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Lawyer Says He Was Leak in Justice Department

Nothing like an appearance on the cover of Newsweek to bring a lawyer attention. Thomas M. Tamm is getting plenty of that today, thanks to a story by Michael Isikoff that identifies him as the hitherto anonymous source who tipped off The New York Times and led to its 2005 exposure of the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens' phone calls and e-mails. Tamm was a lawyer in the Justice Department working in a highly classified unit handling wiretaps of suspected terrorists and spies when he stumbled upon the existence of the National Security Agency eavesdropping program. When he started asking questions, he was urged to drop it and told by official that the program was "probably illegal."

After agonizing over what to do, he ducked into a pay phone one day while at lunch and telephoned the Times. That call, Isikoff writes, "began a series of events that would engulf Washington -- and upend Tamm's life." Eighteen months later, the Times reported that President Bush had secretly authorized the NSA to intercept phone calls and e-mails of people within the United States without judicial warrants.

The story of Tamm's phone call is an untold chapter in the history of the secret wars inside the Bush administration. The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its story. The two reporters who worked on it each published books. Congress, after extensive debate, last summer passed a major new law to govern the way such surveillance is conducted. But Tamm -- who was not the Times's only source, but played the key role in tipping off the paper -- has not fared so well. The FBI has pursued him relentlessly for the past two and a half years. Agents have raided his house, hauled away personal possessions and grilled his wife, a teenage daughter and a grown son. More recently, they've been questioning Tamm's friends and associates about nearly every aspect of his life. Tamm has resisted pressure to plead to a felony for divulging classified information. But he is living under a pall, never sure if or when federal agents might arrest him.

Tamm has struggled in his career as well as in his personal life, Newsweek says. He has been struggling to make a living as a lawyer, doing occasional work for a local public defender's office and handling various other matters. He is more than $30,000 in debt and recently set up a legal defense fund.)

An accompanying story sheds light on the infighting among Justice Department lawyers in the wake of the NSA program's exposure. While the resulting rebellion within Justice has been widely reported, Newsweek offers a new angle on the motives of the lawyers who opposed the program. Their concern was not the wiretapping of individuals, sources told Newsweek.

Rather, [Deputy Attorney General James] Comey and others threatened to resign because of the vast and indiscriminate collection of communications data. These sources, who asked not to be named discussing intelligence matters, describe a system in which the National Security Agency, with cooperation from some of the country's largest telecommunications companies, was able to vacuum up the records of calls and e-mails of tens of millions of average Americans between September 2001 and March 2004.

The hero in this version was Jack Goldsmith, who replaced John Yoo as head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and questioned his legal opinions justifying the systematic collection of data. This updated version helps explain why stalwart Republican lawyers would defy their president. "At the end of the day," one source told Newsweek, "the dispute was a legal one, not a policy one."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on December 15, 2008 at 12:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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