Ex-CBS Reporter Sharyl Attkisson’s Battle Royale With the Feds
The Obama Justice Department and the United States Postal Service have issued carefully parsed denials that they hacked her phones and computers, but Sharyl Attkisson remains unconvinced.
“Unfortunately, the government doesn’t always provide truthful information,” the former CBS News correspondent told the Daily Beast this week. “We can’t just take the word of the government when it says something. I wish we could.”
Attkisson quit the network last March after 20 years in the Washington bureau, a career punctuated by increasing tensions and frustrations with CBS management, but also by journalism awards for uncovering corporate, political and government malfeasance among both Republican and Democratic office-holders.
Now she’s moving ahead with legal actions against the two federal agencies.
A Dec. 26 administrative complaint—a legally required precursor to a federal lawsuit against the sovereign United States—claims $35 million in damages sustained by Attkisson, her husband and their daughter.
It asserts that mysterious hackers, using sophisticated software available only to a select few at federal agencies, unlawfully tapped their home phones in Leesburg, Virginia, and stole data from Attkisson’s personal and office computers from 2011 to 2013, a period when she was aggressively investigating a series of Obama administration missteps. On Dec. 30, she filed a similar lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court.
There is little doubt that Attkisson’s computers were hacked by an illicit outside entity; experts hired independently by CBS, Attkisson and just-retired Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, conducted separate forensic analyses and found evidence of repeated intrusions using unauthorized software.
The big question, essentially, is whodunit?
Coburn, who said he used his staff from the Select Committee on Intelligence to investigate Attkisson’s personal computer, told the Daily Beast: “CBS wouldn’t let us look at the [office] computer, but on the one we did look at, we found programs that are not available anywhere else except to a very few people.” While he stopped short of linking the discovered programs to a federal agency, Coburn said: “I think she [Attkisson] has got a legitimate claim. I think her civil rights were violated.”
But this week the Justice Department and the Postal Service—among the defendants in the case, who also include Attorney General Eric Holder and Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe (both of whom have announced retirement plans), and various “unknown named agents” of the government—pushed back hard against Attkisson’s allegations.
“We stand by our statement from 2013,” a Justice Department spokesperson emailed the Daily Beast in response to Attkisson’s claim that she and her family suffered property losses, emotional stress and other injuries as a result of government intrusions
“For reference,” the flack continued, “a department spokesman in 2013 issued a statement as follows: ‘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.’ ”
A spokesperson for the Postal Service, which Attkisson’s court papers say works closely with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, likewise emailed: "We have not received a copy of the complaint, but we do not believe the allegations reported in the media have any merit.”
Attkisson is quick to poke holes in the government’s protestations of innocence. The Postal Service’s denial seems purposely vague, she said. “I think I know what they mean by ‘the allegations reported in the media,’ but it’s not specific.”
As for the Justice Department’s statement, “It’s only a qualified denial,” Attkisson said. “I would like to know to whom ‘our knowledge’ refers. Was there an investigation of people at DOJ before they arrived at that conclusion? Or was it just the two guys who wrote the press release?...And if they take the position that they have ‘no knowledge,’ I would suggest that they should be working a little harder to get to the bottom of this.”
Attkisson noted that the Justice Department and the FBI—which she says opened an investigation of her case, but never contacted her, and apparently has amassed a 5,000-page file on the hacking of her communications’ devices and related issues—has either rejected or ignored repeated Freedom of Information Act requests and letters demanding the relevant documents.
Attkisson said the Feds have basically given her the run-around, initially denying even the existence of such a case file, before acknowledging that, yep, it’s in their possession, but for unexplained reasons she can’t peruse it.
“I don’t think that’s the behavior of people who are trying to help,” she said, contrasting her experience of official obfuscation with the administration’s urgent response to the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment, whose top executives include contributors to the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party.
“They sure took the Sony thing seriously,” Attkisson said dryly. “Don’t they think it’s serious when a national journalist’s computer gets hacked? This is freedom of the press, and they certainly haven’t shown the press the same interest as they did in the Sony case.”
The events covered in the complaints occurred when Attkisson—in the obsessive, occasionally exasperating manner common to investigative journalists everywhere—was regularly antagonizing President Obama’s supporters, and fast becoming a political lightning rod, with scoops on the ill-fated “Fast and Furious” gun-walking scheme; the taxpayer-backed $536 million loan to Solyndra, an Obama-friendly solar energy company that promptly went bust; the unsuccessful response to the lethal terrorist attack on the American diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya; and the incompetent launch of Healthcare.gov., the website of Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment.
It’s hardly surprising that Attkisson has been tagged as partisan and agenda-driven by some Democrats and left-leaning media critics, and even a few colleagues within CBS News.
Yet her Little Rock, Ark.-based attorney, C. Tab Turner, told the Daily Beast he’s a loyal Democrat who supported Bill Clinton and Barack Obama for president, and will happily vote for Hillary Clinton if she decides to run.
“There was an intrusion with sophisticated software, and according to the investigations we’ve conducted so far, that software is only available to government agencies with the United States,” Turner said. “There is no question it was placed there by government agencies. The question is, who did it?”
He added that he is working for Attkisson on contingency and intends to file a federal lawsuit after the administrative complaint is either accepted by the government or passes the required six-month waiting period.
Attkisson, meanwhile, quoted one of her private forensic analysts—who declined to comment for this story—as telling her that there is harder evidence for government intrusion on her personal computer than the United States possesses for hacking by China.
Coburn, for one, said it’s likely that the answer will be obtained through the discovery process in a lawsuit, including the depositions of witnesses under oath.
“These are real issues for our country when a reporter’s computers get hacked using sophisticated software that is only available a few places in the world,” he said. “That’s a pretty scary thing to me in terms of freedoms and liberties. If it happened, it’s absolutely an abuse of power and it’s also a criminal offense…Somebody certainly violated [Attkisson’s] rights. It would seem to me she certainly ought to be compensated and whoever is responsible for that ought to be in a jail cell.”