By Peggy Noonan
July 9, 2013
Aurelia Fedenisn, who worked as a State Department internal investigator
Two data points and a question.
Point one: Daniel Ellsberg yesterday in the Washington Post, in a piece on the Snowden case, referred to what might, surprisingly, be called the more easygoing legal climate of 1971, when he gave the Pentagon papers to the New York Times, the Washington Post and 17 other newspapers. For 13 days, while he distributed copies, he was in hiding, the last few as “a fugitive from justice.” He surrendered himself in Boston and was released the same day on personal-recognizance bond. Later, as charges against him mounted, his bond was increased to $50,000. But for the next two years, under indictment and awaiting trial, he was able to go wherever he liked. “I was free to speak to the media and at rallies and public lectures.” That isn’t the kind of treatment Edward Snowden would receive, he said, or Bradley Manning has received.
Ellsberg misses that “different America”: “There is no chance that experience could be reproduced today, let alone that a trial could be terminated by the revelation of White House actions against a defendant that were clearly criminal.”
Ellsberg didn’t go into the criminal actions taken against him. The domestic side of Richard Nixon’s White House, from policy to politics, had the aspects of a kind of malevolent screwball comedy. In August 1971, aides to Nixon discussed a covert operation to get damaging information on Ellsberg from his psychiatrist. The following month they burgled the office of Lewis Fielding. They didn’t find anything.
Ellsberg went on trial in early 1973, charged with theft of classified documents, conspiracy, and other charges related to espionage. During the trial the break-in of Dr. Fielding’s office was revealed. So was evidence that Ellsberg had been wiretapped without a court order. His defense team, learning all this for the first time, was incensed, and the judge himself either felt or imitated umbrage. The government’s actions, he said, “offend a sense of justice.” The events surrounding the case were “bizarre” and had “incurably infected the prosecution of this case.”
He then dismissed all charges against Daniel Ellsberg, whistleblower.
* * *
Point two, the other whistleblower case that came to light Sunday. It came from Foreign Policy magazine’s online news site, The Cable, which noted that the office of a law firm that represents State Department whistleblower Aurelia Fedenisn had been broken into. Citing the reporting of a local Fox TV affiliate in Dallas, The Cable said the burglars took three computers and broke into a locked metal filing cabinet. Other items of value—silver bars, electronic and video equipment—were left untouched. KDFW aired video footage from a security camera showing two people, a man and a woman, entering the office building in which the law firm, Schulman & Mathias, is located.
Cary Schulman, Fedenisn’s lawyer, told The Cable: “It’s a crazy, strange and suspicious situation.” He said he thinks whoever broke in was “somebody looking for information and not money.” His most “high-profile case” is Fedenisn’s, and he couldn’t think of “any other case where someone would go to these threat lengths to get our information.”
So what did whitleblower Aurelia Fedenisn blow the whistle on?
She is a former investigator in the Inspector General’s office in the State Department. Agents for the department had been working on investigations that uncovered serious and criminal wrongdoing. Their work, they said, was subject to influence and manipulation by higher-ups at the department. Agents told the IG’s office they were told to stop investigating a U.S. ambassador in a sensitive post who solicited prostitutes in a public park. Fedenisn, a 26 year veteran at State, went public. John Miller of CBS News broke the story on June 11.
Schulman says that since Fedenisn blew the whistle, she has been subject to attempts at intimidation. “They had law-enforcement officers camp out in front of her house, harass her children, and attempt to incriminate herself,” he said.
After the Miller story, State Department spokesman Jen Psaki denied the department was doing anything wrong.
Tuesday, in a telephone interview, Schulman told me the break-in was “odd—curious.” Adding to the strangeness, the burglars seem to have come not once but three separate times over the weekend of June 28-30. That’s “high risk behavior for a burglar,” he said. “I have never seen a commercial burglary where they come back multiple times.”
The burglars took three Apple computers, forced open a locked metal file cabinet, and took one credit card, leaving others behind.
The burglary has been reported to local police and the FBI.
Maybe it was just a third-rate if highly original burglary. Maybe it was related somehow to another case, though Schulman says he can’t think what that case might be.
* * *
Still, the Nixon-era whistleblower whose psychiatrist’s office was broken into has some tough words, in an op-ed piece, for the current administration—just as word comes that an Obama-era whistleblower’s lawyer’s office was broken into by . . . someone.
We have a lot of scandals now—the IRS, NSA, Justice, Fast and Furious, the never-ending story of Benghazi. And a funny thing about the current moment: Every story about every executive agency now seems to include the words “inspector general.” It’s funny that lately they seem to be working overtime. Why would that be? We’re hearing the word “whistleblower” a lot, too.
Meanwhile the mainstream press is doing its job, furiously digging into . . . Mark Leibovich’s book on Washington, which breaks news: Official Washington is dominated by scheming, self-serving weasels who are out for themselves, including the press. This is old news outside the Beltway, where they’ve already built political movements around it, but it has electrified the capital. Media preoccupation with the book is called navel gazing. But it isn’t navel gazing. It’s more like an old man running through the halls of a mental institution shouting “Me! Me! Me!” Actually it’s like an old man running through the halls screaming “Me! Me! Me!” while the hospital burns to the ground all around him. Did I put that in too low-key a way?
And so, I guess, the question:
Where is the media? How is it that nobody really seems to care about State Department whistleblower Aurelia Fedenisn and her quixotic quest to see that the U.S. government, or at least her little corner of it, is clean, upright and worthy of its citizens? After she went public, as her lawyer said, some investigators—too polite a word!—came to her house and tried to get her to admit she stole papers. (Just like Ellsberg!) What’s going on at the State Department? Exactly who tried to stop investigators, how high up did it go? The burglary may or may not be a scandal—but if it is, it’s a big one.
In her few interviews, Fedenisn sounded to me like the tea-party woman in Texas who had the FBI snooping around and OSHA on the line and got audited multiple times because she had the temerity to apply for a tax exemption for a group devoted to preventing voter fraud. These two women—they must have thought they’d tell the truth and the media would come to the rescue!
But a lot of people are afraid to be on the wrong side. The wrong side is against the assumptions of the Democratic Party. The right side is for those assumptions. Dig around in the executive agencies and their actions, and you’re helping the wrong side.
* * *
I’ve changed my mind and will end not with a question but an irony. It can be argued—Egil Krough argues it, and he was there—that Watergate started with the break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.
But the funny thing is that the Pentagon Papers didn’t make Richard Nixon and his White House look bad. The papers were a classified history of the planning and assumptions of the early years of the Vietnam War. If anything, they made Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats look bad. But Nixon’s White House felt it must defend the law—Ellsberg had walked off with U.S. government secrets and distributed them on his own authority to the press. The government couldn’t say, “No problem, steal our confidential documents!” even though if you read them you knew the documents didn’t have to be secret, and in any case the American people, who paid for the war, had the right to see a history of it. And, of course, the Nixon White House was culturally inclined to prosecute in any case: They didn’t like those antiwar hippies with their long hair, or shrink-going think-tank lefties who thought they knew better than a general.
But by taking on Ellsberg in the courts, and breaking laws to harass and intimidate him, the Nixon White House made it look as if they were fighting to protect their own reputation, not an important legal principle and not, surely, the reputations of others. And forever, people would remember the Pentagon Papers as containing Nixon’s secrets, and his secret plan to start the war. When, in fact, he didn’t start it but ended it.
History abounds in irony.
The funny thing about the domestic side of the Nixon White House is you could never really rely on them to be cynical, only crazy.
I wonder what history will say you could rely on the Obama White House to be.