Notes on “Stonewalled,” part 3

This concludes my series of posts on Sharyl Attkisson’s important new book, Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington. Part 1 is here; part 2 is here. We recorded an interview with Attkisson about the book early Monday afternoon; the interview is posted here.

• Attkisson bookends her accounts of the Obama administration scandals she has covered with the story of what appear to be coordinated intrusions into her her telephones and computers. She begins the book with this story and she devotes the penultimate chapter of the book (Chapter 6: “I Spy”) to it. The concluding chapter recounts her departure from CBS News as a result of her frustrations with news management.

• She’s working on the Benghazi story when she is advised by a friendly source “connected to a three-letter agency” that “the administration is likely monitoring you–based on your reporting.” In fact, she’s had troubles with her phones and computers; they have been behaving oddly. In addition to Benghazi, she says, she now has a new mystery to unravel.

• Her computers are examined by three sets of experts, one set retained on behalf of CBS. Each concludes that she is the victim of computer intrusion and monitoring. One finds classified government documents secreted in her hard drive that she has had nothing to do with. She believes that they were placed there by the intruders for use against her at an appropriate time.

• CBS’s expert confirms the computer intrusions. CBS prepares a statement announcing they have determined “Attkisson’s computer was accessed by an unauthorized, external, unknown party on multiple occasions in late 2012….[F]orensic analysis revealed an intruder had executed commands that appeared to involve search and exfiltration of data. The party also used sophisticated methods to remove all possible indications of unauthorized activity, and alter system times to cause further confusion.”

• It isn’t long before CBS begins to treat her like the perpetrator rather than the victim. “I can’t explain why, other than intuition,” she writes (page 306), “but I get the eerie feeling that CBS wants to downplay what’s happened–maybe even try to advance a narrative that there was no computer intrusion.”

• Attkisson’s experts conclude that the intrusion of her computers was likely perpetrated by a government agency with highly sophisticated software proprietary to the government and Attkisson strongly implies that the government is responsible for the intrusions. I asked her about this in the interview with her on Monday. It’s hard to believe the government would single her out; she wasn’t the only reporter working the Benghazi and other Obama administrations scandal stories. Attkisson cites the administration’s acquisition of the telephone records of James Rosen’s and the AP reporters. “My case and that of AP and FOX are enough to suggest that the government had a coordinated effort at least by 2012, and probably beginning earlier, to target the leakers and reporters who were perceived as making the administration’s life difficult.”

• This aspect of Attkisson’s story recalls the atmosphere of surveillance and paranoia conveyed by Woodward & Bernstein in All the President’s Men. Watergate generated a genre of movies such as Three Days of the Condor in which government agents perpetrate evil schemes against the rest of us. Attkisson’s story is more chilling and more credible; it would make a great movie. Someone should buy the movie rights.

• The Department of Justice has issued two statements on Attkisson’s case. In response to Attkisson’s first public mention of her experience, in the course of a radio interview, the Department of Justice issued this statement (page 303): “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.” I should note here that the FBI falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice.

• “To our knowledge…says the Justice Department’s quasi-denial.” Who is the “we” encompassed in “our,” Attkisson 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.”

• Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, just retired, sent Attorney General Holder a letter making broad inquiries on behalf of Attkisson. Attkisson sets forth Coburn’s inquiries at page 331 and then quotes the response submitted by the Department of Justice (page 332): “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.”

• Coburn’s letter to Holder had sought information regarding actions taken “[d]uring your tenure as attorney general,” not during 2012. Attkisson drily observes:

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 paraphrases 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.”

• And that’s not all: “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.”

• Attkisson notes in her penultimate chapter: “On May 6, 2013, I make contact with an excellent source who has crucial information: the name of the person responsible for my computer intrusions. He provides me the name and I recognize it. I’m not surprised. It strikes me as desperate and cowardly that those responsible would resort to these tactics. That’s all I can say about that for now.”

• On Monday Attkisson filed an administrative claim against the government as a predicate to bringing a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act and also brought a lawsuit against the government for violation of her civil rights. The Obama administration will grind it out. Whatever resolution may be brought to these troubling questions will await a new administration, but Congress should be looking for answers right now.

• Attkisson deftly articulates one of the bona fide occupational qualifications for service as a spokesman in the Obama administration. Referring specifically to HHS spokesman Joanne Peters, who is perfectly representative in this respect, Attkisson writes (page 267): “It takes a certain kind of person to be untruthful and then display utter lack of contrition when caught.” (Attkisson had caught Peters lying to her.)

• I can’t help but note Attkisson’s sidelong glance at Rathergate (pages 366-368). A senior producer tells Attkisson of the then upcoming 60 Minutes II story on President Bush and shows her the supposedly typewritten documents on which the story is based; he tells her she may have to follow up on the story. Attkisson takes a look at the documents and tells the producer: “These look like they were typed by my daughter on a computer yesterday.” Attkisson notes parenthetically: “My daughter was nine at the time.” When ordered to cover the story after it airs, while CBS was still standing behind it, Attkisson refused. She tells her senior producer: “I can’t report a story that says something I know to be false. And if you make me, I’ll have to call my lawyer.” Attkisson concludes: “Nobody ever again suggested that I report on Rathergate.”

Thanks for sticking with me through this series.

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