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The Mark Zaid Materials from the Jeffrey Sterling Trial

Because he just formed a new whistleblower group with John Napier Tye, there as been renewed interest in allegations an FBI Agent made during the Jeffrey Sterling case about attorney Mark Zaid. But there was actually a second detail regarding Zaid released just after the trial that has not been publicly reported: Zaid was interviewed by the FBI, twice, and was even interviewed before Sterling himself was.

I asked Zaid whether he was obligated to do the FBI interviews on Twitter but got no response. I think it’s possible FBI asked to interview him as much because the Senate Intelligence Committee was refusing to cooperate in the investigation as anything else; at the time, FBI considered SSCI staffer Bill Duhnke a more likely suspect than Sterling (and it’s not clear they ever ruled him out).

Let me be clear: I’m posting these materials to make the full context of them accessible. Zaid has not explained these, but he has promised repeatedly there is an explanation for them. As noted, there may be a perfectly logical explanation that has as much to do with Senate privileges as it does with attorney-client.

In any case, these materials are just what was directly related to the criminal case. The criminal investigation actually interacted with events in Sterling’s EEO lawsuit — which is what Zaid was primarily representing Sterling on in 2003 — in even more interesting ways I may return to.

Special Agent Ashley Hunt’s accusations

The following accusation came in prosecutor Eric Olshan’s redirect of Ashley Hunt, the FBI witness in the trial, after Sterling’s lawyers had demonstrated that the investigation was narrowly focused on Sterling without questioning some of the other possible witnesses in the case.

Q. When you initiated the investigation, I believe you testified it was in April of 2003?

A. That’s correct.

Q. At the time when you initiated your investigation concerning unauthorized disclosure of classified information to James Risen, did you learn any information regarding Mark Zaid and Mr. Krieger that, that directed your investigation?

A. I did.

MR. MAC MAHON: Your Honor, objection. That door was not opened as to Mr. Sterling’s prior lawyers.

MR. OLSHAN: Your Honor, this is about why —

THE COURT: Again, the scope of the investigation, what was done and not done, was clearly part of the cross. I’m going to allow it, excuse me, on redirect; and if there needs to be recross on that, you’ll be allowed to. Go ahead.

MR. MAC MAHON: Thank you, Your Honor.

BY MR. OLSHAN: Q. What did you learn at the outset of your investigation about information from Mr. Krieger and Zaid that helped you direct your investigation and focus it?

A. When I opened my investigation on April 8, 2003, my investigation was based on a report I received from the CIA dated April 7, 2003. In that report, the CIA provided information about the fact —

MR. MAC MAHON: Your Honor, that’s hearsay.

THE COURT: Wait.

MR. OLSHAN: Your Honor, this is not for the truth. It’s why she took the actions.

THE COURT: It explains why she is acting, takes the investigative tacks that she does, so I’m going to overrule the objection. It’s not hearsay.

BY MR. OLSHAN: Q. You may continue, Special Agent Hunt.

A. The CIA advised that on February 24, 2003, it was contacted by Mark Zaid and Roy Krieger. They told the CIA on February 24 that a client of theirs had contacted them on February 21, 2003, and that that client, that unnamed client at the time voiced his concerns about an operation that was nuclear in nature, and he threatened to go to the media.

Q. Did you later learn who that client was from Mr. Zaid and Mr. Krieger in the course of your investigation?

A. I did.

Q. Did those facts help you focus the direction of your investigation?

A. They did.

Q. And who did you learn was the client of Mr. Krieger and Mr. Zaid?

A. Jeffrey Sterling.

On recross, Sterling lawyer Edward McMahon worked to undercut the revelation by having Hunt describe how, when she wrote up a memo on the case on April 12, 2003, she believed it unlikely he was the leaker.

Q. Okay. And you had written about Mr. Sterling in 2003, hadn’t you, the same time you’re telling in answer to Mr. Olshan’s questions that you were hearing some hearsay about Mr. Sterling’s lawyers?

A. I’m sorry, what’s the question?

Q. You said you had heard some hearsay that Mr. Sterling’s lawyers were talking about him at the CIA, correct?

A. What I said is that his attorneys went to the CIA on February 24. At that time, they did not name Jeffrey Sterling.

Q. All right. But on April 12 of 2003, you wrote a memo about Mr. Sterling, and you said that it was unlikely that it was Mr. Sterling who was the leak, correct?

A. If I wrote that at that time, then that was based on the information I had at that time.

Q. Right. You said that it’s unlikely that someone who has already attempted to settle an EEO lawsuit for a few hundred thousand dollars would choose to attack and enrage the organization from which he seeks but has not yet received a settlement. That’s your writing, isn’t it?

A. I don’t know. You haven’t shown me the document.

Q. And you also in the same document dismiss your concerns about Mr. Zaid and Krieger, correct? You don’t remember that?

A. I don’t know. It was 12 years ago.

Q. And in the last 12 years, you still haven’t come up with any proof that Mr. Sterling ever talked to Mr. Risen about Classified Program No. 1 or Merlin, right?

A. Correct.

Thus far, the timeline looks like this:

February 21: Alleged contact between Sterling and Zaid (not stated whether this is phone call or email, which would show up in call records available with a relevance standard)

February 24: Alleged call from Zaid and his partner warning that one of their clients would leak

April 7: CIA referral includes their claim about Zaid call

April 8: Hunt opens investigation

April 12: Hunt writes memo dismissing likelihood that Sterling is leaker

The FBI Interview Dates

Now consider the dates of the 2003 FBI 302s included in these two CIPA letters (the names with the first initial last name are CIA witnesses; it’s unclear whether that’s true of the entirely redacted names).

April 12: Redacted name

April 12: Robert J. E

April 12: Bob S

April 13: Redacted name

April 13: Redacted name

April 14: Bill H (almost certainly Bill Harlow, CIA’s then spox)

April 18: Mark Zaid (three page 302)

April 28: Bill H (again, almost certain Harlow)

May 7: Redacted name

May 9: Redacted name

June 19: Sterling

June 26: Bob S (Sterling’s supervisor)

July 18: Redacted name

July 21: Thomas H

August 1: David C

August 13: Redacted name

August 14: Diane F

That is, the memo where Hunt said she didn’t think Sterling was the leaker was written either before she had done any interviews, or after she had done just the first CIA ones (including with Sterling’s boss, who definitely blamed Sterling). The first round of interviews appear to be primarily or all CIA witnesses.

And the next interview — at least among those that Sterling’s defense thought they might use at trial — was Zaid. Zaid’s interview, in fact, was months before Sterling’s. The second letter shows a second Zaid interview on September 2, 2010.

To emphasize: Sterling’s lawyers requested these FBI interviews be available for trial, not the prosecution. It’s unclear whether they did that because the interviews would have helped them, or because (as was the case with virtually all the other witnesses) they thought they might need to draw on those interviews for cross-examination.

But unless there’s some wildly egregious error in these files, Mark Zaid did two interviews with the FBI before he — obligated by subpoena, he said repeatedly — testified before the grand jury on September 22, 2010.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Former Senators Sessions and Coats Likely Just Set Off a Conflict with Congress

I’ll have more to say about Jeff Sessions’ new witch hunt on leaks later. But for now I want to look at what former Assistant Director Ron Hosko had to say to Daily Beast.

Ron Hosko, former deputy director of the FBI, said these changes could result in prosecution of members of Congress and Hill staffers. In the past, he said the FBI identified members of Congress who leaked classified information, who the Justice Department then declined to prosecute. Agents were often frustrated by this, Hosko added. Given the attorney general’s announcement, he said, members of Congress and Hill staffers may be more likely to face prosecution.

