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William Pitt: Just Don't Tell 'Em You Know Me

Just Don't Tell 'Em You Know Me

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 23 May 2006

You thought you was the cool fool,
Never could do no wrong.
You had everything sewn up tight.
How come you lay awake all night long?

Just one thing I ask of you,
Just one thing for me.
Please forget you knew my name,
My darling Sugaree.

Shake it, shake it Sugaree,
Just don't tell 'em you know me ...

- Robert Hunter

You have to wonder how many congressfolk are wandering the springtime byways of Washington, DC with that old song running through their minds. Probably not too many, in truth; the Grateful Dead don't appear to have gained much of a purchase with officeholders on the Hill, particularly on the Republican side of things. If they did manage to hear it somewhere, in a bar or flowing from the radio of the car next to them at a stoplight, you can bet more than a few would stop cold and cock an ear.

Just don't tell 'em you know me. Damned right.

The saga of the broadening "Duke" Cunningham cash-and-prostitutes-for-contracts bribery scandal, coupled with the still-burning Abramoff influence-peddling scheme, coupled again with the wide fallout from the sudden political demise of Tom DeLay, has a crowd of people in the GOP wondering when there will be a Federal knock on their door. There are a lot of names on the roll call for this combined mess, and many of those names sit on the member list of important House committees like Intelligence and Appropriations.

All of this could be written off as just another swampy example of the old absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely phenomenon, and it seems in many press circles that this is exactly where these stories are getting filed. Politicians are corrupt? Stop the presses. A race horse with a broken leg is getting more ink and air time these days.

There's a question that needs to be asked, because this set of scandals - the Cunningham scandal in particular - highlights a situation that plows right through "corruption" and "hypocrisy" before parking itself directly in front of the door to "national security."

That's right, "national security." That issue so many Democrats are terrified of because the country seems to be convinced that the GOP has that issue in the bag. Republicans will keep us safe, so goes the lore, while Democrats will sell the Puget Sound and most of Manhattan to Osama bin Laden and the Ayatollah for pennies on the dollar ... right before raising your taxes and teaching your children how to perform abortions. Etc., etc.

Over the last several years, the Bush administration and their Republican congressional allies have moved mountains to make sure that the myriad national security catastrophes we have endured are blamed on someone else. Their favorite whipping post has been the intelligence community - the CIA in particular. 9/11 happened because of intelligence failures. The fact that no WMD were found in Iraq was due to intelligence failures. Not our fault, folks. The bad spies lied to me. They're probably Democrats, too.

So here's the question: Randy "Duke" Cunningham gets busted for taking bribes from defense contractors who wooed him with money and whores. Those defense contractors were looking to get contracts within the intelligence community and they got them. This went on for years and appears to have involved a whole roomful of Republicans who sit on incredibly important House committees.

How is this not a glaring national security issue?

Could it be that if corrupt Republican House members were not letting bribe-happy contractors into the intelligence community by way of the doggy door, perhaps disasters like 9/11 and Iraq could have been avoided? Any defense contractor who has to offer bribes to get a gig is, prima facie, not suited for the role they seek, and a danger to the nation. The same Republicans who lament the shabby state of our intelligence services have been enjoying handsome cash endowments by shuttling these criminals into these services.

Thus far, I've seen nobody putting this question to them in just this way, and it needs to be asked. If you are going to save your own political bacon by blaming the CIA for your own failures, the least you can do is not take bribes to water down the very intelligence apparatus you denigrate. The fact that this has been going on for some time now blows several Holland Tunnels through the whole "Republicans keep us safe" tapestry that has been weaved over the national debate.

You would think, after the events of the last several days, that this corruption issue has suddenly fallen apart as a campaign issue for the Democrats. Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana has come under the shadow of scandal, having been accused of taking cash bribes to help a Virginia businesswoman nail down telephone and Internet installation contracts in Nigeria and Ghana. The pundit class is solicitously noting that, oh well, the Democrats have lost this issue for the midterms thanks to Rep. Jefferson, and the Republicans are secretly rejoicing that, for once, they aren't the ones with mud on them.

This is a different kettle of fish, however, for several reasons. First of all, Jefferson is vehemently denying any wrongdoing. We will all just have to wait and see how far that carries. Second of all - and this is where Machiavelli makes an appearance - you have to wonder whether the moves against Jefferson have been made to deliberately conflate Republican corruption with Democrats, the ultimate goal of which would be to torpedo the issue before the midterms heat up.

A raid on the Rayburn House Office Building by Federal agents? In all the history of the republic, such a thing has never happened. The dramatic nature of this action guaranteed that the situation surrounding Rep. Jefferson would be moved dramatically to the head of the line of scandal stories being reported. Jefferson, a Democrat, is now the poster child for congressional corruption, thanks to that raid.

The raid was so egregious that it inspired Republican Speaker of the House Hastert to rise on defense of Jefferson, and of Congress as a whole. "The actions of the Justice Department in seeking and executing this warrant," said Hastert in a prepared statement, "raise important constitutional issues that go well beyond the specifics of this case. Insofar as I am aware, since the founding of our republic 219 years ago, the Justice Department has never found it necessary to do what it did Saturday night, crossing this Separation of Powers line, in order to successfully prosecute corruption by members of Congress. Nothing I have learned in the last 48 hours leads me to believe that there was any necessity to change the precedent established over those 219 years."

It is terribly convenient timing. And lest we forget, the raid was undertaken with the full knowledge of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. "It would appear," said Hastert in his statement, "that the Attorney General himself was aware that Separation of Powers concerns existed." Given the ham-fisted, politically-motivated power plays that have been the hallmark of this administration, it is not too far a stretch to imagine that the actions of the FBI on Saturday night were undertaken to change the subject in Washington.

Yet even if Jefferson is guilty, and even if the actions of the FBI come to be deemed acceptable - why not, since we appear to be collectively bent on trashing most of our constitutional protections these days - the question asked above still stands. If Jefferson took bribes, he did so to help a Virginia business install phone and Internet lines in Africa. This is a far, far cry from the kind of frontal attacks upon our intelligence branches that corrupt Republicans like Cunningham and his friends have profited from.

Jefferson, if guilty, is merely venal. Cunningham, who has confessed his guilt, put personal profit before the national security of this country, and he had many Republican friends who helped him. This is the difference between the devil and the deep blue sea. It is all the difference in the world.

It would be great if our national conversation on this subject could be framed this way - that is to say, properly. There are a lot of GOP congressfolk walking around Washington right now hoping and praying that their indicted cohorts, and the prostitutes who entertained them, have forgotten their names. It is one thing to take a bribe. It is another entirely to take a bribe that cuts the legs out from under our ability as a nation to defend itself. Given all that has happened in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania and Iraq, the cash they took is covered with blood.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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