposes to use is derived from a legitimate source wholly independent of the compelled testimony.”

Today, in a surprising unanimous decision, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Urbina, reinstated the case against four of the five original defendants (the prosecution had voluntarily dismissed Defendant Slatten previously) and remanded the case back to District Court for further proceedings. Here is how Reuters described the ruling:

The five guards were charged with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempt to commit manslaughter and one weapons violation count over a Baghdad shooting that outraged Iraqis and strained ties between the two countries.

The shooting occurred as the private security firm’s guards escorted a heavily armed four-truck convoy of U.S. diplomats through the Iraqi capital on September 16, 2007. The guards, U.S. military veterans, were responding to a car bombing when gunfire erupted at a crowded intersection.

U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled in December 2009 that prosecutors violated the defendants’ constitutional rights and the case was tainted by use of statement the guards made to State Department investigators under a threat of job loss.

The appeals court reversed that ruling that the indictment of the guards had been improperly obtained through the use of their compelled statements. It ruled Urbina wrongly interpreted the law.

The appeals court sent the case back to Urbina to determine what evidence, if any, the government presented had been tainted and whether it was harmless.

The public version of the decision is here however, there is also a sealed classified version containing additional material.

The first thing to consider here is the standard of review the Circuit Court used in analyzing the appeal, because there were intermixing of factual and legal findings inherent in the Kastigar process, the court reviewed for clear error:

We review the district court’s findings that the government used a defendant’s immunized statement for clear error, United States v. North, 910 F.2d 843, 855 (D.C. Cir. 1990) (“North I”), a standard that is met for any finding that was “induced by an erroneous view of the law,”

In a nutshell, what that means is that the appellate court had to give strong deference to the findings by the trial court. In spite of this deference still unanimously blew Judge Urbina’s findings straight out Read more

DOJ Sits On Its Thumbs A Year After Macondo’s Mouth Of Hell Roared

It has now been, as noted at FDLNews by David Dayen, one year from the date the British Petroleum wellhead at Macondo blew out, thus killing 11 workers on the TransOcean platform known as “Deepwater Horizon” in the Gulf of Mexico.

Jason Anderson, Aaron Dale Burkeen, Donald Clark, Stephen Curtis, Roy Wyatt Kemp, Karl Kleppinger, Gordon Jones, Blair Manuel, Dewey Revette, Shane Roshto, Adam Weise

These are names you should know. These are the first, and most blatant, victims of the Deepwater Horizon explosion at Macondo. Their actual names do not quickly come to the tongue, nor are they so easy to find. In fact, you know what I had to do to find them? Go through the same process this guy did. And, still, the first link I found them at was his post. Here is a taste of his disgust, and I join it wholeheartedly:

I had to search for those 11 names; most of you may not know them. We didn’t start a war over them, they’re not under any suspicion of anything, not a board of directors of some evil corporate cabal; on the contrary, many would say they are victims of it.

….

But I found them in a story about how frustrated the families are a year later, how frustrated the region is and how all this pep talk about how things are recovering just aren’t true. And there’s plenty of stories about how BP claims to have had its best year ever in terms of safety, yet it caused the worst oil spill in history?? Lots of stories about how the CEO got a million dollar retirement package and bonuses given here and there and it’s enough to make one puke crude, much like a lot of the Gulf remains doing.

First of all, to the families, these people are not “presumed” dead Wikipedia. I know it may be a legal thing, bodies never found, no conclusive evidence, blah blah. They were killed, soldiers in the energy wars killed by friendly fire.

….

…victims of our wanton unbridled lust for oil and the greed of those that produce it. They are dead, gone forever, never to be seen or see their loved ones or live to any more potential; they are gone.

And their deaths appear to have meant little to the world. Nor did the subsequent deaths of everything from thousands of dolphins to countless species of marine life; from the deaths of the livelihoods of so many in the region to the loss of countless ecosystems.

Truer words have likely never been spoken. And that is where I want to pick up.

What could have been done to address these heinous human and ecological wrongs that has not?

Everything.

Because nothing, not diddly squat, has been done. And if the corporate powers that be in this country, and the political puppets who serve them, including Barack Obama, Eric Holder and the currently politicized Department of Justice, have anything to say about it (and they have everything to say about it) nothing significant is going to be done about BP, TransOcean, Halliburton and the Gulf tragedy, or anything related, in the future.