As I was listening to the press presentation (I won’t call it a conference because Sessions and Coats ran away without answering questions), I couldn’t help but thinking what a shitshow these two former Senators were likely setting off.

That’s because the universe of potential leakers is fraught for DOJ especially.

There are the various White House leakers (not including the President, who will escape notice even though he is one of the most prolific and dangerous leakers). Prosecuting them will be difficult politically in this contentious Administration.

There are the IC leakers. While some will likely be charged, a good many will be — like David Petraeus — too dangerous to aggressively prosecute, because they know where the truly interesting secrets are.

Most of all, though, there are the current and former members of Congress and their staffers, who have clearly been a central source of leaks embarrassing the White House.

Hosko is right that FBI has bumped up against limits in prosecuting Congress before. In the Jeffrey Sterling case, for example, SSCI staff director Bill Duhnke was FBI’s first and primary suspect (and a far more likely source for James Risen’s 2003 story than Sterling, not least because the final form of that story included a seeming reference to Iraq that Sterling wouldn’t have known). But SSCI refused to cooperate with the FBI investigation for years, and Duhnke reportedly never did. Duhnke remains in the Senate, working as the Rules Staff Director.

There’s nothing the Sessions hearing today included that would change the circumstances of Congress’ non-participation in the prosecution of Duhnke going forward (except perhaps the threat to jail journalists, but that’s still not likely to be enough to get past Congressional Speech and Debate privilege.

Moreover, if the FBI pushes too hard, Congress will just legislate itself — and reporters — protections (as Congress has been threatening to do for some time).

Given the Fourth Circuit precedents tied to the Sterling case, I think it will be easier for FBI to go after low level IC staffers. But I’m fairly confident if it gets close to Congress there will be a significant backlash that will make former Senators Sessions and Coats regret they didn’t account for their former colleagues’ equities before rolling out a witch hunt.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

In Opinion Mostly Rejecting Jeffrey Sterling Appeal, Fourth Circuit Criminalizes Unclassified Tips

The Fourth Circuit just codified the principle that you can go to prison for four minutes and 11 seconds of phone calls during which you tell a reporter to go find out classified details you know about.

They just released an opinion mostly upholding Jeffrey Sterling’s conviction. The majority, penned by Albert Diaz, overturned one conviction based on whether Sterling handed a letter (about which the court seems to have misunderstood the evidence) to James Risen in Virginia, but that didn’t result in any reduction in sentence. The court not only upheld all other convictions, but did so in ways that will be really horrible for any clearance holders charged with leaks in the Fourth Circuit (the jurisdiction of which covers all the major government spy agencies).

Four minutes and 11 seconds of metadata

First, there’s the matter of whether there was evidence to support the three charges related to the first story James Risen attempted to write on Merlin in 2003. The opinion claims Sterling and Risen had “numerous” phone calls in advance of Risen going to the CIA with his story.

The government presented evidence of numerous phone calls in February and March 2003, between Sterling’s home in Virginia and Risen’s home in Maryland. These phone calls occurred right before Risen notified the CIA that he had learned about the program from confidential sources and was planning to write an article about its classified operations. Furthermore, all of these calls were made nearly a year after Risen wrote an article about Sterling’s discrimination lawsuit.

Here’s what those “numerous” calls look like:

Altogether, the government presented evidence that Sterling and Risen spoke for four minutes and 11 seconds in advance of the first story. Sterling also sent an unclassified email referring to a CNN story on Iran’s nukes.

Significantly, the court doesn’t even hold that Sterling may have transmitted classified information in those calls. It holds that he may have “encouraged” and “caused” Risen to publish the information.

That circumstantial evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the government, could have led a rational jury to infer that Sterling discussed some classified information with Risen during these calls—the longest of which was 91 seconds—or encouraged Risen to publish the information. Thus, a jury could find that, more likely than not, Sterling helped “cause” dissemination of the information to the public through phone communications from his home in the Eastern District of Virginia, making venue proper for Counts I, II, and IX.

This establishes a standard criminalizing something that happens all the time in DC — where sources point reporters to something that’s classified without providing any classified information, leading the reporter to go find the classified information from other sources.

Importantly (and not mentioned in the Fourth Circuit opinion), the FBI’s initial suspect in this case was then-SSCI staffer Bill Duhnke. SSCI refused to cooperate with the FBI in the early stages of the investigation and may never have done so with respect to Duhnke. Nothing in the public record ever ruled out that he was Risen’s source for this early story.

The Court erroneously claims that Sterling had “the letter” printed in Risen’s book

The court makes two troubling steps in upholding Sterling’s conviction for illegally retaining classified information, which it upholds this way.

As to this offense, the Russian scientist testified that he gave Sterling a copy of the program letter in 2000. Sterling lost access to classified materials after he was fired in early 2002 (when he was working and living in Virginia), and Risen first notified authorities that he had seen the letter in April 2003. Finally, the government introduced evidence that in 2006, Sterling had stored other classified documents in his Missouri home, after he moved in mid-2003. On this evidence, a jury could therefore reasonably infer that after Sterling left the CIA in 2002, he unlawfully retained the program letter in his home—which was then in the Eastern District of Virginia.

In the language rejecting the conviction that Sterling transmitted the actual letter to Risen in Virginia, the court claimed that both sides agree that Sterling actually had the letter.

Because both sides agree that Sterling provided Risen with a paper copy of the letter, evidence of phone and email communications alone cannot support proper venue for Count V.

The claim that the defense agreed that Sterling even had the hard copy of the letter, much less handed it to Risen, is utterly inconsistent with this statement later in the opinion.

Sterling argued throughout the trial that he never retained or transmitted classified material.

Perhaps the court meant to say that “Sterling would have had to hand Risen a paper copy”?

Moreover, unless I’m missing something, not only does the defense not agree that Sterling handed over the letter, but it doesn’t even agree that Sterling ever had or saw the letter in the form handed to Risen. Indeed, the defense repeatedly got the government to admit they never found a copy of the actual letter that appeared in Risen’s book (though the record is inconsistent about whether that letter that got handed to the Iranians actually matched what appeared in Risen’s book).

That’s important — as I lay out in depth in this post — because Sterling was not involved in some key meetings leading up to the time Merlin went to Vienna. Given that he wasn’t involved in some of the meetings, it’s quite possible Sterling never saw the letter as it appeared in Risen’s book. I’d even say it’s likely, because Sterling’s habit was to include a verbatim transcript of letters Merlin was writing in his reporting, whereas Bob S, who handled the meetings Sterling didn’t attend, did not do so.

CIA has effectively — and not very credibly — claimed they didn’t have a copy of the letter as it appeared in Risen’s book, and in later years of the investigation Merlin started claiming he destroyed all evidence of it. Which would seem to undermine the claim that either side agreed Sterling handed over the actual letter to Risen.

I’m not sure how, based on that record, the Fourth Circuit can claim that Sterling ever had the letter in question.

Going to prison for keeping a procedure on how to dial a rotary phone

Then there’s what the court does to get to the claim that “in 2006, Sterling had stored other classified documents in his Missouri home, after he moved in mid-2003.”

The defense objected to the introduction of these documents, which included a performance review from the time Sterling was a trainee and instructions on how to dial into Langley from a rotary phone, specifically because of the way in which the documents were presented to the jury. The documents were handed out in red classified folders in unredacted form with great fanfare, whereas all other (far more classified) documents had been redacted and simply handed over to the jury in evidence binders.

