More Miranda Memos?

Posted March 5, 2004 at 6:19pm

The Senate’s internal investigators in the leaked-memo case believe the central figure may still be in possession of hundreds, if not thousands, of Democratic documents from the Judiciary Committee.

Manuel Miranda told aides for Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle that he created a file specifically for Democratic documents while on staff at the Judiciary Committee and made a back-up file for documents when he worked for Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). These revelations now “leave open the possibility that Mr. Miranda has Democratic documents in his possession,” according to the 65-page report released Thursday by Pickle.

Miranda, in an interview Friday, vehemently denied he still had any of the Democratic documents that he read, saying he explained to Pickle’s aides that most memos were thrown out and that he lost a folder about a year ago with the most interesting documents.

Miranda said he and his two lawyers are preparing a point-by-point “clarification” to Pickle’s report, which he hoped to deliver to the Judiciary Committee early this week. Comparing Pickle’s report to a “high school term paper,” Miranda said he saw at least 15 factual errors that he expected to correct.

Miranda’s rebuttal to the Pickle report will likely set up a point-counterpoint, with two dramatically competing views of what occurred and how to interpret those events over an 18-month period from October 2001 to April 2003.

The Judiciary Committee will have to sift through these competing visions of what happened when it meets this week, most likely Thursday, to determine if a federal criminal investigation should begin. Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said last week that the “odds are that it will” become a criminal probe, and ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said it was definitely a criminal matter.

Some Republicans who have been critical of the investigation also said they would not object to a Justice Department probe. “I’m not opposed to that,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former state attorney general who believes Pickle never should have conducted the investigation in the first place.

Democrats are pushing for the committee to ask Attorney General John Ashcroft to appoint a special counsel to conduct the probe, noting that in Ashcroft’s one term in the Senate he served on Judiciary and some of his top DOJ staffers worked on the panel.

Potentially bolstering the Democratic case for a conflict of interest, the Justice Department never acquiesced to Pickle’s request to allow his investigators to interview a DOJ employee who had regular contact with the other key figure in the probe, Jason Lundell, the former Judiciary aide who downloaded the 4,670 documents that the report says were improperly accessed. One of Lundell’s jobs at the committee eventually had him dealing with Justice’s legislative affairs shop.

One issue that Democrats privately say they want resolved quickly is whether there are more memos still in Miranda’s possession or with allies of his.

The day Pickle released his report, Miranda gave out two new, previously unrevealed memos from aides to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Miranda said he found those documents in an unrelated file.

In citing the possibility that Miranda still had Democratic documents, the Pickle report cited his revelation in the third and final interview that he had made a backup disk of his work while on Frist’s staff, similar to the way he set up a file, named “Rose,” for the Democratic documents he saved while on staff at Judiciary. He declined to give investigators more information about his backup disk or about contacts he had at the White House because, the report said, “he did not want to prolong the investigation.”

Miranda said Friday that he explained to Pickle’s team that he had read “about six inches worth of documents” over the entire period, and that any he had saved were eventually lost, most likely when he moved from Judiciary to Frist’s staff.

“Anything I thought of interest, anything I thought I should read, I put into a folder, and it disappeared,” he said. The “Rose” file was destroyed, at his request after he left Judiciary.

Miranda and conservative activists contend that much of Pickle’s report backed up the basic contention that Miranda has put out since he was first linked to the scandal two months ago. Lundell, who resigned from Judiciary in early January and went to graduate school in Texas, noticed from observing a committee systems administrator that anyone who made the right keystrokes on his or her computer could access many of the files for Democratic and Republican staff.

Because those files were not password-restricted, Lundell and Miranda — who admitted to accessing Democratic files twice — never exceeded their “authorized access,” the bar set for breaking federal laws on computer fraud. The materials they accessed, Miranda contends, were not confidential or protected and therefore any dissemination of the files would not break laws, either.

“We accessed documents, we read documents. The rest of it is all garbage,” Miranda said.

The report did state emphatically that Lundell was able to access these files because of shoddy work by Leahy’s systems administrator, who was hired straight out of college with no professional experience in the field.

But Pickle’s report laid out several potential criminal referrals and also noted instances in which his investigators felt Miranda gave false or misleading statements to them — which could be a crime, given that it’s illegal to give false statements to federal agents such as the four Secret Service detailees Pickle used for this probe.

One critical point of contention is Miranda’s effort at directing Lundell to procure documents that were not limited just to Democrats. In an exchange of e-mails in March 2003, after Miranda left the Judiciary staff and went to work for Frist, he instructed Lundell to access 169 documents off a specific file reserved for Hatch staff.

In a sign of how closely Senate GOP aides work with their conservative interest groups — the main charge that conservatives usually level against Democrats and liberal groups — Miranda had Lundell e-mail the Hatch files to Sean Rushton.

At the time Rushton had just become the executive director of the Committee for Justice, a group charged with launching media campaigns in support of President Bush’s nominees, and the purpose of getting Rushton the Hatch file was so he could “build relationships with the press,” Miranda wrote.

Known to staff as the “Am Ex” file, it contained all sorts of internal statistics and talking points Hatch commonly used to rebut Leahy in debates on judicial nominations.

Rushton refused to comment on whether he received any more memos from Miranda or Lundell or any other aspect of the investigation, citing the potential criminal case. While acknowledging that the Committee for Justice would “comply with any legal obligations” in a criminal probe, he added, “We don’t have any interest in participating in this witch hunt of people we regard as whistle blowers.”

Miranda said the Pickle report has blown his e-mails with Lundell out of context, saying their references to keeping the Am Ex file mission “covert” were just a few jokes between friends.

“That was just silliness,” he said. “They’re taking chatter and turning it into something.”

Pickle’s report painted Lundell as a “cooperative” witness whose “version of events remained consistent each time he was interviewed.”