And now another installment of Great Moments in Liberal Media.
As we noted earlier today, it now turns out that one of the FBI agents investigating the Asian campaign finance scandal of 1996-97, James J. Smith, was also the handler of an FBI informant, Katrina Leung. She turns out to have been a double-agent, in the service of the People's Republic of China. Smith and Leung were lovers. And through this relationship and one with another FBI agent, William Cleveland, Leung managed to compromise not only the campaign finance investigation but perhaps also a great deal of US espionage against China over the last two decades. Now it seems clear that higher-ups at the FBI suspected or knew Leung was a double agent as early as 1991.
Oh, and one other thing: Leung is a long-time Republican party activist, fundraiser and party-donor. A November 2nd 1997 article in the Los Angeles Times called her "a dynamic Republican known to have friends and family connections in the highest echelons of Beijing government ... [who] has opened her spacious San Marino home for local political fund-raisers and has facilitated visits to China by the mayor and others."
You'd think that given the fact that her espionage is so deeply related to an investigation into political contributions and potential espionage, that this fact would deserve some mention.
And yet the reports of the charges filed against her today both at ABC News and CNN, give this no mention whatsoever. Not a one.
I'm told by a reader that Peter Jennings report on the news this evening also had no mention of this. (This AP article at the FOX News website notes that she was a 'political activist', but says nothing more.) There's also no mention of the fact that Democrats and Republicans have been unable to get Orrin Hatch to find the time to hold hearings on any of this.
Now, one could go on about this and note that all the while that the FBI was investigating the Democrats, and all the while the Republicans were hyperventilating and milking the whole thing for political gain, one of the lead agents in the investigation was carrying on with a Republican fundraiser who also happened to be a PRC double-agent, probably helping to compromise and misdirect the investigation in various ways.
Here, though, is the deeper problem. What does it say about the Republican party that one of their activists was a spy? Not much. At least, not necessarily. It's embarrassing that one of their fund-raisers, someone who gave money to GOP politicians and no doubt rubbed shoulders with many of them, was a spy. But does it mean the Republicans are traitors? That they're compromised in some way? That they're soft on China?
The real issue, as nearly as I can see it, is the terrible, persistent failure at the FBI to deal with counter-intelligence. But, then, this isn't exactly the standard the Republicans followed, is it?
Republicans took some pretty iffy evidence about PRC-connected campaign donations to Democrats and spun it into a florid tale of perfidy, scandal, and treachery. In the late 1990s and into the 2000 campaign it became a standard line among Republicans and conservative commentators that President Clinton had sold nuclear secrets or missile secrets or in one way or another sold out the national security of the United States for campaign money. The whole thing, of course, was crap, the product of a conspiracy of the shameless and the stupid, the crudest and most country-shaming sort of political opportunism. And they partook in it happily.
So what now? On the one hand, Democrats should just set a higher standard, not stoop to the shamelessness of the opposing side. The problem, as I see it, is that this leads to a sort of unilateral disarmament in the domestic political contest within the United States. Republicans have their standard of shameless demagoguing of this issue and do Democrats no little damage in so doing. Then Democrats, if they so choose, adopt a different standard and the GOP gets a pass.
There is an analogy here, though an imperfect one, with the Bill Bennett craziness. Peter Beinart has a TRB column in this week's New Republic in which he says that Michael Kinsley and I expose ourselves to the charge of hypocrisy (I think that's a gentle way of saying we are hypocrites, but fair enough) by applauding the revelations about Bill Bennett even though we mainly believe that people's private lives should remain private.
This is a very good point -- I don't think a persuasive point, but a good one, and one I've thought about a lot and frankly struggled with in the Bennett case. I do believe in privacy as an extremely high value in our society and I think someone in my position --- obviously I didn't write the story, but I've spoken on its behalf --- has to be very careful not to betray their own principles in the process of defending them.
But I don't think in this case I or others have. Beinart writes: "Under the Marshall and Kinsley standard (which, since you're judging hypocrisy, is the Bennett standard), the press should snoop around to see whether Bennett committed adultery as well." And then later: "And, while Bennett may be one of Washington's most high-profile right-wing moralists, he's surely not alone. John Ashcroft, Rick Santorum, Gary Bauer, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jesse Helms, Alan Keyes, Sean Hannity--they would all come in for similar scrutiny. In fact, dozens, if not hundreds, of Republicans in Congress have probably said the same things about private morality as Bennett. If this sounds like a slippery-slope argument, it is. I don't see any clear principle that justifies exposing Bennett's gambling that wouldn't justify prying into the private lives of most public representatives of the cultural right."
Frankly, this strikes me as schoolmen's logic: impeccable, but off-point. Push around the principles as much as you want, I still think it comes down to something more straightforward: Bennett has spent a decade being a self-righteous *#$%, moralizing about responsibility, balance and values, poking into people's personal shortcomings (or even things that aren't at all shortcomings), using them to score cheap points, and generally giving tons of grief to people who never deserved it. If it turns out he's blown millions of dollars of his family's money yanking the arms of slot machines in the middle of the night at casinos in Vegas, I think it's fair game to report it. To say otherwise would be to let the Bill Bennetts of the world hide behind the boundaries they so routinely transgress. That strikes me as unfair. Equity is a principle too.
Now, Peter says that by this principle the press should now snoop into other parts of Bennett's private life. I can't speak for the press. But it certainly doesn't seem to me like we should. I certainly would never support doing so. I have no doubt The Washington Monthly has no interest in doing so. In part, to me this is because delving into someone's sex life is an inherently greater violation of privacy than discussing someone's gambling habits -- something that is, to a degree, a public activity. But it's not really an issue of a distinction so much as simple discretion. And this is the problem with all slippery slope arguments: they make principle king and banish discretion. To me, I don't see where it's that difficult to distinguish Bennett on this count from the other folks Peter mentions. He really is sui generis. Nor do I think there's a slippery slope. Principles and logic aren't everything -- in part because different principles come into conflict. That's why we have common sense.
I'm not without some discomfort about the Bennett story. I'd like it to be over. And I thought his statement a couple days ago -- saying it wasn't an example he wanted to set, etc. -- was a good, dignified way to put an end to it. But common sense leads me to a very different conclusion from Peter's. As to Katrina Leung, well ... I'm still thinking about that.