From the Guardian Unlimited:
Saint Patrick's day
He is the relentless scourge of mobsters, terrorists, corrupt city bosses and even the White House. Paul Harris profiles Patrick Fitzgerald, the tenacious workaholic special prosecutor, who gives George Bush sleepless nights, and who has now turned his sights on the former Telegraph tycoon Conrad BlackPaul Harris
Sunday February 12, 2006
On fine days, when the icy blasts that give Chicago its Windy City nickname are not too strong, a lone figure sometimes exits a plush downtown house. The man, tall but unstriking, jogs a short distance to the shore of Lake Michigan. There, he runs a narrow path between the deep blue of the lake and Chicago's jagged-toothed skyline.
Few Chicagoans would recognise Patrick Fitzgerald on his jogs. The same cannot be said of some of the most powerful, the most violent and the most deadly people in the world. To them, he is clearly a dangerous man. For Fitzgerald has carved out a career in American law enforcement that has earned him the nickname 'The Untouchable', after the legendary Chicago lawman Eliot Ness. It is a good comparison - like Ness, Fitzgerald is ruthless and unrelenting.
But unlike Ness, who put Al Capone behind bars, Fitzgerald's enemies go far beyond Chicago gangsters. They stretch from the caves of Afghanistan to the corridors of the White House.
They include the Gambino mob family; the blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who masterminded the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993; Osama bin Laden, and a generation of Chicago politicians, bloated on a culture of corruption that Fitzgerald is seeking to eradicate.
Now, they also include the Bush administration, for Fitzgerald is the man investigating 'Plamegate'. In his hands an obscure investigation into the public unmasking of CIA agent Valerie Plame has become the most far-reaching political scandal since Whitewater, perhaps even Watergate. It was the ticking time bomb under George W Bush that blew up last October, when top White House official Lewis 'Scooter' Libby was indicted on perjury charges.
Plamegate was not really about who leaked what and when; it was about the war in Iraq. It was about how mythical weapons of mass destruction led to the bloody loss of tens of thousands of Iraqi lives and the death of more than 2,000 US soldiers. It was about a political spin machine that brooked no criticism and smeared its critics in the rush to war.
Now, after two years of probing, even grilling Bush in the Oval Office, the Untouchable has achieved what the Democratic party could not: a direct hit against the White House. And it is not over yet. Libby's trial is yet to come; the investigation is ongoing. Other high-ranking officials might yet be charged.
Fitzgerald burst upon America's public consciousness at a press conference on 29 October last year which was beamed live on TV across the nation. Republicans quaked at the thought of their top echelons being indicted en masse. Democrats drooled with anticipation: they dubbed the day 'Fitzmas'.
When Fitzgerald got up to speak, he looked tired after long nights preparing for this moment. But his voice, hesitant at first, grew stronger as he explained why he was bringing criminal charges against one of the highest officials in the land. It was a very Eliot Ness moment: 'If we were to walk away from this, we might as well hand in our jobs,' he said.
It was a statement of which Ness would have been proud, but Fitzgerald works in a different world to the man immortalised by Kevin Costner. Fitzgerald was entering the murky realm of international geopolitics. It is a surprising place to find the son of a Manhattan doorman who started out chasing drug dealers.
It began with a seemingly offhand observation in a column penned by journalist Bob Novak on 14 July 2003. Novak is a well-known Washington conservative whose gravelly voiced pronouncements regularly pop up on cable news channels. Novak mentioned that the wife of a former US diplomat, Joe Wilson, worked for the CIA. So far, so harmless. Yet the comment was anything but innocuous.
Wilson had infuriated the Bush administration by going public with his doubts about Saddam's WMD. He had been sent to Niger by the CIA to research claims from intelligence sources that Iraq had sought to buy uranium in west Africa. He returned saying the story was nonsense. But the claims kept surfacing in White House spin in the build-up to war, even appearing in Bush's state of the union speech in 2003. Wilson snapped, penning a furious article in the New York Times lambasting the White House for ignoring his Niger report.
Novak's subsequent exposure of Plame - thus ending her job as a spy - was seen as a warning to whistleblowers: speaking out costs careers. But one thing went wrong. Blowing a CIA agent's cover wasn't just spin, it was illegal. Thus Plamegate was born.
