The intrusions into former CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson’s computers constitute the narrative spine of the reporter’s new book “Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington.” The book starts with not really a word, but a sound: “Reeeeeeeeeee.”
That’s the noise that Attkisson’s Apple computer was making at 3:14 one morning. A Toshiba laptop computer issued by CBS News did the same thing a day earlier, around 4 a.m. All this goes down in October 2012, right in the midst of the Benghazi story. A person who’s identified as “Jeff” warns Attkisson: “I’ve been reading your reports online about Benghazi. It’s pretty incredible. Keep at it. But you’d better watch out.” “Jeff,” like several of the names in “Stonewalled,” is a pseudonym.
Now we know why Attkisson has been so stingy for so long with details of her computer intrusions: She wanted to have some material for her book. The story debuted in May 2013, when Attkisson appeared on a Philadelphia radio show and declared that there may be “some relationship” between her computer troubles and the sort of tracking that descended upon Fox News reporter James Rosen in a much-discussed leak case. On a subsequent appearance on Fox News’s “O’Reilly Factor,” Attkisson said she thought she knew who was responsible for the ruckus.
All of which was just enough to whet the appetite for the treatment in “Stonewalled.” On one level, the book is a reminder of all the ways people can mess with you. It’s not just her computers that showed signs of tampering, says Attkisson, who bolted CBS News earlier this year. “[B]y November 2012,” she writes, “there are so many disruptions on my home phone line, I often can’t use it. I call home from my mobile phone and it rings on my end, but not at the house.” More devices on the fritz at Attkisson Central: “My television is misbehaving. It spontaneously jitters, mutes, and freeze-frames,” she writes, noting that the computers, TVs and phone all use Verizon’s FiOS service. At one point, “Jeff” inspects the back of Attkisson’s house and finds a “stray cable” attached to her FiOS box. That cable, he explains, could be used to download data. (Read more: The bizarre tale of Sharyl Attkisson’s spare wire)
Next big moment: Attkisson gets her computer checked out by someone identified as “Number One,” who’s described as a “confidential source inside the government.” A climactic meeting takes place at a McDonald’s outlet at which Attkisson and “Number One” “look around” for possibly suspicious things. Finding nothing, they talk. “First just let me say again I’m shocked. Flabbergasted. All of us are. This is outrageous. Worse than anything Nixon ever did. I wouldn’t have believed something like this could happen in the United States of America.” That’s all coming from “Number One.”
The breaches on Attkisson’s computer, says this source, are coming from a “sophisticated entity that used commercial, nonattributable spyware that’s proprietary to a government agency: either the CIA, FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, or the National Security Agency (NSA).” Attkisson learns from “Number One” that one intrusion was launched from the WiFi at a Ritz Carlton Hotel and the “intruders discovered my Skype account handle, stole the password, activated the audio, and made heavy use of it, presumably as a listening tool.”
To round out the revelations of “Number One,” he informs Attkisson that he’d found three classified documents deep inside her operating system, such that she’d never know they were even there. “Why? To frame me?” Attkisson asks in the book.
So CBS News hires an independent computer analyst whom Attkisson identifies as “Jerry Patel,” also a pseudonym. He finds a massive amount of suspicious activity in the computer, including the removal of all kinds of log messages. The author describes the scene as “Patel” does his work: “Now he’s breathing heavily. It alarms me because it alarms him and he’s not easily alarmed. His voice becomes more formal and he launches into what sounds like a speech for posterity. ‘In my professional opinion, someone has accessed this box … I see evidence that shows a deliberate and skilled attempt to clean the log files of activity.'” Intrusions of this caliber, concludes “Patel,” are “far beyond the the abilities of even the best nongovernment hackers.”
In summing up, Attkisson writes, “Everything Patel has found serves to confirm my January source and analysis. Patel tells me that only a few entities possess these skills. One of them is the U.S. government. I already know this from Number One. But now CBS knows it, too. And it will all be in his final report.”
More drama arises in September 2013. As White House officials pressure CBS News executives over Attkisson’s Benghazi reporting, something goes haywire with her computer. “That very night, with [White House spokesman Eric] Schultz, [White House Press Secretary Jay] Carney and company freshly steaming over my Benghazi reporting, I’m home doing final research and crafting questions for the next day’s interview with [Thomas] Pickering. Suddenly data in my computer file begins wiping at hyperspeed before my very eyes. Deleted line by line in a split second: it’s gone, gone, gone.” Attkisson grabbed her iPhone to record the madness.
Don Allison, a security specialist at Kore Logic, takes a close look at Attkisson’s iMac. The results turn up scandalous, as Attkisson writes: “While a great deal of data has been expertly wiped in an attempt to cover-up the deed, Don is able to find remnants of what was once there. There’s key evidence of a government computer connection to my computer. A sort of backdoor link that leads to an ISP address for a government computer that can’t be accessed by the general public on the Web. It’s an undeniable link to the U.S. government.”
The expert explains to Attkisson: “This ISP address is better evidence of the government being in your computer than the government had when it accused China of hacking into computers in the U.S.”
The Erik Wemple Blog has reached out to Allison; we’ll update as soon as we hear from him and will write an astounding number of posts related to “Stonewalled.”
Update: We heard back from his security firm, whose president says they can’t talk because of a confidentiality agreement