If the month of January is a sign of Bush administration troubles to come in 2006, it could be a banner year for prosecutors hot on the trail of wrongdoing among the right’s leading lights. As the month comes to a close, two legal cases involving key Bush supporters have already been resolved, another is scheduled for Congressional hearings in February, and a passel of others threaten to blow open before year’s end.
Abramoff’s Many Friends In early January, Jack Abramoff, a powerful Washington lobbyist with connections to a number of high-profile Republican figures (including Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist), pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy and fraud charges related to his lobbying efforts. As part of his plea agreement, Abramoff promised to cooperate with federal investigators who are looking into the lobbyist’s relations with several members of Congress.
Abramoff was originally indicted in August 2005, along with business partner Adam Kidan, on several counts of wire fraud and conspiracy related to their purchase of a Florida-based gambling boats business. The two were accused of using fraudulent wire transfers to purchase the SunCruz gambling business from Florida businessman Konstantinos Boulis. Boulis, who made millions on a chain of Florida sandwich shops, was shot to death in February 2001, shortly after his relations with Kidan and Abramoff soured. According to the Washington Post (August 12, 2005), Kidan hired Anthony Moscatiello, an associate of the Gambino crime family, in late 2000, just a few months before Boulis was shot three times in the chest with hollow-point bullets.
To help seal the SunCruz deal, reported the Post, Abramoff “leveraged his connections with members of Congress,” including Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas), who reportedly gave Boulis a flag that had once flown over the Capitol. Abramoff also took his lead financier for the deal to a Delay fundraising event, listed Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) as a reference on his loan application, and wined and dined Delay aides on SunCruz jets and gambling boats. Also chipping in was Rep. Robert Ney who, at the urging of Abramoff associate Michael Scanlon, criticized Boulis and praised Kidan in the Congressional Record.
Both Ney and Delay-as well Senators David Vitters and Conrad Burns-have been mentioned in connection with another Abramoff scandal regarding his work on behalf of Indian casinos, which is the focus of congressional and federal investigations. Abramoff (along with erstwhile partner Scanlon, a former Delay aide) is accused of misusing tens of millions of dollars in lobbying fees from Indian clients.
Together with the ongoing investigation into the so-called PlameGate affair, which has so far resulted in the indictment of one Bush administration official (I. Lewis Libby), the Abramoff scandal has spurred growing public distrust of the administration as well as of its Republican supporters in Congress. According to a recent Washington Post poll, 56% of Americans disapprove of Bush’s handling of ethical issues during his presidency and think that the sort of wrongdoings reflected in the Abramoff case are “widespread” in Washington (Post, January 27). The same poll found that 76% of the public want the president to disclose any information about contacts between administration officials and the disgraced lobbyist, an action the White House has so far refused to take.
The AIPAC Case vs. the Public’s Right to Know? On January 20, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis sentenced former Pentagon analyst Lawrence A. Franklin to 12 years in prison for violating laws governing the handling of secret information, including conspiracy to communicate national defense information to persons not entitled to receive it, conspiracy to communicate classified information to an agent of a foreign government, and the unlawful retention of national defense information. The case involved efforts by Franklin, an anti-Iran analyst, to push the United States to take a stronger stance against the Islamic Republic by passing classified information about U.S. policies and supposed threats in the Middle East to two experts at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful pro-Israel lobby group which has pushed for stronger U.S. action against Iran. The two AIPAC experts, Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, allegedly took this information to Israeli officials and newspaper reporters. According to the Washington Post (January 21), Franklin is expected to testify against the AIPAC experts at their trial, which is scheduled for April.
While the sentencing provided few new details about the secretive case, according to an August 9, 2005 Justice Department indictment, Rosen and Weissman had been under investigation since as early as 1999 for attempting to influence U.S. government officials and using their contacts to acquire sensitive information. The indictment mentions a second U.S. government official, referred to as “USGO-2,” who is alleged to have given classified information to Rosen in 2002. According to the Post (August 18, 2005), people familiar with the investigation have identified this official as David Satterfield, a high-ranking diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Two other U.S. officials, “USGO-1” and “DOD-B,” are alleged in the indictment to have given information to the AIPAC analysts.
