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She can’t wake up

March 10th, 2004 · No Comments

The cover story of this month’s edition of my college alumni magazine, features one of my classmates, Jesslyn Radack in The Woman Who Knew Too Much by Emily Gold Boutilier. I never met her but heard of her.

She became a campus activist during her sophomore year, after, she says, three drunken male students had groped and propositioned her and she’d witnessed the University’s punishment: extra laps at football practice. Radack joined with three other women to try to strengthen Brown’s disciplinary policies on sexual misconduct. In 1990 the women’s efforts attracted national publicity after other women penned a list of alleged student rapists on a bathroom wall in the Rockefeller Library. Radack says she and her three coactivists did not condone the graffiti, but they understood why women were resorting to it. The four even appeared on The Phil Donahue Show that year to discuss their work, which eventually helped pressure the University to add a sexual-misconduct provision to its code of student conduct.

Now she is unable to find a job as an attorney in the Beltway after being involved with the Department of Justice’s case against John Walker Lindh, an American captured while fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan.

As Radack listened to NPR that morning two years ago, she heard that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had never believed that the California lawyer, or any other attorney, officially represented Lindh at the time of his confession. Radack was in a position to know that this was not entirely true, and she was outraged at the government’s claim. Six months earlier she had been an attorney-adviser with the DOJ’s Professional Responsibility Advisory Office (PRAO). On December 7, 2001, she fielded a telephone call from John DePue, a prosecutor in the terrorism and violent crimes section of the criminal division in Washington, D.C., a call that would trigger two years of upheaval in her life and that would derail a promising career.

The unfolding of her story involves how she leaked e-mails to the press, e-mails that had been deleted from the file, and how she claimed protection under the 1989 Whistleblowers Protection Act.

A week after Radack told her firm she was protected as a whistleblower, its management committee gave her two choices: sign an affidavit saying she did not leak the e-mails, or resign. She did neither. On October 25, 2002, she was placed on paid leave, and a month later on unpaid leave. In January 2003 the inspector general’s office suddenly informed Radack she’d been referred for criminal prosecution. On what grounds, Radack did not know. “I was very scared,” she says. Then, eight months later, she was just as suddenly told that the government was dropping its investigation into a criminal case against her.

All this has left this mom of three with much uncertainty:

These days Radack spends most of her time working on her case, writing, and caring for her new baby. She has started a fund to offset the $30,000 she says the ordeal has cost in legal fees. Though she and her husband sometimes speculate about moving far away from Washington, at this point they plan to stay. “If I were to leave D.C., I’d want to leave on my own terms,” she says, “and not because I feel like I’ve been forced out. My home is here. My friends are here. My family is here. I mean, this is our life. I don’t want to be chased away.” Ross Cheit, her former professor, says it’s hard to imagine that someone he describes as among the “cream of the crop” at Brown cannot find work inside the Beltway. “It sounds like she was doing something that ethics would actually demand,” says Cheit, who has a law degree and teaches ethics in his courses. “To think that she’s being punished for it is really regrettable.”

Radack also has no intention of changing careers. “If I quit practicing law, I’ll be giving them exactly what they want,” she says. She tells herself she is a footnote in larger debates about the balance between fighting terror and protecting human rights and about the responsibilities of a government lawyer. But it’s hard. “I’ve basically been blacklisted,” she says. “I’m in this Kafkaesque nightmare. I can’t wake up. It’s something you read about and say, ‘That would never happen to me. That would never happen to anyone I know.’ ”

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