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Archive for April 20th, 2009

Senate Confirms Justice Dept. Nominees Lanny Breuer, Tony West & Christine Varney

Lanny Breuer

Lanny Breuer

As expected, the Senate gave the nod to the latest Justice Department appointees. 

By Mary Jacoby
Main Justice
WASHINGTON — After minimal debate, the Senate this evening quickly confirmed Lanny Breuer as Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division; Tony West as Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division, and Christine Varney as Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division.

Their confirmation votes had been delayed by controversy over veteran diplomat Christopher Hill’s nomination to be ambassador to Iraq, prompting Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to complain that Republicans had delayed getting key Obama nominees in place at the Justice Department. The nominees were uncontroversial and should have been confirmed by voice vote, Leahy added.

Noting the unanimous support for Breuer, a Covington & Burling partner and former Clinton White House lawyer, Leahy said: “The right thing has been done. Not a single dissenting vote.” That prompted Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary panel, to chime in about Varney: “Let’s confirm her.”

For Full Story

OTHER STORIES OF INTEREST

Turf Battles Could Hurt Drug Investigations (Wall Street Journal)

Prosecutors Need More Accountability

Some believe that prosecutors are the most powerful figures in the criminal justice system. Many of their decisions are virtually unreviewable: charging, case disposition, dismissals, plea bargains, and sentence recommendations, to name a few. Local and State prosecutors can be held accountable to the voters.. But given the power of incumbency, that checks and balance is rarely exercised.

The advent of DNA exoneration reversals (233 at last count) in the last decade has hammered home the point: The criminal justice system is not perfect. A 2003 study by the Center for Public Integrity claims that prosecutorial misconduct contributed to decisions on charge dismissals, conviction reversals, and reduced sentences in 2,012 cases since 1970.

Conversely, some say, given the millions of cases during that 23 year period, the “error rate” of less than .1 % is probably the lowest of any civilization in human history. Likewise, almost everyone active in the system would probably say that that rate has fallen dramatically in the last half-century with the judicial reforms of criminal procedure.

Still, a raw number of instances of material misconducts in the thousands is alarming to a public who blithely assumed that the system was always right and that procedural reforms have guaranteed that no innocent person could get convicted.The misconduct figure, plus various estimates of 1% or higher of wrongful convictions, i.e., conviction of the factually innocent, have spawned a nationwide movement to require more transparency and accountability for prosecutorial decision-making.

Such groups as The Justice Project conclude: “This lack of accountability has led to widespread abuse of prosecutorial power, and a flawed and inaccurate criminal justice system.”

In response to this over-generalization, the group recommends sweeping reforms, including: Clearly defined official policies and procedures, open file discovery, documentation of all witness and informant agreements, mandatory judicial reporting of every instance of prosecutorial misconduct, and a review board to investigate and sanction any such misconduct.

For those of us who were and are federal prosecutors, these “reforms” are essentially the status quo, but for many state prosecutors, these changes would severely curtail the wide discretion in which such an overworked system has come to depend.

The Project also advocates wide ranging reform to criminal procedures generally, including: improving and standardizing eyewitness identification practices, electronic recording of interrogations and confessions, expanded discovery rights, and higher standards for the performance of counsel in capital cases.

No doubt some jurisdictions need some of these reforms. Scientific studies on the need for more objective lineup protocols and methods of avoiding false confessions are increasingly persuasive.

Forensic testing problems, likewise, are likely to receive more attention by a public which is getting used to the forensic infallibility of the many television shows on the subject.

The mind-boggling misconduct alleged in the prosecution of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, and its very public consequences, demonstrates that even federal prosecutors are not immune from such controversies.

Every case like Stevens fosters a new wave of increased and unjustified public cynicism that prosecutors commonly railroad the innocent. The significant difference in these high profile federal cases is that it is the Justice Department itself which has aggressively investigated and taken action in response to allegations of such behavior.

The public is largely unaware that there is a highly effective review and accountability function in the federal system. The Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) is a meaningful deterrent of misconduct, as well as a source of exoneration for federal prosecutors unfairly accused of misconduct.

Prosecutors, both state and federal, cannot ignore this “reform” movement. They need to participate actively in the public forum, contribute to legislative debate, and acknowledge that, in some jurisdictions, and in some areas of the criminal justice system, changes need to be made.

