Did the Obama Administration Hack an Unfriendly Journalist?

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Redneck Country Club [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Former CBS News journalist Sharyl Attkisson has filed a lawsuit against several current and former government officials for what she describes as as a “spy operation” against her. Atkinson is best known for her award winning stories on the Obama era gun-running scandal dubbed “Fast and Furious.” In 2014, not long after those reports, she left CBS news over what she claimed was a prevalent liberal bias. Currently she works for the Broadcasting company Sinclair, which is noted for its pro-Trump slant. In addition, Atkinson has been criticized by the medical community for her reporting on a discredited link between autism and vaccines.

So did the Obama administration target Attkisson because of her stories critical of Eric Holder and other government officials? There is some independent evidence that Attkisson was a victim of some sort of computer intrusion. CBS reported that her work computer appeared to have been accessed without authorization, but the network never determined who was behind the breach. Beyond that one report, there is very little public evidence for a government spying operation against her.

Her lawsuit relies on an affidavit by Les Szwajkowski, a former FBI Unit Chief who left the bureau for the private sector in 2003. But Szwajkowski’s affidavit is extremely thin on actual evidence. He claims that in 2013 he turned over Attkisson’s computer to a “confidential source” who was an expert in spyware and government hacking techniques. But this source is never identified and the report that he or she prepared is only summarized by Mr. Szwajkowski. There’s simply no way to evaluate this evidence. For now, it’s nothing but hearsay from an anonymous source.

But even if we accept the secondhand account of the anonymous source’s findings, there is still little evidence to support Attkisson’s case. The hackers are deemed to be from the government because of the sophisticated tools that they use and because several IP addresses associated with the USPS appeared to have been accessed by the computer in question. Attkisson’s filing seems to acknowledge the weakness of the evidence by stating that the computer expert merely “felt” that the computer intrusions were the work of someone inside the government.

The most shocking accusations in Attkisson’s lawsuit have no supporting evidence whatsoever:

In March 2011, Defendants Henry, Bridges, Clarke, and White — all of whom were government employees connected to a special multi-agency federal government task force based in Baltimore, Maryland — were ordered by defendant [Rod] Rosenstein to conduct home computer surveillance on the Attkissons and other U.S. Citizens.

There is no evidence that Rosenstein, a frequent target of right-wing activists, ever made any such order to surveil the Attkissons. This is where the lawsuit begins to go a bit off the rails. Attkisson’s filing attempts to build a circumstantial case by providing the dates of publications of her stories critical of the Obama administration alongside contemporaneous computer problems, including laptops that turn on at night for no apparent reason and ongoing issues with Verizon internet service. Attkisson may be wholly convinced of her targeting, but the evidence just doesn’t add up. It doesn't help that Attkisson was widely ridiculed for claiming that hackers were deleting her writing when many computer experts thought the culprit appeared to be a stuck backspace key.

There are a few errors in the lawsuit — a link to a Wikileaks email is long dead and a person who examined Attkisson’s computer in January, 2013 is first noted as a “computer forensics” specialist who supports her claims, but is later referred to as a “government source” who deleted evidence. But by far the biggest problem here is the claims that Attkisson and her attorney’s don’t even attempt to support. For instance, her website features the article “Former govt. agent admits illegally spying on Sharyl Attkisson, implicates govt. colleagues,” but no such agent is named, nor is said agent’s existence mentioned in her complaint.

It’s unclear how such an important witness in Attkisson’s favor could go missing in the complaint itself. Both Attkisson’s website and at least one news article about her case link directly to a GoFundMe account in her name. The account has earned over $200,000, with a bit over $1,600 added in the previous hour as I write this. Could this whole thing simply be a money-making ploy?

It’s certainly possible. It’s also possible that the government did spy on Sharyl Attkisson and her family, but ultimately that claim will need a lot more public evidence. If the unnamed “former government agent” never comes forward — and I don’t expect him to — then Attkisson will face some backlash for failing to come through on her sensational claims.

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