Transcript

356:

The Prosecutor
Transcript

Originally aired 05.30.2008

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Remember that big terrorism case back in 2003? The Detroit sleeper cell case?

News Anchor

In Detroit tonight, closing arguments have ended and a jury is set to deliberate the first case against an alleged terror cell inside the US.

Ira Glass

This the first terrorism case after the September 11 attacks to go to trial. There were convictions, it was a big deal. And then something strange happened. The Justice Department-- the very institution that put these guys on trial in the first place-- went out and voluntarily asked the judge to reverse the convictions. They undid their own victory, and they didn't stop there. They turned around and brought criminal charges against the very guy who prosecuted their case, their own colleague.

You're going to hear a lot about this prosecutor today. his name is Richard G. Convertino. He used to be a rising star at the Justice Department, with commendations from the Attorney General, the head of the FBI. He sent mobsters and drug gangs and white collar criminals to prison.

Today we try to answer the question, what the hell happened? What could possibly happen that would make the US government overturn its own successful conviction and then go after its own prosecutor. We're devoting our whole show today to this story. It is This American Life from WBEC Chicago, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Act One. Conviction.

Ira Glass

Petra Bartosiewicz has been covering terrorism prosecutions for a few years, this one included and she tells her story.

Petra Bartosiewicz

So what kind of prosecutor was Rick Convertino? Well, that depends on who you ask. ,

Man

He was relentless. He was just an excellent prosecutor.

Man 1

I really think Mr Covertino is fooling everybody, even his wife and he is a devil.

Man 2

Rick was sought after. He got things done.

Man 3

He had the reputation, at least in the legal community, of someone not to be trusted.

Man 4

Call me when you hear him admit to a mistake, would you, please?

Petra Bartosiewicz

Here's some of the undisputed facts about Richard G. Convertino. For the 16 years he was a federal prosecutor, he loved standing in front of juries and declaring that he represented the United States of America. He sometimes got to the office before dawn. He took on cases other attorneys wouldn't, stayed involved with victims and even sometimes the defendants after a case was over. But his supervisor told me that if you didn't see things Rick's way, you were a bum. And woe to the prosecutor Rick caught checking Michigan football draft picks on the internet, or slacking off in the break room.

Rick traveled constantly for trials, even after he and his wife Valerie started having kids. He was away most of Val's second pregnancy, and was out working on a bank fraud trial the day she went into labor.

Valerie Convertino

I had to drive my oldest daughter to the babysitter, and then I drove myself to the hospital. And he didn't get to see her till she was about two days old.

Petra Bartosiewicz

He was gone for most of her third pregnancy too.

Valerie Convertino

I thought he was doing the right thing. I kind of viewed his traveling as being similar to a military family, that the sacrifice that I was making was for my country as well, so that he could do his job.

Rick Convertino

We thought the sacrifices we were making meant something, meant a lot. But in retrospect now, for me it's impossible not to be bitter.

Petra Bartosiewicz

It's conceivable that everything that happened to Rick and to the Detroit sleeper cell case comes down to office politics gone terribly awry. The office politics at the US Department of Justice are like the office politics anywhere else, except the stakes are higher. You know, justice. The story begins just six days after September 11. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, law enforcement suddenly had this new directive: Stop the next attack. Catch the terrorists before they strike again.

Outside of Detroit, agents went out looking for number 27 on the FBI's terrorist watch list: Nabil Al-Marabh, a supposed associate of Osama Bin Laden. They ended up at Al-Marabh's last known address, a dumpy two-story house in Dearborn.

Rick Convertino

The front door had the the name Nabil Al-Marabh on it. An FBI agent knocked on the door and down came one of the defendants, Karim Koubriti, to answer the door.

Karim Koubriti

I just came back from work, and I was taking a shower. Then I'm done with the shower. I heard a knock on the door, and somebody calling Nabil, Nabil, Nabil. So I went down to see, because they were knocking hard. So they asked me for my ID. I was in my bath stuff, so I don't have my ID on, so I was like, I'm going to go upstairs to get it. As soon as I turn, they follow me.

Rick Convertino

During the protective sweep, they find two airport identification badges for Detroit Wayne County Airport.

Karim Koubriti

I used to work in a company called Sky Shift. This company provided food for airplanes. We were fired because we had a car accident and we didn't go for two days, so they fired us. But nobody told us to turn over the badges, so they were thrown on the table.

Rick Convertino

And then they were asked about their work history, and none of them mentioned the airport, which caused concern.

Karim Koubriti

And as soon as they see that Metro Airport, everything changed, like we lied to them or something like that. And the FBI guy was real hard. "Why are you lying to me?" I was like, "Lie to you about what?"

Rick Convertino

So they were placed in handcuffs and the agents asked for permission to search the apartment.

Karim Koubriti

Because I just came to the country-- it was like 10 months-- I don't even speak the language. I don't know, I think I thought it was like a regular thing. In the beginning, that's how I think about it, you know? It wasn't a big deal. When they pulled their guns out, I was a little upset.

Petra Bartosiewicz

During the search of his room, Koubriti told the agents they'd find some fake documents there-- a fake passport, fake social security card, blank birth certificates-- which they did. Then out of a small closet one of the agents pulled down a black suitcase. In its side pocket she found a day planner. Koubriti told the FBI that none of this stuff was his, that it belonged to an ex-roommate. It all looked bad, but the day planner was by far the most disturbing thing the agents found.

Flipping through the pages, they saw suspicious looking sketches, simplistic drawings of what looked like airplanes flying into some kind of objects, and then what looked to be an explosion. Remember, this was less than a week since the collapse of the World Trade Center.

So Rick started to put together this very unusual kind of case. He sorted through the evidence from the apartment trying to figure out, not what had happened, but instead, what was maybe going to happen. He says he showed the day planner to intelligence experts.