Ross Parker, a former assistant U.S. Attorney,  is the author of a new book: “Carving Out the Rule of Law: The History of the United States Attorney’s Office in Eastern Michigan 1815-2008”  The book is available on amazon.com and rparker54@comcast.net.

Congrats to the 2009 Pulitzer Prize Winners, Particularly Schaefer and Elrick at the Detroit Free Press

pulitzer-prizeBy Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com
WASHINGTON — It goes without saying, the media and law enforcement don’t always see eye to eye.

But there are certainly plenty times when the media, like law enforcement,  works for the good of the public, unearthing injustice, exposing criminal wrongdoing.

The Pulitizer Prizes are one way of acknowledging some of the great work journalists do. It’s particularly noteworthy at a time when the business is contracting, when some are papers are folding, when budgets are shrinking and some of the best journalists are getting laid off or are simply opting for other work.

So it’s with a lot of joy today that I congratulate some of my favorite folks in newspapers for winning Pulitzer Prizes. I’d like to give a particularly hearty congrats to Jim Schaefer and M.L. Elrick of the Detroit Free Press,  two great reporters,  who won a Pulitzer for local reporting on the text message scandal in Detroit that ultimately resulted in Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick stepping down and going to jail.

I’d also like to offer a congrats to former Washington Post colleague Gene Robinson, a thought provoking columnist, who deservingly won a Pulizter for commentary;  and former Post colleague Serge Kovaleski, a dogged reporter with an amusing sense of humor, who was part of the New York Times team that won a Pulitzer for breaking news on the fascinating story about Gov. Eliot Spitzer.  The governor eventually resigned.

There hasn’t been a lot of good news about newspapapers these days. But this is good news. Some good folks got the recognition they deserved.

See Complete List of Pulitzer Prizes

FBI Snags Extortionist Using Trojan Software

computer-photo1The FBI managed to implant software on the computer of an individual threatening to extort money from several major communications companies, leading them straight to his doorstep. While the exact capabilities of the CIPAV (Computer and Internet Protocol Address Verifier) software are unknown, it’s encouraging to see the FBI using technology in innovative ways to fight the bad guys.

By Gregg Keizer
Computerworld.com
The FBI used spyware to catch a Massachusetts man who tried to extort money from Verizon Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp. by cutting 18 cables carrying voice and data in 2005, documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Wired.com revealed yesterday.

Although the man’s name was redacted in the documents provided to the Web site, their description of the case matches that of Danny M. Kelly, an unemployed engineer who at the time lived in Chelmsford, Mass. According to federal court records, Kelly was accused of cutting a total of 18 above-ground communications cables between November 2004 and February 2005 as part of a plot to extort money from Verizon and Comcast.

“Kelly sent a series of anonymous letters to Comcast and Verizon, in which he took responsibility for the cable cuts and threatened to continue and increase this activity if the companies did not establish multiple bank accounts for him and make monthly deposits into these accounts,” the original complaint read.

According to the complaint, Kelly demanded $10,000 monthly from each company, and he told the firms to post the bank account information on a private Web page that he demanded they create.

For Full Story

Tension Between FBI and American-Islamic Community Grows

mosqueTension between the FBI and the American-Islamic community continues to grow, damaging inroads that have been made since Sept. 11, 2001. Both sides need to do something to turn it around.

Paloma Esquivel
Los Angeles Times
As they sipped tea and nibbled on dates, more than 100 men and women listened to a litany of speakers sounding the same message: The FBI is not your friend.

“We’re here today to say our mosques are off limits,” Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations for Greater Los Angeles, told the crowd last month at an Anaheim mosque.

“Our Koran is off limits,” Ayloush said. “Our youth, who they try to radicalize, are off limits. Now is the time to tell them, ‘We’re not going to let this happen anymore.’ ”

Such strong words from a man who once was a vocal advocate of ties with federal law enforcement was yet one more signal that the fragile relationship between Muslim American groups and the FBI is being tested.

In the months and years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, FBI officials met privately with Muslim leaders, assuring them that a spate of hate crimes would be vigorously investigated and at the same time asking for help in the campaign against terrorism. Local leaders promised to encourage cooperation.

For Full Story

Rep. Jane Harman Caught on Wiretap Saying She’ll Lobby Justice Dept. To Reduce Israeli Related Espionage Charges

Conversations like this, once made public, never seem very flattering. What’s the fallout from all this? Who knows.

