Okay, so he's one of the "sexiest men alive" -- but what does Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago and Special Counsel in the CIA leak case, have against us poor, unsexy journalists? It's bad enough that Fitzie won't answer my questions: ("Rory. I just wanted to get back to you and let you know that I am going to decline to be interviewed. Thank you. Pat") It's worse that he was responsible for the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent 85 days behind bars. Now comes word that Fitzgerald, who must have too much time on his hands now that Scooter Libby has been freed and Rod Blagojevich indicted, spent much of the last year and a half going after another journalist, Peter Lance, in an attempt to kill a new edition of Lance's investigative book Triple Cross by threatening to sue both the author and his publisher for libel.
Originally published in November 2006 by Regan Books, a division of HarperCollins, Triple Cross uncovers the story of how Al Qaeda master spy Ali Mohamed infiltrated U.S. intelligence in the years leading up to 9/11 -- "and how the FBI's elite bin Laden squad failed to stop him." Among the radicals trained by Ali Mohamed -- and photographed by the FBI in 1989 -- one would go on to kill Rabbi Meier Kahane in 1990; three were convicted in the World Trade Center bombing in 1994; and two (including Kahane's killer) were later convicted by then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald in 1995 in what became known as the "Day of Terror" plot to blow up the bridges and tunnels into Manhattan. The book also details how the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's offices in New York prosecuted terrorists before 9/11, including "Blind Sheik" Omar Abdel Rahman, who infamously tried to blow up the World Trade Center, and others who bombed US embassies in Africa. And Lance alleges that Fitzgerald, when he was an assistant U.S. attorney in the 1990s, discounted information that may have revealed the existence of an Al Qaeda cell in New York years prior to September 11, 2001.
Fitzgerald's stab at censorship is especially chilling coming from such a powerful prosecutor. But the lawman says he has no choice, since the book, which focuses on cases Fitzgerald prosecuted as Chief of Organized Crime and Terrorism in the Southern District of New York, is "a deliberate lie masquerading as the truth" and maintains that "it defames me or casts me in a false light," as he said in one of four threatening letters sent to Lance's publisher.
Although he wouldn't speak to me, Fitzgerald did tell the Associated Press that the charges in Triple Cross far surpass normal criticism, which "goes with the territory" for public figures such as United States Attorneys. "This is different," Fitzgerald contended. "The book lied about the facts and alleged that I deliberately misled the courts and the public in ways that in part caused the deaths in the 1998 embassy bombing attacks and in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001." Fitzgerald told the AP he decided to protest because "it is outrageous to falsely accuse me of causing those deaths corruptly."
Although undoubtedly a public figure, Fitzgerald has been waging a private jihad to get Lance's book killed. He has written repeatedly to HarperCollins -- owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. -- demanding it "cease publication" and "withdraw" copies of Triple Cross, which was originally published in hard cover in 2006. His first letter to the publisher alleged that "Triple Cross makes a number of statements of fact which defame me (and others) and which are easily proven to be objectively false." He asked the publisher to stop selling all hard cover copies, not to print a new paperback edition, and to acknowledge errors. His most recent letter arrived June 2. "To put it plain and simple," Fitzgerald wrote, "if in fact you publish the book this month and it defames me or casts me in a false light, HarperCollins will be sued."
The letters -- one of which was sent via fax from the U.S. Attorney's Office -- are unusual to say the least. "We certainly find it highly offensive that a federal prosecutor would do something like this," Gregg Leslie of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told Newsweek.
But Fitzgerald is resolute, charging that Lance's claims in Triple Cross are "outrageously dishonest" and that Lance "alleged that I deliberately misled courts and the public" in ways that led to the 9/11 attacks. The book most notably accuses Fitzgerald of botching the handling of a key FBI informant who doubled as a Qaeda spy, and also suggests the prosecutor filed a false affidavit, perhaps to cover up the relationship between an FBI agent and a leading mob figure.
Lance responds by asserting that Fitzgerald is trying to "kill" his book with "baseless" allegations. "Patrick Fitzgerald accuses me of making charges in the book that I never made," he says. "At the same time, he continually fails to respond to the substantive allegations documented in 604 pages, 1,425 end notes and 32 pages of documentary appendices."
Ironically, Fitzgerald's latest and most surprising assault on the Fourth Estate may also be the best thing that ever happened to Lance and Triple Cross. "That's the ultimate irony," Lance admits. "The book wasn't reviewed by a single U.S. publication. If Fitzgerald never did anything, it would have just faded into obscurity... this is the true lesson of censorship."
The new edition of Triple Cross will appear June 16 -- complete with a new introduction that's describes Fitzgerald's attempts at censorship. In the meantime, Lance is on the offensive, alerting fellow journalists, giving interviews, and readying a press conference at the National Press Club on his pub date for a full blown discussion of the Fitzgerald/censorship issue.
Peter Lance's website.