Did the Obama administration put a journalist under surveillance for reporting critically on its activities? Former CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson says yes — and she wants $35 million in damages from the Department of Justice for it. Attkisson filed a series of legal motions today that claim the DoJ hacked into her computer and attacked her professionally:
In a series of legal filings that seek $35 million in damages, Attkisson alleges that three separate computer forensic exams showed that hackers used sophisticated methods to surreptitiously monitor her work between 2011 and 2013. …
In the lawsuit and related claims against the Postal Service, filed in Washington, Attkisson says the intruders installed and periodically refreshed software to steal data and obtain passwords on her home and work computers. She also charges that the hackers monitored her audio using a Skype account.
The award-winning reporter says she and her attorneys have “pretty good evidence” that these efforts were “connected” to the Justice Department. She said she was caught in a “Catch-22,” forcing her to use the lawsuit and an administrative complaint to discover more about the surveillance through the discovery process and to learn the identities of the “John Does” named in the complaints.
The news of this legal action — on two fronts — has unfolded over the last few days. The Washington Examiner reported on the effort on Saturday, although framing it as more of an opening to get documents related to the investigation of the hacking:
“I am hoping to get information that sheds light on a number of problems I’ve been dealing with,” Attkisson told the Washington Examiner’s media desk Friday evening. “One of the items the FBI is withholding is information surrounding a case they opened on my computer intrusions, which lists me as the victim.”
“Yet they never told me they opened the case, never interviewed me, and won’t produce material relevant to the case or the case file. The case has to progress through court and, historically, the government drags it out (at taxpayer expense). So it’s unclear when, if ever, we might receive the documents to which we are entitled,” she said.
That would make sense. The lawsuit would force the DoJ into producing those records as part of discovery, assuming that the DoJ didn’t get a judge to throw out the case first. Saturday’s report didn’t include the allegation that the hacking itself was connected to the DoJ, but as Attkisson writes at her own website, that’s what she and her investigative team believe they can prove:
Investigative Journalist Sharyl Attkisson has filed administrative claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act against the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Postal Service, and certain unnamed employees and/or agents of the federal government. Attkisson has also filed a lawsuit in the District of Columbia alleging certain violations of her constitutional rights based on information implicating the federal government in illegal electronic monitoring and surveillance of her home and business computers and phones from 2011 to 2013.
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 essence, Attkisson is now taking two tracks in her strategy for dealing with the Obama administration — a lawsuit and a series of administrative claims. The DoJ could have stalled the latter for months, if not the two years it would take to run out the clock. The parallel lawsuit for constitutional rights violations prevents them from doing that. The DoJ might argue that the court should set aside the lawsuit while it processes the administrative claims, but the nature of these allegations (and the high visibility of the complainant) will probably discourage that outcome.
It wouldn’t be the first time that the DoJ got caught surveilling a journalist. Eric Holder approved a surveillance warrant on James Rosen which got a judge’s approval by claiming that Rosen was a co-conspirator in an espionage case. Did the DoJ get a court order for surveillance on Attkisson? If so, the DoJ hasn’t revealed it — and if Attkisson’s right about the nature of the hacking and no warrant exists, then a few people may be at risk for criminal prosecution and not just damages from a lawsuit.
Of course, that assumes that Attkisson and her team can back up those allegations in court. One has to prove a case, not just make the allegations. However, Attkisson has been careful up to now on pointing fingers for the hack, even while getting reviled by her opponents for not naming names. That at least suggests that she’s fairly confident of her findings. Let’s see if a court agrees, and forces the DoJ to start coughing up the documents that Attkisson seeks.
Update: Politico’s Dylan Byers didn’t think much of this strategy:
@DylanByers She's filing an admin claim and going to court. How else would you deal with it?
— Ed Morrissey (@EdMorrissey) January 5, 2015
I’m seriously asking this. How else would one deal with a situation of the DoJ hacking a journalist? Calling the FBI? She tried that to get the records of the investigation and got nowhere.