Spy Vs.Lawyer?

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How human rights advocates investigating torture ended up snooping on the CIA - and in hot water with the feds

The CIA probably doesn't want you to know this, but unmasking its covert operatives isn't as hard as you'd think Just ask John Sifton. During a six-year stint at Human Rights Watch, the attorney and investigator was hot on the trail of the cia and some of its most sensitive Bush-era counterterrorism programs, including extraordinary rendition, secret Eastern European detention sites, and the legally dubious and brutal methods used to extract information from detainees. "Even deep-cover cia officers are real people, with mortgages and credit reports," Sifton once told CQ_Politics. For researchers with a trained eye for the hallmarks of a cia alias, there are obvious giveaways: "A brand new Social Security number, a single P.O. box in Reston, Virginia. You disregard those and focus on the real persons who lie behind, and you can find them."

Sifton's talent for uncovering the qa's secrets may have served him wellbut now, it also has set off a firestorm in the human rights community and helped trigger a federal investigation headed by none other than Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame affair. The story begins in 2008, when military prosecutors sought the death penalty in military commission trials of six suspected 9/11 conspirators being held at Guantanamo Bay, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the attacks. The defense had few resources and little experience trying capital cases. Into the breach stepped the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which created the John Adams Project-an effort to supply civilian lawyers to assist in the defense of some of the least sympathetic clients in the world. Fittingly, the group was named after the founding father who had represented British soldiers after the Boston Massacre.

A top priority for the lawyers was establishing whether the detainees had been coerced or tortured into giving the statements the government was now using against them. And to do that, the detainees' lawyers needed to identify who had been involved with those interrogations.

To get that information, the John Adams Project turned to Sifton, who in 2007 had opened his own investigations firm, One World Research, catering largely to human rights and public interest groups. Its website says the firm's employees can "deploy quickly to almost anywhere in the world; for instance, to take affidavits in Afghanistan, investigate allegations of abuses by private security forces in Nigeria, examine incidences of questionable police practices in the United States, or conduct studies of social or economic rights issues in Nepal." For its clientswhich have included Amnesty International, Human Rights First, and the ACLU-it offers services from public-records searches to locating victims and witnesses, from serving subpoenas to "collecting video, photographic, and physical evidence." One World also says it can provide "surveillance," which is fairly routine for a PI shop-except when your quarry happens to be cia officers.

The role of Sifton's firm in gathering information for the John Adams Project has not previously been revealed. But last August, the Washington Post reported that the Justice Department had launched an investigation after Gitmo defense lawyers allegedly showed their clients pictures of cia personnel. At the time, Anthony Romero, the aclu's executive director, insisted no laws or regulations had been broken. "The real scandal," he said in a statement, "isn't that we're investigating the torture of our clients, but that the government isn't."

Photos depicting cia officers also reportedly surfaced in the Guantanamo cell of accused 9/11 financier Mustafa Ahmed alHawsawi. Coming at a time when cia personnel had grown uneasy over the Obama administration's scrutiny of Bush-era waron-terror tactics, the discovery of the photos only escalated the tension. …