Rick Convertino

This page, as interpreted by the Air Force, was that there were three types of aircraft fighter planes-- the F 16s, the refueling planes--

Petra Bartosiewicz

At first glance, this sketch might look like a drawing your kindergartner would do. But if you stare at it a minute or two, you begin to wonder why your kindergartner would draw the three kinds of American planes enforcing the no fly zone over northern Iraq. It's crude, but you can understand what's so troubling about it. The words American base in Turkey are written at the top. The US does have a single air base in the Middle East, in Turkey, in the town of Incirlik.

The sketch shows what looks to be three stick figure planes, each drawn slightly differently-- lined up at the end of a runway-- and a squiggly blob on the lower left that some Air Force experts said might have represented a hardened bunker.

Rick Convertino

So when this was seen by the Office of Special Investigations in the United States Air Force, it was taken very seriously. And their flight patterns were altered and the base was-- I believe it was temporarily shut down. Because of this crude sketch that your four-year-old daughter might be able to do, the Air Force believe that an attack was diverted.

Petra Bartosiewicz

While he was preparing for the trial, Rick went to turkey to see Incirlik for himself. He went on to the roof of a nearby bakery that overlooks the runway, the same vantage point the Air Force said the sketch was drawn from.

Rick Convertino

And there was a rickety ladder and there was a rain pipe and there was a rope. So I climbed up, I had the sketch in my hand, and I looked out across that field and I saw what was depicted on that sketch. I saw those three types of planes. I saw what was referenced as the hardened bunker to the lower left. So that sketch became real to me.

Jeffrey Breinholt

This was exactly what the Attorney General wanted prosecutors all over the country to be looking for. A would-be terrorist plot in the making, and then we were lucky to capture them when we did.

Petra Bartosiewicz

This is Jeffrey Breinholt. These days he works at a national security think tank. He's on leave from the Justice Department, where he was a top official in the terrorism and violent crime section in Washington. He was one of the people supervising the Detroit sleeper cell case. Current Justice Department officials in Washington wouldn't talk to us for this story. It was Breinholt's job to develop these brand new kinds of terrorism cases-- preemptive prosecutions-- where you charge the bad guys with the crime before they hurt anyone. So here Rick's case comes along.

Jeffrey Breinholt

It was one of the major early cases of our testing, both our laws and our new philosophy, and we wanted to make sure it got done right. And we had to make sure that it wasn't an embarrassment.

Petra Bartosiewicz

This would be just about the last time Rick and his bosses in DC would see eye to eye on the case.

News Anchor

Four men in Detroit were charged with conspiring to provide information to terrorists for a series of attacks on the US and overseas.

Petra Bartosiewicz

As the arrests began to get attention, Rick felt that the higher ups in DC were messing with his case. Someone inside the department leaked the details of the government's case to Fox News before the grand jury had signed off on it-- a huge no no.

News Anchor

Fox News correspondent Catherine Herridge reports.

Catherine Herridge

A Michigan grand jury has handed up an indictment against four men, including Karim Koubriti, Ahmed Hannan--

Petra Bartosiewicz

The judge on the case, Gerald Rosen, was peeved as well. He wouldn't go on the record for this story, but he talked about it at a recent terrorism forum.

Gerald Rosen

I saw this when I was watching the evening news and the political correspondent of one of the networks was reading the indictment before the grand jury had issued it. And needless to say, that was disturbing. By the way, I also found out that I had the case when I was watching the evening news. They showed a picture of the indictment on the screen with my name on it.

Petra Bartosiewicz

From Rick's point of view, it wasn't helpful for them to be irritating the judge before they even began. To top it off, the judge had issued a gag order on the case, meaning no one was supposed to talk about it. But then the Attorney General himself, John Ashcroft, violated it, not once, but twice during the case, saying things that didn't match the facts. Here's Rick.

Rick Convertino

We were asked if-- I was asked if our case had any connection with September 11 or any of the individuals who are involved in September 11. And there was absolutely no connection that I saw, or that anyone who was working the case saw, and we said that. And then there was-- an artificial connection was made publicly by the Attorney General.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Ashcroft did this in a press briefing a month and a half after the arrests.

John Ashcroft

Three Michigan men suspected of having knowledge of the September 11 attacks were arrested on charges of possessing false documents. In addition to a day planner--

Rick Convertino

And so I was seeing those manifestations of pure politics.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Ashcroft had to retract the statement two days later. The judge formally admonished him for violating the gag order, and ended up threatening him with contempt. To Rick, it felt like he and his bosses were out of step with each other, like their goals somehow weren't the same.

Rick Convertino

Their goal was to disseminate information to the American people that we were kicking ass and taking names in the Department of Justice, in the war on terror. I thought, that's unmitigated bull- [BLEEP].

Petra Bartosiewicz

Meanwhile, Rick thought Justice Department headquarters in Washington-- what's known as Main Justice-- wasn't giving him the resources, or personnel, or logistical support he needed to prosecute this new kind of terrorism case. Sometimes they seemed clueless to him, or completely incompetent, like when he asked them for another lawyer-- a terrorism expert-- to put on his team.

Rick Convertino

I mean, my belief was that at the terrorism and violent crime section you can get an expert on prosecuting terrorism-related cases, and I was wrong. There were no genuine experts there in terrorism. You know, it was a shock to see how little those folks knew.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Finally DC did assign another attorney.

Rick Convertino

The attorney was a good guy, wanted to work hard. But he was from the tax division. So to me it was mind boggling. As far as I could tell, there were no violations of federal income tax.

Petra Bartosiewicz

To give you a sense of how personal these fights could get, here's Jeff Breinholt again, the guy at main justice who was helping formulate these new terrorism cases.

