Joe Conason's Journal

Page Six wrongly suggests that New York Times writer Adam Cohen and Miguel Estrada are old rivals. Plus: French toast is American.

Published March 12, 2003 4:01PM (EST)

Federalist fraud
Miguel Estrada's judicial nomination has brought out the worst in his supporters, from phony claims of anti-Hispanic discrimination to hypocritical complaints about the filibuster. Last Friday, certain Estrada backers stooped to an anonymous personal attack on a New York Times editorial writer.

The venue was the New York Post's Page Six, which published a nasty item suggesting that Adam Cohen -- who has written editorials critical of the Estrada nomination (and of the right-wing Federalist Society that is seeking to remake the judiciary) -- is behaving like an embittered rival. According to the gossip column, "sources are pointing fingers" at Cohen, described as "a classmate of Estrada at Harvard Law School." Another anonymous source told the Post: "Evidently they were both up for the same awards and clerkships and everything, and Estrada got them and Cohen didn't." The item concluded with editorial page editor Gail Collins denying any "conflict of interest."

Such nameless nastiness is typical of the Clinton-bashing "elves" in the Federalist Society, who are Estrada's strongest backers. But Cohen has been forthright about his views and his former acquaintance with Estrada, which he mentioned in an editorial essay last November: "The last time I spent any time with the Federalist Society crowd was on the Harvard Law Review, where a claque of right-leaning law students used to hang out late into the evening, grumbling about affirmative action and the New Deal.

"But now this same crowd is setting the nation's legal policy and selecting its judges -- with a freer hand than ever since the Republicans retook the Senate. They are using their informal network to place conservative true believers in influential positions throughout the federal government, from Supreme Court clerkships to top agency posts. In fact, one of the late-night Harvard Law Review grumblers from way back when, Miguel Estrada, is now a Federalist Society favorite for the next vacancy on the Supreme Court."

There's another big flaw in the theory of Cohen as seething rival: He and Estrada weren't in the same class at Harvard. (Since Cohen didn't return Page Six's call for comment, the error isn't necessarily the paper's fault.) According to the Justice Department bio of Estrada, he graduated in 1986. Cohen graduated in 1987. So they didn't compete for the same "awards and everything." Both were editors of the Law Review, and Cohen was also an editor of the Harvard Crimson as an undergrad. He's a published author and became a Times editorial board member before he turned 40. In short, he's been doing OK.

A toast to stupidity
Apropos of the politicians who are expunging the word "French" from cafeteria menus, a gastronomic historian writes: "French toast was not invented in France. In fact, it was invented in Albany, NY. Tavern owner Joseph French is credited with inventing the famous breakfast in 1724. Supposedly, Mr. French didn't know the proper usage of the possessive apostrophe and, instead of 'French's toast' he put 'French toast' on his menu."

Apparently, this is true -- making those idiots appear even more stupid, if that's possible.
[1:53 p.m. PST, March 12, 2003]

Strings of Perle
If Richard Perle's business affairs ever come under official scrutiny, the first place to look might be Autonomy Corp. plc, the British software firm that won a major multimillion-dollar contract from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last fall. Seymour Hersh refers glancingly to that deal -- and to Perle's role as an Autonomy director -- in this week's New Yorker dissection of the Defense Policy Board chairman. Although this part of Perle's portfolio implicates no characters as colorful as Adnan Khashoggi, it raises many of the same ethical concerns as Trireme Partners, the focus of the Hersh article.

Congressional Quarterly's excellent daily report on homeland security (available by subscription only) reported the Autonomy contract last October. According to CQ, Perle joined the British company's board in early 2000. "I have not spoken about Autonomy to anyone at the Department of Homeland Security or to anyone elsewhere in the government," he told CQ's Martin Kady II. "I read about the award in the newspapers although I was aware that it was the subject of discussion between the government and the company." Estimated to cost more than $3 million, the Autonomy contract had to be approved by a special committee in the Office of Management and Budget.

Or as the company boasted on its own Web site: "Autonomy is further distinguished by being one of only a handful of companies that have been awarded significant contracts while the department's budget for new IT infrastructure spending is frozen ..."

The company will create a "data-mining" infrastructure that allows various federal agencies to uncover patterns indicating terrorist activity. In that respect, it resembles the Total Information Awareness project being overseen by former Adm. John Poindexter in the Defense Department. Its software is used to "identify suspicious content" in text, voice and video.

Such prestigious federal clients represent enormous opportunity for a relatively small ($50 million annual revenue) firm like Autonomy. The firm's fortunes in U.S. government contracting improved dramatically as soon as the Bush administration took office. It issued a press release on Feb. 20, 2001, about several deals with new federal customers including the U.S. Army, the Department of Energy, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And last December, two months after it was awarded the Homeland Security contract, Autonomy announced that "additional U.S. government intelligence agencies have purchased its technology in deals worth over $1 million." Among its many private-sector customers are several major defense contractors, including General Dynamics and Raytheon.

Despite Perle's denials, the British press regards his intertwined roles at Autonomy and the Pentagon as an obvious benefit to the company. On Jan. 23, the Evening Standard celebrated its success:

"America's war on terrorism and the prospect of an invasion of Iraq helped push software company Autonomy into its 12th consecutive quarter of profitability.
"The company said today that it now sells to more than 30 U.S. 'intelligence-related and classified organisations.' A company source said 'that covers anything with three letters in its name,' implying contracts with the CIA, FBI, National Security [Agency] and Defence Intelligence Agency. Nasdaq and London-listed Autonomy has benefited from the close connections between nonexecutive director Richard Perle and the Pentagon. Perle, a veteran hawk from the Reagan administration, sits as a senior adviser to the Bush administration on defence policy and has sat on various arms and 'government operations' committees."

No doubt Autonomy's technology is worth every cent the taxpayers are spending on it. But were its contracts obtained by competitive bidding? And if Perle never speaks to anyone in the government about the company, and learns about its federal deals from the newspapers, exactly what does he do on its board? Its other members are electrical engineers, a former AOL vice president and a CPA/economist.
[8:07 a.m. PST, March 12, 2003]

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By Salon Staff

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