Like the craven and dishonest shell game that has been played by the current administration with regard to torture and destruction of evidence, the US government appears to simply be determined to shine this on with the bare minimum of faux accountability and disingenuous rhetoric to soothe the perturbed masses and maintain status quo with their partners in corporate/political domination of the Read more

The Weakness Of The Barry Bonds Obstruction Verdict

Yesterday the Barry Bonds trial ended with a single conviction for obstruction of justice and a mistrial declared due to a hung jury on the other three remaining counts. There were originally five counts in the indictment, but count four was dismissed prior to the case being given to the jury. The case was in front of Judge Susan Illston in the Northern District of California (NDCA) District Court.

Of the four counts given to the jury, the three mistried were for what is commonly referred to as perjury, but formally described as false declaration before a grand jury or court under 18 USC 1623(a). The jury votes on those three counts now dismissed via mistrial were 9-3 acquit (HGH use), 8-4 acquit (steroid use) and 11-1 convict (the injection count). As always, I strongly suggest that reading very much into such numbers on hung counts is foolish; the dynamics behind such numbers are never simple, and never what you think they are. Most media types covering the trial have, almost universally, stated they do not expect a retrial on the three hung counts. I think such a statement is premature, and somewhat ill advised, under the circumstances as the likelihood of a retrial will be dependent on what Judge Illston does with the coming motion to set aside the verdict and, assuming that is denied, the sentencing of Bonds.

The fascinating question right now, however, is exactly how firm is the obstruction conviction? The answer is maybe not so firm at all. When I first heard there was a partial verdict, I thought – as did several others around me – that it was likely a conviction and hung jury on the other counts. Well, that was exactly right, however I assumed the conviction would be on the injection count; never contemplated for a second that the jury would not convict on any of the substantive predicate counts but still convict on the catch-all obstruction count. So, let’s take a look at that count, and the conviction thereon, because there are some serious issues involved that tend to undermine its strength above and beyond the fact there were no convictions on the underlying counts.

The obstruction count is charged under 18 USC 1503, which reads:

Whoever corruptly, or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, endeavors to influence, intimidate, or impede any grand or petit juror, or officer in or of any court of the United States, or officer who may be serving at any examination or other proceeding before any United States magistrate judge or other committing magistrate, in the discharge of his duty, or injures any such grand or petit juror in his person or property on account of any verdict or indictment assented to by him, or on account of his being or having been such juror, or injures any such officer, magistrate judge, or other committing magistrate in his person or property on account of the performance of his official duties, or corruptly or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice, shall be punished as provided in subsection (b). If the offense under this section occurs in connection with a trial of a criminal case, and the act in violation of this section involves the threat of physical force or physical force, the maximum term of imprisonment which may be imposed for the offense shall be the higher of that otherwise provided by law or the maximum term that could have been imposed for any offense charged in such case.

Now the astute reader will note there is no materiality requirement in the direct language of 18 USC 1503. However, a prior case in the 9th Circuit, US v. Thomas, has held that materiality of the obstructive conduct is indeed a necessary element for a conviction under 18 USC 1503.

In light of Ryan and Rasheed, we conclude that although not expressly included in the text of § 1503, materiality is a requisite element of a conviction under that statute. Our conclusion does not, however, mandate a reversal of Thomas’s obstruction conviction, because it is clear that the jury found the requisite element of materiality in convicting Thomas on count six. The jury unanimously returned a special verdict on Thomas’s § 1503(a) charge indicating that the false statements alleged in counts one and three of Thomas’s indictment obstructed justice, and the jury in turn had found Thomas guilty of making material false statements with respect to counts one and three. By convicting Thomas of perjury on counts one and three, the jury necessarily found the statements in those counts to be material. And by indicating in a special verdict form that these statements obstructed jus- tice, the jury necessarily found that Thomas’s obstruction conviction was based on two material statements.