Jeffrey Breinholt

If he's using a tax attorney as a way to describe somebody who is not prepared, he's basically condemning me as well, because that's what I am. And most of the people who we brought in to the counter-terrorism business after 9/11 were people who were very specialized in financial techniques. That was exactly what this case needed, I think.

Rick Convertino

That response is astonishing to me. If the then-- I think-- acting chief of the terrorism and violent crime section doesn't understand a non financial terrorism related case, then I think that speaks for itself.

Petra Bartosiewicz

There were many squabbles like this, over things that were both petty and sort of fundamental. They couldn't even agree on what kind of help was helpful. And really, since it was a new kind of prosecution strategy, nobody could know for sure.

There's a class of prosecutor that other federal prosecutors sometimes call true believers. For them everything is black and white. One described himself to a researcher this way: "We believe in the cause of justice. People look down on us for our enthusiasm, but we leave no stone unturned." That's like Rick. Anyone getting in the way of his case was an enemy of the cause. And Washington was getting in his way.

Even the wording of the indictment was reason for a fight. An indictment lists the formal charges in a case. It's what the grand jury votes on. But Rick says Main Justice tried to sensationalize the indictment by adding references to Al Qaeda documents found in training camps in Afghanistan, stuff he says had nothing to do with his case. It was as if they'd forgotten the rules of evidence. He felt he was being micromanaged by bureaucrats he was coming to respect less and less.

Rick Convertino

My dad always used to say never trust a man whose ass is wider than his shoulders, and that's good advice. It is. It's good advice. And it was like, you know, Jesus Christ, what's the plan here?

Petra Bartosiewicz

In the end, Washington demanded changes to the indictment that the Detroit office didn't make, so Main Justice felt Rick wasn't following orders. Rick felt Main Justice was meddling.

Things got so tense that a couple of senior officials from Washington, including the new chief of the entire counter-terrorism section-- a guy named Barry Sabin-- flew out to Michigan for a face-to-face meeting about the case. And that's where the relationship went from bad to much worse. Here's Rick.

Rick Convertino

This was not a pleasant meeting. It was a constant in your face challenge to why we did things the way we did them. And after answering the question regarding the particular way a count was charged a number of times-- I thought-- he asked me again, well, where did you get this from. Where did you get this from. And in a fit of exasperation, in a not very prudent manner, I told him that I pulled it out of my ass. And he looked at the US Attorney, who was devoid of words at the time, and then the US Attorney looked at me and told me that was unprofessional, which I agreed it was. And during the course of the conversation, again, I again imprudently told him that I would like five minutes alone with him, preferably in an alley. Which again didn't go over too big.

Jeffrey Breinholt

Bear in mind, Barry Sabin at the time is the chief of counter-terrorism section, so that's no small thing.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Again, Jeff Breinholt.

Jeffrey Breinholt

It was not a good way to be in dealing with your headquarters component, is to make them feel unwelcome. It's a very unfortunate thing when things get to that point, but I think there was some sense of the time that this case is something we should not have approved.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Because of the personal issues or because of the substance of the case?

Jeffrey Breinholt

Personal issues. The trust issue is whether or not this case would be handled the way we wanted it to be.

Petra Bartosiewicz

On March 18, 2003, exactly a year and a half after the arrests, and the same day US forces started bombing Iraq, jury selection began. By this time a fourth defendant, the alleged ringleader of the cell, had been added to the case.

The evidence was almost all circumstantial. Things like the day planner with the suspicious sketches. But there was a lot of it, and each scrap was aggressively contested.

It wasn't one of those trials where one side seemed clearly in the right and the other in the wrong. Both sides seemed credible, which was especially strange, because often their explanations for what the evidence meant, or where it came from, couldn't even be reconciled. For instance, there was this homemade videotape found in the apartment, which the government claimed was shot by would-be terrorists casing Las Vegas and Disneyland for places to attack. The defense claimed the tape was shot by some Tunisian students goofing around on holiday.

In the Disneyland part, there's this shot of a pond with some ducks swimming along. Someone sings a little song.

According to Rick's translator, the words to the song were something like:

Rick Convertino

[BLEEP] them. [BLEEP] the Americans. Kill them and throw them there. Bury them there.

Petra Bartosiewicz

According to the defendant's lawyer Rick Helfrick:

Rick Helfrick

They're singing a song about ducks.

Petra Bartosiewicz

So it was either kill the Americans or here ducky, ducky. And so on through the trial. The trial went on for nine weeks, and in the end, the jury convicted two of the defendants-- Koubriti and the accused ringleader-- of the most serious charge, material support to terrorists. A third guy they found guilty of document fraud, and the fourth, they decided was innocent. All in all, a good day for the justice department.

Attorney General Ashcroft announced the verdict, saying every victory in the courtroom brings us closer to our ultimate goal-- victory in the war on terrorism.

You'd think Rick would be the toast of the justice department. He'd worked incredibly hard on this case for years, and finally, he'd won it for the government. The first jury convictions in a post 9/11 terrorism trial. Instead, he got a talking to from the top guy in Detroit, the US Attorney. Here's Rick.

Rick Convertino

He said to me, "I've been ordered to reprimand you." I said, by whom? He said Washington. For what? For the lack of communication between you and Washington. And I said OK. And he said "OK, I can do it in a number of ways." I said all right. And he said, "But I'm going to verbally reprimand you. I'm verbally reprimanding you." I said, OK. Thank you. And went on my way.

So there were a lot of ruffled feathers after the case. And at that point in time, when things were just starting to calm down, this contact with the senator comes up.