Metathemes quickly emerged. Wilson's trip was all about the phantom WMDs that led to war in Iraq. He was smeared by the media attack dogs that define the era of Fox News. It seemed less an investigation into a leak, more a probe of an Orwellian Big Lie. At least that's how Bush's critics saw it. The truth is, Fitzgerald treated Plamegate like he would any other crime. He started at the bottom - with the leak - and then worked up to the original source - the White House. It is a pattern seen in his mob investigations, where you start with the street thug, turn him into a snitch on his boss, and then repeat the process going higher and higher. Only this time the trail led not to some Little Italy Godfather but to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Fitzgerald let no one stand in his way. Novak testified almost immediately, but other journalists supplied with the same leaked information about Plame did not. One, the New York Times's controversial Judy Miller, swore she would go to jail before revealing her source. Miller spent 85 days behind bars before she, too, cracked, as her career disappeared and her tarnished newspaper plunged into an orgy of self-recrimination. It was a remarkable feat by the Untouchable. He stood up against two of the most powerful and politically diametric institutions in America - the Bush administration and the New York Times - and beat them both.
Along the way, whether he wanted it or not (and he probably did not), he has become a new force in American politics.Patrick Fitzgerald is a workaholic. A single man who appears to have married the law and whose photographic memory has helped him become the best prosecutor in America. 'He is the best I have ever seen. Simply remarkable,' said his former boss Mary Jo White.
He is also a legendary bachelor. For 13 years Fitzgerald lived in a Brooklyn apartment while he carved out a career chasing mobsters, drug dealers and terrorists. He never got around to connecting the gas to the oven. Once, when cops investigated a break-in next door, one officer saw the state of Fitzgerald's apartment and said: 'Looks like this guy's been robbed, too.'
He spent so many nights sleeping in his office that he would keep used socks in his desk drawer. Colleagues knew that if they had to get hold of him at 3am, the first number to call was the office. 'I get emails from him in the middle of the night,' said William Mateja, a former colleague. 'He just loves his job.'
In Brooklyn, Fitzgerald once had a cat that was so neglected by its master's work habits his colleagues kidnapped it. They sent him photos of his pet in various New York locations: dangled off the Brooklyn Bridge, with a toy gun to its head, outside a dodgy-looking Chinese restaurant. Fitzgerald got the message: you look after the cat, or we do. He sent it to live on a farm.
It is a work ethic that has followed him from his earliest days in New York to Plamegate. 'He was just like Eliot Ness. That really does describe him. Pat is dogged and will always get to the bottom of a case,' said Mateja.
It is tempting to see Fitzgerald's work habits springing from his hardscrabble background. His parents were Irish-born and he grew up in a working-class Irish American community in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. His father, Patrick Senior, was a doorman at a plush building on East 75th Street in Manhattan. He, too, was famed for never taking holidays and turning up at work an hour early 'just to be sure' he was never late.
Fitzgerald excelled at school, earning a place at a Jesuit high school that was often the root to college for poor Irish kids in New York. The way he got in rapidly became part of Fitzgerald family legend. The young Patrick had taken the entry test and was stunned to get a rejection letter. Disappointed, he accepted his fate, but his mother forced him to ring the school to check there had been no mistake. Reluctantly Fitzgerald made the call. There had indeed been an error. Two Patrick Fitzgeralds had applied. He had been sent the wrong letter.
From there his life rocketed forward. He studied maths and economics at Amherst College. As his richer classmates spent their summers holidaying on Long Island he paid his way by working as a deckhand on New York's ferries, or as a janitor, and even as a doorman a few blocks from his dad's building. Harvard Law school then beckoned, followed by a job as a prosecutor in New York. It was something that mystified his parents, who wondered why their son had gone to work for the government and not on Wall Street. They misread him. Love of the law came above love of money.
In a Minnesota prison in 2000 the blind terrorist Abdel-Rahman was sitting in a cell. He was banned from contact with the outside world by the man who had put him there for bombing the World Trade Center in 1993: Patrick Fitzgerald. The rules that kept him silent were designed to stop him sending orders to militants abroad. As Abdel-Rahman talked with his lawyer, Lynn Stewart, about his isolation, a picture emerged of how he saw his tormentor.'
Fitzgerald believes in all these things in his heart, he has the faith of doing them in the same way the crusaders did... He is more dangerous in his way,' said Stewart.'Yeah!' Abdel-Rahman replied.
The twist in the story is that Stewart may now join Abdel-Rahman behind bars. She was convicted last year of passing a message from Abdel-Rahman to his Egyptian supporters urging them to end a local ceasefire. The 66-year-old lawyer faces 30 years.
