Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

There's only so much oxygen in the media universe at any one time. And much of it, understandably, is being taken up now by Iraq, Iran and North Korea. But if that weren't the case, you'd think there'd be a lot more attention to the fact that a prominent Republican activist and fundraiser has been arrested on suspicion of being a double-agent for the People's Republic of China.

Katrina Leung was a prominent Southern California GOP operator and also a highly paid informant for the FBI. Over the years the Bureau paid her just less than $2 million for her information. For that entire time, however, she was actually a double-agent, providing all manner of highly classified information to the PRC.

There's more here than just a gotcha for Republican scribblers who tried to make the 1996-1997 campaign finance scandal into a sort of Red Scare manque -- though there's plenty of that, the one really clear spy turns out to have been not just a Republican, but something of a high-roller in the club.

More importantly, Leung's treachery seems to have profoundly compromised the entire 1996-97 investigation. The details remain sketchy. And, of course, what we're hearing at this point comes almost entirely from the government -- or, in other words, from the prosecution side. But Leung -- and two of her FBI handlers who she managed to seduce -- were placed at key points in the investigation, where it would have been easy to give the Chinese excellent real-time knowledge of the investigation and the ability to misdirect it.

A couple weeks ago, Joe Lieberman (who, if he can manage to raise some money, may be the Dems' chief contender -- what's the point of being a New Dem if you can't raise cash? and that's coming from a New Dem...) asked the Justice Department to open an investigation into whether Leung may have funnelled money into GOP coffers in the 1990s. Senators Leahy, Grassley, Specter then asked Orrin Hatch to open an investigation in the Senate. But Hatch responded that his committee was "too busy" to hold such hearings. Imagine that.

For all the politics, the real issue here is the FBI and its series of disasters in the field of counter-intelligence. I suspect Louis Freeh's much blackened reputation will get several shades darker over this (security lapses he ascribed with no evidence to the Clinton White House now seem to have come from his own shop). But the problem is clearly institutional and not at all limited to his inglorious tenure. Ames, Hanssen, now this. More about this soon.

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.

Italy's flamboyant and well-heeled Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is currently standing trial on charges that he bribed judges in the pursuit of a 1985 deal to privatize the state food and catering company. (Note to conservatives: Privatization is not without its dangers! On the other hand, the state food and catering company? Sheesh!) Berlusconi says he is the victim of persecution by leftist judges. And today he called for his trial to be suspended so that the Italian parliament could reinstate immunity for all high-ranking pols. "We must intervene," he said today, "but not to help me as Prime Minister to pass the test of our EU presidency ... " (Italy is about to assume the rotating EU presidency.)

How's that for selflessness!

For all I know, Berlusconi may be right: maybe he is being persecuted by leftist judges. But I'd hate to think that Italian democracy -- always a rather delicate plant -- had fallen so low as to be subject to a plot in which interested politicians and partial judges tried to use the courts to toss out a popularly-elected national leader!

How could such a state even call itself a democracy?

Oh the humanity ...

Sometimes the often-breathless lead summary of Chris Nelson's always invaluable Nelson Report is worth passing on in toto ...

Summary: U.S. stock market, Dollar matched…until Bush's UN speech on Iraq. But since October, foreign exchange markets stopped using U.S. stocks as proxy for financing U.S. current account deficit. Lessons: will Neo-con ambitions be curtailed by the weak link of U.S. debt? Will BOJ see weak Dollar as reason for Yen intervention, not structural reform? Effect on other U.S. trade partners? In meantime, Federal Reserve in a bit of trap…using the "deflation" word risks deflationary expectations in the markets.

Chile FTA…support from trade community, and lack of complaints from Capitol Hill, means Chile "punishment" for Iraq War UN vote being lifted. Expect Chile, Singapore FTA's together in June.

Cabinet meeting on N. Korea…Powell skips out to prior UN meeting, so no policy swings possible.

Nelson notes that in the cabinet meeting today Powell was a no-show, leaving Jim Kelly to face Rumsfeld and Cheney on his own. Ouch ...

First Kelly has to spend all that time in Chez-SARS. Now this? The guy once called me a practitioner of "hack journalism." But even I don't think he deserves this.

As far as I'm concerned, with Bill Bennett's statement from Monday saying his gambling set a bad example, the story is over. And I hadn't planned to write any more about it. But I do need to write a few lines about the astonishing column James McManus wrote on Tuesday's Times' OpEd page: "Virtues, Values and Vegas."

