Sunday, June 24, 2012

The curious case of the penitent president. I

I have the funniest feeling President Obama has suddenly remembered us—the loyal imposition, you know, who don't have any objection to a bit of socialism, or to Reverend Wright and Bill Ayres (in his post-terrorist aspect), or to spending a few years per century without a war being on—and is sending us faint signals from his Fortress of Solitude, if we listen carefully.
Playground superhero. From Whiskywords.
One of these was last Wednesday's Times article (by Scott Shane and Charlie Savage) trying to explain how the Obama administration found itself prosecuting six different cases of leaks under the Espionage Act, which, as you've heard, is twice as many as the number of prosecutions under all previous US presidents put together. In the first place Obama is said to have had nothing to do with it: [jump]

Like most presidents, Mr. Obama has been infuriated by some leaks, but aides say he never ordered investigations. Current and former officials said Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder, who are social friends, have avoided discussing investigations and prosecutions to avoid any appearance of improper White House influence, a charge Democrats lodged against the Bush administration.
And then it's not as if it was the outcome of some kind of concerted plan to discourage whistleblowing; it seems that it's just a big coincidence, or series of coincidences.
  1. Shamai Leibowitz was working as a Hebrew translator for the FBI in early 2009 when he was assigned a stack of transcripts of phone calls from the Israeli embassy in Washington, which the Bureau had tapped, and sent them to the blogger Richard Silverstein, at Truthout. Silverstein says he was interested in the documents because of the way they revealed Israeli attempts to poison the discussion of Iran in the US; Leibowitz says, at least now, that what concerned him was that the documents "showed the FBI is committing illegal and unconstitutional acts." Like tapping diplomatic telephones? Like Israel doesn't do that to the US? Frankly, I like Silverstein's story better. In any case, Leibowitz was busted, pleaded guilty, and served his time—as you can see from the last link above, he's very recently resumed his blog, too, though only for the one post.
  2. Stephen Jin-woo Kim is a Senior Analyst at the Office of National Security at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he worked on North Korea, and in June 2009 he is alleged to have divulged some classified information to reporter James Rosen of Fox News. He actually contacted Rosen at the behest of the State Department, according to Scott Shane, but went too far, communicating a top secret report on how North Korea would react to a United Nations condemnation of its nuclear and missile testing programs with more tests. Then he is said to have made false statements about Rosen to the FBI, claiming that they had only met once when in fact they met several times. He has pleaded not guilty, and no trial date has been set.
  3. Thomas Drake was a Process Portfolio manager in the Directorate of Engineering at the National Security Agency in early 2006 when he began sending information to reporter Siobhan Gorman of the Baltimore Sun about cases of waste, fraud, and abuse at the NSA; he felt that the NSA was committing crimes directed against the American people, and that appeals to higher-ups at NSA, Department of Defense, and House and Senate intelligence committees had produced no results. Moreover, he was careful to give Gorman only unclassified information. Meanwhile, the FBI began investigating, raiding the homes of several of Drake's associates and eventually Drake's own, confiscating his papers, books, and computers. The case, the subject of a great story in the New Yorker by Jane Mayer, collapsed in June 2011 under the burden of its own idiocy, but only after having generally ruined Drake's life—he'd lost his job and life savings, and was said to be working in an Apple store (he has since started a consulting business, Knowpari Systems).
  4. Bradley Manning—well, you know all about Bradley Manning. He's been imprisoned since May 2010, under rather better conditions now than he was at first, and presumably his court-martial case will go to trial some day.
  5. Jeffrey Stirling is the music director of the St. Paul Civic Symphony. No, wait. Jeffrey Alexander Sterling was a CIA operative in New York City, where he was working at recruiting Iranian spooks, when he filed a complaint against the agency's management for racial discrimination (he's black), in April 2000. He couldn't come to terms with the agency on the complaint, and was terminated in 2002; he subsequently wrote his memoirs but couldn't get them through the CIA review process, and he sued the agency on the racial discrimination issue. The suit was dismissed in appeals court in 2005 with the explanation that "there is no way for Sterling to prove employment discrimination without exposing at least some classified details of the covert employment that gives context to his claim." He also exchanged numerous emails in 2002-04 with New York Times reporter James Risen which were intercepted by the FBI, in which he revealed national defense information which Risen subsequently used in his book State of War (2006), on the CIA's secret activities in Iran. He was finally arrested for this in January 2011, pleading not guilty. His lawyer complained that he hadn't yet been given clearance to discuss the case fully with his client.
