Landrieu-Gate is Scary, but it’s No Watergate
By Joseph Fitsanakis* and Ian Allen* | intelNews | 01.29.2010
THE ARRESTS BY US MARSHALS of four self-described conservative activists, who were caught trying to tamper with the telephone lines of Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu’ New Orleans office, have caused outcry in liberal and silence in conservative blogs. Most political allies of the four young men have been scrambling to denounce them, and the few who haven’t, have tried to play off the case as an ill-conceived political “prank that got out of hand”. Considering that America’s political culture still reels from the effects of Watergate (1972-1974), and the far more serious COINTELPRO (1956-1971), it would be criminal neglect on behalf of the FBI to treat the Landrieu incident as a “prank”. At the same time, however, Landrieu-gate is no Watergate. Neither the target nor the operational tactics and institutional affiliations of the four men involved in the case resemble anything remotely akin to either Watergate or COINTELPRO.
The four men, James O’Keefe, Robert Flanagan, Joseph Basel and Stan Dai, all between 24 and 25 years of age, were arrested on January 25 at the main Louisiana state office of the US General Services Administration (GSA), while trying to gain unwarranted access to the telephone lines of Senator Landrieu’s New Orleans office. Flanagan and Basel, who were disguised as telephone repair workers, were accompanied by O’Keefe, a nationally known provocateur targeting liberal political institutions. Dai, the fourth co-conspirator, was stationed in a car several blocks away, receiving audiovisual feed from a micro-camera embedded in the construction-style hard hat of one of the telephone repair worker impersonators.
It was employees of the GSA, an independent federal agency that –among other things– provides communications services to US government facilities, and not Senator Landrieu’s office, that notified the US Marshals Service (the US federal courts enforcement arm), leading to the four men’s arrest. If convicted, each of the four men faces up to 10 years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $250,000.
ALLEGED INTELLIGENCE LINKS
Some liberal commentators have already termed the affair “the Louisiana Watergate”, and appear perturbed by the relative lack of media coverage of the incident. But the reason for the missing headlines is that neither the FBI, nor investigative journalists have discovered any meaningful link between the four activists and a larger institutional or para-institutional conspiracy.
There was a brief flare-up on Wednesday, when it was revealed that one of the four men, Stan Dai, has “strong ties to the United States intelligence community”. According to the reports, Dai, a Chinese immigrant to the United States, was a speaker at the 2009 CIA summer school program at Georgetown University. The year before, he worked as Assistant Director for Trinity Washington University’s Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence, an affirmative action recruitment program funded by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
Ideally, individuals of the likes of Dai, who have an obvious and reckless disregard for democratic politics and for the constitutional rights of Americans, are precisely the sorts of candidates that US intelligence agencies should strive to avoid hiring. What is more, Dai’s role in US intelligence community-affiliated recruitment programs, and his proximity to intelligence sector candidates, must be probed extensively by US intelligence agencies. The latter should be embarrassed by having had even the remotest contact with Dai and his co-conspirators.
The above sentiments, however, must be tempered by the fact that Dai’s affiliation with the US intelligence community was at best marginal. There is no doubt that, in his administrative capacities, Dai interacted with several intelligence officials. But it is important to keep in mind that these interactions were entirely informal, and that Dai probably wanted to, but never actually worked for the ODNI, the CIA, or (intelNews has confirmed) any other US intelligence institution.
Moreover, the Landrieu operation was no Watergate. Watergate represented the inevitable conclusion of the COINTELPRO program, that is, the dishonorable and reprehensible deployment against Americans of the entire arsenal of the US government’s national security apparatus. The unconstitutional and undemocratic use of COINTELPRO culminated in the corrupt White House of Richard M. Nixon, whose morally bankrupt leadership disgraced the very foundations of American polity.
Operations such as Watergate and COINTELPRO relied largely on intelligence operatives who employed professional tactics and were rarely caught –the Watergate burglary being one glaring exception. The Landrieu affair was an amateurish effort by young kids who have watched too many spy movies. No intelligence operative, no matter how unhinged, would try to wiretap the busy offices of a US Senator during office hours, in broad daylight. Shortly before their arrest, when asked for professional credentials by GSA employees, the three telephone company impersonators said that they had left their identity badges in their van. And, remarkably, all this happened while, according to GSA sources, O’Keefe was filming the episode in his cell phone camera. If this was an operation put together by intelligence insiders, then we are in serious trouble: the Christmas Day underwear bomber fiasco was just a speck of debris in an ocean of incompetence.
The Landrieu affair is frightening, because it demonstrates the blatant disregard for the rule of law by a new generation of media-savvy self-styled political activists. If anything, it points to what one security observer has called the democratization of espionage, the popularization of the Watergate culture. But it was no inside job. Instead of wasting time on the Landrieu operation, those in search of 21st-century Watergates should pay closer attention to aspects of STELLAR WIND, the Bush administration’s massive warrantless wiretapping operation against Americans. In comparison, the Landrieu affair was nothing more than a reprehensible amateurish hoax.
* Ian Allen has spent nearly twenty-five years working in intelligence-related fields, and is now active in intelligence consulting. He has worked in North America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He is currently living and working in South Korea. He is co-founder and Editor of intelNews.org. His latest writings for intelNews.org are available here.
* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis has been writing and teaching on the politics of intelligence for over ten years. His areas of academic expertise include the institutional analysis of the intelligence community; the interception of communications; and the history of intelligence with particular reference to international espionage during the Cold War. He is co-founder and Senior Editor of intelNews.org. His latest writings for intelNews.org are available here.