O’Keefe & the “TeaBuggers” Do Not a Watergate Make

I’m not a fan of Andrew Breitbart, and I’m definitely not a fan of James O’Keefe, his paid “guerrilla journalist” lackey. Their allegations against anti-poverty group ACORN were outrageously deceitful and misleading: their contention that ACORN was a major player in a vast conspiracy to commit election fraud? Laughably fantastical.

But, frankly, let’s be serious for a second: the current allegations against O’Keefe and his friends, originally sold as “wiretapping” on the order of “Watergate,” look pretty weak.

At this point, all signs point to the entire incident being a hidden-camera sting to try and impeach Senator Landrieu’s claim that her phones couldn’t handle incoming calls from angry constituents. If so, then what O’Keefe and his friends were doing was, while certainly deceptive and aggressive, not particularly sinister. It also may or may not have been criminal, depending on what federal prosecutors can establish. Without any evidence of wiretapping, the charge of “tampering” with phones is far more vague, resting on interpretations of intent. Maybe they did intend to fool with the phone lines in some way. But, just as likely, maybe they only intended to see if staff would foolishly show them the phone closet, or to gather evidence that the phones were set to improperly divert constituent calls.

I get that many liberals are disgusted by Breitbart, quite legitimately. His “wait till all the facts are in” and “well, I’m paying him, but that doesn’t make me responsible for what he does” defenses are absurdly hypocritical. But that’s all the more reason for his critics not to overplay their hand and give Breitbart exactly the sort of easy red meat he craves. He’s already well on his way to painting O’Keefe as a martyr: a victim of “Big Government” that doesn’t want it’s corrupt ways exposed. If O’Keefe gets off with a misdemeanor after liberals promised 5-10years in prison, he’s going to look vindicated, not chastened. Rhetorical and factual sloppiness on the left is making it all too easy.

And you know what? If Landrieu was dissembling about the state of her phone lines, that IS wrong, and it’s a good thing that someone was trying to catch her at it. Questions of whether one should be able to deceive staff in constituent offices or film them (they are, after all, public employees, paid out of tax dollars, and rarely handling sensitive information) are legitimate issues for debate and criminal culpability. But at least in this case, I just don’t see grounds for the degree of outrage or gloating. O’Keefe getting wrong the particulars of what sort of sting recording is legitimate under what particular state statutes would be stupid, but I can’t see it as particularly evil, in and of itself (how he dishonestly uses and presents that footage is a very different matter). By and large, while I don’t think undercover sting reporting to be particularly nice, I also think it has its place. In fact, I’d lean towards it being legal in most cases to record someone without their knowledge unless there is a compelling reason or exception why one shouldn’t be able to.

Oh: and I’m also pretty disgusted by the people who think it’s hilarious to imagine O’Keefe and his friends getting raped in prison. The idea that ANY crime, let alone a crime as minor as this one, deserves a sexual & physical violation in return, is vile. Imagining it as a form of comeuppance to your political enemies is even more so. No decent Democrat would joke about the idea of a conservative woman getting raped. Essentially the same violent act done to a conservative man is no less disturbing or wrong.

Update:
O’Keefe has released a statement that’s basically in line with everything I suspected. Concedes that security concerns in a federal building make his actions problematic (which is perhaps an understatement) but denies being there to “tap” or even “tamper” with the phone lines. And, well, I sort of believe him. Sorry.

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~ by Drew on 2010/01/28.

4 Responses to “O’Keefe & the “TeaBuggers” Do Not a Watergate Make”

  1. “The origins of the “bugging” meme appears to be the article that broke the news of the charge, published on the Web site of the Times-Picayune yesterday. It originally began: “The FBI, alleging a plot to wiretap Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office in downtown New Orleans, arrested four people Monday … ”

    It has now been edited to read, “Alleging a plot to tamper with phones in Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office in … “The Landrieu Phone Case: Not A Bugging After All? | TPMMuckraker

    With all due respect, it wasn’t some liberal plot that created the Watergate, Jr, phone tapping meme. Liberal blogs were reporting what they got from the FBI and other sources close to the investigation. When another source said the fellow in the car had “a listening device,” (which most are now saying was a walkie-talkie or cell phone), that didn’t help to dispel the meme, either.

    People should correct the record and provide accurate information as quickly as they get it. But in the beginning, the Watergate meme WAS the most accurate information being put out there, and I don’t blame anyone for using it.

  2. Given that no reporter has revealed who those sources are, or can even prove that they actually came from the FBI, and if so if they were based on solid information, I still don’t see how that justifies a serious lack of skepticism.

    And that’s precisely the point: liberal commentators jumped all over things they should have been, and still should be, more skeptical of. And that doesn’t benefit them: it just makes them look foolish, overeager, and desperate. It ultimately just helps Andrew Breitbart in his own attempts to push the controversy for partisan effect.

    Plus, initially false information is just not something you can walk back, not in an emotional sense. Study after study shows that false information, even if definitively refuted, still leaves its impact on how people view an incident. People may have walked back the wiretapping allegations, but the same degree of outrage and urgency is still attached to the case, when it doesn’t seem to me to warrant it. It looks to me to all be a big nothing at this point.

  3. I don’t know that I agree with you, Drew. I mean, obviously, FBI spokesfolk get it wrong occasionally, and maybe everyone ought to slow down in the rush to get the scoop on a fast breaking story, but the Times-Picayune seems to’ve had an FBI source, and I don’t fault liberal bloggers or anyone else for quoting that paper. Why should they be skeptical of unnamed FBI/law enforcement sources, given how often they are used?
    I agree that they ought to’ve corrected the story once it became clear that the initial reports were untrue/misleading (calling a walkie-talkie a “listening device” is technically accurate, but very misleading, given the rest of the context)–& as far as I’ve seen, just about everyone has– but I disagree that they should’ve held off reporting the facts as they knew them when the story first broke. Maybe you’re right about the success Breitbart will have in convincing people that every media source but him is liberal & out to get him & his protoge, but based on that Times-Picayune story, I believe he’s shooting blanks, and I will do everything I can–& hopefully others will join me–to show that there was a fair basis for the reports of wiretapping–beyond the obvious similarities to the actual Watergate. (Republican “dirty tricks” operatives playing with Democratic telephones, and getting caught.)

    As far as the incident, my understanding is that the the laws potentially broken–and the potential penalties–are the same, bugging equipment or no bugging equipment. Sitting in the office and filming the workers answering phone calls is minor. Playing dress-up in an attempt to gain access to the main phone closet in a federal building–no matter the reason or intended purpose–is pretty serious, both legally, and in terms of the outrage it should produce in any American, post-9/11. I don’t expect any of these young & foolish men to serve the potential maximum sentence for the crimes they’re alleged to’ve committed… …but I really hope it’s not just brushed under the rug, as though it was just some childish prank. They’re not little babies. These men were leaders back in college, and they knew–or should’ve known–exactly what they were doing, and what the penalties were.

  4. I suppose part of my problem is that the wiretapping story never seemed that plausible to begin with. Whatever they were doing, they clearly expected to not only ultimately get found out, but to publicize what they had done. Otherwise, why film it?

    The problem is, people didn’t just report the facts: they went apeshit with obvious glee over rumors. That set up critics of Breitbart to end up looking silly. which is a shame, because both Breitbart and O’Keefe deserve serious takedowns.

    And I’m always skeptical of unnamed, un-directly quoted anonymous sources. Especially when they are leaking information very early on a criminal case.

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