Franklin, who worked under former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, was close to a number of influential neoconservatives in and outside the administration, including Richard Rhodes, head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, and Michael Ledeen, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who arranged a meeting between Franklin, several Iranian dissidents, and the Iranian arms merchant Manucher Ghorbanifar. During the meeting, which took place in Rome in 2001 and included both Rhodes and Ledeen, the dissidents apparently gave information to Franklin about Iranian threats to U.S. troops.
Although the Franklin prosecution has provided substantial grist for the mill of administration critics, some observers are concerned that it could ultimately restrict the public’s ability to scrutinize government actions by discouraging reporting on illegal activities. Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, highlights Judge Ellis’ ruling that “persons who have unauthorized possession, who come into unauthorized possession of classified information, must abide by the law. That applies to academics, lawyers, journalists, professors, whatever.” This “extraordinary claim,” writes Aftergood in the January 25 edition of his Secrecy News bulletin, “that mere possession of classified information triggers legal obligations leads to absurd conclusions, particularly since anyone who reads the daily newspaper comes into ‘unauthorized possession of classified information.'” Regarding the pending case against the former AIPAC experts, Aftergood writes that “it raises press freedom issues with even greater urgency since neither of them, unlike Franklin, held a security clearance.”
NSA Eavesdropping Also potentially dampening public reporting on official malfeasance is the increasing repression of government whistle-blowers. On January 24, the Christian Science Monitor reported on the case of Russ Tice, a former intelligence officer who has sought clearance to report on what he allegedly knows regarding the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping programs, another possible legal case threatening the Bush administration. According to the Monitor, Tice has been warned by the NSA that his information about their work “is so highly classified that even members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees . don’t have clearance to hear about [it].” If Tice testifies at the Congressional hearings on the NSA programs, scheduled for February, he could be prosecuted.
The NSA case began making headlines in mid-December after President Bush, responding to press accounts, admitted that he had authorized the security agency’s domestic intelligence program, and then defended it by arguing that it had successfully disrupted terrorist cells in the United States. In response, a number of powerful congressmen called for hearings into the matter, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
Several officials and experts claim that the NSA programs violate the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which places restrictions on the types of electronic surveillance the government is allowed to undertake. According to Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies, Bush’s order to allow the NSA programs could amount to a criminal activity. She told the Post (December 16), “This is as shocking a revelation as we have ever seen from the Bush administration. It is, I believe, the first time a president has authorized government agencies to violate a specific criminal prohibition and eavesdrop on Americans.”
At the same time that the administration has defended the secret eavesdropping program on the grounds that it is necessary in the face of new threats facing America, it has attacked those who leaked the information about the program to the press. At a December 19 White House press conference, Bush claimed that “it was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war. The fact that we’re discussing this program is helping the enemy,” (San Francisco Chronicle, December 20, 2005).
The administration has successfully used similar arguments to silence other whistle-blowers. On November 27, the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds, who claimed that she was wrongfully terminated for exposing alleged espionage efforts in the bureau’s translation division. The court accepted the Justice Department’s argument that if the case proceeded sensitive state secrets would be revealed.
Edmonds’ case, which Right Web reported on last October (“Pitting Elite Interests against the Rule of Law“), is one of an increasing number of cases regarding government whistleblowers during the Bush presidency. According to the Government Accountability Office, the number of government employees reporting official wrongdoing has increased nearly 50% since the terrorist attacks on 9/11. But just as the number of whistle-blowers has increased, so too has the amount of legal restrictions aimed at silencing them. Citing the Edmonds affair as a case in point, the Christian Science Monitor reported on January 24, “New secrecy regulations and a series of judicial rulings have threatened the limited legal protections that are supposed to prevent retaliation against such whistle-blowers-even if they believe what they want to report is essential to national security.”
Michael Flynn is a freelance writer and an IRC research associate.
For More Information Justice Department press release on the Franklin sentencing, January 20, 2005
“Classification Laws Apply to Everyone, Judge Says,” Secrecy News, January 25, 2006
“Pitting Elite Interests against the Rule of Law,” Right Web Analysis, October 17, 2005
“Toeing an Illegal Line,” Right Web Analysis, August 19, 2005