Rep. Jane Harman

Rep. Jane Harman

By Jeff Stein
CQ SpyTalk Columnist
WASHINGTON — Rep. Jane Harman , the California Democrat with a longtime involvement in intelligence issues, was overheard on an NSA wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that she would lobby the Justice Department reduce espionage-related charges against two officials of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington.

Harman was recorded saying she would “waddle into” the AIPAC case “if you think it’ll make a difference,” according to two former senior national security officials familiar with the NSA transcript.

In exchange for Harman’s help, the sources said, the suspected Israeli agent pledged to help lobby Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., then-House minority leader, to appoint Harman chair of the Intelligence Committee after the 2006 elections, which the Democrats were heavily favored to win.

Seemingly wary of what she had just agreed to, according to an official who read the NSA transcript, Harman hung up after saying, “This conversation doesn’t exist.”

For Full Story

Commentary: 14 Years After the Oklahoma Bombing, We Must Not Forget the Potential of Homegrown Terrorism

 

Allan Lengel

Allan Lengel

By Allan Lengel
ticklethewire.com
WASHINGTON — One Friday, two days after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, I was sitting at my desk at the Detroit News  in downtown Detroit when I got a tip that the FBI was raiding a farmhouse in Michigan, and it had something to do with the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma.

In short time, I hopped in a car with another reporter and rushed northward up I-75 to Decker, Mi., a rural farming community two hours outside Detroit, where a guy named Tim McVeigh had hung out with two brothers named James and Terry Nichols.

By the time I arrived, the quiet little community,  flush with lush farms and pickup trucks with rifle racks,  was swarming with reporters and television trucks. Everyone – including the locals — was fixated on the farmhouse nearby that had been  cordoned off and was full of FBI and ATF agents gathering evidence.

I stood on the dusty farm road that day thinking that homegrown terrorism had stormed America in a way never seen before. Eight federal agents were dead. Another 160 in the federal building were too.

I spent the next week in the area of the state known as “The  Thumb”, tracking down leads, staying in a motel in nearby Cass City, where you checked in at the front desk of the bowling alley across the street. (I bowled one of my highest games – 217).

After that week, I went up every week to follow up on leads and to talk to James Nichols, the brother of convicted bomber Terry Nichols. I usually stopped by the Decker Tavern, grabbed a cheap can of beer and talked to folks. The bartender remembered serving beers to Tim McVeigh. She even recalled his brand.

The first night there, a fellow reporter John Bebow and I headed to the Decker Tavern to talk to locals. A Detroit News photographer accompanied us, Joe DeVera, who was Filipino. The bar and the town had suddenly been transformed from an all white community to a United Nations; foreign reporters from Spain and France; Asians , Black and Jews.

The cash register frantically rang all night at the tavern. But the locals seemed less than enthusiastic.  As Joe, the photographer, headed to the bathroom, an elderly local patron at the bar turned to another and noted that there was a “Gook” in the bar.

It struck me that some of the locals had spent their lives avoiding the rest of America – particularly Detroit. Now, with the snap of a finger, the rest of America had come to them. It was an eye-opener to meet the local militias, the unknown Americans that hated the federal government, the farmers who felt they’d been screwed by the government.

The next day, on a Saturday, the swarm of reporters returned to the farmhouse. There were undercover ATF agents trying to blend in, trying to meet the local militias. I knew some of them from back in Detroit. In at least one instance, one those undercover agents got an invite to dinner at one of the locals. When he saw me on a dirt road near the farm, he gave me a look like “stay away, don’t blow my cover.” I obliged.

Eventually, Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols were convicted.

Still, to this day, I’m not sure the whole story has been told.

Whatever the case, it’s interesting to note how the homegrown terrorists quickly took a backseat to al Qaeda and the likes after Sept. 11, 2001. For the majority in America, the threat of the Tim McVeighs seemed to have faded.

But one thing we must remember: As unemployment rises, as the economy sinks and as hate groups try to use the Obama election as a recruiting tool, America and federal agencies like the FBI and ATF must not forget or take lightly these domestic hate groups or the fringe members or the “lone wolf” wannabes.  You just never know what they’re capable of.

Just ask the Oklahomans.