Stewart and Abdel-Rahman were right, though. Fitzgerald is on a crusade. 'He deeply dislikes criminal wrongdoing by anybody. He gives no one a free pass,' said Jay Stewart, a Chicago anti-corruption activist.
Fitzgerald aimed high from the very beginning of his career. After earning his stripes on drug and gang cases, he quickly got a shot at one of New York's top crime families, the Gambinos. He and fellow prosecutor James Comey tried John and Joseph Gambino, a capo and a soldier in the Mafia army of the dapper don John Gotti. The case was bloodcurdling, including gruesome testimony from hitman Sammy 'the Bull' Gravano. The jury was hung 11-1 in favour of conviction. Eventually, rather than risk a second case, the two mobsters pleaded guilty for a 15-year sentence rather than the life terms Fitzgerald and Comey wanted. Others would see this as a victory, but Fitzgerald saw it as a defeat.
He would not lose again. For the rest of the Nineties, Fitzgerald's obsession was the pursuit of Islamic terrorists. Long before the attacks of 11 September 2001, he embarked on a global chase of al-Qaeda, bin Laden and other Islamic terrorists. The Abdel-Rahman case was the first of many, as Fitzgerald became part of a legal task force designed to combat this threat. He was certainly ahead of the curve. In 1995, six years before all the post-9/11 political speeches, here is Fitzgerald saying Abdel-Rahman had declared '... jihad with the sword, the cannon, the grenade and the missile ... the defendants in this room conspired to steal from Americans their freedom from fear.' The Abdel-Rahman case ended in convictions.
After that came the Ramzi Yousef plot to blow up 12 American airliners simultaneously, widely seen as al-Qaeda's precursor to 9/11. Again, Fitzgerald won his case. By 1996 the name Osama bin Laden was increasingly crossing his radar. When the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were blown up in 1998, Fitzgerald was in East Africa within 48 hours. Soon, four men were on trial in a vastly complex case. But in his summation, Fitzgerald boiled it down to one name. 'Someone whom you heard little about,' he told the jury: 'Rosaline Wanjeku Muwangi, and she's count number 123... This trial is about her murder.' The jury delivered four guilty verdicts.
Later, as Fitzgerald walked into a room of victims and relatives, the east Africans hailed him with a tribal chant of praise.
Of course, nothing stopped the terrorist attacks of 2001. By then Fitzgerald was in Chicago, brought in to clean up one of the most corrupt cities in America.
He had switched from international terrorism to political corruption. One of his last emails for his old New York job was to a colleague who was also leaving the terror field. 'You can't leave, they're going to hit us again and someone has got to be around to work it,' he wrote. The email was dated 10 September 2001.
At a press conference held in Chicago, Fitzgerald once turned up with a plaster on his forehead. A reporter asked him about it. 'It's not going to kill me - don't get your hopes up,' he joked.
In New York, lawmen are heroes. In Chicago, different rules apply. What elsewhere was considered corrupt was just the way things were done in the Windy City. It was the 'Chicago Way'.
Fitzgerald's job was to clean up the city and the state. He was brought in - over the loud squeals of local prosecutors - by Republican senator Peter Fitzgerald (no relation). The senator, a maverick figure, believed only someone with no political ties to Illinois could succeed in sweeping the state clean. Fitzgerald's progress has been swift. 'He is radically changing the political culture here,' said Jay Stewart.
Fitzgerald is currently prosecuting former Illinois governor George Ryan and a host of lesser officials. He has used federal racketeering laws to describe one of Ryan's campaign committees as so corrupt it constituted a criminal enterprise. He alleges that it has done everything from arranging prostitutes for his chief of staff on a trip to Costa Rica to secretly paying government employees to campaign for Ryan. In a grimly humorous twist the organisation bought an industrial-scale paper shredder to destroy evidence. Yet Fitzgerald claims the shredder itself was bought with misused funds.
Ryan was just the beginning. The current Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, is also under investigation. Even more incredibly, so is the Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, who has ruled the city for years, just like his father before him - the infamous Sixties mayor, Richard Daley Sr.
Nor does it stop at politics. Canadian media baron Conrad Black will stand trial next year in Chicago. Fitzgerald is using federal racketeering laws against him, too, arguing that Hollinger, the company that once owned the Daily Telegraph, was a criminal conspiracy. Leftwing newspaper readers might agree with that concept, but American lawyers have raised an eyebrow or two.