Here’s how I described the theater surrounding these documents at the time.

A court officer handed out a packet of these same documents with bright red SECRET markings on the front to each juror (the government had tried to include such a warning on the binders of other exhibits, but the defense pointed out that nothing in them was actually classified at all). Judge Leonie Brinkema, apparently responding to the confused look on jurors’ faces, explained these were still-classified documents intended for their eyes only. “You’ll get the context,” Judge Brinkema added. “The content is not really anything you have to worry about.” The government then explained these documents were seized from Jeffrey Sterling’s house in Missouri in 2006. Then the court officer collected the documents back up again, having introduced the jurors to the exclusive world of CIA’s secrets for just a few moments.

On cross, however, the defense explained a bit about what these documents were. Edward MacMahon made it clear the date on the documents was February 1987 — a point which Lutz apparently missed. MacMahon then revealed that the documents explained how to use rotary phones when a CIA officer is out of the office. I believe the prosecution objected — so jurors can’t use MacMahon’s description in their consideration of how badly these documents implicate Sterling — but perhaps the improper description will help cue the jurors’ own understanding about what the documents they had glimpsed were really about, making it clear to them they’re being asked to convict a man because he possessed documents about using a rotary phone that the CIA retroactively decided were SECRET.

The court doesn’t deal with the silent witness aspect of this presentation at all. On the contrary, the court makes no mention of it when it dismisses the possibility this was inflammatory.

All probative evidence may be prejudicial to the defendant in some way, but we have found Rule 404(b) evidence to be unfairly prejudicial when it inflames the jury or encourages them to draw an inference against the defendant, based solely on a judgment about the defendant’s criminal character or wicked disposition. McBride, 676 F.3d at 399; Hernandez, 975 F.2d at 1041.

Here, evidence showing that Sterling had improperly retained four classified documents in the past encouraged the proper evidentiary inference that any subsequent retention of classified documents was, if proven, intentional.

The court’s treatment of these documents (and its silence on their actual content or the theater surrounding the introduction of them) is all the more troubling given that the court claimed the “prior bad acts” implicated by Sterling’s retention of these documents “were exactly the same as the act Sterling was charged with under Count III.”

Although the Rule 404(b) evidence was fairly old in this case, it did bear sufficient similarity in terms of pattern of conduct to justify its admission. An FBI search of Sterling’s Missouri home in 2006 uncovered four classified documents, which Sterling had improperly kept. And Sterling’s improper retention of these documents occurred during the same timeframe as his improper retention of files concerning the Program. Furthermore, the prior bad acts were exactly the same as the act Sterling was charged with under Count III.

Sure, in a legal sense, retaining classified information is retaining classified information. That’s how the Fourth Circuit gets to its “exactly the same” claim.

But retaining 20 year old HR documents — including a performance review — you obtained as a trainee just getting used to classification rules is not the same as retaining documents from covert operations. It’s not. And the claim it is is all the more outrageous given that Sterling wasn’t permitted to talk about how the witnesses against him had also retained classified information, and probably information that was far more classified than rotary phone dialing instructions.

Effectively, along with criminalizing sharing unclassified tips, the Fourth Circuit has also just criminalized mistakenly retaining HR documents in your basement, something that a large proportion of clearance holders have probably done over the course of their career.

Obstruction before the fact

Finally, here’s the court found that Sterling’s obstruction conviction was proper even though the government presented no proof whether he had deleted the unclassified email mentioning Iran’s nuclear program before or after receiving a subpoena for classified materials.

Sterling notes that this specific email “was not among the categories of documents requested by the grand jury’s [June 2006] subpoena.” Appellant’s Br. at 44. He argues, therefore, that even if he did delete the email, he could not have done so with the intent to impair the grand jury investigation. But while the email may not have been explicitly included in the subpoena’s categories, in that it did not directly share information about the classified program, it did reference Iran’s nuclear development efforts. Furthermore, the email and its brief comments suggest that Risen and Sterling had previously discussed Iran’s nuclear program.

We have said that to be culpable of obstructing justice, the actual documents destroyed “do not have to be under subpoena.” United States v. Gravely, 840 F.2d 1156, 1160 (4th Cir. 1988) (analyzing a conviction for obstruction of justice under 18 U.S.C. § 1503). Instead, “it is sufficient if the defendant is aware that the grand jury will likely seek the documents in its investigation.” Id. A rational jury could infer, based on the evidence at trial, that Sterling deleted the email between April and July 2006 in order to conceal it from a grand jury investigation. We therefore reject Sterling’s challenge to this conviction.

This language is just — what is the technical term? — weird.

First of all, the court never explains how Sterling would know there was a grand jury before receiving a subpoena from it, which is pretty important given that Sterling had known there was an investigation for three years, but hadn’t deleted that email before then.

Moreover, even as it deems it rational to believe that Sterling deleted the email thinking the grand jury will “likely seek the documents,” the court ignores that the grand jury actually never did seek such an email. So Sterling, with no formal notice of a grand jury introduced in the trial, not only deleted the unclassified email knowing there would be one, but happened to delete an email that the grand jury, in fact, would never go onto ask for?

Somehow, too, unless I missed it the court neglected to deal with venue on this claim. They just … ignored that part of Sterling’s appeal.

The Fourth Circuit just made it illegal to share unclassified information

So between the finding that Sterling criminally “encouraged” the transmission of classified information in four minutes and 11 seconds of phone calls of unknown content, and the finding that Sterling obstructed justice before knowing there was a grand jury by deleting information that unknown grand jury ultimately never asked for, the Fourth Circuit has just criminalized sharing unclassified information.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Does Jim Comey Think Thomas Drake Exhibited Disloyalty to the United States?

As you’ve no doubt heard, earlier today Jim Comey had a press conference where he said Hillary and her aides were “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information” but went on to say no reasonable prosecutor would prosecute any of them for storing over 100 emails with classified information on a server in Hillary’s basement. Comey actually claimed to have reviewed “investigations into mishandling or removal of classified information” and found no “case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts.”

Our investigation looked at whether there is evidence classified information was improperly stored or transmitted on that personal system, in violation of a federal statute making it a felony to mishandle classified information either intentionally or in a grossly negligent way, or a second statute making it a misdemeanor to knowingly remove classified information from appropriate systems or storage facilities.

[snip]

Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case. Prosecutors necessarily weigh a number of factors before bringing charges. There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent. Responsible decisions also consider the context of a person’s actions, and how similar situations have been handled in the past.

In looking back at our investigations into mishandling or removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts. All the cases prosecuted involved some combination of: clearly intentional and willful mishandling of classified information; or vast quantities of materials exposed in such a way as to support an inference of intentional misconduct; or indications of disloyalty to the United States; or efforts to obstruct justice. We do not see those things here.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences. To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions. But that is not what we are deciding now.

Before we get into his argument, consider a more basic point: It is not Jim Comey’s job to make prosecutorial decisions. Someone else — whichever US Attorney oversaw the prosecutors on this case, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, or Loretta Lynch — makes that decision. By overstepping the proper role of the FBI here, Comey surely gave Lynch cover — now she can back his decision without looking like Bill Clinton convinced her to do so on the tarmac. But he has no business making this decision, and even less business making it public in the way he did (the latter of which points former DOJ public affairs director Matthew Miller was bitching about).

But let’s look at his judgment.

