Ethics charges filed against DOJ lawyer who exposed Bush-era surveillance

January 27, 2016 in News by RBN

Ars Technica | David Kravets

A former Justice Department lawyer is facing legal ethics charges for exposing the President George W. Bush-era surveillance tactics—a leak that earned The New York Times a Pulitzer and opened the debate about warrantless surveillance that continues today.

The lawyer, Thomas Tamm, now a Maryland state public defender, is accused of breaching Washington ethics rules for going to The New York Times instead of his superiors about his concerns about what was described as “the program.”

Tamm was a member of the Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence Policy and Review and, among other things, was charged with requesting electronic surveillance warrants from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals Board of Professional Responsibility said Tamm became aware in 2004 that certain applications to the FISA Court for national security surveillance authority “were given special treatment.”

“The applications could be signed only by the attorney General and were made only to the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The existence of these applications and this process was secret. Respondent became aware that there was some surveillance applications that were given special treatment,” according to the charging document.

The applications could be signed only by the Attorney General and were made only to the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The existence of these applications and this process was secret. Respondent learned that these applications involved special intelligence obtained from something referred to as “the program.” When he inquired about “the program” of other members of the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review, he was told by his colleagues that it was probably illegal. Even though Respondent believed that an agency of the Department of Justice was involved in illegal conduct, he did not refer the matter to higher authority within the Department. In 2004, Respondent contacted a newspaper reporter and informed him what he knew about conduct within the Department of Justice that he believed to be illegal. The information that Respondent provided to the reporter constituted “confidences” or “secrets,” as those terms are defined by District of Columbia Rule of Professional Responsibility of Respondent’s client, the Department of Justice.

Here is the lede to the 2005 story from The New York Times, which won a Pulitzer the following year for its national security reporting:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 – Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.

Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible “dirty numbers” linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.

The previously undisclosed decision to permit some eavesdropping inside the country without court approval was a major shift in American intelligence-gathering practices, particularly for the National Security Agency, whose mission is to spy on communications abroad. As a result, some officials familiar with the continuing operation have questioned whether the surveillance has stretched, if not crossed, constitutional limits on legal searches.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the government over the issue in litigation that is ongoingand bolstered by disclosures from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

In 2011, the government declined to prosecute Tamm, who could be disbarred by the panel. In 2009, he won the “Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling.” Two years before, the FBI raided his house and unsuccessfully pressured him to plead guilty.

According to the National Law Journal, which broke the story Tuesday, the bar review panel opened Tamm’s case in 2009, and the charges were lodged in December. The delay was attributed to a “backlog” of cases. Tamm is expected to respond to the ethics charges next month. His attorney said the allegations were a “shame.”