Petra Bartosiewicz

This contact with the senator managed to re-ruffle every feather that had been smoothed, because it wasn't just any senator. It was Charles Grassley, republican from Iowa. Let's just say if the Justice Department had its own deck of most wanted cards depicting Capitol Hill enemies, this guy's face would have been on it. Grassley was known, and still is, as a champion of government whistle blowers, and he'd been scrapping with the Justice Department for many years.

When Rick got the call from Grassley's staffers, Grassley was four months into yet another nasty fight. Because the DOJ wouldn't allow a couple of FBI employees to talk freely to Congress, Grassley was blocking nominations to some top positions inside Justice. But Rick knew none of this, and anyway, that's not why the Grassley staffers had called him. They just wanted to talk about the sleeper cell case, for information for a hearing they were putting together about terrorism and document fraud for the Senate Finance Committee, which Grassley chaired.

After talking to Rick for a bit, they asked him to testify at the hearing. And while all this might sound perfectly innocent to you and me, the idea that Rick might cooperate with the Justice Department's arch enemy, even on the topic as neutral as document fraud, really irritated Rick's bosses. He got a call from a senior Justice official who told him these requests are supposed to go through Main Justice in Washington.

Rick Convertino

And then he told me, Grassley's no friend of ours, and he used some choice words. And I think I said, "whatever."

Petra Bartosiewicz

"Whatever" wasn't going to cut it. There was a strict protocol to this stuff, and Rick wasn't following it. Prosecutors in his position simply do not testify before Congress. That was the job with the bigger guns, the US attorneys themselves, or the top guys in DC. Misreading the politics of this situation, ignoring the office politics completely, was about to have much more serious consequences for Rick than he understood.

Rick's supervisor in Detroit, Keith Corbett, called him.

Rick Convertino

He told me that whatever I did really stoked the fires, and that they were talking about firing me. That they believed that I was off the reservation. Off the reservation. I said, Jesus Christ, I helped build the damn reservation, and now I'm off it? Well, how'd I get off it? Because they kicked me off it.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Two days later, Rick was subpoenaed to testify before congress. He couldn't very well ignore a subpoena, but on the other hand, he could maybe fight the subpoena. The Justice Department had done that in the past. Rick called Keith Corbett for guidance. They don't talk to each other any more, but at the time, they were still friends. Here's Keith.

Keith Corbett

And I said Rick, why don't you come in the office on Monday morning, and we'll call Main Justice, and we'll see how we're going to handle this. Rick said , I can't do that. I've got to catch a plane. I said Rick, you don't have to catch a plane. I mean, you're supposed to testify on Tuesday afternoon. And I said come in in the morning. We'll figure out what the Department wants you to do. He said, I can't do that; I've got to take the first flight out. I said, I don't understand that.

I think it was, you know, it was putting your thumb in everybody's eye. I mean, the Department, the US Attorney here. If you know you're not supposed to do something and you go ahead and do it because you want to do it, to me it's like, "I don't know what they're so upset about." Well, you ought to know what they're upset about. So I think that that was a significant event, in terms of the perception by the administration as to where Rick was and whether he was totally out of control, and just going off on his own tangent.

Petra Bartosiewicz

The truth of it was Rick wanted to testify. He'd won this big case and all he got was a reprimand. So he flew to Washington. The night before the hearing, he had a private meeting with Senator Grassley. The way Rick tells it, it was supposed to be just a quick introduction, a pro forma courtesy before the next day's hearing. But almost immediately Rick found himself talking about all the things his bosses didn't want him talking about-- the in-fighting, the mismanagement-- to the very man they didn't want him talking to.

Rick Convertino

He shook my hand and then asked me a question or two. And when I hesitated, I think he understood that there was more there.

Petra Bartosiewicz

So what did you say to him?

Rick Convertino

I told him that-- when he asked me did you have all the resources you needed, and I said absolutely no, we did not. Did you have the manpower you needed? No we did not. He was genuinely stunned, at least that was my impression.

The meeting ended up going on for a very long time, and I think he cancelled what he had at 5:15, and he asked me some pointed questions regarding the way the trial proceeded.

Senator Charles Grassley

Mr. Convertino, we'll begin with your testimony. First I want to--

Petra Bartosiewicz

In the hearing room the next morning, a bunch of people from Justice sat themselves down behind Rick, within earshot. The move, he says, was meant to throw him off.

Rick Convertino

Sir, this case started--

Senator Charles Grassley

Make sure your microphone's on, please.

Rick Convertino

Yes sir.

Senator Charles Grassley

And maybe--

Man

You have to pull it up closer to you.

Senator Charles Grassley

And maybe just a little bit closer. Yes, go ahead.

Rick Convertino

Thank you Mr. Chairman, and good morning, sir. Sir, this case started in--

Petra Bartosiewicz

During his testimony, Rick didn't utter one word from his conversation the day before with Grassley. He says he never had any intention of complaining publicly, and he told Grassley so. Instead he just talked about the evidence in the case. Stuff like this.

Rick Convertino

They talked about acquiring shoulder-held missiles to shoot down airplanes.

Petra Bartosiewicz

And this.

Rick Convertino

They referred to Las Vegas, Mr Chairman, as the city of Satan.

Petra Bartosiewicz

And this.

Rick Convertino

Oh, Allah, kill them all. Don't give them any-- don't leave them any alive, oh Allah. Be without them, whoever believes--

Petra Bartosiewicz

If anything, it was actually what Grassley said that got Rick into more hot water.

Senator Charles Grassley

Mr. Convertino, I think you are a model public servant, and as far as I'm concerned, you should be hailed as a hero.

Rick Convertino

I could hear people behind me commenting. So I cringed when he said it, myself, because I knew that any time-- the more that type of language was being used, the worse it was going to be for me when I got back to Detroit.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Unfortunately for Rick, there was a lot more of that talk, particularly after Grassley let fly this theatrical flourish.