Several things are interesting here. First off, the Thomas decision was authored by the infamous torture memo author Jay Bybee. More importantly, however, Thomas was yet another in the long line of BALCO Read more

William Welch and DOJ’s Mojo Is Not Risen

Who says fun things don’t come on Fridays? There is some nice little spooky news on the wire this afternoon. Jeffrey Sterling, a former veteran CIA agent on the Iran beat, was charged back in January with leaking classified information to a reporter. the reporter is widely known and accepted to be none other than the New York Time’s James Risen, and the material supposedly was contained in his book State of War. The prosecution, headed by DOJ leak hitman William Welch (disgraced supervisor in the unethical prosecution of Ted Stevens). For some unknown reason, Welch was installed by the Obama/Holder DOJ as head of their unprecedented crackdown on leaks to the media.

Looks like Welch may have gotten in front of himself again. From the Washington Post:

The government’s case against an ex-CIA officer charged with leaking classified documents to a reporter may not make it to trial because of potential issues with a witness, a federal prosecutor said Friday.

….

At a pretrial hearing Friday in U.S. District Court, prosecutor William Welch told the judge that “potential witness issues” will determine “whether the case goes to trial or not.” He did not elaborate.

Uh huh. What this really means is the court is not likely to change its mind about compelling Risen to testify – Judge Brinkema has already refused and quashed a subpoena once – and the DOJ’s own written guidelines make it hard for them to pursue that further. Oh, and they bloody well do not have enough admissible evidence to make their case without Risen. Makes you wonder just how, and how legally, the prosecution got much of their evidence.

Something you might would have thought a guy like Welch, who has made such an embarrassment of himself in prior big public cases, would have figured out ahead of time. Hey, who knows, maybe Welch can salvage his witchhunt against Sterling and Risen somehow; but you sure don’t see this kind of banter in open court when things are all nice and rosy.

William Welch’s mojo ain’t Risen.

Solicitor General Email FOIA Shows White House Stunt Fail

In all the government shutdown, nuclear meltdown and Libya war of choice news dominating the media landscape the last couple of weeks, a completely juicy little tidbit was pried out of the Obama Administration by a right wing news outfit – and almost nobody picked up on it.

CNSNews, the cyber division of the Brent Bozell run right wing Media Research Center, has scored a bit of a coup with the acquisition of a set of FOIA documents from the Solicitor General’s office partially detailing the unusual grooming of Elana Kagan to ascend to the Supreme Court. The 66 pages of documents are fascinating and offer a unique and rare glimpse into the backstage machinations in the SG Office. The FOIA CNSNews issued was targeted almost solely at the great whale the Ahab like conservative right are pursuing, the Affordable Healthcare Act they unaffectionately refer to as “ObamaCare”.

Here is the thing, why would the Administration agree to turn over the emails? They are almost surely protected within the ambit of deliberative privilege exemption commonly recognized for the Executive Branch. Indeed, the first time CNSNews requested the records, the request was flatly rejected, back on June 22, 2010. But, the Administration, on its own, reconsidered, sought slight clarification and, finally, on March 15 of this year, delivered the FOIA records to CNSNews. The response letter from the Solicitor General’s office facially states that they would have been well within their rights to so withhold, but “it would be appropriate to release significant portions of such records requested as a matter of agency discretion”.

Uh huh. Experts in such matters were shocked. Kannon Shanmugam, a veteran of the SG’s office now with Williams & Connolly, stated (subscription may be required):

…the documents represent “an unusual if not unprecedented” look at the office’s operations. “It raises concerns about chilling lawyers in the office in the conduct of their work, and gives an incentive not to put things down in emails.

Indeed that would be seemingly very sound analysis. So, why did the Obama Administration give up the goods? For that, a quick look at what the emails depict, and what the FOIA asked for is necessary. As the FOIA search terms and parameters indicate, CNSNews was looking for instances of Elana Kagan’s Read more

Terror Trials, Ray Kelly and the FBI Director Job

A couple of weeks ago quite a stir was created when the rumor was let leak that President Obama was considering three different high level Bush/Cheney Administration officials to replace FBI Director Robert Mueller, whose ten year term will expire will expire on September 4, 2011. The two names most prominently featured were former Bush Deputy AG James Comey and former Bush National Security AAG Ken Wainstein but also mentioned was former Bush Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend. The story creating the hubbub, almost as an afterthought, also mentioned that Sen. Chuck Schumer had been lobbying for current NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly for the job.

