Is Novak the Zelig of Republican scandal?
Thursday's Boston Globe carries a front-page exclusive on alleged dirty tricks in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Like the Valerie Plame affair, this tale too features Robert Novak, who is becoming the Zelig of Republican scandal.
In a story with echoes of Watergate, Senate Republican staffers are suspected of a third-rate electronic "burglary" (although in this case, they may simply have walked through a portal that was left wide open). According to the Globe, what at first seemed to be an isolated incident now turns out to have been a far more extensive conspiracy:
"Republican staff members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee infiltrated opposition computer files for a year, monitoring secret strategy memos and periodically passing on copies to the media, Senate officials told the Globe.
"From the spring of 2002 until at least April 2003, members of the GOP committee staff exploited a computer glitch that allowed them to access restricted Democratic communications without a password. Trolling through hundreds of memos, they were able to read talking points and accounts of private meetings discussing which judicial nominees Democrats would fight -- and with what tactics."
Those memos were leaked to "conservative-leaning" journalists, including the editors of the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal's editorial page staff. Senate Democrats believe that they were also used by Novak to write a column last February exposing their strategy to defeat Bush judicial nominee Miguel Estrada. Novak published direct quotes and descriptions of meetings that appear to have come from the purloined documents.
The investigation by the Senate sergeant-at-arms and the Secret Service has led to the seizure of computers from the Judiciary Committee and the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Whether criminal charges are eventually brought against anyone who misused the files may depend on legal interpretations. The Globe reports that the internal Democratic files became accessible because of a glitch in systems set up by a consultant hired in 2001 by then-Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
The only name to be named so far is that of Manuel Miranda, a former Republican committee staffer who now serves as an advisor to Frist. The Globe suggests that when committee chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, admitted that one of his former staff had been involved in "this improper, unethical and simply unacceptable breach of confidential files," he was talking about Miranda. Now Frist has placed Miranda on leave. But the defiant staffer not only denies distributing the memos to the media but offers the following defense of the scheme:
"There appears to have been no hacking, no stealing, and no violation of any Senate rule. Stealing assumes a property right and there is no property right to a government document ... These documents are not covered under the Senate disclosure rule because they are not official business and, to the extent they were disclosed, they were disclosed inadvertently by negligent [Democratic] staff."
That's his opinion -- but if law enforcement officials don't agree, the Republican rifling of Democratic computer files could be punishable by up to a year in prison and/or ethics sanctions by the Senate and the Washington bar.
By the time this is posted I will be on my way to Park City, Utah, site of the Sundance Film Festival, where the film documentary based on "The Hunting of the President" will debut tomorrow evening. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie's final cut -- complete with narration by the great Morgan Freeman -- and to discussing it with the audience after the screening. All I can say right now is that while the movie is by necessity very different from our book, it remains true to the book's message and spirit (and includes a couple of cameo appearances that some viewers may find quite surprising).
[10:30 a.m. PST, January 22, 2004]