Quite apart from anything to do with Bill Bennett, this piece struck me as one of the most vacuous and shallow pieces of writing I've seen in a very long time. (Actually, it was a day of highs and lows for the Times' OpEd page: Krugman's and Kristof's columns were both excellent.) I just want to note two portions of the McManus piece: the first an error of fact, the second an error of humanity.

In the third and fourth grafs, McManus writes ...

More important, the authors admit that it's impossible for them to determine whether Mr. Bennett's in the black or the red as a player. If he has legally put $8 million in play over the course of a decade, it's not the same as risking that amount, let alone losing it, in a weekend. Playing slot machines, blackjack or video poker may involve cycling a few hundred thousand into action, but for practical purposes a gambler is risking only a small fraction of that amount, since no one loses every spin or hand.
This is just dead wrong on the facts.

The authors didn't say Bennett put $8 million "in play." Nor did they get that figure of $8 million by adding up Bennett's losses without figuring in his winnings.

What they had were several spans of time over which they had records for Bennett's winnings and losses. Add all those spans of time together and they netted out at a loss of some $8 million. One of those spans of time, as both the Newsweek and Washington Monthly articles note, was 18 months.

The reason the articles could not say definitively that Bennett was a net money loser on gambling over time is that it's possible there were other spans of time -- say some other 18 month period -- where he was a big net winner. That seems improbable, but not impossible. The particulars of this don't really matter now, since Bennett has pretty much put an end to the whole thing. But McManus simply misstated what the stories said.

The more stunning stuff comes in grafs six and seven ...

For some people, however, betting pennies on tiddlywinks or 10 bucks on Pick 4 constitutes a "gambling problem." They sniff that gamblers are venal because "they want something for nothing." Yeah, well, of course we do. Players and nonplayers alike get aced out of cherished, indispensable things all the time and get zip in return, so it seems only reasonable to want to balance the equation a little. All of us gamble. Air travel, dating, investments, education, even driving or walking to work are not for the risk-averse. Vastly more is at stake when conceiving a child than when Mr. Bennett plays video poker, yet married couples are treated to no finger-jabbing sermons when they roll the dice on reproduction.
As I've said, I don't think much one way or another about gambling. But I'm not sure I've read a group of sentences more fatuous or morally shrunken as these in some time. Gambling may be harmless fun, but can't you distinguish between that sort of risk and the one people take when they bring a new life into the world?

Who is this guy?

Mike Kinsley has the best piece I've seen on this whole Bill Bennett flap. And he candidly states what the real story here is: no one likes a stuffed shirt. Are people happy to pile on when someone so preachy takes a hit? Yes, of course, they are. That's human nature. And frankly it's a good part of it. I don't even want to link to some of the wildly intemperate attacks on the authors of the piece that I've seen today. But let's just make this point: many are now saying that it's impossible for anyone to talk about the importance of morality in the public sphere without themselves getting scrutinized for every possible personal lapse. I don't think this is true. Nor do I think this is really what Bennett's done. Bennett hasn't just piped up on behalf of morality in general. He's generally been the first in line to give a kick in the pants to individual people who've fallen short. That's a big difference. On this whole matter the wild fury of Bennett's defenders tells the story.

As I already noted in yesterday's post, I think the 'he never criticized gambling' defense of Bill Bennett is pretty feeble. For the moment, though, let's concede this: he never criticized gambling. But how about telling the truth? Did he ever mention that?

There's a lot we don't know about the details of Bennett's gambling. And on their own, perhaps who cares about the details. But in his responses to Newsweek's Jon Alter, Bennett said: "Over 10 years, I’d say I’ve come out pretty close to even." Now, 'pretty close' leaves lots of room for wiggle. But Bennett is clearly telling us he's basically come out even, that he hasn't been a consistent loser of money as a gambler.

Bennett also said that he gambles almost entirely on slot machines and video poker. Now, just given how slot machines work, it seems very hard to believe that anyone playing slots wouldn't lose money over time. And, if you were working with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time, it's pretty hard to figure how you wouldn't lose a lot of money. This isn't guesswork or speculation. It's statistics. (Remember: casinos run the slots pretty much on a profit basis...)

Video poker is a little less clear-cut, since it's not pure chance.