Today, however, comes a news report from local New York investigative reporter Murray Weiss that the FBI Director chair is Ray Kelly’s “for the taking”:

And when sources with solid connections in the White House tell you Kelly has been told by Attorney General Eric Holder that the FBI director’s job is his for the taking, it is impossible to ignore them. All the signals, including the aside from Kelly, are in sync.

Here is the news, according to my sources.

Kelly, who served in two federal posts during the Clinton administration, is this close to heading out of Manhattan and back to Washington to cap his long career of public service by running the FBI.

There are several things interesting about the report. One is Kelly’s age – he is 69 years old. The article addresses that issue:

The FBI Director’s term is 10 years. My sources say the White House has told the 69-year-old Kelly to view the position as a five year commitment, which would coincide nicely with the end of a second Obama term.

If so, and Kelly is indeed nominated, this is a contemptible plan. The intent behind having a ten year service period for the FBI top spot is to give it some space from hard partisan politics. In this case, seeing as how rare it is that a party who has had the presidency for two terms gets it for a third, setting up the FBI job to be open in the face of what would historically be and expected GOP president in 2016 seems short-sighted and extremely ill considered. I guess that presupposes Obama is reelected, but you have to assume the White House believes that will be the case and is acting under Read more

Scott Bloch Headed To Prison

[UPDATE: Bloch was sentenced to one month prison, one year probation and 200 hours of community service. His attorney indicated they will appeal, which could be interesting since the plea appears to, on its face, disallow appeal. And the saga of Scott the Blochhead rambles on…..]

Since mid-February an important, but little noticed, criminal case has been playing out in DC District court in which former Bush/Cheney administration Special Counsel Scott Bloch is charged with criminal contempt of Congress pursuant to 2 USC 192. As I summarized in an earlier post:

As you will recall, former former Bush/Cheney Administration Special Counsel Scott Bloch destroyed evidence by wiping government computers clean, lied to Congress about it and conspired with the DOJ to minimize the conduct and slough it off with a sweetheart plea deal. Then, outrageously, when the court indicated it was inclined to impose the mandatory minimum month in jail, which was mandated by the statute Bloch pled guilty to, Bloch and the DOJ conspired to get the plea, which had already been accepted and entered by the court, withdrawn.

When Bloch and DOJ both worked together to get the plea withdrawn, and frustrate justice, the egregious nature of the attempt was documented here in a fully argued and supported post published on Tuesday March 1, 2011. Subsequent to that post, the court also found questions with the attempt to withdraw the plea and ordered Bloch to file a reply supporting the attempt.

At the previous date set for sentencing, on March 14, the court gave Bloch one last shot to brief his way out of the hole he dug for himself and ordered a tight briefing schedule therefore. Bloch filed his Motion for Reconsideration on March 14, The government filed their response, again colluding with Bloch, on March 17, and Bloch filed his reply on March 23.

Late yesterday afternoon, Judge Deborah Robinson ruled on Bloch’s latest attempt to get out of the mandatory incarceration sentence he pled guilty to, and entered her order denying his motion. The court fairly well blasted Bloch’s whining attempt to withdraw and, by extension, the continued Read more

DOJ’s New Miranda Policy Betrays Constitution & Power of Judiciary

The proclivity of the Obama Administration to simply do as it pleases, whether it violates the Constitution, established authority or the separation of powers doctrine is beyond striking. Last week at this time they were ignoring the Constitutional right of Congress, the Article I branch, to be the determinative branch on the decision to take the country to war. Today Mr. Obama’s Department of Justice has stretched its ever extending arm out to seize, and diminish, the power and authority of the judicial branch and the US Constitution.

Specifically, the DOJ has decided to arrogate upon itself the power to modify the Constitutionally based Miranda rights firmly established by the Article III Branch, the Supreme Court. From Evan Perez at the Wall Street Journal:

New rules allow investigators to hold domestic-terror suspects longer than others without giving them a Miranda warning, significantly expanding exceptions to the instructions that have governed the handling of criminal suspects for more than four decades.

The move is one of the Obama administration’s most significant revisions to rules governing the investigation of terror suspects in the U.S. And it potentially opens a new political tussle over national security policy, as the administration marks another step back from pre-election criticism of unorthodox counterterror methods.