Fitzgerald's pursuit of both terrorists and politicians came together in a perfect storm. Suddenly, with Plamegate, the Untouchable was taking his crusade to the highest powers in the land, dealing in issues at the very heart of the war on terror. And he was winning. When he indicted Libby he had done the seemingly impossible. He had taken on the Republican Party machine and emerged bloody, unbowed and clutching a scalp.
Yet, he should be careful. Chicago's toughest streets cannot hold a candle to the Washington establishment when it is riled. Certainly, critics are firing off the first shots. The Wall Street Journal opinion page, a boiling pot for Republican America, has dubbed him 'a loose cannon' and an 'unguided missile'. Some of Washington's biggest names, such as Watergate journalist Bob Woodward, have labelled him a 'junkyard dog prosecutor'.
'The far right is very unforgiving and he has hurt them. They have long memories,' said Abner Mikva, a former White House counsel and an admirer of Fitzgerald.
The Judy Miller case also has huge implications for a free press. Few liberals who celebrate 'Fitzy' taking on the White House want to see him jail journalists. Yet if Miller had not caved in after over two months in jail, Fitzgerald would have kept her there for at least a year. 'This is not a good time for the press in America,' said Floyd Abrams, Miller's lawyer, who tangled repeatedly with Fitzgerald.
Others point to Fitzgerald's creative use of law. Abdel-Rahman was prosecuted under an obscure conspiracy charge that had been used only rarely since the Civil War. In Illinois, some fear equating a political campaign with a criminal conspiracy. Business leaders look aghast at the same approach in the Black case.
So what does Fitzgerald want out of all this? Republicans cry foul and accuse him of pursuing his own agenda. Yet Fitzgerald has won his two big jobs - in Chicago, and as the Plamegate special prosecutor - by being appointed by Republicans. Meanwhile, Democrats laud him as a hero who is fighting their corner in a way that shames their own leaders. Yet Fitzgerald supports the Patriot Act and is the son of Reaganites. Though most of his friends contacted by The Observer believe he has no political ambitions, the few who did believe he is a conservative. Fitzgerald himself gives few clues. 'One day I read that I was a Republican hack. Another day I read that I was a Democratic hack. The only thing I did between those two nights was sleep,' he told the Washington press corp on the day he indicted Libby.
But for now, Plamegate remains open. The powerful still dread a phone call from his office. 'He has been walking on soft-boiled eggs so far and he is still doing it well. I don't think the White House is off the hook,' Mikva said.
Some think they see Fitzgerald planting the seed of a political career. One day, they believe, he may run for the governorship of Illinois, a possible springboard for the presidency. Others dismiss that as nonsense, but see him as the next head of the FBI. Then the Untouchable would be the lawman for all America. Yet perhaps Fitzgerald is just that rarest of people: an honest man in Washington. 'The mystery is there is no mystery. He has a finely honed sense of right and wrong, that's all,' said Jay Stewart.
If so, he might want to consider a saying from the French essayist Charles Peguy: 'The honest man must be a perpetual renegade.' The strange and growing list of Scooter Libby, Abdel-Rahman, Osama bin Laden, Conrad Black, the Gambino family, and perhaps even President Bush himself can all attest that the Untouchable has fulfilled that brief so far.
The case files:
Sheikh Omar Abdel-RahmanFitzgerald charges the blind Egyptian cleric as part of his investigations into the World Trade Center bombings of 1993. Convicted on a count of 'seditious conspiracy' against the US, Abdel-Rahman is now serving a life sentence.
The Gambino familyJohn and Joseph Gambino, two senior members of the New York mob family headed by 'Dapper Don' John Gotti, are charged with a range of offences. They eventually plead guilty in exchange for a 15-year jail sentence. Fitzgerald wanted them to serve life.
PlamegateFitzgerald is appointed to investigate which White House officials leaked the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame to reporters. Plame is the wife of a prominent anti-Iraq war critic, Joseph Wilson. Fitzgerald indicts Dick Cheney's aide Lewis 'Scooter' Libby on perjury charges, not for the leak itself. The investigation continues.
Conrad BlackThe Canadian-born press lord and former owner of the Telegraph newspapers is charged under racketeering laws originally intended for use against organised crime. He is accused of criminal fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice. The latter count refers to video footage of Black illegally removing boxes of documents from his Toronto office.
The 1998 East African bombings
More than 220 people are killed and 4,000 injured, the vast majority of them Africans, in attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Fitzgerald flies to east Africa within 48 hours to help launch the investigations. Four people are convicted. Others are indicted but remain at large, including Osama bin Laden.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006