I have been seeing the wrong spy movies. My image of spies and traitors -- urbane fellows who know a martini from a gimlet -- has collided with the reality of Brian Patrick Regan. His movie would be titled "The Spy Who Could Not Spell."
In a letter to Saddam Hussein offering his services, the former Air Force intelligence analyst wrote that if he was caught committing "esponage," he would be "enprisoned," if not executed, and his wife and daughter would be "discraced and harrashed." Given all of that, he was asking Hussein for $13 million in Swiss "frans."
"I am sure you will recognize this offer as a chance of a lifetime and well worth the money," Regan went on in the language of an infomercial. It's a wonder he didn't say anything to Hussein about double his money back if somehow this espionage scheme did not prove successful.
As sometimes happens, it did not. This month Regan was convicted on charges of attempted espionage, for which John Ashcroft's Justice Department, properly appalled at such lousy spelling, demanded the death penalty. Unaccountably, the jury balked, sparing Regan's life but ensuring that he will be imprisoned for a long time.
As a spy, Regan was something of a joke. His letter, purportedly from a CIA agent, surely would have perplexed the Iraqis -- except that there is no proof it was ever sent. (It was retrieved from his computer.) His cash demands were unprecedented and his instructions for delivering the money -- too complicated and extensive to detail -- would have looked to the Iraqis like an effort to drive them crazy. This 40-year-old father of four was both deeply in debt and deeply in over his head. As a spy, he was a bust.
Regan's lawyers maintained he was a man befogged by fantasy. Maybe. But he did write those letters and did collect secret material and he was arrested at Dulles International Airport before he could board a plane for Switzerland -- land of the "frans." He was up to something. So the government alleged and so the jury found.
But the death penalty? For what? The government didn't seek death for Robert Hanssen, the former FBI agent whose treason resulted in the execution of Russian double agents. The CIA's Harold Nicholson also escaped execution. Both of these men did considerable damage. If Regan did any, the government failed to prove it. His conviction was for attempted espionage -- a distinction that ought to make a difference. After all, attempted murder is not the same as murder.
No matter. Ashcroft is on an execution bender. He manipulated the prosecution of the accused Washington area snipers so that Lee Malvo, 17 at the time of the murders, could face execution.
In New York and Connecticut, two jurisdictions with an inexplicable reluctance to apply the death penalty -- who can explain the effete East? -- Ashcroft has ordered local prosecutors to seek the death penalty in cases where they had decided not to.
I am tempted to ask whatever happened to the conservative doctrine that local is best. But, with Ashcroft, I know the answer. He is determined to establish the uniform application of the death penalty -- no more of these regional discrepancies.
Trouble is, the standard he wants is that of Texas or Virginia, where the death penalty is liberally applied, and not that of New York, where, somehow, the crime rate has fallen anyway. In at least one New York case in which Ashcroft has overruled the local prosecutors, a plea agreement had been reached whereby, in exchange for his life, the defendant was going to provide information. What that defendant's incentive might now be is something of a mystery.
Ashcroft, with an almost biblical bloodlust, has unfortunately become an ugly face of America abroad. In all of Europe -- and much of the rest of the world -- capital punishment has been abolished. Even some countries that retain it almost never use it anymore. It has become the sine qua non of a civilized nation: You don't torture, you don't execute.
Almost every day, it seems, someone walks out of prison on account of DNA testing. Yet the Bush administration -- the president himself and his attorney general -- persists in believing in the infallibility of the system, not to mention its righteousness.
In Ashcroft's case, his zeal is such that he demanded death for a hapless traitor who lacked both common sense and craft. In the movies, spies have all sorts of exotic gizmos. Brian Patrick Regan, who faced death, didn't even have a spell-checker.