The politics behind the case of the suspected Iranian hacker

A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)
A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

When HBO was hacked earlier this year, it generated quite a few headlines. Those responsible for the cyberattack not only managed to steal new episodes of popular shows, they also got their hands on scripts for "Game of Thrones," which is one of the biggest shows on television.

With that in mind, there was quite a bit of coverage yesterday when federal authorities announced charges against Behzad Mesri, a suspected Iranian hacker, who was allegedly responsible for targeting HBO's system.

And while that's interesting in its own right, what I found especially important about this is the fact that we knew it was coming. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that the Justice Department plans to announce "several cases involving Iranian suspects in the coming month," including yesterday's break in the HBO case.

Last month, national security prosecutors at the Justice Department were told to look at any ongoing investigations involving Iran or Iranian nationals with an eye toward making them public.The push to announce Iran-related cases has caused internal alarm, these people said, with some law enforcement officials fearing that senior Justice Department officials want to reveal the cases because the Trump administration would like Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran. A series of criminal cases could increase pressure on lawmakers to act, these people said.Some federal law enforcement officials have also voiced concerns that announcing the cases, rather than keeping them under seal, could imperil ongoing investigative work or make it harder to catch suspects who might travel out of Iran, according to the people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing investigations.

This may seem like a dry look at behind-the-scenes decisions at the DOJ, but if you saw Rachel's A block on Monday night, you may realize why this is important.

The Post's reporting, if it's accurate, is actually quite stunning. The article describes a dynamic in which the Trump administration hopes to create certain political conditions -- it apparently wants to pressure Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran -- and to that end, the Trump administration has pushed Justice Department prosecutors to unseal cases to advance the White House's political agenda.

According to the DOJ, this might have an adverse effect on prosecutions, but according to the article, the pressure has happened anyway, undermining not only the law enforcement process in ongoing cases, but also the independence of the Justice Department itself.

If there was pushback against this approach within the DOJ, we now know those efforts failed -- because officials unsealed the case against Behzad Mesri yesterday for all the world to see.

It may be easy to grow inured to Trump World scandals, of which there are too many, but the politicization of federal law enforcement is a very big deal, and at the risk of sounding overdramatic, it has the potential to undermine our democracy in fundamental ways.

Yesterday's news about the HBO hack was about far more than just the HBO hack.