Thursday, June 01, 2006

Justice Dept. Is Criticized by Ex-Official on Subpoenas

The New York Times
Justice Dept. Is Criticized by Ex-Official on Subpoenas

Subpoenas issued last month to reporters for The San Francisco Chronicle were criticized yesterday by a former chief spokesman for Attorney General John Ashcroft as a "reckless abuse of power."

The former spokesman, Mark Corallo, made similar statements in an affidavit filed in federal court yesterday. He said Mr. Ashcroft's successor, Alberto R. Gonzales, had acted improperly in issuing the subpoenas.

"This is the most reckless abuse of power I have seen in years," Mr. Corallo said in an interview. "They really should be ashamed of themselves."

The subpoenas, part of an effort to identify The Chronicle's sources for its coverage of steroid use in baseball, would not have been authorized by Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Corallo said. "You just don't ride roughshod over the rights of reporters to gather information from confidential sources," he added.

Mr. Corallo left the Justice Department in 2005. His public relations firm represents, among others, Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser. A spokeswoman for Mr. Ashcroft, who also stepped down in 2005, declined to comment on Mr. Corallo's sworn statement, which was submitted with the reporters' motion to quash the subpoena.

Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, said he could not address the subpoena to the Chronicle reporters. Subpoenas, he said, are "handled consistent with Justice Department guidelines and on a case-by-case basis on facts specific to the case that only those in the Justice Department would be aware of."

Mr. Gonzales has in recent weeks hinted that the Justice Department may move beyond subpoenas for journalists' sources, and pursue the criminal prosecution of reporters under espionage laws for publishing classified information.

Mr. Corallo said the department's attitude toward news organizations "is starting to look like a policy shift, a policy shift for the worse."

Specialists in journalism and First Amendment law said that Mr. Corallo's statement was itself significant evidence of a shift.

"This illustrates in an unmistakable fashion," said Mark Feldstein, director of the journalism program at George Washington University, "that the Gonzales Justice Department has moved so far away from the mainstream of established legal opinion and case law when it comes to press freedom that even judicial conservatives are disturbed by it."

The Chronicle reporters, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, submitted Mr. Corallo's sworn statement along with their motion to quash the subpoenas, which was filed yesterday in Federal District Court in San Francisco.

The articles in The Chronicle that gave rise to the subpoenas had quoted, apparently verbatim, transcripts of grand jury testimony from prominent athletes, including the baseball stars Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi. Whoever provided those transcripts to the reporters may have violated grand jury secrecy rules or a judge's order.

Under the Justice Department's internal guidelines, subpoenas to the press for confidential sources require authorization by the attorney general. Under Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Corallo said, he and others also had authority to deny such requests.

Mr. Corallo said that in three years as the department's press secretary and public affairs director, he approved a single subpoena to the press, involving what he called a serious national security matter, and turned down many more. One of those he refused, he said in the court filing, concerned "a public corruption case involving leaks of grand jury information."

Mr. Gonzales has defended his decision to issue the subpoenas. "I think it was information that was necessary, that we needed to have in connection with that investigation," he told the editorial board of The Houston Chronicle last month.

Mr. Corallo said he had used a different standard, one rooted in Justice Department policy.

"It has to be a matter of grave national security or impending physical harm to innocent people," he said, "not just, well, this is the only way we're going to be able to get this information."