Development in Attkisson lawsuit: Court enters clerks’ order of default in journalist’s case over government computer spying

Journalist Sharyl Attkisson has received a clerk’s order of default against a former federal agent in her lawsuit over the government spying on her computers while she was a CBS News investigative correspondent.

The default was issued by the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.

The default means that the defendant, who worked out of the Baltimore U.S. Attorney’s office during covert surveillance operations that targeted Attkisson and her family, failed to provide any defense to the computer intrusion allegations. The time frame for the defendant to attempt to “vacate the order of default” recently expired, according to court documents.

In federal court, a clerk’s order of default is required before a plaintiff can seek a default judgment. Once Attkisson’s case against a second former federal agent is completed, the Court will decide whether to enter the default judgement, and will determine the method by which any damages will be awarded Attkisson.

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The remote intrusions into Attkisson’s CBS computers and other devices were first publicly announced by CBS News in August 2013. Further details were uncovered in multiple independent forensics exams identifying government software and government IP (Internet Protocol) addresses that were repeatedly used in a longterm operation to gain unauthorized, remote access of Attkisson’s devices and work.

Read the complaint here.

In 2010-2012, Attkisson broke international stories such as the Obama Administration’s secret “Fast & Furious” initiative, under which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (“ATF”) purposely allowed firearms dealers to be sold to Mexican drug cartels; the Administration’s multiple, failed green energy initiatives; and the Administration coverups involving the murders of four U.S. citizens by Islamic extremists in Benghazi, Libya.

Attkisson’s reporting frequently relied upon Obama Administration insiders who became targeted by Administration efforts to plug the “leaks” and halt critical reporting.

According to her lawsuit, Attkisson noticed a series of anamolies in her electronic devices during this time frame. She then received several tips from intelligence community officials telling her that she was likely being “monitored” by the government due to her reporting. 

In December 2012 and January 2013, an Attkisson source— an intelligence offiical— facilitated the first fornesic exam of her CBS computer. It identified a series of unauthorized, remote intrusions that used software proprietary to the federal government. The intrusions included, among other surveillance, keystroke monitoring, exfiltration of data, audio surveillance of Attkisson’s conversations and activities at home by activating Skype, mining personal passwords, monitoring work and personal email, and probable compromise of Attkisson’s work and personal smartphones. The report also stated the intruders had accessed CBS’s network systems as well, such as the ENPS program; and that the perpetrator(s) had also placed three classified documents deep inside the computer’s operating system. 

On February 2, 2013, an independent forensic computer analyst retained by CBS News reported finding evidence on both Attkisson’s Toshiba laptop and Apple desktop computers of a coordinated, highly-skilled series of actions and attacks directed at the operation of the computers and the storage and access of data thereon. CBS engaged the company to do further analysis of the Toshiba laptop in an attempt to recover wiped data.

On June 10, 2013, the independent cyber security firm hired by CBS confirmed that there was a highly sophisticated intrusion into Attkisson’s Toshiba work computer, as well as remote intrusions in December, 2012, to try to delete all evidence of the intrusions.

Read more about Attkisson’s case here.

In September, 2013, Attkisson observed that a third computer, her personal MacBook Air, was accessed remotely and briefly controlled while she was using it to work on a story related to the Benghazi case.

In January 2014, the head of the Dept. of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General (IG) Computer Forensics unit and a colleague visited Ms. Attkisson’s home as part of an investigation requested by Attkisson, which included analysis of the family’s Apple desktop (but not the primary computer involved, the CBS Toshiba laptop, which CBS would not turn over to the agency for further review). The DOJ IG investigators remarked that they saw a great deal of suspicious activity on the Apple computer. However, as months went by, the investigators told Attkisson that the scope of their investigation had been narrowed by an unnamed party. The investigators also indicated the DOJ IG Counsel’s office had entered the picture and ultimately withheld the final report from her, without explanation.

The Big Picture

A leaked internal document from a government contractor sent on Sept. 21, 2010, entitled “Obama leak investigations,” indicated that then-Homeland Security adviser John Brennan “is behind the witch hunt of invetigative journalists learning information from inside the beltway sources,” and “There is a specific tasker from the [White House] to go after anyone printing materials negative to the Obama agenda.”

During the same time frame, the Obama Administration became wrapped up in a series of scandals for secretly obtaining the records of Associated Press (AP) reporters, for secretly surveilling then-Fox News reporter James Rosen and his family, and for revelations about government surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency (NSA).

NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden. Photo by Laura Poitras

Clerk’s Default

The clerk’s order of default in Attkisson’s case is against a former government informant, Ryan White, for the claim of violating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (U.S.C. §§ 2511 & 2520).

White operated as an informant out of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Baltimore, Maryland during the time period in question performing work for the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) under a group supervised by then-U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein. 

Rod Rosenstein, Fmr. U.S. Attorney in Baltimore, Maryland

White admitted “accessing Attkisson’s computers” and “retrieving information already accessed or manipulated” and “erasing information” or “passing the information on” to contacts at the DOJ and FBI. 

White further stated that one of his partners in the surveillance, then a special agent with the Secret Service, Shaun Bridges, was told by DOJ officials to “target Ms. Attkisson’s husband” and “to get that b—h under control.” According to White, the team used various resources, including computers purchased from pawn shops for cash, or laptops removed from the Secret Service, that were later wiped and reused.

Meantime, Attkisson has an active lawsuit moving forward in the discovery phase against Bridges.

According to court records, the DOJ is using taxpayer money to pay private attorneys to defend Bridges, a convicted thief and money-launderer, rather than holding the guilty parties accountable for the unlawful spying.

Attkisson’s 4th Amendment Litigation Fund

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12 thoughts on “Development in Attkisson lawsuit: Court enters clerks’ order of default in journalist’s case over government computer spying”

  1. Yay! A small but significant step in your seemingly never-ending battle against Goliath. I hope you’re greatly encouraged by this and that it strengthens your resolve. Thanks for staying in the fight for all of us, Sharyl!

  2. Congrats.
    Unbelievable this has taken so loooooonnnnnngggggggg just to get to this point.

    There is something very, very wrong with the justice system (misnomer) in the US.
    What happened to “speedy trial”?

    1. The Constitutional requirement for a speedy trial seems to have become a dead letter. Although that requirement may seem to be a relatively minor detail, the lack of a speedy trial can financially or emotionally crush people who lack the means for a prolonged legal battle or who are incarcerated prior to their trial, as with some of the January 6th defendants. It can also be used to coerce people into undeserved guilty pleas just to get it over.

  3. Stacy Attkisson Bolton

    Sharyl, What exactly were the target my dad for to get YOU under control for doing your job? Also, they aren’t very good at their jobs or they’d know your a 5th degree black belt and you wear the pants in the family? and he knows all there little tricks cuz training with those idiots at the FBI when he was Head of the uniform division at the Sheriff dept. … keep up the fight Pitbull lol

  4. They will just punish some insignificant schlep. But who were pulling the strings? Who were the intruders reporting to? Not a lawyer, but these should be punished too. Obviously DOJ wants to put a plug on this, have the accused pay some fine, and they won’t have to testify who ultimateley was spying on you. Scary, we are all next.

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