Whistleblowers welcome: Mark Zaid represents Trump accuser, others with secrets to share

The high-profile attorney — and conspiracy theory buff — has handled cases involving Princess Di, JFK and Lincoln. And now Trump.
Image: Mark Zaid
Mark Zaid, at home in the Washington suburbs, in 2016.Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post/Getty Images file

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By Alex Seitz-Wald

WASHINGTON — Mark Zaid is used to being attacked by those on the other side of whatever case he's on and to the intense media attention that comes with handling clients involved in some of the biggest matters facing the country.

But now the Washington attorney is representing the whistleblower who has sparked an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, and things have never been quite like this.

"This case, from the moment I've been in it, has been nonstop every single day. Obviously, it involves the president of the United States," Zaid said in an interview with NBC News at his home in the Washington suburbs. "We've been warned, 'They're coming after you.'"

Among the security precautions Zaid, 52, takes is revealing nothing about his family, and he asked that no details be included in this article.

Trump has suggested the whistleblower is a "fraud" who is guilty of "treason," while the president's allies in the conservative media have alleged that Zaid and his co-counsel, Andrew Bakaj, are politically motivated.

As some of the only people on the planet with access to the person who could help bring down a president, Zaid won't reveal when or where he and Bakaj, a former CIA officer, have met with their client, communicated with the whistleblower or the nature of those conversations. But they're publicly fighting attempts to unmask the whistleblower, arguing the person's identity is irrelevant since the claims have already been corroborated by the testimony of other named witnesses.

And Zaid, a registered independent and frequent Twitter user, has pushed back on allegations of bias, leading Fox News host Laura Ingraham to issue a correction for mixing up Zaid with Bakaj, who interned for Democratic congressional leaders in college, and forcing the Daily Caller to publish an editor's note acknowledging that the publication had hired Zaid in the past.

Still, he insists he's not fazed by the scrutiny.

"In a nutshell," Zaid said, "my dealing with it (the whistleblower) is no different from my dealing with every other case for the past quarter-century, other than it's more difficult to take on new cases or focus on, you know, cleaning my house."

From Lockerbie to DC to the Grassy Knoll

The longtime D.C. lawyer has spent his career chasing conspiracies, suing secretive government agencies in pursuit of everything from Hillary Clinton's emails to information on the death of Princess Diana or the escape of famed skyjacker D.B. Cooper. He's litigated on both John F. Kennedy's and Abraham Lincoln's assassination. And helped lobby Congress to change the law so the Libyan government could be sued for its secret plot to blow up Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988.

This time, though, the conspiracy may go all the way to the top, as they say in the movies.

While most high-profile Washington attorneys have fancy offices downtown and take clients out for steak, Zaid likes to meet people at Dave & Buster's — a sort of Chuck E. Cheese for adults.

He runs what has to be one of the world's more unusual legal practices from his nondescript home in a nondescript subdivision, handling clients who range from covert agents to comic book authors (he also has a side gig as dealer of rare comics).

Inside, the shades are drawn, the shelves are overflowing with books, and the walls are decorated with replicas of antique assassination weapons. His basement has arcade games.

Zaid grew up on Long Island, the son of a car dealer and a homemaker, and grandson of a famed World War II rabbi. For reasons he still can't fully explain, Zaid took an interest in the Kennedy assassination and began reading books in elementary school about the questions that still swirl around it.

The interest stayed with him through his studies at Albany Law School, where Zaid explored legal arguments that Lee Harvey Oswald might have used in his own defense had he not been killed two days after being arrested.

Zaid quickly developed a reputation as a promising young talent in the tight-knit world of Kennedy researchers/conspiracy theorists, but made his mission disproving what he considered bogus, often competing, theories in order to get a clearer picture of the underlying facts.

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"I was really open-minded to a conspiracy, but believed the way to prove it was to disprove the wrong parts and clear away the clouds," he said.

For instance, in 1994, he sued to exhume the body of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth on behalf of two historians and a group of Booth descendants who believed his grave was actually filled by an innocent man whom federal troops had killed instead in a cover-up.

Zaid said he never bought into his clients' theory, but wanted to “prove or disprove long-standing theories on Booth's escape," as he told The New York Times at the time.

