Senator Mitch McConnell with senators Mike Johanns, left, and John Cornyn, right. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak.)
This morning [Apr 9], Mother Jones dropped a bombshell of a story revealing Senator Mitch McConnell and his top aides discussing how they planned to use Ashley Judd's mental health and religion to smear her in a political campaign. (Judd, a potential Democratic challenger to McConnell, recently announced she would not run). The Republican Party has reacted with anger, claiming that the story, based on a recording given to reporter David Corn by an anonymous source, is based on "Watergate-style tactics," insinuating that some type of break and entry occurred at McConnell's office.
The claim appears to be a distraction at this point since there is no evidence that the recording was illicitly obtained. Mother Jones says its lawyers vetted the tape, as the Washington Post's Greg Sargent notes.
While I'm certain much of the political press will leap at McConnell's unsubstantiated claims of Watergate tactics, there's another scandal of political espionage and snooping that has not received much attention. And in an ironic twist, it relates to McConnell since the organization at the center of it is one of the senator's closest allies in Washington.
First, let's establish what constitutes "Watergate-style tactics." In June of 1972, a group of former CIA officers, working on a plan concocted by Richard Nixon and his closest aides and financed by a secret campaign fund, broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee -- housed temporarily in the Watergate building by the Potomac -- to install secret recording devices (bugs) and to steal information from Democratic leadership. The plan was part of Nixon's reelection effort that year. During one of the attempts, a piece of tape left on a door in the DNC office tipped off a security guard to the trespassing Nixon operatives. The political press largely ignored the burglary until two intrepid Washington Post reporters dug deeper into the scandal, which of course led to Nixon's impeachment hearings.
In the modern age, the same goals of the Watergate break-in can be achieved without physically breaking or entering any actual buildings. Modern hacking technology allows a criminal to send a PDF or another file to their target, and as soon as the file is opened, every e-mail, every keystroke, every document and database on that victim's computer can be accessed remotely by the criminal. Such technology has been used by the American government to go after al Qaeda and other terrorist threats. But recent evidence shows that the Chinese government and even American interests appear willing to use this form of hacking against political targets here in the United States.
In the Fall of 2010, attorneys for the US Chamber of Commerce, the largest big business lobbying organization in the country (and not be confused with local chambers of commerce), began working on a secret plan to discredit and destroy their political opposition. The Chamber had just spent a record amount on the midterm elections to elect a new, much more Republican Congress -- using corporate money, thanks to Citizens United. The Chamber had also faced a series of scandals, from a story in the New York Times revealing that it had laundered charitable money from AIG for political purposes to a story I wrote for Think Progress revealing that it had solicited foreign money for the same legal 501(c)(6) entity used to run partisan campaign ads.
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