  6. John Kiriakou came to the climax of his CIA career in Pakistan in 2002, when he was running counterterrorism operations there, personally leading raids on the homes of alleged Al-Qa'eda members, including one Abu Zubaydah,  a small-time employee who had been inflated in CIA eyes to number 3 in the organization (at least!). Kiriakou left the agency in 2004, and by 2007 was a minor celebrity of the Global War on Terrorism, regaling TV audiences with the tale of how he broke Zubaydah with a single experience of waterboarding (actually Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times, and Kiriakou wasn't there, as he eventually acknowledged). Meanwhile, down in Guantánamo, in 2009, authorities learned that John Sifton, a private detective working for the ACLU, had been supplying defense lawyers with photo lineups including pictures of CIA officers and contractors, as a way of gathering evidence about whether they had been tortured. The lawyers didn't know which was which (that would have wrecked the lineup exercise), but Sifton did, and what the CIA wanted to know was how: the theory that eventually emerged was that he had gotten the names from a journalist, and the journalist had gotten them from Kiriakou. Kiriakou was indicted just this January, particularly on charges of disclosing the identity of covert CIA officers; he entered a plea of not guilty to all charges in April.
So: the Drake and Sterling cases, which are maybe the most egregiously awful, were inherited from the Albertito Gonzales DOJ and President Bush. Attorney General Holder could have quashed them, but as the Times coyly remarks,
Mr. Holder, a former career prosecutor, could have halted any of the cases. But to block a case after years of investigation might anger the prosecutors who are supposed to take it to trial. 
Gosh, no, you wouldn't want them to get angry, would you? (When US Attorneys get angry, they commonly turn green, swell to enormous proportions, and become unable to listen to reason; the Incredible Sulk.)  I bet Holder wishes he'd dropped the Drake case, though. He should drop Sterling, as well, while it's on his mind, because that is not going to end happily for the DOJ either, and the prosecutor will get mad anyway. The judge ruled last July that Risen does not have to identify any sources if he testifies in Sterling's case—he'd have gone to jail rather than do it anyway, of course—and I have a feeling they don't have much of a case. Indeed maybe it has quietly disappeared already:
The Justice Department is appealing several of the judge’s pretrial rulings about evidentiary issues, saying they effectively terminated the case.
I have an idea they're not going to get anywhere with Stephen Kim, for that matter. Prosecutors apparently tried for a plea bargain last August, but Kim turned them down. The contents of the supposedly leaked document sounds as vapid as if it had been plagiarized from Forbes magazine.
Photo by Gregg Segal, from Caroline on Crack.
Kiriakou, whose trial is scheduled to start in November, may be another story. As we used to say when the agent whose cover was blown was Valerie Plame, that's a very serious matter. Also one of the agents he is suspected of unveiling is Deuce Martinez, the one who used conventional "trust-building" interrogation after torture had failed. But the evidence for the Guantánamo scenario seems awfully vague, and other than that what he is mainly accused of is providing information to Scott Shane, in which he was very far from being alone, and misrepresenting his book manuscript (The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA's War on Terror, 2010) to the agency, which seems to be done by everyone.

Manning, I suppose, has to be convicted, assuming he is really the source of the two first huge Wikileaks—the Afghanistan helicopter video and the Iraq war documentation. He's a genuine hero, in my view, who must have been prepared for this. Anyway it's all military: he has nothing to do with DOJ and Eric Holder.

So it may be in the end that that sad and ambiguous little case of Shamai Leibowitz and the blogger is the only conviction Holder will get out of this four-year full-court press against leakers. Only, was it, as we've been thinking lately, really a full-court press? Or was it more, as today's article suggests, was it a more or less random collusion of events that somewhat resembled each other blowing in from the Bush administration, the defense department, and elsewhere?

Maybe it was! Because if they really wanted to mount a devastating campaign, you'd think they'd have waited until they had more promising material than this.
Super Screaming Poodle, by Saskia. From the I Need a Hero competition, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, 2007.
To be continued...

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