Steadfast (non-denial) denials [updated]

Sharyl Attkisson filed her lawsuit against the Department of Justice et al. on Monday. She spoke briefly with us about it in the interview with her that we posted here on Monday afternoon.

The lawsuit alleges the violation of Attkisson’s civil rights as a result of the illegal electronic monitoring and surveillance of her home and business computers and phones from 2011 to 2013. Attkisson tells the story behind the lawsuit in her memoir cum exposé Stonewalled. The press release posted on her site briefly explains:

As outlined in the claims, three separate computer forensics exams revealed that intruders used sophisticated, remote capabilities to monitor Attkisson’s work. The intruders installed and periodically “refreshed” software used to exfiltrate data, obtain Attkisson’s passwords to various personal and work accounts, access the CBS News computer system, and monitor Attkisson’s audio using a Skype account. Forensics also revealed evidence of U.S. government-related involvement in the surveillance.

In May 2013, the Department of Justice issued a written response to questions from the news media stating, “To our knowledge, the Justice Department has never compromised Ms. Attkisson’s computers, or otherwise sought any information from or concerning any telephone, computer, or other media device she may own or use.”

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Attkisson learned that the F.B.I. opened a case on her computer intrusions in June 2013, listing her as the victim, but the agency failed to interview her in the investigation or even notify her that one had been opened. Based on the government’s decision to ignore Attkisson’s requests, Attkisson and her family have chosen the only available option left to them.

The lawsuit has generated amazingly little coverage. It is a political bombshell. You can find all the stories turned up in a Google search here.

In his story on the lawsuit (video below), Howard Kurtz prefaced the Department of Justice statement in the second paragraph above with the comment: “The department has steadfastly denied any involvement in the hacking[.]”

The Department of Justice promptly issued the statement in response to Attkisson’s initial disclosure of her experience in the course of a radio interview in the spring of 2013. Attkisson addresses the statement in her book. She is not swayed by it; she characterizes it as a “quasi-denial.” In Watergate, we became familiar with the non-denial denial (a locution credited to the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee); the Department of Justice statement reads like a variant.

To our knowledge…says the Justice Department’s quasi-denial,” she writes. Who is the “we” encompassed in “our,” she asks. “The entire Justice Department? Did officials really, in the blink of an eye, conduct an investigation and question 113,543 Justice Department employees? That’s impressive! I’m still waiting for answers to Freedom of Information Act requests that I filed with them years ago, but they’re able to provide this semi-definitive statement within minutes of the question being posed.”

The Department of Justice, however, had a second opportunity to address the issue in response to a letter sent by Senator Tom Coburn to Eric Holder with three inquiries broadly addressing Attkisson’s experience. Coburn’s letter elicited this response from the Department of Justice: “Your letter ask whether the Department is responsible for incidents in 2012 in which the computer of Sharyl Attkisson, a CBS reporter, was allegedly hacked by an unauthorized party. The Department is not. It also does not appear that CBS or Ms. Attkisson followed up with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for assistance with these incidents.” Attkisson comments:

Instead of answering the questions at hand, the administration had posed an entirely different question and chosen to answer that one. Senator Coburn’s letter hadn’t referred to “hacks,” it didn’t narrow its questions to 2012, didn’t ask whether the Justice Department was “responsible,” and didn’t narrow its questions to the Justice Department alone. I conclude there’s a reason they stuck to posing and denying a very narrow set of circumstances, using such specific language, rather than simply answering the questions Coburn asked.

Attkisson indirectly quotes Coburn telling her “my case may be the worst, most outrageous violation of public trust he’s ever seen in all his years in office.”

Attkisson adds this: “On February 18, 2014, Coburn issues a follow-up letter to the Justice Department pointing out that none of his questions from the previous July had been answered in its December response….Five months later, more than a year after the original congressional inquiry was posed, the Justice Department had still provided no further response.”

The media’s incuriosity about these events is difficult to explain. Politico’s Dylan Byers is an egregious case in point. Whatever the explanation, I don’t think it’s on account of the Department of Justice’s “steadfast denials.”

UPDATE: The Daily Beast has just posted Llloyd Grove’s excellent Daily Beast story “Ex-CBS reporter Sheryl Attkisson’s battle royale with the feds.” Grove’s article has some good quotes from Attkisson and Coburn, among others.

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