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Prosecutor Leading NSA Secrets Case Is The Ultimate Survivor

U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein speaks outside the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., on Nov. 12, 2010.
Jacquelyn Martin
U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein speaks outside the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., on Nov. 12, 2010.

Forgive yourself if you've never heard the name Rod Rosenstein.

The U.S. attorney in Baltimore came into public view this week for prosecuting a contractor accused of stealing National Security Agency secrets. But for most of his 11 years in office, Rosenstein has been the opposite of flashy — even as he outlasted all of his counterparts from the George W. Bush years and most of them from the Obama administration, too.

"You know for the past eight or nine years, people ask me my plans, I tell them that I expect to be in this job this year and I have no plans for next year," Rosenstein said in a recent interview.

His children were 3 and 5 when he took the job. They're in high school now. "My daughter tells me she'd like me to set a record but that's probably not in my future," he said.

The job is a political prize and, often, a steppingstone for people who want to serve as governor or senator. But former Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein says that is not his friend's style — and could help explain why he has survived so long in the job.

"You know Rod Rosenstein is not a guy who runs to the limelight and he's not a guy who at least in my experience [is] looking for credit," Bernstein said.

For years, the two men worked closely with local police and other law enforcement agencies to try to reduce violent crime. That's no easy task in a city that developed a national reputation and was the setting for crime dramas like The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street, said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Weinstein.

The team labored to build cases against the most dangerous gangs. It set wiretaps and enlisted informants, waiting for targets to incriminate themselves or testify against kingpins. It didn't always work but, over time, homicides dropped.

That is, until last year when the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody sent the city into a tailspin. Murders soared. Relations between law enforcement and minorities frayed. And federal prosecutors like Rosenstein looked on with sadness.

Murders in Baltimore are back down this year. But gun crimes are still too close to home for the U.S. attorney's office. During a reporter's recent visit to his office, Rosenstein pointed out the spot where a bullet flew in through the window this year.

"You can still see the damage to the blinds but fortunately the glass has been repaired," Rosenstein explained. "The bullet actually came from that intersection right down there."

It ended up in the lining of a bomber jacket hanging on the back of a lawyer's door. Authorities later identified the culprit and concluded that the stray bullet had not been intended for prosecutors.

On Rosenstein's long watch, he has spent a lot of time rooting out political crimes. One of the most prominent? Winning the conviction of the chief executive of one of Maryland's largest counties on extortion and witness tampering charges.

Jack Johnson acknowledged telling his wife to flush some of the evidence down the toilet. Federal agents deployed a plumber to help them recover a check.

Unlike most of the political appointees at the Justice Department, Rosenstein has never worked in the private sector. He joined DOJ as a career lawyer in 1990 and never looked back. In 2007, President George W. Bush nominated him for a judgeship on a federal appeals court, but that nomination never came up for a vote in the Senate.

Friends say they're not sure what comes next for Rosenstein. Next year, a new president takes office and he or she will have the power to appoint a new U.S. attorney in Baltimore.

"Well, I am apolitical ... but if I was in charge of a company, I wouldn't want him to leave my company," said federal prosecutor Bonnie Greenberg. "So if he's going to leave public service, it's really a loss for public service."

In theory, he could stay on the job. But one part of his long resume could attract some attention.

As a young lawyer, Rosenstein worked on the financial corruption prosecution of former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and two bankers caught up in the Whitewater affair. That's the real estate scandal that consumed Bill Clinton's White House.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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