Senator Charles Grassley

I also want to note that federal law prohibits any retaliation or any discrimination against any person who testifies to the Congress, 18 USC Section 1505. I certainly don't expect there to be repercussions, because Mr. Convertino is here to explain how Justice Department is winning the war on terrorism.

Petra Bartosiewicz

What's strange is that that's exactly true. Nobody was publicly embarrassed. The Justice Department itself couldn't have scripted it better. Rick even threw in an Al Qaeda reference. And Grassley didn't launch any investigation. But Rick's testimony violated the way things are done at the Justice Department. So just by breaching protocol in this flagrant way, he'd gone from being an irritant to an outright traitor.

According to Rick, it wasn't just because he'd testified. It was because his bosses now became convinced that he'd been tattling to Grassley all through the case, complaining secretly for months about how Justice had mishandled the whole thing. Rick couldn't persuade them it wasn't true.

Rick Convertino

When I came back to the Detroit, it was as if I shot everyone's dog in the office. I was a pariah, and it was clear to me that their motivations now were to punish me.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Six days after Rick got home, Grassley wrote a formal letter to John Ashcroft and the US attorney in Detroit, the first of a slew of letters warning them not to retaliate against Rick for his testimony. That very same day, Rick says the campaign of retaliation began. His bosses told him he was being reassigned to be a duty AUSA, a position they'd created just for him.

It was as close as they could come to making him a secretary. And that's not all. They told him they'd be reviewing every case he'd ever prosecuted, and they began interviewing judges and other court officials, asking them questions like "Has Convertino ever lied to you?"

Rick Convertino

I went to court one time after that. And there was a defense attorney who I had known for some time. I was always on on friendly terms with him. he told me that "There's nothing worse than a crooked prosecutor." Those were the only words he said to me. I mean, crooked was certainly never an adjective that was applied to me in anything I did. It was abundantly clear to me that I wasn't going to go back in there and ever stand up before a jury and say, "My name is Rick Convertino, and I represent the United States of America."

Ira Glass

Coming up, a prosecutor experiences what it is like to be the defendant, with all the power of the federal government like a huge cannon, now pointed at him. That's in a minute From Chicago Public Radio, and Public Radio international, when our program continues.

Act Two. Retaliation.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, if you're just tuning in, the very strange story of the first terrorism case that came after September 11.

When Petra Bartosiewicz left off her story before the break, it was fall of 2003. The government had just started its first investigations into the case's prosecutor, Rick Convertino.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Four months later, someone inside the Department of Justice leaked details of an internal inquiry into Rick's conduct. The Detroit Free Press published a story that included quotes from anonymous Justice officials, and from defense attorneys who knew Rick from the courtroom.

Rick Convertino

That was a front page story in January 17, which was the worst day of my life.

Petra Bartosiewicz

"Possible misconduct." "Ethical violations." "He believes in trial by ambush." "Rogue prosecutor." That's just some of the stuff printed about Rick. The article said investigators were looking into whether he'd broken the rules in the sleeper cell case, and whether he'd withheld evidence during the trial.

Rick Convertino

I mean, I don't know how to-- what words to describe what it did. It ruined the case. Ruined me, professionally. We used my daughter's senior year in high school, her tuition, and pooled some money together, and sued the bastards.

Petra Bartosiewicz

By bastards, he meant former Attorney General John Ashcroft, along with a couple of other Department officials. He sued because the Detroit Free Press story was based on a confidential investigation that clearly was leaked from inside the Justice Department. It's actually against the law to leak information like that.

What upset Rick the most in the article was not something written about him, but something that every single person I spoke to, even inside the Justice Department, agrees is pretty awful. It has to do with a confidential informant named Marwan Farhat, who Rick enlisted to do translation work for the terrorism prosecution. Here's Stephen Kohn, the lawyer Rick hired to represent him in his civil lawsuit.

Stephen Kohn

In Rick Convertino's case, they leaked the name of one of his critical informants, a person who was of Middle Eastern descent, currently under cover in counter-- in terrorism related and criminal related investigations. He's actually under cover, and they put his name into the newspapers. And Rick, when he learned this, flipped out, had to rush over and literally had to get him from his house to save his life, and work with the FBI to put him on a plane back to a Middle Eastern nation. "Thank you for your service to the United States." Those people should be in prison, who did that. If I did it, I'd go to jail. Look what they did to try to find in the Valerie Plame thing.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Rick's lawsuit didn't stop with the leak to the Detroit Free Press. He went on to accuse the Justice Department of mismanaging the war on terror. All the stuff Rick's bosses didn't want him talking to Grassley about was now laid out in a public lawsuit. What's more, he'd hired Kohn, who happens to run the National Whistleblowers Center. In other words, an organization in the same camp as the Justice Department's other constant critic, Senator Charles Grassley. Rick was now-- publicly-- the enemy of his former bosses.

The Justice Department reacted to the lawsuit the way you might expect. They did what they do best: Opened more investigations. Here's Rick.

Rick Convertino

There was an investigation from the Executive Office of US Attorneys that was launched, where an attorney from Buffalo, New York, and an attorney from Manhattan were teamed together to come and investigate me. There were investigations by my office of all of my cases. There were investigations by the Public Integrity Section. There were investigations by the Office of Professional Responsibility. There were investigations by the Office of Inspector General. They subpoenaed my law school records, my college records, my high school records. My high school records. They subpoenaed my bank records, my phone records. They talked to over 100 people.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Rick is sure the department expended more money and more manpower on investigating him than they did on the original sleeper cell case.