Given that Jeffrey Sterling has been in prison for a year based off a slew of metadata (albeit showing only 4:11 seconds of conversation between James Risen and Sterling) and three, thirty year old documents, classified Secret, describing how to dial a phone, documents which were presented to prove Sterling had the “intent” to retain a document FBI never showed him retaining, I’m particularly interested in Comey’s judgment that no reasonable prosecutor would bring charges based on the facts found against Hillary. Similarly, given the history of the Thomas Drake prosecution, in which he was charged with Espionage because he kept a bunch of documents on NSA’s fraud, at the direction of the Inspector General, which the FBI found in his basement.

I can only imagine Comey came to his improper public prosecutorial opinion via one of two mental tricks. Either he — again, not the prosecutor — decided the only crime at issue was mishandling classified information (elsewhere in his statement he describes having no evidence that thousands of work emails were withheld from DOJ with ill intent, which dismisses another possible crime), and from there he decided either that it’d be a lot harder to prosecute Hillary Clinton (or David Petraeus) than it would be someone DOJ spent years maligning like Sterling or Drake. Or maybe he decided that there are no indications that Hillary is disloyal to the US.

Understand, though: with Sterling and Drake, DOJ decided they were disloyal to the US, and then used their alleged mishandling of classified information as proof that they were disloyal to the US (Drake ultimately plead to Exceeding Authorized Use of a Computer).

Ultimately, it involves arbitrary decisions about who is disloyal to the US, and from that a determination that the crime of mishandling classified information occurred.

For what its worth, I think most of these cases should involve losing security clearances rather than criminal prosecution (though Petraeus also lied to FBI). But we know, even there, the system is totally arbitrary; DOJ has already refused to answer whether any of Hillary’s aides will be disciplined for their careless handling of classified information and Petraeus never did lose his clearance. Nor did the multiple witnesses who testified against Sterling who themselves mishandled classified information lose their security clearance.

Which is another way of saying our classification system is largely a way to arbitrarily label people you dislike disloyal.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

The Leak Hypocrisy of the Hillary Shadow Cabinet

In what has become a serial event, the State Department and Intelligence Community people handling Jason Leopold’s FOIA of Hillary Clinton emails have declared yet more emails to be Top Secret.

The furor over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account grew more serious for the Democratic presidential front-runner Friday as the State Department designated 22 of the messages from her account “top secret.”

It was the first time State has formally deemed any of Clinton’s emails classified at that level, reserved for information that can cause “exceptionally grave” damage to national security if disclosed.

State did not provide details on the subject of the messages, which represent seven email chains and a total of 37 pages. However, State spokesman John Kirby said they are part of a set the intelligence community inspector general told Congress contained information classified for discussing “Special Access Programs.”

Now, as I have said before, one thing that is going on here is that CIA is acting just like CIA always does when it declares publicly known things, including torture and drones, to be highly secret. It appears likely that these Top Secret emails are yet another set of emails about the worst kept secret in the history of covert programs, CIA’s drone killing in Pakistan. And so I am sympathetic, in principle, to Hillary’s campaign claims that this is much ado about nothing.

But they might do well to find some other spokesperson to claim that this is just overclassification run amok.

“This is overclassification run amok. We adamantly oppose the complete blocking of the release of these emails,” campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said on Twitter. Appearing on MSNBC after the news broke, Fallon vowed to fight the decision.

“You have the intelligence community, including an Intelligence Community Inspector General, as well as the inspector general at the State Department, that have been insisting on certain ways of deciding what is classified and what’s not,” he said. “We know that there has been disagreement on these points, and it has spilled out into public view at various points over the last several months. It now appears that some of the loudest voices in this interagency review that had some of the strongest straightjacket-type opinions on what should count as classified, have prevailed. That’s unfortunate. We strongly disagree with the finding that has been reached today, and we are going to be contesting it and seeking to have these emails released.”

Alternately Hillary can declare that if she is elected, she’ll pardon both Jeffrey Sterling and Chelsea Manning.

Sterling’s prosecution for, in part, having 3 documents about dialing a rotary phone in his home that were retroactively classified Secret, happened while Brian Fallon presided over DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs; Fallon sat by as James Risen got questioned about his refusal to testify. Sterling’s retention of documents that weren’t marked Secret is surely the same kind of “overclassification run amok,” and by the same agency at fault here, that Fallon is now complaining about. So shouldn’t Fallon and Clinton be discussing a pardon for Sterling?

Then there’s Manning. As Glenn Greenwald noted, in that case Clinton had a different attitude about the sensitivity of documents classified Secret or less.

Manning was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison. At the time, the only thing Hillary Clinton had to say about that was to issue a sermon about how classified information “deserves to be protected and we will continue to take necessary steps to do so” because it “affect[s] the security of individuals and relationships.”

So if the nation’s secrets aren’t really as secret as DOJ and State and DOD have claimed, shouldn’t these two, along with people like Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, be pardoned?

Amid Fallon and Clinton’s prior support for this level of classification, there’s something else odd about the response to this scandal (which I have said is largely misplaced from the stupid decision to run her own server to the issue of classified information).

First, the response from many supporters — and it’s a point I’ve made too — is that this doesn’t reflect on Hillary because she mostly just received these emails, she didn’t send them. That’s true. And it largely limits any legal liability Hillary herself would have.

But this particular response comes against the backdrop of Hillary attacking Bernie for not giving a foreign policy speech before Iowa (a critique I’m somewhat sympathetic with, although debates have been focused on it), and against this approving story in the Neocon press on Hillary forming a shadow cabinet.

Team Hillary is in the process of setting up formal advisory teams and working groups divided into regional and thematic subjects, similar to the structure of the National Security Council, several participants in the project told me. Unlike in 2008, when Clinton and Barack Obama competed for advisers, this time around all the Democratic foreign-policy types are flocking to her team because Clinton is the only game in town.

The groups report up to the campaign’s senior foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, who was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff and director of policy planning when she was secretary of state.

As it notes, this shadow cabinet reports to Jake Sullivan. Sullivan is, according to one report, the staffer who sent the most emails that have since been declared classified.

Nearly a third of the classified messages released so far from former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s emails came from one man: Jake Sullivan, who served as her deputy chief of staff in the department, and is now the top foreign policy adviser to her presidential campaign.

If Hillary’s supporters argue that she can’t be held responsible because she didn’t send these, does that mean they would hold Sullivan, Hillary’s presumptive National Security Advisor, responsible instead?

Then there’s this detail about outside advisors to this shadow cabinet: it includes Leon Panetta, who not only leaked highly classified information in his memoir, but also would have been busted for exposing the Navy SEALs who offed Osama bin Laden if the game weren’t so rigged to excuse senior leakers.

In addition to the working groups, Sullivan relies on a somewhat separate group of senior former officials who have more frequent interaction with the campaign leadership and Clinton herself. Many of these advisers aren’t publicly affiliated with the campaign because they have leadership roles with organizations that have not endorsed any candidate for president.

But sources close to the campaign told me that Clinton, Sullivan and campaign chairman John Podesta are in regular contact with former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Is the effort to keep the identities of the men who killed OBL secret also, “overclassification run amok”? Or does Panetta’s role in Hillary’s foreign policy team suggest her crowd really is that hypocritical about who can leak classified information?

I’d really love it if Hillary came out strongly against the paranoid secrecy that stifles our foreign policy (and just yesterday led to Ashkan Soltani losing a position as a technical advisor for the White House, presumably because of his role in reporting the Snowden documents).

