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Miranda Warning: Meet the Next GOP Scandal Martyr

February 22, 2004

Oliver North is living proof that crime does pay. The Fox analyst and host of “War Stories”, North was a central figure in the Reagan era Iran-Contra scandal, clandestinely funneling money and arms to the Nicaraguan contras in clear violation of the 1984 Bolland Amendment. North, of course, is also a convicted felon, though his 1989 conviction was later overturned on appeal by none other than Laurence Silberman, the newly named chairman of President’s Bush WMD panel.

Enter Manuel Miranda, the newest GOP hatchet man turned conservative martyr in the proud tradition of G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North. Miranda, former counsel to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, is at the center of Memogate, the latest scandal of Republican dirty tricks. From the spring of 2002 through April 2003, Miranda systematically purloined hundreds of confidential documents from the computer servers used by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats. The documents feature correspondence among senators Kennedy, Durbin, the NAACP and other liberal interest groups, discuss strategies for opposing the most extreme Bush judicial appointments, including Miguel Estrada, Charles Pickering, William Pryor, and Priscilla Owen.

For this, conservatives led by Rush Limbaugh, Paul Weyrich and Rick Santorum believe Miranda should be lionized, not punished. Like North, Miranda should probably be in prison, and not on television. But the GOP is aggressively trying to position the Democrats’ plans to block Bush judicial appointments as the real scandal. For that amazing arrogance and hypocrisy, conservatives deserve all the opprobrium they will hopefully receive.

Cyber Plumbers

From Miranda’s perspective, of course, he has done nothing wrong. He claimed that he and another staffer (since forced to resign by Orrin Hatch) merely accessed unprotected servers used by committee Democrats. On a February 21st segment of the Fox show “After Hours” hosted by Cal Thomas, Miranda claimed this was no different than finding papers on a table in a college student union. (The Fox promo for the show: “Why do Democrats want to keep Manuel Miranda quiet?”) Democratic staffers, he claimed, knew of the security vulnerability which left their documents without password protection, and so were ultimately responsible for the thousands of file downloads Miranda and the unnamed staffer performed.

In November, Senate sergeant-at-arms William Pickle commenced an investigation at Judiciary committee chairman Orrin Hatch’s request. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, that investigation “now involves dozens of staffer interviews by specially deputized Secret Service computer-crime specialists. Computer hard drives have been seized and experts from General Dynamics hired to trace how files of Kennedy and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., were penetrated.”

Miranda’s actions are definitely unethical and likely illegal. Bowing to pressure, an unrepentant Miranda resigned on February 9. His resignation letter claimed that he was leaving “so as not to distract the Leader from pursuing a needed legislative agenda for the American people.” He reiterated that not only had he done nothing wrong, but that:

My departure will also allow me to speak freely and seek to return the focus of the Democrat documents investigation where it should have stayed — on the substance of the Democrat documents themselves and the abuse of the public trust that they spell out, both the few that are public and the many that remain unpublished and are now in the possession of the Sergeant at Arms.

No Justices, No Peace?

Miranda’s statement, and his hagiography at the hands of conservative activists, is part of the GOP effort to tar the Democrats as obstructionists blocking President Bush’s judicial nominees. This is both without foundation and pure hypocrisy: the Senate has approved virtually all (96%) of Bush’s appointees, while the Republicans blocked a staggering 50 of Bill Clinton’s nominees. (Bush has also had roughly double the number of confirmations in a comparable time period to Clinton). Bush, of course, has in the past month made recess appointments of both Charles Pickering of Mississippi and William Pryor of Alabama, making an end run around Democratic filibusters.

Miranda, undaunted, filed a complaint on February 12 with the Senate Ethics Committee seeking an investigation based on the content of the Democrats' memos. He wrote, “I have read documents evidencing public corruption by elected officials and staff of the United States Senate. This includes evidence of the direct influencing of the Senate's advice and consent role by the promise of campaign funding and election support in the last midterm election.”

He cited, for example, a Kennedy staff memo claiming that Elaine Jones, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, wanted Democrats to delay a federal appellate court nominee from getting confirmed to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals until after the University of Michigan affirmative action case was decided.

These are hardball tactics by the Democrats, no doubt. But there can also be no doubt that they pale in comparison to the scorched earth approach of GOP senators from 1998 to 2000, who blocked dozens of Clinton appointees, leaving a raft of federal judicial vacancies as a result.

Down the Hatch

One of the sweetest ironies of the conservative feeding frenzy over Memogate and their rabid defense of Miranda is their cannibalization of one of their own, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch. Hatch, no friend of liberal causes (in 1988, he referred to Democrats as “the party of homosexuals”), forced the resignation of the GOP computer systems specialist also involved in the theft of thousands of documents from Democratic members of the Judiciary committee. He also has steadfastly refused to make the content of the Democrats memos the subject of the Pickle’s inquiry, and focused instead on the skullduggery by Miranda et al. Announcing in November that he was “shocked and mortified” about the document theft, Hatch stated on February 5th “I have always been known as a straight shooter. I'm going to do what's right, not what might be politically expedient in the short term.”

The result has been a firestorm of criticism of Hatch from all quarters of the right. As Michael Crowley noted in Slate on February 20, Hatch has been blasted by the National Review, Rush Limbaugh and Gary Bauer, who claimed that their erstwhile ally had “demoralized Republican base around the country.” Limbaugh on January 29th complained that “the reason the Republican senators want to do this is so the media won't get mad at them, so The New York Times won't write editorials about them and so Ted Kennedy will like them.”

What angers and frustrates conservatives most is that the Democrats seem to be winning the spin game. “By giving the impression some sort of crime had been committed, Democrats were able to change the argument,” said Kay Daly, director of the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary, an organization of 75 conservative groups that first posted the memos on its Web site. “They very artfully did this and they did it with the aid and comfort of Orrin Hatch, there is no denying it.” Hatch’s GOP colleagues however, especially Jon Kyl of Arizona and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, have stood by his side.

This story is far from over. What should be a clear-cut case of Republican cloak and dagger work once again gone awry will fester as the two parties fight to define the scandal. One thing we do know, however, is that we haven’t heard or seen the last of Manuel Miranda. Like the petty thug Oliver North before him, we can expect to see him regularly, serenaded by the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Cal Thomas and the other conservative cro-magnons at Fox.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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