'Memogate' Uproar Starkly Contrasts With Clinton-Era Episode

July 7, 2008 - 8:30 PM

(CNSNews.com) - When Senate Democrats learned that a Republican staffer had been reading their correspondence during contentious battles over judicial nominees in 2004, they demanded a public investigation and the GOP acquiesced. But a newly disclosed document shows a markedly different and low-key response by both parties when Democrats were caught reading the opposing party's documents during the Clinton administration.

When former Republican Judiciary Committee chief counsel Manuel Miranda came upon Democratic strategy memos through a shared computer server last year, committee Democrats were quick to call the episode a "crime," and Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) compared the incident to the infamous Watergate burglary.

Democratic outrage came in spite of the fact that an investigation by the New York State Bar - where Miranda is licensed to practice law - found he committed no ethics violations by reading the Democratic documents, which contained alleged evidence of potentially illegal conduct by Democratic staffers and senators.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who was chairman of the Judiciary Committee at the time, harshly criticized Miranda's actions, saying he was, "mortified that this improper, unethical and simply unacceptable breach of confidential files occurred," and a U.S. Justice Department probe of the incident is still in progress.

But a document made available this week shows that both parties responded in a far less incendiary manner when Democrats were caught exploiting a nearly-identical computer glitch to read Republican documents almost a decade earlier.

What's good for the House is not for the Senate

A member of the House International Relations Committee Democratic staff learned in January 1995 that he could view automated back-up copies of Republican documents on the committee's shared computer file server.

That staff member warned some of his Democratic colleagues of the vulnerability but, unlike Miranda, did not tell the opposing party or congressional information technology staff about it. The Democratic staffer continued to read and distribute Republicans' documents for almost a year.

The unauthorized access was discovered when a staffer faxed copies of a personal document being prepared for then committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) to the State Department. Then Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott telephoned Gilman to discuss the content of the document, which Gilman had not yet received from his staff.

Gilman responded by writing a letter to then House International Relations Committee ranking member, Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.). Gilman noted the "collegial relationship" between the two. He reasoned that the unauthorized document reading was "inconsistent with that collegial spirit."

Gilman then informed Hamilton that he had ordered computer administrators to eliminate the vulnerability that had allowed the unauthorized viewing of Republican documents and to provide the same protection for all Democrats sharing the same computer network. Gilman demanded no criminal probe of the Democrats and no resignations from their staff.

According to multiple sources, Hamilton replied to Gilman that the incident was the fault of the systems administrator who allowed open access to the documents on the shared network.

Hamilton is said to have asserted that the Democratic staff had not violated any ethics rules or laws and, therefore, should not be disciplined. Hamilton reportedly added that he did not want to harm the careers of his staff members.

Adam Elggren, spokesman for Hatch, told Cybercast News Service Hatch has always tried to do what he believes is right and that the previous instance of unauthorized access to computer files would not have affected the senator's decision.

"He believes that ethics are ethics and rules are rules," Elggren said, "and he stands by how he handled the matter."

Earlier actions: Lessons in 'leadership, loyalty; decency'

When the 2004 episode began unfolding, Miranda expressed disappointment that Senate Republicans did not defend him and his actions. He resigned from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's (R-Tenn.) staff even though an investigation by the Senate sergeant-at-arms found no conclusive evidence of ethical or criminal wrongdoing.

Miranda finds it inconceivable that the congressional Democrats figuratively demanding his head on a platter last year were not aware of the nearly identical 1996 case in which their staffer was excused for his actions.

"I cannot help but believe that there are folks who were told about this and who chose to keep it silent and cover it up," Miranda said. He called Hamilton's decision to support his subordinate "a lesson in leadership and loyalty," and Gilman's choice to deal with the matter quietly and internally, "a great lesson in decency."

Miranda believes the very public rebuke he received is not the only difference between the 1996 incident and his document reading.

"The matter in the House was much greater because [Democrats] were basically affecting, and sharing with the administration, information having to do with the House's oversight function," Miranda alleged. "The other difference is that Republicans had nothing to hide."

Miranda still hopes there will be an investigation into the alleged evidence of corruption contained in the Democratic memos he read. Jeffrey Mazzella, president of the Center for Individual Freedom, also hopes the charges against Democrats will be pursued and believes Miranda will be vindicated.

"Recognizing the damning content of the released Judiciary Committee memos ... Kennedy and other Democrats maintain their reckless prosecution where no laws have been broken and no ethics rules have been violated," Mazzella said. "All in an attempt to distract from the real wrongdoing outlined in the memos."

As of Wednesday, neither Kennedy nor any of the other Democrats contacted by Mazzella had replied. Multiple telephone and email contacts with Sen. Kennedy's office seeking comment for this report yielded no response.

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