Elliot RichardsonFormer U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson, who served in four Cabinet-level positions throughout his years of government service, earned his fame in 1973, when, as the Nixon administration’s Attorney General, he emerged as a key figure in the Watergate scandal. He stood up to President Richard Nixon, refusing to fire the special prosecutor in charge of the case. Instead, Richardson resigned from his post.
He would later serve as a lawyer for Inslaw, Inc., a software firm that waged two decades’ worth of court battles against the Justice Department for control of PROMIS, a powerful data-mining program the company had developed. During the 1980s, the Justice Department violated a $10 million contract it had awarded to Inslaw, instead pirating PROMIS for itself, using the new version of the program for espionage purposes. As a result, Inslaw was forced into bankruptcy. Richardson’s years of legal work on behalf of Inslaw was ultimately unsuccessful. During the 1990s, Richardson called for increased scrutiny of the death of Danny Casolaro, an investigative journalist who died while working on a story about PROMIS.
Richardson briefly served as Defense Secretary during the Nixon administration before being named Attorney General in 1973. As the Watergate scandal unfolded, he was placed in charge of White House relations with the government prosecutors looking into the case. When the scandal deepened, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, the Special Prosecutor, the top lawyer in charge of the investigation. Cox had been working to subpoena audio recordings of White House conservations that he believed would shed light on the case, but Nixon wanted the recordings protected as privileged information.
Richardson refused to fire Cox, and resigned. Richardson’s deputy in the Attorney General’s office, William Ruckelshaus, similarly turned down Nixon’s order and left. While Richardson’s replacement, acting Attorney General Robert Bork, later fired Cox, Richardson was widely praised for his integrity. Several news outlets nicknamed him the “Watergate martyr.”
Richardson would later say about the case, “the more I thought about it, the clearer it seemed to me that public confidence in the investigation would depend on its being independent not only in fact but in appearance.”
Richardson later served as legal counsel for Inslaw, Inc., a software firm that had been battling the Justice Department since the 1980s over PROMIS, which was initially designed as a case-management program for federal courts. The firm complained that the Justice Department had pirated the legal version of the software program, and turned it into a total-information-awareness system that U.S. government agencies could use to tap phones and computers around the world. In addition, this new souped-up version of PROMIS was sold to various foreign governments and intelligence agencies for espionage purses. All of this was allegedly done without Inslaw’s permission and without payment to the firm, according to company lawyers. In 2001, new reports surfaced that Richard Hanssen, the former FBI agent turned Russian spy, may have passed along versions of PROMIS to Russian intelligence sources, who, in turn, sold the software to terrorist figures linked to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
The Justice Department refused to pay the struggling Inslaw, and felt it could strong-arm the company into bankruptcy. Indeed, Inslaw declared bankruptcy in 1985. But in 1987, a bankruptcy judge awarded Inslaw nearly $7 million in damages, finding that the Justice Department had acquired PROMIS through “trickery, fraud and deceit.” However, the Justice Department then proceeded to launch an endless series of appeals, which resulted in the gradual disappearance of Inslaw’s case. As of early 2008, the Justice Department is not known to have paid any monetary damages to Inslaw.
Before his death in 1999, Richardson also called attention to the 1991 death of Danny Casolaro in West Virginia. Casolaro allegedly committed suicide in mysterious circumstances while investigating possible connections between PROMIS, the CIA, Justice Department, Wackenhut Corp. and numerous members of the nation’s political and corporate elite. In 1992, the House Judiciary Committee released a statement on the case, “As long as the possibility exists that Danny Casolaro died as a result of his investigation into the INSLAW matter, it is imperative that further investigation be conducted.”
- “Agnew Takes on the Justice Department.” Time, October 8, 1973, http://www.time.com.
- Corn, David. “The Dark World of Danny Casolaro.” The Nation, October 28, 1991, 511.
- “Elliot L. Richardson.” SecDef Histories, February 2008, http://www.defenselink.mil.
- “Saturday Night Massacre Attorney General Dies.” CNN.com, December 31, 1999, http://www.cnn.com.
- “The Inslaw Octopus,” Wired, March/April 1993, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/1.01/inslaw.html