Working With Us | Products | Case Studies | FAQ | About Online Media

The Ghosts of Scandals Past


Is it possible that Attorney General James Comey got a visit this holiday season from the ghost of presidential scandals past? Is it too fanciful to imagine the ghost of Richard Nixon’s Attorney General Elliot Richardson, the ice in his scotch glass tinkling as a soft echo of Marley’s chains, appearing in the early morning to chat with Comey?
If so, it wasn’t a happy conversation. Rare are the times when a man’s political fortune comes down to a public and necessary choice and Attorney General James Comey’s moment is fast approaching. His dilemma is similar to Richardson’s: How far do you go, how loyal must you be to serve a president who you believe is abusing his power? There is no easy, party-loyal answer here. And the stakes are high: Comey’s careers as a lawyer and a politician are both on the line.
When Nixon fired Richardson, a Boston Bramhin in the truest sense – for refusing to dismiss Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Coxe, the Watergate scandal turned fully against the White House. The administration lost the confidence of right-thinking people, even bone-loyal Republicans when it appeared to be publicly flouting the law. Comey isn’t exactly an establishment figure but he’s got a reputation for fair-mindedness, for probity, he’s been known to put politics aside from time to time. He is, after all, the man who chose Patrick Fitzgerald to investigate the Valerie Plame matter. It’s a choice he may now regret.
Fitzgerald’s barn-burner of a press conference announcing the indictment of Vice Presidential Chief of Staff Scooter Libby stands in sharp contradiction to what we know about the National Security Administration’s domestic spying program. His eloquence spelling out why it’s important for prosecutors not to have tainted evidence, why it’s vital for those called to testify to tell the truth, why it’s illegal to throw sand in the umpire’s eyes, all stand in flat contradiction to the White House’s use of wiretaps and surveillance to monitor its citizens. And Comey knows it.
How do we know this?
In a nice bit of straight-up, old-fashioned journalistic defiance, today’s New York Times reports that Comey refused to reauthorize the initial domestic spying program as it existed in March 2004. That’s an admission that the program was not legal for the first three years of its existence. It is an especially damning admission coming from Comey. As Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and as AUSA in Northern Virginia, Comey prosecuted a number of terrorists. He understands the need for evidence to protect American citizens but he also understands the need for clearly won and legally authorized evidence. And his lawyer’s caution won out. That’s why the White House put “stricter” guidelines in place for the NSA to use when conducting it’s eavesdropping and email monitoring. Stricter limits in collecting information – maybe, but who really believes that? – but not on sharing the wealth.

No one knows better the need for good, clean evidence than a prosecutor. That plea for recognizing the urgent need to uphold the rule of law was at the heart of Patrick Fitzgerald’s eloquence last year. And – as the lawsuits that will begin rolling in this winter will show – evidence obtained under the NSA program between September 2001 and March 2004 is not admissible. A lot of verdicts against “evil-doers” are going to be overturned. To expand Fitzgerald’s long and baseball-savvy metaphor: Using tainted evidence is the equivalent of weighting the ball and putting pine tar on the bat in a game being held in a sandstorm.
That’s one reason why it’s somewhat laughable – if it weren’t also chilling – that Justice is investigating the New York Times. This is an investigation – like Plame – that threatens to blow up in the White House’s face.
Many people have faulted the paper for not publishing earlier but, as the marvelously snappish Jack Shafer pointed out last week, they are wrong. Good investigative journalism – as opposed to the glam-job stenography that former New Times reporter Judith Miller engaged in – takes time. When you’re right, you can wait. And, as Shafer points out, the Times’ story is iron-clad. And in light of what’s happened in the Plame case Times editor Bill Keller is right to clamp down on any talk about the background of this story. I would want no less from any editor of mine.
But, more importantly in political terms, as today’s story shows, the paper’s sources are standing with it in defiance of the investigation. The investigation – should Comey foolishly pursue past the “let’s see” stage designed to keep the White House happy – will end up corralling some interesting suspects.
Shafer has a pretty good list of likely sources. It includes the kind of people who either don’t answer or don’t answer quietly subpoenas from the Executive branch: Senators, Congressmen and federal judges, former ambassadors, former CIA officials and their former assistants. You thought Plame was a circus? Ha. That was a warm-up act.
Justice might say it’s investigating the paper but they’re going to end up investigating all the people – all the credible people – who once worked for the Bush Administration, many of them experienced politicians and policy-makers who repeatedly expressed, as Comey did, grave doubts about the legality of what they were asked to do in the “war” on terror. This “investigation” may give them a nice occasion to reiterate their concerns – publicly.
Like Richardson, you see, Jim Comey isn’t alone in his dilemma. His is just the current cliff-hanger in an increasingly dramatic and high-stakes theatrical playing out in our political time.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 1:44 PM | Permalink

<< Back to the Spotlight blog

Chris Nolan's bio
Email Chris Nolan

Get Our Weekly Email Newsletter

What We're Reading - Spot-On Books

Hot Spots - What's Hot Around the Web | Promote Your Page Too

Spot-on Main | Pinpoint Persuasion | Spotlight Blog | RSS Subscription | Spot-on Writers | Privacy Policy | Contact Us