In October 2001, when Congress passed the Patriot Act – and again when it reauthorized it in 2006 – the Bush administration assured nervous but compliant members of Congress that these expanded domestic surveillance tools were needed to protect the homeland.
Bush partisans scoffed at critics who worried these new spy powers might be used for nefarious political purposes. After all, that hasn’t happened since the ’70s – during the last ill-fated war (Vietnam) waged by a criminally inclined Republican president (Nixon) – and the ’80s – during the last illegal war (Central America) waged by a morally challenged Republican president (Reagan).
So forgive us if we raise an eyebrow after learning that among the 1 million-plus Suspicious Activity Reports that banks secretly forwarded last year to the Justice Department (as required by the Patriot Act), those allegedly connected to former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) were the ones that rose to the top.
Even more suspiciously, the New York Times reported in March that Justice Department officials, who asked to remain anonymous, admitted, “For years … the department has rarely, if ever, prosecuted or even identified the clients of a prostitution ring.” And yet after the department discovered that Spitzer had hired a prostitute, an unknown number of FBI agents were tasked to keep the governor under surveillance.
The examination of Spitzer’s bank records, which led to the discovery that he had hired a prostitute, began last summer when the department was run by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales – who resigned in September under allegations that he had committed perjury and politicized the U.S. Attorney’s offices.
Finally, why did the Justice Department go after Spitzer when it had previously worked to protect whoring politicians? Recall the story of Pamela Martin Associates, a prostitution ring that Deborah Jeane Palfrey operated (office, home or hotel visits) in Washington, D.C., from 1993 to 2005.
Palfrey’s attorney described the thousands of men who bought the firm’s services as “high-quality clientele” whose assignations “were always in upscale hotels or in upscale parts of D.C., Maryland and Virginia.” The 10 years of phone records weighed 46 pounds.
In March 2007, the Gonzales Justice Department sought a judicial gag order to prevent Palfrey from revealing the name of her clients. In July, a federal judge denied the request, and Palfrey released some, but not all, of her records. Among the johns was Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who unlike Spitzer, is still in office. It is not known what other members of Congress or administration officials were Palfrey clients.
Scott Horton, who covers Justice Department shenanigans for Harper’s, points out that the department’s Public Integrity Section was in charge of the Spitzer investigation. During the Bush administration, Public Integrity has opened 5.6 cases against Democrats for every one case against a Republican. On the magazine’s website, Horton also suggests, “The Justice Department needs to submit to some questions about how this probe got launched, who launched it and to what extent political appointees were involved in its direction.”
Circumstantial evidence indicates that a corrupt Justice Department has used powers granted under the Patriot Act to investigate and then target Spitzer, who was, until his fall from grace, one of the nation’s most powerful and popular Democratic governors.
A congressional inquiry is warranted.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.