The Supreme Court’s 1966 Miranda ruling obligates law-enforcement officials to advise suspects of their rights to remain silent and to have an attorney present for questioning. A 1984 decision amended that by allowing the questioning of suspects for a limited time before issuing the warning in cases where public safety was at issue.

That exception was seen as a limited device to be used only in cases of an imminent safety threat, but the new rules give interrogators more latitude and flexibility to define what counts as an appropriate circumstance to waive Miranda rights.

A Federal Bureau of Investigation memorandum reviewed by The Wall Street Journal says the policy applies to “exceptional cases” where investigators “conclude that continued unwarned interrogation is necessary to collect valuable and timely intelligence not related to any immediate threat.” Such action would need prior approval from FBI supervisors and Justice Department lawyers, according to the memo, which was issued in December but not made public.

This type of move has been afoot for almost a year, with Eric Holder proposing it in a string of Sunday morning talk shows on May 9, 2010 and, subsequently, based on Holder’s request for Congressional action to limit Miranda in claimed terrorism cases, Representative Adam Smith proposed such legislation on July 31, 2010. Despite the howling of the usual suspects such as Lindsay Graham, Joe Lieberman, etc. the thought of such legislation died in the face of bi-partisan opposition from a wide range of legislators who actually understood Constitutional separation of powers and judicial authority. They knew the proposed legislation flew in the face of both concepts. And they were quite Read more

NYT’s Selective Press Prosecution Outrage Doesn’t Include WikiLeaks

As a follow up to yesterday afternoon’s decision in the WikiLeaks grand jury subpoena case, it is, shall we say, interesting that the New York Times today comes out with and editorial slamming democracies that use secret evidence and maneuvers to prosecute journalists.

The editorial is titled No Way to Run a Democracy and it doesn’t spend one word of it on the rabid use of just those tactics in relation to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange (See here and here). Nor has there been any comparable outrage over the US actions against WikiLeaks journalists in any other NYT effort and/or article.

Now, make no mistake, the plight of investigative journalists in Turkey under threat from the administration of Prime Minister Erdogan is extremely troubling, and it is commendable that the Gray Lady has called it out. But it does make you wonder where the same outrage is in relation to the First Amendment eviscerating effort of the US Department of Justice toward WikiLeaks and Assange. An investigation which could, and if it is taken to its logical conclusion, should involve the Times itself.

Maybe it is because Bill Keller reached some agreement with the DOJ not to trash them in return for DOJ laying off the NYT during one of his endless tete a tetes with them over quashing news reporting, maybe Keller and the Times are fearful that they don’t have some kind of secret agreement with the DOJ, maybe it is the product of the merging of the media and government in the US, or maybe it is because of Keller’s irrational and unprofessional extreme dislike of, and contempt for, the “dirty” Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

Whatever the reason, the stridence against the Erdogan government actions contrasted with the silence toward the domestic Obama government actions is telling.

WikiLeaks: Court Upholds US Subpoena For Twitter Records

In a 21 page opinion, US Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan of the Eastern District of Virginia District Court has just granted the United States Department of Justice subpoena demand for records in the WikiLeaks investigation.

Three people associated with WikiLeaks – Jacob Appelbaum, Birgitta Jonsdottir, and Rop Gonggrijp – had petitioned the court to vacate the subpoena and to unseal the court pleadings. The court held:

For the foregoing reasons, petitioners’ Motion to Vacate is DENIED. Petitioners’ Motion to Unseal is DENIED as to docket 10- gj-3793, and GRANTED as to the 1:11-dm-00003 docket, with the exception of the government attorney’s email address in Twitter’s Motion for Clarification (Dkt. 24), which shall be redacted. Petitioners’ request for public docketing of the material within 10-gj-3793 shall be taken under consideration. An Order shall follow.

The three WikiLeaks individuals had argued the subpoena violated constitutional protections for free speech and association; the court disagreed. Appelbaum, Gonggrijp and Jonsdottir have already stated they will appeal.

You can read the full opinion here. I will be updating the post as I read the decision.

In December of last year, the US government, upon ex parte motion, moved the EDVA Court to enter a sealed Order (“Twitter Order”) pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2703(d) of the Stored Communications Act, which governs government access to customer records stored by a service provider. The Twitter Order, which was unsealed on January 5, 2010, at the request of Twitter, required Twitter to turn Read more

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