Then in December of 2003, six months after the verdict in the sleeper cell case, a very problematic letter surfaced. And this was the moment when all the investigations into Rick started to eat away at the substance of the sleeper cell case itself. The letter had to do with the government's key witness at the trial, a guy named Youssef Hmimmsa who had lived with the defendants, and who said that they were planning violent attacks, that they really were a sleeper cell.

This letter turned out to be the thread that once pulled, unravelled the entire terrorism case. It was big news.

Anchor Woman

At issue, a letter the prosecution did not turn over to the defense until last month, well after the trial. It was written by an imprisoned drug gang leader who says that he was in the jail cell next to Hmimmsa. In it, the gang leader claims that Hmimmsa told him that he quote, "Lied to the FBI how he fooled the Secret Service agent on his case." Sources say Justice officials are very concerned about what the judge will decide, and say they admit the prosecution made a mistake.

Petra Bartosiewicz

The judge ordered a hearing. Rick told him he knew about the letter, but that he and his supervisor Keith Corbett discussed it, and Keith said he didn't need to turn it over. "The only thing I can tell you judge, is it slipped through the cracks," Rick said. Then two of Rick's bosses began contradicting each other about who'd ordered whom to do what. Basically, it was two people from the Justice Department calling each other liars in open court. The judge was so disgusted by the withheld evidence that he ordered the government to do a full review of all the evidence in the case. "This is the most unpleasant task that I've had an almost 14 years as a judge," he said.

The Justice Department appointed a prosecutor named Craig Morford to lead the review. When it was released, the Morford Report was 60 pages long, a litany of accusations against Rick. That he misrepresented the intelligence. That he shopped for expert opinions that bolstered his theory. And most damningly, that he simply didn't turn over evidence that would have been favorable to the defense, breaking the most basic rule prosecutorial conduct.

With the Morford Report, it was as if the government switched sides, and overnight started working for the defense, questioning the veracity of every major piece of evidence in the case. The day it was filed the defense attorneys were actually seen outside the courthouse, giving each other high fives. They felt vindicated. They thought Rick had been holding back evidence all through the trial.

For example, they say it was many months into the case before they finally got their hands on the day planner, a central piece of evidence. So then the Morford Report came out, and pretty soon the defense attorneys got over 1,000 pages of documents that the government said they should have had all along. Some of the new information was irrelevant, but still. Rick Helfrick, one of the attorneys who defended Karim Koubriti, said he and his partners were stunned.

Rick Helfrick

If you would have told me that we were going to get turned over to us-- when this was all over-- the amount of material that was turned over to us, that hadn't been turned over, I would have said you were crazy. That that couldn't happen in this district, with this office, or quite frankly, I wouldn't have thought it could happen anywhere in this country. But it did.

Petra Bartosiewicz

One of the main revelations in the 1,000 pages had to do with that blob on the day planner sketch that you heard about earlier in the story. Remember, the sketch was supposedly of the American Air Force base in Incirlik, Turkey. At trial, Rick's witness said that the Air Force intelligence was unanimous about the blob-- that it depicted a hardened bunker used to house fighter jets. But the Morford Report claimed that at least two intelligence officers didn't agree with that analysis and warned Rick that it might not be a bunker, that it might be a map of the Mideast, specifically, the Saudi Arabian peninsula. Here's another defense attorney on the case, Jim Thomas.

Jim Thomas

He knew that it was a map of the Middle East. It wasn't Incirlik. His own witnesses told him so, and he never told us. I mean, those things are central. Rick Convertino intentionally and deliberately withheld evidence.

Petra Bartosiewicz

This was the possibility opened up by the Morford Report. Maybe Rick was corrupt, intentionally and deliberately breaking the rules. Rick says there's no question here at all. Not only was he not corrupt, he was fair and thorough, even when it came to identifying that blob. He says he showed it to three different intelligence experts.

Rick Convertino

No one told us that that was a map of the Saudi Arabian peninsula. No one ever told me that that was a map of the Saudi Arabian peninsula. They represented it was a hardened bunker. In fact, they represented the specific number of the hardened bunker at the airbase.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Rick rejects the Morford Report. He says the standard Morford is holding him to his ridiculously high, that no other case could survive this kind of scrutiny. And there's not a single mistake he's copping to. And he's not denying the mistakes in a knee jerk way, either. He can explain every discrepancy, and he does. The evidence Morford said was purposely withheld was not, or moreover, didn't exist in the first place. And even if it did, it wasn't significant and so he wasn't required to turn it over. The people Morford claims said things about Rick did not say those things, and in fact in a couple of cases, were asked to lie. I asked him about almost every point in Morford, and he did not budge.

Rick Convertino

You know, if somebody-- the intimation is-- and sometimes more direct than that-- the accusation is that I drove this personally. That a single and sole Assistant United States Attorney on the ground in Detroit, Michigan, drew his own conclusions regarding the viability of the case, the importance of the case and what all of these pieces of evidence meant.

And that I brought an indictment solely, And that I prosecuted this case solely, is absurd and ridiculous. These repeated allegations, innuendos continue to come and it's obscene that I have to sit here and answer this crap.

Petra Bartosiewicz

The allegations in Morford could have been hashed out in a court hearing, where the judge would have decided what to do-- maybe grant a retrial, maybe do nothing. But this didn't happen. Instead, the Justice Department went for the nuclear option. Dan Rather interrupted his live coverage of the Republican National Convention to report it.

Dan Rather

There's been a setback tonight in the war on terror. The Justice Department is now recommending dismissal of convictions in a Detroit terror cell case after admitting to a "quote" "pattern of mistakes and oversights by Federal prosecutors."

Petra Bartosiewicz

The government voluntarily undoing its first jury trial terrorism convictions after 9/11, and not even bothering with a do-over. Keith Corbett, Rick's supervisor, couldn't get his head around it. unlike Rick, he agreed with Morford that he and Rick made some mistakes during the trial, though not intentionally. But still, to just dismiss the case like that. And no retrial.

