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Former Drug Enforcement Administration analyst Jonathan Randel is sentenced to a year in prison on felony theft charges surrounding his passing of DEA information to Toby Follett, a London Times investigative reporter. Randel’s prosecution is unusual because he passed unclassified information to the reporter, and none of his actions threatened national security. The prosecutor of Randel’s case says flatly that Randel was taken to court to discourage other government employees from cooperating with the press. Additionally, there is wide speculation that Randel’s prosecution may have something to do with the target of Follett’s investigation, Lord Michael Ashcroft. Ashcroft (no relation to Attorney General John Ashcroft) was under investigation by the DEA because of his ownership of a bank in Belize that was a known outlet for laundered drug money. Randel provided Follett with information that was not classified, but was categorized as “sensitive.” Times editor Robert Thomson says that Randel’s prosecution is distressing because “[c]onfidential information is passed to journalists every day.” However, Justice Department prosecutor William Duffey, a former deputy independent counsel under Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr, says that Randel’s prosecution was designed to warn other government workers of the dangers of cooperating with the media.
'Particularly Alarming' - Lucy Dalglish, head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says, “What is particularly alarming is that this is not classified information and is probably disclosable under the Freedom of Information Act. This is the kind of thing that journalists ask for every day.” She says that other, similar actions by other public employees have been addressed with reprimands and letters in their personnel files. “But jail?” she asks. Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean writes in 2004, “Clearly this was a warning aimed at potential whistleblowers in the federal bureaucracy, advising them to keep quiet, or risk jail.” (Barringer 1/16/2003; Dean 2004, pp. 67-69)
No Precedent - Neither Duffey nor anyone in the DEA can cite any other cases where the government has prosecuted an employee for leaking confidential but unclassified information. Lawyer Kevin Goldberg, legal counsel for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, says that such a prosecution is rare in the extreme. If such a broad standard were applied to other whistleblowers, then charges could well be brought against FBI agent Coleen Rowley, whose revelations of FBI mismanagement and obduracy before the 9/11 attacks earned her a citation as one of Time Magazine’s “Persons of the Year.” Journalism professor Catherine Manegold calls Randel’s prosecution “not too different from McCarthyism.… If we are confined to official, pre-vetted statements, that’s a terribly dangerous place to be.” (McDonald 1/15/2003)
Protecting Lord Ashcroft - Dean will say that the Justice Department’s prosecution of Randel was extraordinary, writing that the Department “threw the book at him.” It filed a twenty-count indictment against Randel, including 16 separate charges for each time Randel used a DEA computer to locate information on Ashcroft, and characterizing each computer usage as a separate scheme to “defraud” the US government. If convicted of all charges and given the maximum possible sentence, Randel would have faced up to 580 years in prison—a prime reason, Dean believes, that Randel accepted a plea bargain to a single charge of felony theft. According to Dean, Randel strongly believes that the Justice Department prosecuted him to protect Ashcroft, a wealthy Conservative lord living in the United States. (Dean 2004, pp. 67-69) According to his attorney, Steven Sadow, Randel thinks “Ashcroft was getting a free ride for crooked activities. That’s why he did what he did.” Ashcroft has filed a lawsuit for defamation of character against the Times over its charges that he was involved in drug trafficking and money laundering; the Times’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, settled the case by printing a front-page apology to Ashcroft (see December 8, 1999). (McDonald 1/15/2003) Ashcroft is also being probed over his potentially illegal dealings with the US toy manufacturer Tyco, and is suspected of participating in racketeering, securities fraud, tax fraud, and/or falsification of records. (Dean 2004, pp. 67-69)
US District Court Judge Thomas Hogan, presiding over the grand jury investigation of the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak (see December 30, 2003), rejects arguments that the First Amendment protects reporters from either Time or NBC News from testifying in the investigation. Hogan cites the 1972 Supreme Court case, Branzberg v. Hayes, in his ruling. In Branzberg, the Court ruled that “we cannot accept the argument that the public interest in possible future news about crime… must take precedence over the public interest in pursuing and prosecuting those crimes.” Hogan finds Time reporter Matthew Cooper (see May 21, 2004) in contempt of court. He also finds Time itself in contempt, and fines the magazine $1,000 a day until Cooper complies with a subpoena for his testimony. The ruling was written on July 20, but only issued today. “The information requested,” Hogan explains in his decision, “is very limited, all available means of obtaining the information have been exhausted, the testimony sought is necessary for completion of the investigation, and the testimony sought is expected to constitute direct evidence of innocence or guilt.” Cooper’s employer, Time magazine, will appeal Hogan’s ruling, but many believe the appeals court will not overturn it. “I think we’re going to have a head-on confrontation here,” says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “I think Matt Cooper is going to jail.” Cooper’s lawyer Floyd Abrams says: “[Cooper’s] story was essentially critical of the administration for leaking information designed to focus the public away from what Ambassador [Joseph] Wilson [Plame Wilson’s husband] was saying was true and toward personal things. That sort of story, about potential government misuse of power, is precisely the sort of thing that is impossible to do without the benefit of confidential sources.” (Liptak 8/10/2004; Schmidt and Leonnig 8/10/2004; Washington Post 7/3/2007) NBC reporter Tim Russert, also subpoenaed, did not contest the subpoena; the press learns today that he has already testified before the grand jury (see August 7, 2004 and August 9, 2004). Observers believe that prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is preparing to use Hogan’s ruling to compel the testimony of two other reporters, Robert Novak (see July 14, 2003) and Walter Pincus (see August 9, 2004). One defense lawyer involved in the case says Hogan’s ruling gives Fitzgerald significant leverage to compel testimony from Novak and Pincus. “This is now open season on these reporters,” he says. The court’s ruling establishes unequivocally that “in a grand jury context, reporters don’t have a privilege.” NBC News president Neal Shapiro says, “Compelling reporters to reveal their newsgathering to government investigators is, in our view, contrary to the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press.” Dalglish says Fitzgerald should be focusing on prying information from Bush administration officials rather than reporters. Referring to administration officials, Dalglish says, “You just can’t tell me none of the people appearing before the grand jury knows who the leaker was.” (Schmidt and Leonnig 8/10/2004)
As many as 10 journalists are expected to testify during the Lewis Libby perjury and obstruction trial. Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, calls the prospect “unprecedented and, as far as I’m concerned, horrifying.” Libby’s lawyers may subpoena as many as seven journalists, whom they have not yet identified, to testify, in order to bolster their contention that Libby’s poor memory caused him to inadvertently lie to the FBI (see October 14, 2003 and November 26, 2003) and to a grand jury (see March 5, 2004 and March 24, 2004) about his involvement in exposing the CIA identity of Valerie Plame Wilson (see January 31, 2006). Roy Peter Clark, a scholar at the Poynter Institute, says he worries about the fallout from the trial, particularly in the future ability of journalists to protect their sources. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty recently told Congress that the Justice Department routinely observes restraint in issuing subpoenas to reporters, and has only issued 13 media subpoenas involving confidential sources in the last 15 years. “This record reflects restraint,” McNulty told Congress. “We have recognized the media’s right and obligation to report broadly on issues of public controversy and, absent extraordinary circumstances, have committed to shielding the media from all forms of compulsory process.” (Associated Press 1/2/2007)
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