Journalist seeks to revive litigation over alleged surveillance by feds

By Josh Gerstein

A TV journalist known for against-the-grain reporting is unleashing a new flurry of litigation on Friday alleging she was subjected to illegal surveillance by U.S. officials while covering Obama administration controversies such as the Benghazi attack and Operation Fast and Furious nearly a decade ago.

Now, Sharyl Attkisson says an informant has acknowledged a role in the snooping. The journalist and her attorneys believe that development may be enough to allow her to restart the litigation and demand answers from government officials.

New filings in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia and Baltimore are vague about the informant’s identity or his precise role, but say he stepped forward last summer and claims he was directly involved in spying on Attkisson.

“In August 2019 a former Government employee directly involved in the surveillance operation came forward to provide information about the illegal surveillance operation that resulted in surveillance of the Attkissons,” attorneys Tab Turner and Andrew Baxter wrote. “As a result, for the first time the Attkissons can now name at least some of the Government officials who were directly involved in conducting the illegal surveillance and provide more detail about the surveillance operations itself.”

One of those Attkisson is now accusing of directing the surveillance was little known at the time but was regular headline fodder in the past couple of years: Rod Rosenstein. He was the U.S. Attorney in Baltimore for 12 years and went on to serve as deputy attorney general under President Donald Trump from 2017 to 2019.

The suit claims that Attkisson, as well as her husband and daughter, were targeted by an interagency task force which was based in Baltimore and overseen by Rosenstein. A newly-filed suit asserts Rosenstein “ordered” four government employees “to conduct home computer surveillance on the Attkissons and other U.S. citizens.”

Rosenstein, who resigned from government service last year and just started as a law partner at the Atlanta-based firm King & Spalding, did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

Also named as defendants in the suit are members of the mutli-agency group that investigated an online dark-web marketplace known as the Silk Road. Among them is a Secret Service agent who specialized in computer forensics, Shaun Bridges. He’s currently serving eight years in prison for stealing Bitcoins during his government work.

Another prominent, newly-named defendant is former FBI executive assistant director Shawn Henry, who now serves as chief security officer for the global cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. A spokeswoman for the firm said Friday it does not comment on ongoing legal actions.

Attkisson faces an uphill legal battle in trying to revive the litigation, but she and her attorneys saw a glimmer of hope in a ruling last March from a federal appeals court. The 4th Circuit decision upheld the tossing-out of an earlier suit she brought in Virginia, but said the dismissal was “without prejudice,” leaving open the possibility she could try to proceed by revising her suit.

In addition, one judge on the appeals court panel teed-off on the federal government, calling its stance in the case “Kafkaesque.” Judge James Wynn Jr. said that the Justice Department frustrated Attkisson’s efforts to identify those involved, then urged her case be thrown out for failing to name the government officials responsible for the alleged snooping.

Wynn compared the feds’ approach to the “four corners” strategy University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith perfected a half-century ago to run out the clock on offense when his team was ahead.

“In this case, the government — not unlike Dean Smith’s Tar Heels — put up the ‘fours,’” Wynn wrote, referring to the hand sign Smith used to signal the play. “Attkisson never got a meaningful opportunity to pursue her claims because the government did everything in its power to run out the clock on Attkisson’s action.”

Attkisson’s lawyers are trying to leverage the 4th Circuit ruling by asking the trial judge who dismissed the case, Leonie Brinkema, to allow them to reopen it. In addition, they filed a new lawsuit in federal court in Baltimore Friday. It’s unclear whether the court there will permit them to proceed with a separate case relating to the same events.

Attkisson became concerned about alleged surveillance beginning in 2012, when she experienced problems with her computers and cell phones. Experts she called in to look at the issue found a series of suspicious signs, including a dangling fiber optic cable at her home and computers that were turning on and off by themselves. They said she seemed to be the focus of a highly sophisticated hacker or surveillance crew.

A Justice Department inspector general inquiry found no signs of illegal surveillance and suggested the problems could be due to mundane issues, like a stuck laptop key. But Attkisson says DOJ never managed to get access to her work computer and explanations like a stuck key don’t explain why others were logging into her Skype account or why experts found some data on her computer was being relayed to a mysterious internet server address tied to the U.S. Postal Service.

“My phones were just unusable,” Attkisson told POLITICO. “When this stuff first happened to me, it all sounded crazy.”

She said she also hopes her case will be bolstered by another recent development: one of the individuals involved in checking Attkisson’s equipment who had previously asked to remain anonymous has now agreed to be identified. Leslie Szwajkowski, a retired FBI agent who once was the head of the bureau’s Electronic Surveillance Technology Section.

“I, and my associates involved, were quite shocked at what we found,” the ex-FBI official said in an affidavit submitted by Attkisson’s attorneys. “We felt that what was transpiring, and had transpired, was outrageous.”

Attkisson, who currently works for the Sinclair television chain and hosts its Sunday morning program “Full Measure,” says she’s still outraged about the digital intrusions she believes she suffered beginning and the way her efforts to seek justice have been stymied.

“I wasn’t going to just go quietly into the night,” she told POLITICO. “I’ve learned that when the Justice Dept. won’t hold its own accountable, the ability to get justice in civil court can be nearly impossible for an ordinary citizen even when irrefutable forensic proof and admissions are in hand, such as in my case. There are six ways from Sunday that the Justice Dept. can make sure the proof is never seen by a jury.”

Attkisson said she also sees links between what happened to her and other surveillance activities that provoked widespread outrage, like the National Security Agency snooping exposed by Edward Snowden and the recent report from Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz that found extensive errors and omissions in surveillance applications related to ex-Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

“This is not about me,” Attkisson said. “If people had paid attention to this and 100 other things that happened in the last 20 years surveillance-wise, 2016 wouldn’t have happened and the FBI abuses that Horowitz described….It’s not important because it’s me. It wasn’t just me. It’s just my little way of trying to get the information to the public.”