A dismaying scandaland difficult questions
Everybody was laughing at what was happening. It was like guys coming out of the bush, saying, 'Hey, give me some of the money.' They'd pay one guy and the next day five guys would be calling them, guys they didn't know. The tapes are hilarious."
So said a former federal prosecutor last week, but on Capitol Hill no one shared the amusement. Too many of "the guys" were members of Congress, and "the tapes" were both video and audio, catching the sight and sound of them accepting money to perform special favors. That, in any case, was the story being leaked by sources within the Department of Justice, which said the FBI had lured the lawmakers into the focus of hidden television cameras in the most sensational undercover operation it had ever conducted.
Dubbed Abscam, for Arab Scam, the 23-month investigation had cost some $800,000 and involved about 100 agents in an elaborate series of hoaxes and disguises. One of these dressed up in a burnoose and posed as a sheik named Kambir Abdul Rahman, whose millions were said to be "burning holes" in a Chase Manhattan account. Other agents in pinstripe suits served as the sheik's American emissaries, translating his gutteral commands and seeking ways to invest his money in New Jersey gambling casinos, East Coast port facilities and an American titanium mine. Along the way, the phony sheik and his aides sought to protect his investments by buying political influence in Congress, in New Jersey's Casino Control Commission, the New Jersey legislature and the Philadelphia city council. When the FBI sting ended, its supervisors alleged that the honey pot of Arab money had attracted one U.S. Senator, seven members of the House and two dozen state and local officials or their corrupt croniesall stung by facing possible charges of accepting bribes or being caught in an illegal conflict of interest.
Stunned and saddened, leaders of Congress demanded all of the FBI evidence so they could conduct speedy investigations of their own to discipline or clear their accused colleagues. Just as adamantly, Justice Department officials insisted that grand juries must examine the evidence first, decide whom to indict for what, and send any criminal charges to trial. Simultaneous probes would only get in each other's way and make both branches of Government look inept, said Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, and in the end might let all of the suspects escape punishment. The new scandal was hardly another Watergate, yet the inter-branch conflict was hauntingly familiar.
So, too, was the claim by civil libertarians that the investigators had leaked their findings to an overeager press, irreparably damaging the reputations of public officials before anyone had even been formally accused of a crime.
Yet Abscam did introduce a new controversy. Had the much-criticized FBI illegally or unethically enticed the lawmakers into committing crimes they would normally not have considered? "This smacks of a setup," claimed one leading Democrat in Congress. "A lot of guys feel that the FBI has got it in for this place." But why? No legislator could quite explain this "gut feeling" that, as another Congressman contended, the FBI was out "to get us." On the