But thus far that’s not what she’s doing: her campaign is making a limited critique of this paranoid secrecy, only applicable when it impacts those close to her.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Government Still Hasn’t Cleared One of Jeffrey Sterling’s Appellate Lawyers

Update, 12/13: Sterling’s team was finally cleared in the days leading up to the December status report deadline. But because of other scheduling issues and the difficulties of working with classified information, his team will not be able to submit their initial brief until February 12, 2016, a year after he was convicted. 

Former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling appealed his conviction for purportedly leaking information on Project Merlin to James Risen on May 26, before he even reported to prison on June 16. Throughout the summer, the appeal crept along, as most appeals do, in this case, held up in the wait for transcripts from the trial. But in August, it ground to a halt.

Just days after the Fourth Circuit ordered Sterling’s lawyers to submit their first brief on September 28, they revealed that they still hadn’t been cleared to review the Classified Information Protection Act hearings that will apparently be central to his appeal (the delay was caused, in part, by the problems in the electronic filing system revealed by the OPM hack). By October 1, William Trunk had been informed he was eligible for clearance, but needed to undergo indoctrination. That didn’t happen until November 2, the day his lawyers were due to submit a second status report on the status of their clearance. And Lawrence Robbins, Sterling’s other appellate attorney, still hadn’t heard anything about his clearance by that day.

I get that this process sometimes takes a long time. But Sterling has already served almost 5 months of his 42 month sentence, and the government ultimately controls this clearance process.

I’ve heard indications that the government has similarly stalled or limited clearances of already-cleared lawyers in Gitmo cases, so it is not unreasonable to ask whether the delay is an intentional stall.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

In Political Press, Hillary Clinton Gets Subjected to the Thomas Drake and Jeffrey Sterling Standard

clintonpodium_600_1[First posted at ExposeFacts.org]

The political press is abuzz with news that the State Department (State IG) and Intelligence Community Inspectors General (ICIG) have asked the Department of Justice to review whether the Department’s handling of the personal email from Hillary Clinton was proper. The story was first reported in sensational fashion by the New York Times, revised somewhat overnight, and then reported in more measured form — making it clear that Clinton herself is not being investigated — by the Associated Press this morning.

The report has put the practice of retroactive classification of information — of the type that convicted Jeffrey Sterling and DOJ tried to use to convict Thomas Drake — at the forefront of presidential politics.

The referral to DOJ arises out of State IG’s review of the use of private emails and the response to Freedom of Information Act requests for Clinton’s email. After consulting with the ICIG, State IG reported that a number of the emails reviewed so far, including one released to the public, included classified information. The ICIG criticized State for using retired foreign service officers with extensive FOIA experience to review Clinton’s email before release, rather than conducting an interagency process (though according to a response from Patrick Kennedy, the CIA and ODNI had already approved the arrangement).

The referral pertains to State’s actions, not Clinton’s. “[T]he referral doesn’t suggest wrongdoing by Clinton herself,” AP noted. None of the emails in question were marked as classified when she sent them and one of them — pertaining to the FBI’s investigation of the Benghazi attack — was not classified at time she received it. Nevertheless, this news has led to a flurry of stories implicating Clinton in a potential DOJ investigation.

Clinton supporters are dismissing this as election year frenzy. The former DOJ Director of Public Affairs, Matt Miller, even tweeted, “If you examined the entire email [account] of any senior official, someone in [government] would later argue something was classified. Absurd standard.”

But Clinton is not the first this has happened to. After all, DOJ attempted to use five retroactively classified documents to convict Thomas Drake on Espionage charges; once DOJ had to admit that fact, their case against Drake fell apart.

And the only hard evidence DOJ presented that Jeffrey Sterling had improperly handled classified information were documents seized from his home that had nothing to do with the nuclear program he was accused of leaking. When the government introduced three of those documents under a silent witness rule limiting what Sterling’s lawyers could ask about them, CIA’s top classification official admitted they had not been classified as secret at first.

“When originally classified were these documents properly classified as secret,” the prosecution asked of the three documents.

“They weren’t,” [CIA Chief of Litigation Support Martha] Lutz responded.

“But they are now properly classified secret?”

“Yes,” Lutz answered.

The defense team made statements revealing that these documents offered instructions on how to dial rotary phones to call into CIA headquarters, hardly a cutting edge secret. Nevertheless, those documents were a key piece of evidence used to send Sterling to prison for 42 months.

Clinton deserves a good deal of criticism for using personal email that has made it more difficult to access via FOIAs. But retroactively classified information should no more be used to prosecute her — in reality or in the press — than Drake and Sterling.

When asked about the double standard via email, Drake did not join the frenzy. Rather, he described “having really bad flashbacks” given the calls to criminally investigate the former Secretary of State because release of the emails put “unauthorized classified information … in adversaries’ hands.”

Perhaps there’s room for agreement here. Via email, Miller noted, “the entire classification system is a mess: overly complex, riddled with ambiguity, and used at times for inappropriate reasons. And because of that you get perverse outcomes.”

Secretary Clinton surely should have made her emails more secure and accessible, via the formal FOIA process, by using official email. But that doesn’t mean retroactively classified information should be used against her anymore than it should be used against Drake and Sterling.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

DOJ Can’t Keep Its Spin Straight in the Sterling Case

As I noted several weeks ago, Jeffrey Sterling challenged his conviction based on the absence of evidence actually implicating him in the crime. On Monday, the government responded.  And while I expect the government will succeed in defeating Sterling’s challenge I am still struck by some very big problems with their story.

As they did at the trial (especially in closing arguments) they argued that Sterling had knowledge of what they claim was the leak, he had a motive to leak it, and he had the pre-existing relationship with James Risen that would explain that he would go to Risen to leak it. So far so good.

They also argued that because Sterling was the only one favorably treated in Risen’s chapter, Sterling must be a source for Risen, which logically doesn’t hold at all.

But in the filing, the government also returns to its efforts — played out in the indictment, rehearsed briefly as both sides tried to make narratological arguments neither was equipped to make, introduced at the opening, but largely dropped during the trial — to a claim that Sterling lied to both the Senate Intelligence Committee and Risen to get them to show interest in his story. Not just that, but they claim Sterling told the same lies to both. This is where their argument starts to fall apart, and fall apart in ways that identify more problems for their argument.

He not only possessed the facts about Classified Program No. 1, he had a motive to spin them in a way that would do maximum damage to the agency. That is exactly what the evidence reflects. Risen’s spin on the program—i.e., that it was botched and risked enabling the Iranian nuclear program—is the same spin the defendant used when he met with Vicki Divoll and Donald Stone from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) on March 5, 2003, GX 101, the day after he filed his second lawsuit, GX 99, and about a month after his last settlement offer expired. GX 96. Indeed, the only time anyone expressed the concerns Risen parroted in Chapter 9 was when Sterling went to SSCI.

This is wrong on two counts.

First, what Sterling told SSCI was not spin. Here’s what the SSCI report (Exhibit 101) — which Donald Stone claims he wrote on Bill Duhnke’s direction after he informed Stone of an investigation (in which Duhnke was then the prime suspect, for some unknown reason) — says Sterling said.

The operation entailed a CIA asset providing Iran with faulty plans for a Russian based nuclear fire set. Although the plans had been modified by the National Laboratories, Mr. Sterling feared they were insufficiently flawed to prevent a Russian scientist hired by the Iranians from identifying and correcting the mistakes. His concern was based on the fact that the CIA asset recognized the plan’s flaws almost immediately after being shown them. He would have preferred to string the operation out by giving pieces of the plan out over time. In the end, the entire plan was turned over to the Iranians without any means for further follow up. However, CIA supposedly deemed the operation a success. Mr. Sterling fears the CIA gave the Iranians too much information that they can either use themselves or sell to someone else.