But how believable is it that Bennett has come out even or close to even in a decade of very high stakes gambling on games in which little or no skill is involved? Bear in mind that the Newsweek and Washington Monthly articles note documentation of an 18 month period in which ...

there were only a few occasions when Bennett turned in chips—worth about $30,000 or $40,000—at the end of an evening. Most of the time, he drew down his line of credit, often substantially. A casino source, hearing of Bennett’s claim to breaking even on slots over 10 years, just laughed.
Perhaps there were other year or two periods in which Bennett won big. But the passage above is about what you'd expect -- having some occasional big wins, but on balance losing money most of the time.

You have to keep tax records of wins and losses when you play high-stakes like Bennett does. So he knows -- or could easily find out -- how much he's won or lost over the years. I don't think Bennett's under any obligation to tell anyone how much money he's lost in Vegas and Atlantic City. But he's gone on record saying something that is at best extremely improbable. That seems very fair to point out.

Since everyone is getting in on the act, let me say a few things about the brouhaha over Bill Bennett and gambling. First, I need to say that I have a bit of a conflict since I have a professional relationship with The Washington Monthly, the magazine that broke the story. Having said that, I think the chorus of defenses of Bennett ring rather hollow. I don't really have a feeling one way or another about gambling. In fact, as far as I can remember I don't think I've ever gambled -- not even pulling a slot machine. That's certainly not a matter of scruple. I just don't think I've ever understood the attraction or, for that matter, had many opportunities. Or maybe it's just because I spent most of my twenties as a starving graduate student and couldn't understand parting with money without the guarantee of getting something in return.

However that may be, it's all a roundabout way of saying I don't really care that much about gambling one way or another. But I think it's entirely appropriate to report that Bennett is such a big-time gambler even if it would be inappropriate or simply irrelevant to report such information about most others. The reason, I think, scarcely requires explanation: Bennett spent the last dozen or more years not only being a big hawker of 'morality,' but also a prime advocate of the proposition that there is an unbroken thread connecting our private habits to our public selves and that we -- the media, the chatterers, everyone -- should happily pull on that thread and see what we find.

I cannot think of a public figure who has been exposed over some private embarrassment in recent years -- save a few political allies, perhaps -- for whom a self-satisfied Bennett has not happily hopped on to Larry King or Tim Russert or Chris Matthews and droned on with shallow, grandstanding moralism, eagerly wrenching this or that person's private embarrassment into some cheap political point.

This isn't a matter of payback or two wrongs making a right, just treating Bennett to the standard he's made a living off setting for everyone else.

Now, two key points have been made in B(2)'s defense. One is that he didn't lose so much money as to endanger the well-being of his family. Or, as Bennett himself said, that he can 'handle it.' (Isn't this what we hear from recreational drug users, who hold down jobs and have intact families?) I guess this is so. But it sounds precisely like the sort of explanation or excuse the old Bill Bennett would never stand for. More to the point, money is a relative thing. The virtue racket has evidently made Bennett a very wealthy man, wealthy enough that he can apparently afford to lose millions of dollars on slot machines and still maintain a high standard of living for himself and his family. Good for him. But how much of your family's money is it responsible to play away on the slots? Bennett would have to be astoundingly wealthy for $8 million in losses to be an insignificant dent on his family's net worth.

The other point made in Bennett's defense is that he may have been an offensive sermonizer on all sorts of vices, but this is the one vice he left alone. So you can hardly charge him with hypocrisy. To me it's seems just the opposite. Bennett goes off on every 'vice' there is, save the one he seems to indulge. That seems very much like cutting himself the break he cuts no one else. I'm sure everyone would like to have their own weakness excepted from the list. But which of Bennett's other targets gets that chance?

For my part, I'd say leave everyone's issues to them and theirs. (On these matters, I'll take Mencken's conservatism over Bennett's any -- and every -- day.) But those aren't the Bill Bennett rules, are they? Now he wants them to be. Too bad.

As for myself, I think Bennett's greatest offense has been to American English. People end up calling him a 'virtuecrat,' a 'culture warrior,' 'morality-watchdog' or as Larry King naively but naively-aptly calls him, 'Mr.Morality." (Bennett always rankles at this, though Larry never seems to understand why. It's a perfect example of Larry's idiot-savantism, which leads him to get some things blisteringly right without quite seeming to know it.) We used to have a host of words to describe the likes of Bill Bennett: prig, bluenose, Comstock, stuffed-shirt. Euphonious, and to the point. But Bennett's racket has pretty much driven those words underground. Like I said, gimme that Menckenian conservatism any day.