By Marisa Taylor, McClatchy Newspapers –
WASHINGTON — Stung by critical stories about their crime laboratory, officials at Army Criminal Investigation Command recently questioned lab employees for hours and scrutinized personal phone records looking for contacts with reporters.
The inquiry was launched after a McClatchy Newspapers reporter asked questions late last year about the lab losing evidence. A command spokesman characterized the investigation as looking into violations of privacy law, but the investigation report, which McClatchy obtained, shows that the command was interested primarily in whether employees had provided information that resulted in a story about lab problems.
“This investigation was aimed at rooting out anyone even remotely critical of the lab,” charged Peter Lown, an attorney for one of the employees questioned in the probe. “The lab’s management doesn’t want any more critical stories.”
McClatchy has written a dozen stories about the lab since last March, including detailing the misconduct of two former analysts who made serious errors during DNA and firearms testing and who later were found to have falsified and destroyed documents when confronted with the problems.
As a result of McClatchy’s articles, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, have urged the military to look into the lab’s handling of the misconduct by one of the analysts. An investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general is ongoing.
The Army’s investigation of media contacts comes as the Obama administration takes a hard-line stance on leaks. President Barack Obama’s Justice and Defense departments have criminally prosecuted more former and current government officials on charges of disclosing information than previous administrations have.
Unlike in the Army investigation, however, all the prosecuted officials were accused of divulging classified intelligence, which can be a felony.
“This is an unprecedented crackdown by the Obama administration,” Jesselyn Radack, a lawyer with the Government Accountability Project, a public interest organization that protects whistleblowers. “It sends a very chilling message to any kind of whistleblower who is considering dissenting or speaking out.”
“Initially, I thought it was a way to curry favor with the national security and intelligence community, in which Obama was seen as weak,” said Radack, who specializes in national security. But Radack said she now thought that the effort was a “backdoor way” to criminalize the release of government information without seeking the legislation to do so.
Whistleblower advocates charge that under the Obama administration, agencies have pursued a myriad of methods to discourage whistleblowers from talking, including issuing new gag-order rules or, in the case of a group of Food and Drug Administration scientists and doctors, allegedly monitoring personal emails.
The Justice Department, which has brought five of the six latest prosecutions, defended its more aggressive stance as a legitimate pursuit of officials who disclose information that’s classified for national security reasons.
In the latest indictment, former CIA officer John Kiriakou is accused of leaking to reporters the name of a CIA analyst involved in the capture and interrogation of accused terrorist Abu Zubaydah. Zubaydah was subjected to controversial interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, which have since been banned.
“We seek to strike the proper balance between First Amendment freedoms and the law enforcement and national security interest in investigating unauthorized disclosures of classified information,” department spokesman Dean Boyd said.