By Peter Lance
In 2002 I left the Philippines with a packet of classified intelligence. The material proved that the Al Qaeda bombmaker who exploded a 1,500-pound urea-nitrate device in the World Trade Center in 1993 was the same terrorist who, two years later in Manila, conceived the “planes operation” realized on 9/11.
Four years to the month after I’d left my meeting with an official of the Philippines National Police, I stood outside the Brooklyn Supreme Courthouse as a phalanx of angry ex–FBI agents surrounded the man once known in the bureau as Mr. Organized Crime. Swatting back the press like a mob of soccer hooligans after a losing match, the former agents were protecting R. Lindley DeVecchio, an ex–supervisory special agent who’d been indicted on four counts of murder. I had covered DeVecchio in my book Cover Up, which a Brooklyn assistant DA had referred to as the “springboard” for their investigation. Now, as he moved down Jay Street, DeVecchio—just released on $1 million bail—shot me a predatory look.
At that point, I was writing a new book about how Al Qaeda met the mob. This book would soon put me in the crosshairs of the ex-agent’s defense team. Not only did I get subpoenaed and threatened with jail if I didn’t cough up my confidential sources, but after the book was published, the most powerful federal prosecutor in the country demanded it be killed.
I’d become the latest target of Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney for Chicago and former special counsel in the CIA leak investigation. I’d raised some questions about his record on counterterrorism, and Fitzgerald, described by a former colleague at Justice as “Eliot Ness with a Harvard degree and a sense of humor,” was not amused.
The man who jailed publishing magnate Conrad Black and got Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich indicted has enjoyed an extraordinary reputation for honesty and integrity, but he’s also used his power to intimidate the media. The story of how he came gunning for me sheds light on his methods as a prosecutor and calls into question certain decisions he made in the years leading up to 9/11.
The evidence I unearthed stems from Fitzgerald’s tenure in the mid-1990s as co-head of the Organized Crime-Terrorism Unit in the Southern District of New York, the U.S. attorney’s office that turned out Rudolph Guiliani and Louis Freeh. In 1995, after President Clinton issued Decision Directive 39—a secret order targeting domestic and international terrorism—Fitzgerald was assigned to effectively supervise I-49, the elite bin Laden squad in New York’s FBI office. It would be a career-making position for Fitzgerald, the son of an Irish immigrant doorman.
Fitzgerald soon emerged as the Department of Justice’s leading bin Laden authority. In a February 2006 Vanity Fair profile friends and colleagues described him as a “crusader” with “scary-smart” intelligence and “a mainframe-computer brain.”
“ Fitzgerald became a hero for the left, with Bush critics certain the dogged prosecutor with the altar boy image would take the probe all the way to presidential aide Karl Rove or Vice President Dick Cheney. ”
As lead prosecutor in United States vs. bin Laden—the African embassy bombing case in 2001—Fitzgerald went on to become the top federal prosecutor in Chicago, a city well-known for political corruption. During his current tenure Fitzgerald has amassed what a local reporter called “a remarkable string of courtroom victories,” convicting a host of dirty pols and white-collar criminals including former governor George Ryan and Tony Rezko, an early supporter of Barack Obama.
In December 2003 Fitzgerald was tapped to become special counsel in the Valerie Plame investigation. It would be his job to determine who had outed former CIA operative Plame in an effort to punish her husband for alleging the White House had used false intelligence to justify invading Iraq.
Fitzgerald became a hero for the left, with Bush critics certain the dogged prosecutor with the altar boy image would take the probe all the way to presidential aide Karl Rove or Vice President Dick Cheney. People magazine even named Fitzgerald as one of the “Sexiest Men Alive.” But after 45 months and a multimillion-dollar investigation, Fitzgerald convicted only one man of perjury and obstruction. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, got a 30-month term. However, the sentence was later commuted by President Bush, allowing Libby to avoid jail. In fact, the only person locked up was Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter, who served 85 days for refusing Fitzgerald’s demands that she turn over her confidential sources. Miller’s jailing seemed draconian when it was later discovered that Fitzgerald had for some time known the identity of the actual leaker: Richard Armitage, a Bush deputy secretary of state. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen referred to the months of drama as “a train wreck—mile after mile of shame, infamy, embarrassment and occasional farce.”
The Wall Street Journal called Fitzgerald “a loose cannon.” Progressive columnists worried about his tactics. “Let’s remember that you and I still don’t know exactly why Miller was ordered by the court to go to jail,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin. “That’s because the written opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals…contains [eight] blank pages…. [T]he information on those pages has been redacted at the request of U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald…. That level of secrecy in a court ruling has stunned constitutional lawyers.”