Key U.S. Attorney, Swept Into Russia Investigation, May Prosecute WikiLeaks Case

Apr 23, 2019
Originally published on April 23, 2019 5:29 am

One of the most intriguing parts of the special counsel report on Russian election interference involves the role of WikiLeaks. Prosecutors are continuing to investigate the site and its founder, Julian Assange, who faces a conspiracy charge for an unrelated hack.

The man who may end up prosecuting that case has a long backstory at the Justice Department. Zachary Terwilliger started there as an intern during high school in 1999. Now, he is the U.S. attorney in the backyard of the intelligence community.

Justice Department veteran Zachary Terwilliger is the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia and may end up prosecuting the WikiLeaks case.
Justice Department via AP

Veterans of the office in Alexandria, Va., remember that Terwilliger used to mop the floors and stack boxes in this office of 140 federal prosecutors.

"For me, this really is home," Terwilliger said.

He grew up around law enforcement. His father was deputy attorney general under former President George H.W. Bush. FBI agents attended his family barbecues. But Terwilliger said it was watching the trial of two gang members who stabbed a witness and left her to die on a riverbank that sealed his own fate.

"It was watching what the law could do to achieve justice for that victim, and frankly watching two people in court as assistant United States attorneys who just blew me away," he said. "And I just thought, 'If I'm going to work this hard to study the law and become a lawyer, that's where I want to put my efforts.' "

He did. Terwilliger went on to prosecute gang members himself. At the start of the Trump administration, he moved over to Justice Department headquarters. He expected to be busy. Then the president fired the FBI director. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — Terwilliger's boss — appointed a special counsel.

Terwilliger spent a lot of nights on his office couch.

"Those were 18-to-20-hour days," he said. "And I had worked like that in lead-up to trials, but never in a sustained period. And you just learn to operate at a different level."

Terwilliger's current and former colleagues said he embodies a quality that is sometimes unusual in the Washington area: sincerity.

"First and foremost in my mind about Zach is, he's genuine," said Alice Fisher, who tried to hire Terwilliger when she ran the Justice Department's criminal division in the George W. Bush years.

"He really cares about his colleagues as well — not only the mission, but who the people are and how their work environment is and about the things that really matter, not only in the work environment but the personal environment," Fisher said.

Eventually, Virginia's two Democratic senators recommended Terwilliger to serve as U.S. attorney there. In August 2018, he was sworn in to the historic post.

The top federal prosecutor's office in Alexandria dates to 1789. The first U.S. attorney there was John Marshall, who went on to become chief justice of the United States.

Neil MacBride was the chief prosecutor in the place he calls E.D.V.A. in the Obama years.

"E.D.V.A. has had a front-row seat in everything from Cold War espionage cases to post-9/11 terrorism cases to some of the biggest financial fraud and extraterritorial cases from threats around the world," MacBride said.

But the case getting the most attention these days involves Assange. About two weeks ago, American prosecutors finally unsealed their case against him. He faces a single charge: conspiracy to commit computer hacking.

On Monday, a federal appeals court turned back a bid by former Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning to be released from federal custody while she fights a subpoena in the case. Manning has refused to testify before a grand jury, despite a grant of immunity from prosecutors. Manning delivered sensitive diplomatic cables and war logs to WikiLeaks.

But authorities are continuing to investigate and could bring more charges in the next month or so. Experts say those new charges could cover the disclosure of secret CIA hacking tools or the 2016 election.

In a recent interview, Terwilliger didn't want to get into the specifics.

"The Justice Department and Lady Justice herself are patient, so we'll watch this process play out, but I for one am happy that it's starting," he said.

Terwilliger's office has also picked up other offshoots from the special counsel investigation of Russian election interference. He has indicted an accountant for the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm accused of attacking the 2016 race.

The Eastern District of Virginia is also prosecuting former business partners of onetime national security adviser Michael Flynn. That case is set for trial later this year.

As for what's next for Terwilliger, he said he can't imagine a better job than the one he has now.

"This is a dream come true for me," he said of an idea that started in high school, when he was mopping the floors of the office he now runs.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One of the most intriguing parts of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian election interference involves the role of WikiLeaks. Prosecutors are investigating the site, as well as its founder Julian Assange, who faces a conspiracy charge. As for the man who will end up prosecuting this case, NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson says he has quite a backstory at the Justice Department.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Zach Terwilliger used to mop the floors and stack boxes in this office of 140 prosecutors; now he's the guy who leads them.

ZACHARY TERWILLIGER: For me, this really is home.

JOHNSON: He grew up around law enforcement - his father was deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, FBI agents attended his family barbecues - but Terwilliger says it was watching the trial of two gang members who stabbed a witness and left her to die on a riverbank that sealed his own fate.

TERWILLIGER: And it was watching what the law could do to achieve justice for that victim and, frankly, watching two people in court, as assistant United States attorneys, who just blew me away. And I just thought, if I'm going to work this hard to study the law and become a lawyer, that's where I want to put my efforts.

JOHNSON: He did - Terwilliger went on to prosecute gang members himself. Then, at the start of the Trump administration, he moved over to Justice Department headquarters. He expected to be busy. Then the president fired the FBI director. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein - Terwilliger's boss - appointed a special counsel, and Terwilliger spent a lot of nights on his office couch.

TERWILLIGER: Those were 18- to 20-hour days, and I had worked like that in lead up to trials but never in a sustained period, and you just learn to operate at a different level.

JOHNSON: Eventually, Virginia's two Democratic senators recommended Terwilliger to serve as U.S. attorney there; in August 2018, he was sworn in to the historic post. The top federal prosecutor's office in Alexandria, Va., dates to 1789. The first U.S. attorney there was John Marshall, who went on to become chief justice of the United States. Neil MacBride was the chief prosecutor in the place he calls EDVA in the Obama years.

NEIL MACBRIDE: EDVA has had a front-row seat in everything from Cold War espionage cases to post-9/11 terrorism cases to some of the biggest financial fraud and extraterritorial cases from threats around the world.

JOHNSON: But the case that's getting the most attention these days involves Julian Assange.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange was finally holed out by British police from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

JOHNSON: Two weeks ago, American prosecutors finally unsealed their case against Assange; he faces a single charge - conspiracy to commit computer hacking. But authorities are continuing to investigate, and they could bring more charges in the coming weeks. Experts say those new charges could cover the disclosure of secret CIA hacking tools or the 2016 election. When I spoke to Terwilliger, he didn't want to get into specifics.

TERWILLIGER: The Justice Department and Lady Justice herself is patient, so we'll wait and watch this process play out. But I, for one, am happy that it's starting.

JOHNSON: Terwilliger's office has also picked up other offshoots from the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference. He indicted an accountant for the Internet Research Agency - that's the Russian troll farm accused of attacking the 2016 race. The Eastern District of Virginia is also prosecuting former business partners of onetime national security adviser Michael Flynn; that case is set for trial later this year. As for what's next for Zach Terwilliger, he says he can't imagine a better job than the one he has now.

TERWILLIGER: This is a dream come true for me.

JOHNSON: An idea that started in high school, when he was mopping the floors of the office he now runs.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS PASCHBURG'S "SPARK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.