That approach didn't always go over well with others in the conspiracy community, however.

When he presented findings that cast doubt on some Kennedy assassination theories at a major conference in Dallas on the 30th anniversary of the assassination in 1993, some accused him of being a CIA plant sent to sow disinformation.

"It went over so poorly with some people that to literally today, I'm still being attacked online for those comments," he said.

That conference introduced him by happenstance to his next endeavor when an attendee who worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency approached Zaid about an employment issue he had at the spy agency.

Zaid agreed to take the case, and after getting a positive outcome, word soon spread around the DIA. More clients came to Zaid through referrals, some of which would attract major attention.

In his first CIA case, Zaid represented the son of a former Mexico City station chief who sued the agency to try to retrieve an unpublished manuscript he believed his father had written about the U.S. government's alleged surveillance of Oswald.

When the billionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed needed a lawyer to help him try to prove that his son Dodi and girlfriend, Princess Diana, were killed not in a tragic car accident, but by a conspiracy of racist British royalists, he hired Zaid.

Zaid was careful not to endorse that theory, but sued the NSA on Al-Fayed's behalf for any records of Princess Diana's communications it might have intercepted. "All we seek are copies of the documents ... (for) the general public to reach its own conclusion," he said on CNN at the time.

Meanwhile, his experience with Freedom of Information Act requests made him valuable to media organizations, which he said included MSNBC, that have hired him to help pry loose documents from the government.

"Mark revels in fighting the government on disclosure issues,” said journalist Garrett Graff, who worked with Zaid on his biography of former special counsel Robert Mueller and other issues.

What's been consistent throughout his career is Zaid's willingness take on difficult and unusual cases while occasionally employing unique strategies. He compares himself to a guerrilla fighter.

When he was in his 20s, Zaid, in one of his first cases, inserted himself into a international incident by being one of the few lawyers who thought the families of the victims of Pan Am 103, which crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, should try to sue Libya — even though Libya denied its involvement and U.S. law forbade it.

"Mark was a kid just out of law school, and he was excited about suing Libya," said Bob Monetti, who lost his son in the bombing and became president of a group of victims' families.

The families eventually came on board with Zaid's approach, and it worked. Congress changed the law, paving the way for the families to sue, which led to the $2.7 billion out-of-court settlement with the government of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

It also left Zaid with a handsome payday, but a "bad taste in his mouth," he said. The case had been personal for him — two college schoolmates had died on the plane — and he watched it become all about money.

"Family members were fighting family members, lawyers were fighting lawyers," he recalled.

'He knows all the players'

Zaid came to the whistleblower case at the heart of the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry the same way he's met most of his other clients in the insular world of "spooks": a referral.

The lead counsel on the case is Bakaj, a former intelligence officer who was himself a whistleblower, which was how he originally met and hired Zaid.

"He might as well have been embedded in the intel community — he knows all the players, knows all the rules," said Tom Devine, who has worked with some 7,000 whistleblowers over 40 years as legal director of the Government Accountability Project, which formed in the wake of Daniel Ellsberg's leak of the Pentagon Papers.

After taking the case, Zaid was accused by Trump allies of being a left-wing lawyer — despite the Republican National Committee having retained him in an attempt to get Clinton's emails and his work representing five CIA whistleblowers central to the GOP investigation into the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi.

The Benghazi work led to a friendship with California Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee and a staunch Trump ally. Zaid said they remain friends to this day.

Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News and NBC host, who went to Zaid's law school, came to his defense.

Meanwhile, Zaid takes a hard line against people who circumvent the proper channels to put out information on their own, such as Edward Snowden or the anonymous Trump official who has written a forthcoming book, "A Warning."

Bob Eatinger, a former top CIA lawyer whom Zaid joked was his "arch-enemy" after years of legal battles, said Zaid's independence stands out in a world that tends to break down into clear sides: those who support the CIA and activists who want to fight it.

"He's not anti-CIA. He disagrees with some of the decisions, but he's not out to prove a point," Eatinger said. "He's willing to push the status quo, but he does it through the courts. He does it the right way."

Zaid said he stays true to his own moral compass, and quipped, "The straddling gets me all these clients on both sides."