Ex-CBS Reporter Sharyl Attkisson Sues Justice Department Over Surveillance

Sharyl Attkisson - H 2014
Courtesy of Harper Books

Sharyl Attkisson - H 2014

Sharyl Attkisson, a former investigative reporter for CBS News, is alleging in a new lawsuit that the Barack Obama administration has gone too far in its cybersecurity efforts.

In a complaint filed in D.C. Superior Court on Dec. 30 against administration officials including Attorney General Eric Holder and Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, Attkisson alleges the government violated her First Amendment free speech rights as well as her Fourth Amendment privacy rights by breaking into her digital networks and damaging her ability to function as a journalist.

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Attkisson gained widespread attention last year when she quit CBS after two decades amid allegations that the network refused to run some of her stories critical of Obama. At CBS, she worked on stories including the "Fast and Furious" gun-walking scandal as well as the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya.

In her new lawsuit, she states that she "discovered that her computers and telephone had been 'hacked,' that an unauthorized party or parties had illegally installed software on her laptop computer, and that her confidential, professional, and personal information had been illegally accessed."

The journalist says she and family members — co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit — began to notice anomalies in their electronic devices in mid-to-late 2011, around the time she was reporting about the FBI's role in "Fast and Furious." The anomalies she now reports included computers turning on and off without input from anyone in the household, plus chirping indicating phone line trouble and problems with her television service offered by Verizon FiOS.

Attkisson says she contacted Verizon about ongoing Internet problems, but even after being sent a new router, it failed to resolve her issues.

In 2012, she says that several sources with close ties to the intelligence community informed her at the time that the government was likely spying on her in an effort to identify her confidential sources. The lawsuit puts this bit of information alongside other reports about how the government has become more aggressive toward journalists, from a September 2012 Wikileaks report referencing "witch hunts of investigative journalists" to revelations about the DOJ seizing phone records belonging to journalists from the Associated Press.

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The anomalies and intelligence chatter were apparently enough to prompt Attkisson to have her contacts do an inspection of her home. The findings allegedly revealed things like keystroke monitoring, audio surveillance and more. The lawsuit says that CBS News itself retained an independent forensic computer analyst who reported "finding evidence on both Ms. Attkisson's Toshiba laptop and Apple desktop computers of a coordinated, highly skilled series of actions and attacks."

By April 2013, Attkisson had filed a complaint with the DOJ Inspector General, and the following month she publicly voiced her suspicions in a radio interview that her computer had been compromised. The DOJ publicly denied knowledge about this happening, and according to the lawsuit, CBS refused a request to hand over a copy of the forensic expert's report to the DOJ. In June of 2013, the FBI opened a case about the computer intrusions, says the lawsuit, but "it failed to contact or interview her." She did, though, release her computer for analysis.

The lawsuit says Attkisson's analyst found evidence that computer intrusions "may also reside on the CBS network computer systems," and that the result of the cyberattacks have caused the Attkisson family to incur unnecessary expenses to diagnose the problems, to their safety, and to cause Attkisson to fear for her sources' well-being, too.

Attkisson also says the cyber-intrusion has interfered with her ability to keep up contacts with sources, distracted her and harmed her relationship with CBS.

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner