Monday, November 06, 2006

Buzz, Buzz, Watch Out For The Stings

[Posted by reader_iam]

The FBI is considering going undercover to uncover Congressional corruption, the new chief of the agency's Criminal Division says.
So much evidence of wrongdoing is surfacing in the nation's capital that Burrus recently committed to adding a fourth 15- to 20-member public corruption squad to the FBI's Washington field office.
If conditions warrant, [Assistant FBI Director James] Burrus said, he wouldn't balk at urging an undercover sting like the famed Abscam operation in the late 1970s in which a U.S. senator and six House members agreed on camera to take bribes from FBI agents posing as Arab sheikhs.

"We look for those opportunities a lot," Burrus said, using words rarely heard at the bureau over the last quarter century. "I would do it on Capitol Hill. I would do it in any state legislature. ... If we could do an undercover operation, and it would get me better evidence, I'd do it in a second."

Ooh, baby: Abscam. I remember those days, when I was just coming of age politically, in that I became eligible to vote in early 1979 and exercised my Constitutional Right and Moral Duty for the first time the following year.

Who could forget John Jenrette, who in addition to taking bribes once had sex on the Capitol steps with his then-wife, Rita, later a Playboy covergirl? That infamous coupling birthed the name of the satirical group "The Capitol Steps," in what has to be one of the more charming and amusing byproducts of a public scandal in history.

(Aside: Love, love love the fact that Jenrette's running his own public relations firm, of all things, these days, don't you?)

Among others, the Abscam sting resulted in the conviction of a U.S. senator, four other U.S. congressmen in addition to Jenrette, the mayor of Camden, NJ, and the president of Philadelphia City Council as well as another councilman. Living in Delaware at the time, I was treated to saturation coverage of the scandal from not just the national perspective, but also the regional/local. The general impression of partisan politicians as members of a big corrupt machine running around playing games surely had much to do with my decision not to register as a Democrat or Republican and, indeed, to cast my first presidential vote for John Anderson. (Yeah, yeah ... I know.)

There has to be at least one current, sitting congressman who would prefer not to walk down memory lane to Abscam days, and that would be Rep. Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania, who, though he's hailed in a number of quarters these days as the voice of conscience and the true American way, was rather--let's say, equivocal, even coy in some respects, in his dealings back then. (But then, no doubt he was so much younger then: he's older than that now. Heh!) It's true that he avoided prosecution (though he was indicted) and even House ethics charges (which caused the committee's special counsel to quit in protest). But he managed the former mostly due to a deal to testify against others, and the latter due to partisan politics. You can read a transcript of a videotaped meeting between Murtha and FBI undercover agents here, (which I strongly suggest you do, before commenting, if you're a Murtha fan tempted to accuse me of gratuitous smear just because you like his stance on Iraq). Only Sen. Larry Pressler challenged the would-be bribers and then promptly called the FBI. Here's his famous take on Walter Cronkite's characterization of him as a hero:
"I do not consider myself a hero ... what have we come to if turning down a bribe is 'heroic'?"

Where, indeed? And that was a quarter-century ago.

Abscam, of course, resulted in a whole debate about entrapment and how federal law-enforcement officials were tempting our poor public servants in Ways They Would Otherwise Never, Never Go (think of the feebs as serpents to the politicians' Eves, which, I guess, would make the rest of us gullible, hand-wringing Adams: but I digress). All the convictions, save one, were eventually upheld, but the AG set forth new undercover guidelines, and the Senate Select Committee to Study Undercover Activities warned the public that it should be concerned about the risks such stings could pose to privacy and civil liberties. The public, I think it's safe to say, was notably underwhelmed by that argument.

You think Congress likes the idea of stings anymore now than it did then, or is any less inclined to protect its own? You think the public is any more likely now than then to assess the risks to public-servant civil liberties as a greater threat to the American way than corrupt, self-serving politicians? No matter how much politicians or partisan pundits would like The People to do so?

Back to the McClatchy article about Burrus' statements:
Philip Heymann, who oversaw the Abscam investigation as chief of the Justice Department's Criminal Division during the Carter administration, expressed surprise to learn of the FBI's willingness to attempt another congressional sting after the outcry from Capitol Hill over Abscam.

"It shows courage at the FBI," said Heymann, now a criminal law professor at Harvard University. He said he concluded, after watching a recent public television documentary and listening to experts, that "there is more corruption (on Capitol Hill) than I ever thought imaginable" and that a single FBI sting "might result in very large numbers of prosecutions."

I just spent a little bit of time reviewing some of the letters received by the FBI from citizens who wrote in support of the Abscam stings when they were coming under heated criticism. My favorite, so far (contained in part 1c), was a brief, hand-scrawled note which said simply this:
Hooray for your "Stings", Keep up the good work!! "Nuf sed"--