And here’s what Stone told the FBI Sterling had told them, but which (in his memo written after he knew of the investigation) he didn’t include in the investigation.

Which is why the details Stone provided the FBI, which would have been captured in his notes but which didn’t show up in the report, are so interesting. First, Sterling said that “they did the equivalent of throwing it over a fence,” an admission of how shoddy the pass-off of the blueprints was. Then, that one of CIA’s two assets involved “got cold feet,” an admission that Merlin almost backed out just before the trip to Vienna. And that one asset (it actually sounds like Stone might have meant Human Asset 2, the other Russian, which the records actually support) “recognized the plans were faulty.”

Every single one of these details are true, not spin. Not only did Merlin immediately say the plans “would not work” (and in testimony said the real plan would have been “100 times more complicated than it was shown in drawing and the schematics”), but the other Russian involved — the guy who gave the plans to the CIA in the first place — apparently had problems with them as well. The National Lab got the plans to work in 3 months (not 5, as Walter C testified under oath), at least according to CIA’s own cables. And the entire operation was premised on the assumption that Iran had access to Russian engineers. 

In addition, Merlin did get cold feet, as extensively documented by CIA cables, and confirmed — once he presented it as protecting his own family — by the Russian’s testimony.

But the most important evidence from Sterling’s report to the SSCI is that he complained that “the entire plan was turned over to the Iranians without any means for further follow up,” largely because “they did the equivalent of throwing it over a fence.” Not only are those claims absolutely true — as confirmed by both Bob S and Merlin’s sworn testimony at the trial — but they are one of the two key points of his whistleblower complaint to Congress. Not only did CIA give Iran a nuclear blueprint. But they did so, Sterling worried (according to the SSCI), in such a way as to make further follow-up and intelligence gathering almost impossible. He would have rather strung out the operation so as to collect intelligence.

And that’s important, because that complaint doesn’t show up in Risen’s book with the details that substantiate it, appearing only as “the CIA also gave the blueprints to the Iranians without any certain way of monitoring their use by Iranian scientists.”

Indeed, there are details in Risen’s book that are inconsistent with both the real basis of Sterling’s worry and the facts as presented by CIA cables, Bob S, and Merlin, though not with the instructions originally given to Merlin. The book repeats the instructions that Merlin was not supposed to hide that he lived in the US.

The Russian was also told not to try to hide the fact that he now lived in the United States.

And it includes the final line of the letter it claims Merlin left, indicating his contact information was on the next page.

My contact info on next page.

The thing is, probably because of Bob S’ suppression of the actual details of the operation as executed — Bob S’ false spin, not Sterling’s! — the CIA documents included these details, but they are inaccurate, per both Bob S and Merlin. Merlin did everything he could to ensure any tie with the US was hidden. “Nobody likes United States in the world,” Merlin testified, “I’m not stupid. I can put in danger my family.” And he had been doing so for almost a year by the time of the operation. And according to Merlin — and Bob S claims he knew this at the time — Merlin did not provide the contact information the Iranians would need to contact him.

In other words, a key part of Sterling’s concern, that as Merlin executed the operation, he had left the Iranians no way to contact him and therefore largely prevented any follow-up contact, doesn’t show up in Risen’s book. The “spin” is not the same, and in fact Risen’s version misstates a key concern Sterling shared with SSCI.

If Sterling had wanted to get Risen to publish the same story he told to SSCI, he surely would have foregrounded that Merlin refused to do as he told with respect to leaving his contact information.

And that’s important for two reasons.

First, as I noted, FBI proved unable ultimately to find the version of the letter Merlin left (or the letter that appears in Risen’s book, which is almost certainly a different thing). And FBI proved unbelievably incurious about why Risen was quoting from a report on Merlin’s trip that Bob S claims never existed, a report that included the details that Bob S suppressed in his own reporting of the operation.

Here’s how the government’s filing deals with their inability to produce the actual letter.

The evidence at trial established that over a period of months, the defendant, Robert S., and Merlin worked on drafting and editing a letter for Merlin to provide to the Iranians. See, e.g., DE 435 at 22-23. The document went through multiple drafts. On January 12, 2000, the defendant sent a cable containing the then-current version of the letter. GX 35. Two days later, on January 14, 2000, Robert S. responded in another cable, requesting certain changes, including that the letter make explicit that the schematics were being provided for “free.” GX 36 at 1. There were no additional changes reflected in any cable traffic. The version of the letter that appears in Chapter 9 is the January 12, 2000, formulation, with Robert S.’s suggested changes from January 14 incorporated into the document—i.e., the final version. Compare GX 35 at 2, and GX 36 at 102, with GX 132 at 13-14

This is false. As I laid out, not only did Bob S’ instructions include agreement that the letter should be stripped of “puffery” that it retains in the Risen version, but Bob S himself testified that the letter that appeared in the book was not the final letter either.

In response on January 14, 2000, Bob S wrote (Exhibit 36),

We agree with [Sterling’s] comments that the verbiage needs to be tightened up still further to make sure the Iranians understand what he has and on what terms. He should say explicitly that he is offering the schematic and associated parts list free to prove that he can provide further information, and acknowledge that what he is providing initially is incomplete. There should be a very clear message that he expects to be paid for the rest of the details they will need if they want to build the device.

[snip]

Each iteration of his draft letter is better than the previous one, so [Sterling]‘s patience seems to be paying off. It is worth our while to take the extra time to make sure he finally gets it just right, since the letters will have to do much of the work for us with the target.

Now, given Merlin’s payment strike at the following two meetings, it is possible CIA never got around to making the changes Bob S wanted. The fact that Bob S, not Sterling, wrote the cables from those meetings means we would never know, because unlike Sterling, Bob S never included the text of correspondence in cables he wrote (as I laid out here). But Bob S — who ran both the remaining meetings before the Vienna trip with Merlin — clearly wanted changes. And while the letter appearing in Risen’s book retains what Sterling called Merlin’s “puffery” language, it does reflect two of the changes Bob S asked for: reiteration that this package was meant as an assessment package, and an indication Merlin had emailed IS2 to alert him to the package (though see my questions about whether he really did in the update to this post).

In his testimony, Bob S claimed that what appeared in the book was the “nearly final draft,” explaining that the reference to Merlin getting paid was “sharpened” still further after the version that appears in the book. If true, given the way the final meetings worked out, Bob S may have been the only one who would know that.

In spite of the abundant evidence that Bob S was more likely to have these late iteration letters than Sterling, the government goes further to argue — as they prevented Sterling from arguing at trial — that he probably didn’t do his job and that’s why there isn’t a final version of the letter.

It would be entirely reasonable for a jury to conclude that an individual, who was terminated for failure to perform his assigned duties, GX 62 at 1, might also fail to properly document all of his contacts with an asset.

This would require that Merlin and Sterling made changes Bob S knew about, did not document them verbatim as was Sterling’s (but not Bob S’) consistent practice, and Bob S never noticed. Indeed, Bob S insisted at trial that the CIA writes everything down (in contradiction to the evidence that, while Sterling did, he did not). It’s just not possible.

And, as I mentioned, the motion never deals with — as the entire trial didn’t either — the report which Merlin and Bob S say never existed but gets quoted extensively in Risen’s book, which included information which Bob S suppressed in official CIA communications but admits are factually correct.