Keith Corbett

Why? I don't know. You probably could have tried that case again within three or four months. And I don't understand why that happened.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Rick and his defenders believe the government undid the convictions for one reason. To discredit him, end of story.

Rick Convertino

It defies all logic. That's not the way the Department of Justice operates. They fight tooth and nail to defend cases. On every occasion they fight to defend cases on-- I mean wholly egregious cases where discovery was purposefully withheld, they fight. Why not here?

Petra Bartosiewicz

This is one of the most confusing aspects of this whole story. Again, the Justice Department wouldn't talk to me for this report-- so I couldn't ask them directly-- but it does seem out of character, at least in terrorism cases, for the Justice Department to simply fold. Just last year, in the terrorism financing case of the Holy Land Foundation, after two mistrials, the government said it would try the case a third time. The same thing, two mistrials, happened in the case of the Miami Seven. The government plans to retry that case a third time too.

True, neither of these involved accusations of prosecutorial misconduct. But even so, the government's overall position on terrorism cases has been aggressive from start to end. Jeff Breinholt, the former terrorism guy from the Justice Department, believes they probably could have retried the sleeper cell case successfully. And when my producer Sarah Koenig and I asked him about it, he had a hard time explaining why they didn't go back to court.

Jeffrey Breinholt

It potentially could have been a circus environment. And a decision was made to cut the losses.

Sarah Koenig

It sounds almost like you're saying they just wanted to be rid of it.

Jeffrey Breinholt

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

What Rick Convertino will say, and what even colleagues who are mad at him will say, is it looks very much as if the Department of Justice sacrificed this case in order to bring him down personally.

Jeffrey Breinholt

No, no.

Sarah Koenig

OK, why is that not true?

Jeffrey Breinholt

We sacrifice cases all the time in the interest of justice. In the interest of justice in this case, according to the people who made that decision, we're to walk away from a case where a jury had found somebody guilty. The fact that a case got to this point, it doesn't make this a personal vendetta, or the first time in human history this has ever happened.

Sarah Koenig

I mean, do you understand from where we sit that it looks kind of extreme for the Department to let it go?

Jeffrey Breinholt

Perhaps. I can see that, but I also think people who think that often don't give the Department credit for doing the right thing.

Petra Bartosiewicz

A year and a half after the sleeper cell convictions were reversed, in the spring of 2006, all the investigations into Rick's conduct finally came to fruition. The Justice Department indicted Rick on criminal charges for suppressing evidence in the sleeper cell case. Now we're at the part of the story Rick calls his:

Rick Convertino

Bogus month-long bull [BLEEP] trial.

Petra Bartosiewicz

If you believe Rick and his lawyer, this was all classic retribution with very suspicious timing. For a federal prosecutor to be criminally indicted in the line of duty is practically unheard of. Not that prosecutors haven't misbehaved. They just don't get called out like this. If anything, the Justice Department has been criticized for years for failing to police its own.

Rick says that what was most amazing and dispiriting was that the government was setting out to destroy him and there was nobody to stop them, and no one cared. Though of course, the defendants in the sleeper cell case might say exactly the same thing about him, and about the Justice Department when they were on trial. That there was a political agenda at work. That the evidence against them was viewed in the worst possible light. That no one was giving them the benefit of the doubt.

The criminal trial took place in the same courthouse where Rick prosecuted the terrorism case, an irony that wasn't lost on the accused terrorists. One of them showed up just to watch.

Rick Convertino

I walked into that courtroom and the first person that I saw was Karim Koubriti, who was locked on to me, sitting in glory, because the justice system was now transplanting his role for mine. The world was upside down. I could not believe that I was in there as a defendant.

Petra Bartosiewicz

The main charges were obstruction of justice and conspiracy. He faced a potential prison sentence of 30 years. After all the questions raised by the Morford Report, the only criminal misconduct the government thought it could prove in the trial had to do with some photos that weren't turned over to the defense in the sleeper cell case. The government claimed Rick conspired to conceal them. An old friend of Rick's, Greg Stejskal, went to his trial almost every day. He's an attorney and a former FBI agent.

Greg Stejskal

As I sat and listened to the evidence and everything else, I thought, you know, where's the case? There has to be something more here. There has to-- the government would not criminally prosecute Rick based on what I've heard so far. There must be somebody that's going to come in and say "Yeah, I saw Rick look at those pictures, and he told me that we can't let the defense have these pictures," or something.

And I sat through the whole thing, and I got to the end, and I thought, that's it? That's the best they can do? And so the final conclusion I came to was, all right, they're either incredibly stupid, which they're not. Or they deluded themselves into believing that there was something there that wasn't. Almost like a mass hysteria kind of thing.

Petra Bartosiewicz

It took the jurors less than a day to acquit Rick on all counts.

So Rick sued Ashcroft. The justice department prosecuted Rick. Koubriti sued Rick. Rick sued the newspaper. Then Rick sued the Justice Department again, and he's considering a third lawsuit against them for malicious prosecution. What are we supposed to think about this whole sorry mess of lawsuits? Was Rick a rogue prosecutor? Was he the victim of a department-wide vendetta?

What seems most likely to me, after spending months talking to all sides trying to figure it out, is this. Rick withheld information in the case that he should have turned over, but what he did was no different than what federal prosecutors do all the time. Withholding exculpatory evidence is the most common mistake prosecutors make at all levels of the justice system. And the reason it's so common is that it's a judgment call. Rick says he didn't think he was breaking the law. He thought he was playing fair. And that's perfectly believable because there's a gray area concerning what evidence you have to turn over.

