William M. Welch, the federal prosecutor who has led some of the Obama administration’s most high-profile prosecutions of alleged “leakers,” has told colleagues that he’s leaving the Justice Department. NPR’s Carrie Johnson, who broke the news this morning, reports that Welch’s departure amounts to a “retirement.” Welch had been the head of the department’s Public Integrity Unit, which came under intense scrutnity and criticism for its botched handling of a corruption case against former Sen. Ted Stevens.
The Washingtonian profiled Welch last July, interviewing attorneys who’d squared off against him in court and reviewing every case he worked on as an assistant U.S. attorney in Springfield, Massachusetts, the job he held before coming to Washington. Criminal defense attorneys described Welch as a tough, tenacious attorney, but one who could also be overzealous. One attorney called Welch “a bully” and “an ends-justify-the-means kind of guy.”
Recently, Welch led the failed prosecution of a former National Security Agency official, Thomas Drake, whom the government had indicted under the Espionage Act for allegedly giving classified information to a newspaper reporter. The Justice Department dropped the charges against Drake on the eve of a trial, and a judge admonished Welch and his fellow prosecutors for putting the defendant through “four years of hell.”
Welch has also been handling the prosecution of a former CIA officer, Jeffrey Sterling, who is accused of disclosing classified information to James Risen, a reporter for the New York Times. Welch had tried to force Risen to testify about the identity of his sources, a controversial maneuver with profound implications for journalists’ ability to protect confidential sources. But as The Washingtonian reported, the government already believed it knew the identity of Risen’s source, possibly making the efforts to subpoena the journalist a violation of the Justice Department’s own guidelines.