Weekly Pulse: Who are Landrieu's Alleged Phone Tamperers?

04/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium Blogger

The four young men arrested last week for allegedly attempting to tamper with the phones at the office of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) have ties to Republican politicians, conservative think tanks, radical campus activists, and even the intelligence community.

It appears that Landrieu was targeted, at least indirectly, because of her stance on health care reform. Two of the men posed as telephone repairmen while a third taped them with his cell phone. A fourth alleged accomplice was arrested in a car a few blocks away.

Right wing operative James O'Keefe, famous for posing as a pimp to "expose" unethical behavior at the anti-poverty group ACORN, claimed that he and his crew were trying to expose a problem with the phones at Landrieu's office which were keeping constituents from reaching her.

Constituents getting a busy signal?

O'Keefe says they wanted to embarrass Landrieu by exposing whatever was wonky about her phones, but that justification strains credulity. Defenders of the four implied that Landrieu's people might have somehow disabled their own phones to avoid angry constituents. Supposedly, these citizens wanted to express their outrage at Landrieu's decision to vote for the Senate health reform bill in exchange for a line item to give Louisiana an additional $300 million federal health care dollars.

Some callers have reported trouble getting through to their representatives. Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones reports that members of the Tea Party movement have complained to her about not being able to get through to their members of congress. She tried calling some senators and also had a hard time getting through to a real person.

Now that he's out of jail, O'Keefe is furiously spinning his activities as investigative journalism gone awry, according to Justin Elliott of TPM Muckraker. O'Keefe told Sean Hannity in an interview that these tactics were standard journalistic tools. But let's be realistic, here. Impersonating a repairman to covertly access a Senator's phones is more Watergate burglar than Woodward and Bernstein.

O'Keefe's activist theater

O'Keefe and his buddies are political operatives who come out of the world of right wing campus organizing, as Dave Weigel reports for the Washington Independent. Over the years, they've earned notoriety by using various forms of political theater and media to advance their issues. O'Keefe and Ben Wetmore, a fellow activist who let the alleged tamperers crash at his house before the Landrieu operation, even got married to each other to illustrate that shady people can marry each other for benefits, just like with straight marriage. On his now-defunct blog, Countermedia, Wetmore urged conservative activists to target seniors with a health care robocall featuring a Barack Obama impersonator.

The Landrieu crew is no stranger to more traditional forms of conservative politics, either. O'Keefe and Wetmore both formerly worked for the conservative Leadership Institute, a group that funds political training for right wing activists. Fake repairman Robert Flanagan interned for Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and a GOP congresswoman. O'Keefe was revealed to be on the payroll of the right wing news site Big Government at the time of his arrest.

The Landrieu incident is a continuation of their campaign to use guerrilla video for political dirty tricks. O'Keefe became famous last year for videos that appear to show him dressing up as a pimp and soliciting questionable advice from ACORN staffers. The video touched off a panic that led to ACORN's federal funding being yanked.

Links to the intelligence community

Maybe they hoped to make the news rather than break it. The men are charged with attempting to tamper with Landrieu's phones, not just observe them. As I reported for AlterNet last week, one of the alleged tamperers has longstanding ties to the intelligence community.

In 2008, Stan Dai was the deputy director of a recruiting program for aspiring spies at Trinity Washington University. As Sahil Kapur reported in Raw Story, this program was funded by a $250,000 grant from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Yesterday, Laura Flanders interviewed Dr. David Price and me on GRITtv about the links between O'Keefe's crew and the intelligence community. Dr. Price is an anthropologist who studies the relationship between the intelligence community and academia. He has been keeping a close eye so-called "centers of academic excellence" funded by the intelligence community on college campuses.

Right now, most of what we know about the incident comes from a single affidavit from an FBI officer and leaks from law enforcement. We'll probably learn a lot more about the men and their motives if they go on trial.

'Very, very close' to passing reform

In other health care news, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told participants on a conference call yesterday that Democrats are "very, very close" to passing health care reform. According to Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly, who was on the call, Pelosi signaled that the House will not pass a bill until the Senate passes a list of modifications to be reinserted during budget reconciliation. Brian Beutler of TPM DC reports that progressives shouldn't get their hopes up for reviving the public option: Pelosi conceded that a public option lacks the necessary support in the Senate.

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