But the mistranslation of Sterling’s concern is important for another reason: the errors in Risen’s book, errors which Sterling not only knew to be errors (per trial evidence), but errors that make no sense given FBI’s claimed spin. The big one — the one that pissed Merlin off the most — was the claim he was a defector (I’m less convinced that Risen’s claim that CIA helped Merlin get citizenship is entirely false, because there’s reason to believe they did accelerate his green card and treat it differently to allow him to do the Vienna trip).

That is, while there are details that (according to FBI) only Sterling, Bob S, and Merlin knew that weren’t documented (though the majority of those were in the report they didn’t look for), there are also a slew of details that show someone ill-informed, but not in a way that matches’ Sterling’s actual or purported concerns, was talking to Risen.

All this is probably moot. The government will succeed with this motion on evidentiary grounds and the interesting venue argument will be revisited in the Appeals Court.

But it is worth noting that the government’s narrative, even as laid out in a careful motion, continues to make no sense.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Yes, Eric Holder Does Do the Intelligence Community’s Bidding in Leak Prosecutions

 

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 10.17.51 AM

The second-to-last witness in the government’s case against Jeffrey Sterling, FBI Special Agent Ashley Hunt, introduced a number of things she had collected over the course of her 7.5 year investigation into James Risen’s chapter on Operation Merlin. That included a few things — most notably two lines from Risen’s credit card records from 2004 — that in no conceivable way incriminated Sterling.

On November 17, 2004, Risen charged €158.00 at the Hotel Inter-Continental in Vienna, Austria on his credit card (the provider of which DOJ included in its exhibit). On November 21, 2004, Risen put another €215.30 in Inter-Continental charges on his credit card.

What Agent Hunt had proven by highlighting these two details was that James Risen traveled to Vienna as background for a book chapter set in Vienna, and even went to the hotel where Merlin had stayed. None of that did a thing to prove that Sterling leaked Merlin’s travel information — or anything else — to Risen. But the government decided to gratuitously enter into evidence that they had seized years of Risen’s credit card records, and in doing so obtained details of where Risen had traveled (and also, on what days his daughter sent something via FedEx). It wasn’t enough that we knew that already from court filings. DOJ still saw the need to introduce gratuitous notice that they had all of Risen’s credit card statements into the court record.

“We own you,” seemed to be the message to Risen from this flaunting of his credit card records.

But don’t worry, Eric Holder generously decided not to call Risen to testify against Sterling after having hounded him — in this and the warrantless wiretap investigation — for 6 years already, both Jack Goldsmith and Ben Wittes insist.

Both men seem to vastly underestimate how DOJ’s actions in the last decade impact journalism. And both men seem to misunderstand what just happened in the Jeffrey Sterling trial, where DOJ succeeded in exposing a man to 40 years in prison, based largely on metadata, without even having the key pieces of evidence at issue in the case (almost certainly because of CIA’s doing, not Sterling’s).

Uncharacteristically, Wittes’ post is less annoying that Goldsmith’s. Sure, as he did with Laura Poitras, Wittes appointed himself the arbiter of what the NYT should and shouldn’t tolerate from journalists it pays. I will remember that Wittes believes an employee’s intemperate rants on Twitter should get close scrutiny by their employers the next time Wittes makes factually flawed defenses of his torturer buddies on Twitter or complains when Chris Soghoian tweets about Keith Alexander’s operational security sloppiness when he rides on Amtrak.

But Goldsmith writes two paragraphs about leak prosecutions that — while they may bolster Goldsmith’s questionable claims about how journalism functions to rein in the Executive — entirely miss the point. I’ll take them in detail here:

Third, Holder could have called Risen to testify in the Sterling case – the law was clearly on his side, and DOJ attorneys wanted him to do it.  But Holder directed his lawyers to let Risen off the hook.  It is simply wrong to say (as Risen did) that Holder was doing the “bidding of the intelligence community” or sending “a message to dictators around the world that it is okay to crack down on the press and jail journalists.”  Quite the contrary.

The notion that the trial Holder’s DOJ just staged in Eastern District of Virginia was not about “doing the bidding of the intelligence community” makes me tear up I’m laughing so hard. A very key part of the trial was putting Bob S on the stand so he could make claims about Operation Merlin — which turned out not to be backed up by the documentary evidence or his asset’s memory — so as to be able to claim, “We have demonstrated we did this very carefully.” This was a clusterfuck of an operation, but nevertheless DOJ gave Bob S a day and a half to try to claim it wasn’t. DOJ offered CIA this favor while playing their classification games (this was, after all, EDVA, an improper venue for almost all of the charges, but a very good place to get favorable treatment for security theater) so as to avoid explaining — except when it became handy for Condi to blurt something out — why this operation went from being a clandestine information collection operation to something far more sensitive, which is probably the real reason someone other than Sterling leaked the information as the government was trumping up war against Iraq, the next country that got the Merlin treatment.

It’s EDVA, Goldsmith!!! The same place Holder went to have John Durham pretend to investigate CIA’s obstruction of justice until the statute of limitations expired! The same place Holder went to keep investigating and investigating until DOJ could deliver a head, any head, to punish Gitmo defense attorneys’ crazy notion that they might have good reason to want to learn how and who anally raped their clients in the name of rehydration such that they’re still bleeding, 12 years later.

EDVA has become, under Holder, where DOJ goes to obtain arbitrary judgments that ensure CIA and other agencies will never be held accountable for crimes, but some low-level leaker will be delivered up anytime CIA’s crimes or incompetence get exposed.

Fourth, Risen’s complaints about Holder rest in part on the fact that Holder has presided over many more leak prosecutions than any prior Attorney General.  I suspect that any Attorney General would have ramped up the leak prosecutions in light of the unprecedented cascade of deep secrets from the government in the last decade.

Here Goldsmith makes the same nonsensical claim that Steven Aftergood made for The Intercept’s profile of Stephen Kim. The investigation into James Risen’s stories has been going on for twelve years. The investigation into Risen’s reporting on Operation Merlin started over four years before Chelsea Manning even joined the Army, much less started the torrent of leaks Goldsmith claims justifies all these investigations.

And the ratio of leak prosecutions to leaks remains tiny.

This line comes right out of Holder’s defense of his leak prosecutions the other day. And it’s true. But it’s a big part of the problem. Thus far, after all, James Cartwright has not been indicted for allegedly leaking a far more sensitive counter-proliferation program targeting Iran than Sterling purportedly leaked. No one is even considering prosecuting Leon Panetta for leaking details of the Osama bin Laden raid (or classified details in his memoir). I doubt David Petraeus will be indicted either for letting his mistress have access to all his most intimate secrets.

The people who get prosecuted — Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou, Donald Sachtleben, Stephen Kim — they’re not the problem behind this system of leaking and in several cases it’s very clear they’re not even the key leakers: instead, they’re the human detritus the government can dispose of so others will see just how arbitrary the secrecy system really is, by design.

But in any event, it must be true that these prosecutions have had a chilling effect on leakers (i.e. sources) and in that sense made journalists’ jobs harder.  Of course chilling criminal leaks is the whole point of the prosecutions.  They do not “wreck” the First Amendment if they are consistent with the First Amendment, which they are, especially since the prosecutions have not had any noticeable macro effect on the steady flow of secrets out of the government.

I suspect Risen would say this is not the case. I suspect a number of the other journalists targeted by DOJ would say the same. That is, the point is not about stopping leaks (though I think the Insider Threat system will make it easier to pick and choose which human detritus will be the next sacrificed to feed this arbitrary system of control), but often as not burning certain journalists or others who don’t play the game.

We own you, investigative journalist, and know what you did in Vienna back in 2004.

