John Walker Lindh, better known as the American Taliban, was in US custody in Afghanistan in December 2001. And counter-terrorism prosecutor John DePue had a question: could he be interrogated without a lawyer present?
The woman he turned to was Jesselyn Radack, an ambitious young lawyer and ethics adviser with the Department of Justice. Her answer was firm: no. Lindh's father, by that point, had already hired a lawyer for his son.
Radack's advice went unheeded. But Attorney General John Ashcroft, announcing a criminal complaint five weeks later, declared that Lindh's rights had been "carefully, scrupulously honored."
By June 2002, Radack was spilling the beans to Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff. And the retaliation was swift: a criminal investigation, referrals to state bar associations for discipline.
Radack, author of Traitor: The Whistleblower and the "American Taliban" (2012), is a Brown University graduate. And on May 26, she'll be back on campus as part of the school's commencement celebrations, joining with Eyal Press, author of Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, in a chat about the morality and consequences of whistleblowing.
The conversation, at 1 pm in the Salomon Center for Teaching, Room 001, is free and open to the public. The Phoenix caught up with Radack for a Q&A by phone. The interview is edited and condensed.
BEFORE THE LINDH AFFAIR, DID YOU HAVE A FULL SENSE FOR HOW POLITICAL JUSTICE CAN BE IN WASHINGTON? I knew that Washington was rife with politics, yes. But certainly, I didn't think that there would be a Nixonian level of politics and secrecy and personal destruction. They're not only going to go after your job, they're going to go after you. And they're going to hound you to every corner of your life. I mean, for God's sake, there was like a smear campaign going on in my synagogue. It was ridiculous.
DID YOU WAVER AT ANY POINT? I never wavered. For me, it was like, I've got to do something and it was just a question of how. I just woke up one morning, I heard Michael Isikoff with Newsweek [on NPR] towing the Justice Department's party line — that Lindh was never represented by counsel — and for some reason, that morning, I just couldn't take it anymore. I just picked up the phone, I said, "Look, I don't know where you're getting your information, but what they're telling you is completely false and I have the emails to prove it." And he did do a piece that, I think, led to the ultimate demise of the Lindh case, which had already been falling apart.
YOU NOW REPRESENT OTHER WHISTLEBLOWERS. HOW ARE THEY FARING UNDER THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION? If anything, it's been worse for them. I felt like under the Bush Administration, whistleblowers were harassed unmercifully and they were fired and they were made to take bogus psychological exams, they had their security clearances pulled, the death by a thousand paper cuts. But I've never seen whistleblowers get prosecuted until Obama, disappointingly. At least I was never prosecuted.