The current issue of the Washingtonian magazine includes a long piece about the Obama administration’s controversial leak investigations – with a star turn by former Public Integrity Section chief William Welch II.
As Main Justice reported in April, Welch is now investigating leaks of government information to journalists, after stepping down as head of Public Integrity last year amid the crumbling of the public corruption case against ex-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).
“Barack Obama hates leaks, and thanks to a tenacious prosecutor, the Justice Department is on its way to setting a record for leak prosecutions,” the Washingtonian wrote, referring to Welch.
Welch is leading the investigation into the identity of a source for New York Times reporter James Risen’s book, “State of War,” which included a chapter about a botched covert CIA operation in Iran. He is also prosecuting former National Security Agency official Thomas Drake, who is accused of providing a Baltimore Sun reporter with information about wasteful spending at the NSA.
Welch may also be tapped for a case against Fox News journalist James Rosen, who reported last June that U.S. intelligence officials warned Obama that North Korea might perform a second nuclear test in protest of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning its latest test, the magazine reported.
The Washingtonian piece includes a large glossy photograph of Welch. It also discusses the controversies surrounding the Justice Department’s investigation, including the DOJ’s subpoena of Risen for information about his source.
Risen’s book, for example, details a failed covert military operation codenamed Merlin aimed at reducing the pace of Iran’s nuclear program. He described secret meetings, dialogue with operatives and intelligence gaffes, incurring the wrath of the CIA.
Welch was also assigned to the case against Drake, who was charged in June with violating the Espionage Act by disclosing information about NSA spending.
For months Drake lobbied internally against an agency decision to adopt costly intelligence software instead of a cheaper, promising alternative before eventually abandoning traditional channels, according to a profile by the New York Times. The government alleges he took secret NSA reports home, collected information from unwitting colleagues and sent tips via an encrypted e-mail account to the Sun reporter.
The irony is that Welch himself came under investigation in the Stevens probe because of the actions of a government whistleblower.
Following Stevens’ conviction in 2008, FBI agent Chad Joy filed a complaint alleging the lead FBI agent on the case engaged in inappropriate relations with the government’s key witness, including a meeting alone at a hotel room.
He also claimed that a federal prosecutor under Welch attempted to dissuade a defense witness from testifying to keep out evidence that would contradict a government witness’s testimony.
Joy asked for protection as a whistleblower, and during a December 2008 hearing, Welch and other prosecutors leveraged his request to argue the court should seal the case to protect his identity — the very argument he’ll attempt to counter in future leak cases.
Sealing the case would have kept Stevens’ lawyers from the material in question.
A month later, however, Welch reversed his argument, saying Joy should not be granted whistleblower protection. The judge asked for an explanation from Attorney General Eric Holder, writing in a letter that he believed several attorneys may have “withheld important information from the court,” the Washingtonian reported.
Holder moved to drop the case against Stevens after an internal DOJ probe found irregularities with evidence handling. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, who presided over the Stevens trial, granted the motion to dismiss and also ordered a criminal contempt of court investigation of the prosecutors, which is ongoing.
Amid the fallout, Welch left the Public Integrity Section to return to Massachusetts, where he continued to work in the Criminal Division.
Criminal defense attorney David Hoose told the Washingtonian Welch is a smart choice for the leak cases.
“Once he sets his sights on someone, he’s like a piranha,” he said. “He’s on them with everything he’s got. Yet at the same time, I would not expect him to cheat.”