Unfortunately for Rick, he's the rare prosecutor who got scrutinized. Normally the Justice Department stands behind a prosecutor's choices, even questionable ones. But Rick lost that backup, which was the only safety net that ultimately mattered. And he lost that support not because of our national interest, or any high-minded principles of fair play. He lost it because of his attitude. I was surprised to hear one of his old bosses, Jeff Breinholt, admit as much.

Jeffrey Breinholt

That is an important factor. I always laugh when people say-- people try to equate what happened-- how Bill Clinton was treated compared to Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon didn't make it whereas Bill Clinton did. And I always say there's a little secret in politics. It really matters whether people like you. So how you get along with people is going to affect what happens to you. It's going to affect how many people come to bat for you. There's plenty of ways this thing did not have to get to that point, if he had acted differently.

Petra Bartosiewicz

After all, Rick's immediate supervisor on the terrorism case, Keith Corbett, who co-prosecuted the case with Rick, who was in on every decision, was demoted in the wake of the investigations, but he certainly wasn't indicted. People liked Keith. Keith wasn't threatening to punch out his colleagues.

Rick says he doesn't regret anything about the way he handled the case including, he told my producer, mouthing off to his bosses.

Sarah Koenig

You had to know that all these people had egos, and that every time you did that you were burning a bridge.

Rick Convertino

I did know that. But the bridges that were being burnt were small and inconsequential.

Sarah Koenig

But were they?

Rick Convertino

They were. They were and they are to me now, because what are we doing? You take an oath as an Assistant US Attorney, working for the Federal Government in the Department of Justice, for Christ sake. What higher plane can an attorney be on?

Sarah Koenig

But, Rick, come on. You'd been in the office. You knew as well as anyone the politics of this office. It just sounds so naive for you to say, like, but we were serving the public good. They're going to come back and slaughter you.

Rick Convertino

And they did. They tried. They tried. And you're right. I mean, was it imprudent? Maybe.

Sarah Koenig

Maybe?

Rick Convertino

Well, listen. What you said was naive, I believe. I believe to this day. The first time that I saw it was when I was in Washington DC, and had some early success. I had a case-- the only case I've lost to this day-- was in the early '90s. And when I lost it, the attitude of my coworkers seemed to be that they were happy that I lost the case. And in fact, I raised that issue and was told, yeah, yeah, they are. That was the first time I saw it. And I thought, I don't care if you don't like me.

Petra Bartosiewicz

It's easy to forget there was a terrorism case under all of this. And maybe either innocent men were convicted or guilty men were freed. To this day, the Justice Department has made a point of not taking a position on this question. They've never said the men weren't terrorists. This in particular angers Karim Koubriti.

Karim Koubriti

They never apologized to me. What, you think I'm a piece of garbage, treating me like that, and just be happy you're out? I don't like to be treated that way, really. And I don't feel justice was done.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Are you a terrorist?

Karim Koubriti

No, I am not. Sometimes I really ask myself this question. And you guys make me think-- you know, when sometimes you hear stuff about you, you sit and say how you could-- what is this? Is this is joke or something? I never hurt anybody in my life. Anybody. I never even think to hurt anybody in my life. And I don't have any reason to be a terrorist. I am from Morocco. I am not from Palestine. I am not from Afghanistan. I'm not an Iraqi. I really didn't have any bad feelings about the United States. I really don't care about politics. I just want to have a good future, that's the only reason I came to the United States.

So what's terrorist mean, a Muslim? I am a Muslim. If you want to think I'm a terrorist because I'm Muslim, I can't control that. But if you mean terrorist, that somebody was trying to hurt innocent people, I think he is the terrorist.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Rick's the terrorist, Koubriti says, because he knew all along they weren't terrorists. That's why he's suing Rick now. And I think what enrages Rick the most is that he now lives in a world where someone like Koubriti can accuse him-- a former federal prosecutor-- of being a terrorist. That his credibility has been so eviscerated that he has to defend his most basic beliefs.

Petra Bartosiewicz

You think these guys were terrorists?

Rick Convertino

Beyond all peradventure, there's no question in my mind.

Petra Bartosiewicz

For Rick this is the bottom line. His job was to protect people and it was a responsibility he took seriously. He was a soldier in the war on terror, and he believes he accomplished his mission. He shut down a sleeper cell. He prevented the terrorists from striking again.

Rick Convertino

So I weigh that. What personal cost and professional cost did I pay for what may have been preventing a strike? I think we did a very important thing here.

Petra Bartosiewicz

Now Rick is a criminal defense attorney. So far he's good at it. Seven for seven. He specializes in law enforcement officers who get in trouble on the job. A state trooper accused of murder. A cop charged with assault. People whose bosses aren't backing them up. These guys come to him, Rick says, because he's been through what they're going through. They know how angry he is, and they want that working for them.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Petra Bartosiewicz. She's writing a book called The Best Terrorists We Could Find on this and other Justice Department cases in the war on terror. It's coming out in spring, 2009. Our program today and our story about Rick Convertino was produced by Sarah Koenig, with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp and Nancy Updike.

Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Some music in today's show by Pierre Takal. Special thanks today to Bill Davis and Charles De Arman at the National Archives. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Support for this American Life is provided by the Saab 9-3 family, a sports sedan, sport combi, and all season convertible. Saab, born from jets. Learn more at Saabusa.com

And by Showtime, bringing a new season of real life stories of television. Namely, the real life stories on the television version of our program: This American Life is now on the air with new episodes Sundays, 10:00. And they repeat pretty much every day of the week. 1-80o- Showtime, or sho.com. WBEC management oversight for a program by our boss Mr. Tory Malatea whose been eyeing both my ass and my shoulders lately with one thing running through his head.

Rick Convertino

My dad always used to say never trust a man whose ass is wider than his shoulders.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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