Note also that Risen and other journalists tend not to talk about the countervailing norms that have moved dramatically in journalists’ favor in the last decade.  (I have written about this extensively, here and here and here and here.)  Not only has the government significantly raised the bar for going after journalists’ sources, but it has also made clear what was not clear a decade ago: it will not prosecute journalists for publishing classified information in clear violation of 18 USC 798.

I think here Goldsmith misses the novel theory the government used to convict Sterling, the one Holder has deemed the model to go after others.

Under this theory, journalists will be treated as empty vehicles, and the “cause to leak” language in the Espionage Act will be blown up, so that even completely unclassified conversations may be deemed the cause of an investigative journalist with sources throughout the CIA publishing a story. And the jurisdiction, too, will be blown up, so that so long as a single hairdresser buys a book in EDVA — or maybe MD, who cares, really?!?! — then DOJ can stage their witch hunt in EDVA with all its trappings of security theater.

There are some interesting theories behind the successful prosecution of Sterling for a bunch of metadata. And Goldsmith might at least familiarize himself with where Holder’s DOJ is taking the Espionage Act, because it deserves more scrutiny before the Sterling prosecution is deemed to have done no damage to the journalistic process.

Given this change in norms and the structural factors pushing secrets out (size of bureaucracy, digitalization of secrets, and the like), it is very hard to conclude that the advantage on secrecy versus transparency has shifted to the government under Holder.

Again, the underlying problem is the asymmetry involved. The government keeps hiding more and more stuff — the top officials behind its trust-building CVE program, even! — behind a veil of secrecy. That amid increasingly absurd claims of secrecy — and increasingly persistent evidence the secrecy often serves to hide law-breaking or incompetence, as it did with the Merlin caper — more secrets get out should be no great celebration. It’s the structure of it all — the paranoia, the arbitrariness, and the incompetence behind it all — that really sours any claim to democratic governance. Goldsmith may take solace we’re getting more secrets out, but until we reverse the slide into arbitrariness it heralds, I’m not so sanguine.

During the hearing just after the defense closed in the Sterling trial, there was a fascinating discussion, largely about how DOJ planned to blow up the “cause” language in the Espionage Act to further criminalize just talking to journalists, to criminalize publishing a book and deigning to distribute it in EDVA. The conversation kept coming back to how DOJ had gone from treating Risen as a criminal weeks earlier to treating him as an innocent naif who channeled Sterling’s spying to the unwitting citizens of EDVA. Judge Leonie Brinkema at one point said, “If Risen were not protected by the newsman’s privilege, I suspect he would have been named as a co-conspirator.” “There is no newsman’s privilege,” defense attorney Edward MacMahon pointed out, laughing at the absurdity of claiming there was after the 3 year battle over just that topic. But the exchange hung there, pregnantly, because ultimately branding Risen a criminal — or, barring that, branding having even unclassified conversations with Risen as criminal — was a big part of the point of this trial.

What this prosecution did — what, I believe, it was designed to do — was two-fold. First, burn Risen, burn Risen over 12 long years of investigation during which the counterpart investigation even reportedly seized his phone records. But also, to herald a new interpretation of the Espionage Act that will criminalize even having phone calls with a journalist who has reported on completely unclassified stories involving you in the past.

Update: Year on Risen’s credit card records corrected per Rich.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

DOJ Doesn’t Want You To Think CIA Doctored Evidence in the Sterling Trial

On October 4, 2011 (just before Jeffrey Sterling’s trial was originally due to start) the government submitted a motion that, in part, sought to prevent Sterling from presenting “any evidence or any argument that the CIA has manipulated documents.” The motion presented the crazypants idea that the CIA might alter or destroy documents as part of a conspiracy theory that the CIA wanted to blame Sterling for leaks others had made.

There is absolutely no evidence that the CIA was out to get the defendant, or that the CIA orchestrated some grand conspiracy to blame the defendant for the leaks to Risen. Any arguments or comments that the CIA engages in misconduct or has manipulated documents or evidence in order to blame the defendant for the disclosure of national defense information appearing in Chapter 9 lacks any merit and will needlessly send the Court, the parties, and the jury down an endless Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole.

Sterling’s lawyers were nonplussed by this demand. “Documents will be admitted if they are authenticated and otherwise admissible.”

Now, if DOJ were writing about most governmental agencies, you might interpret this request as no more than prosecutorial caution, an effort to exclude any hint of the other things the same motion tried to exclude — things like selective prosecution.

Except the CIA is not most governmental agencies.

Indeed, it is an agency with a long and storied history of serially destroying evidence. The Eastern District of VA US Attorney’s Office knows this, too, because they have so much experience reviewing cases where CIA has destroyed evidence and then deciding they can’t charge anyone for doing so.

And while I don’t expect Judge Leonie Brinkema of CIA’s own judicial district to therefore deny the CIA the presumption of regularity, I confess DOJ’s concern that Sterling might suggest CIA had doctored or destroyed evidence makes me pretty interested in what evidence they might have worried he would claim CIA doctored or destroyed, because with the CIA, I’ve learned, it’s usually a safer bet to assume they have doctored or destroyed evidence.

Especially given the two enormous evidentiary holes in the government’s case:

  • The letter to the Iranians Merlin included with his newspaper-wrapped nuclear blueprints
  • A report of Merlin’s activities in Vienna

As I lay out below, CIA’s story about the letter to the Iranians is sketchy enough, though the government’s ultimate story about it is at least plausible. But their story about Merlin’s non-existent trip report is sketchier still. I think the evidence suggests the latter, at least, once did exist. But when it became inconvenient — perhaps because it provided proof that Bob S lied in the cables he wrote boasting of Mission Accomplished — it disappeared.

But not before a version of it got saved — or handed over to — James Risen.

If I’m right, one of the underlying tensions in this whole affair is that a document appeared, verbatim, in Risen’s book that proved the CIA (and Bob S personally) was lying about the success of the mission and also lying about how justifiable it would be to have concerns about the operation.

The CIA and DOJ went to great lengths in this trial to claim that the operation was really very careful. But they never even tried to explain why the biggest evidence that it was anything but has disappeared.

Merlin’s letter to the Iranians

I’ve noted before that the FBI admits it never had a copy of the letter the government convicted Sterling of leaking to James Risen. “You don’t have a copy of the letter” that appears in Risen’s book, Edward MacMahon asked Special Agent Ashley Hunt. “Not in that exact form,” she responded.

Nevertheless, Count 2, Count 3, and Count 5 all pertain to a letter that appears in Risen’s book, the letter FBI never found. The letter appears at ¶¶ 58 to 63 of the exhibit version of the chapter in question.

To be sure, FBI did obtain versions of this letter, as cables introduced at trial reflect. The first iteration appears in Exhibit 30 (a cable describing a November 4, 1999 meeting), and discussions of the revisions process appears in Exhibit 33 (a cable describing a December 14, 1999 meeting). Exhibit 35 — dated January 12, 2000 and describing a January 10 meeting between Sterling and Merlin — provides the closest version to what appears in Risen’s book, in what is called (in Exhibit 36) the fifth iteration of the letter. The only difference (besides the signature line, presumably, according to the CIA’s currently official story) is the January 12, 2000 cable, based on a meeting that took place 7 weeks before Merlin left for Vienna, said this:

So I decided to offer this absolutely real and valuable basic information for [Iranian subject 2], about this possible event.

Whereas in Risen’s book that passage appears this way:

So I decided to offer this absolutely real and valuable basic information for free now and you can evaluate that. Also I sent e-mail to inform [the Iranian professor] about this possible event.

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Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.