If you, like at least a quarter of the American electorate, were not born or were still in footies or watching “Barney” when the first Hillary Clinton “scandal” made the cover of Time magazine in 1994 for “clouding her image,” fret not. A conservative watchdog group called “Judicial Watch,” which was on the case then, is still on it now and is more than happy to fill you in.
Its band of expert Freedom of Information Act lawyers — and make no mistake, they are good — continue to plumb the depths of what was called in the mid-’90s the “Whitewater controversy,” the “Whitewater scandal” or the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
In fact, just this week, Judicial Watch announced it was “asking a federal court to order the National Archives and Records Administration to release draft criminal indictments of Hillary Clinton” stemming from that probe. While others were tried and convicted after an independent counsel probe, Clinton was not charged with breaking any laws.
And if you’ve never heard of, or have long forgotten, the blazing controversy surrounding Bill Clinton’s “last-minute pardon”of then-fugitive financier Marc Rich, the husband of a big donor to Clinton’s presidential library, as he left office in 2001, Judicial Watch has a big file on that too.
The same goes for such relics as the “Travelgate” affair (vintage 1995, involving first lady Hillary Clinton and the White House travel office); the suicide of White House aide Vince Foster; all of Bill Clinton’s alleged women, of course; the “pimping out of the Lincoln Bedroom,” as Judicial Watch puts it; and everything and anything Clinton through the mist of time to the present.
When it comes to the Clintons, with thousands of FOIA requests and related lawsuits, Judicial Watch hardly needs the National Archives. It’s got its own. “Here at Judicial Watch,” its website says, we’ve had a long relationship with Bill and Hillary Clinton. …We know the Clintons well.”
When it comes to the Clintons and Judicial Watch, Inspector Javert in “Les Miserables” comes to mind in his relentless pursuit “across the years” of Jean Valjean. But Tom Fitton, Judicial Watch’s president, says his organization is not just about Clinton or Democrats, noting that its FOIA wars have been fought with officials of the George W. Bush administration as well, most notably then-Vice President Dick Cheney.
On Tuesday, as The Washington Post’s Spencer Hsu reported, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington ruled Judicial Watch may question the State Department and potentially several top aides to Democratic presidential contender Clinton about her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. The questioning would be in connection with comments about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, by Susan E. Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Lamberth’s decision, as Hsu reported, came about five weeks after another federal judge in Washington, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, ruled that current and former top State Department and Clinton aides could be questioned under oath about her email arrangement in a separate Judicial Watch FOIA case.
On Feb. 26, after Sullivan’s decision, Clinton dismissed it as nothing to worry about. It was just the work of “right-wing outfits,” she said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I’m not concerned about them.”
But she should be concerned, very concerned.
She’s running for president. She faces a dramatic “trust” gap. Judicial Watch publicizes everything it gets its hands on, which is a lot, putting its own spin on it. And then it makes it available to an eager news media.
There’s a mutual dependency between reporters and Judicial Watch, and, for that matter, between news organizations and any organization that digs up newsworthy documents. Read deeply enough into the stories on the Clintons’ multitudinous ethical controversies, in both the right-wing and mainstream press, and you’re as likely as not to find that a high proportion are based on documents originally obtained by Judicial Watch. Judicial Watch then plasters its website with the resulting headlines.
“Hundreds of pages of emails,” ABC reported, “first obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the right-leaning group Judicial Watch, show that requests from Clinton’s personal office to the State Department for approval of speaking engagements were almost always granted.”
And the organization is effective on Capitol Hill as well. As The Post’s David Weigel and Ben Terris noted last year, “it was Judicial Watch that sued the State Department for e-mails that found White House aides collaborating on talking points” about the Benghazi attack, “and it was those emails that prodded the Republican majority” to create the select committee to investigate Benghazi.
“We’re an educational foundation in the end,” Fitton, the Judicial Watch president said in a recent interview with The Post, “and so what we do is use FOIA and our other litigation as a way to educate the American people as to what the government is up to.”
Judicial Watch, a nonprofit founded in 1994 by a man named Larry Klayman, who has since had a bitter falling out with the organization, employs an army of researchers and skilled FOIA lawyers, on revenue of about $20 million, according to the latest IRS data available. According to news reports, confirmed by Fitton, the Scaife Foundation, set up by the late conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, is among its larger funders, though Fitton credits “400,000 active supporters” for the organization’s finances.
Fans of the Clintons, and others, loathe Judicial Watch, seeing it as the center of what Hillary Clinton once called the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” a part of what Slate writer Michelle Goldberg called the “smear sausage” factory aimed at the Clintons and a singularly effective purveyor of the “Clinton derangement syndrome,” as Kevin Drum wrote in Mother Jones. “This is all courtesy of Judicial Watch,” Drum wrote,”the Scaife-funded outfit that brought us so much endless Clinton paranoia in the 90s. To this day, most people — including an awful lot of reporters who ought to know better — still don’t realize just how deliberate and manufactured the effort to destroy Bill Clinton was back then. Despite thousands of hours and millions of dollars of investigation, virtually none of the ‘scandals’ turned out to be real. They were just an extended effort to throw mud at the wall and see if something stuck. Ironically, the only one that did stick had nothing to do with any of the mud. It was just an old-fashioned sex scandal.”
But the Judicial Watch model — digging up what it sees as dirty laundry and making sure it sees the light of day via reporters and friendly committees in Congress — is not new to Washington. Indeed, as Fitton noted, it was pioneered largely by liberal groups, such as Common Cause and Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen, which dug up information on what it saw as abuses of power and corruption and fed it to an eager press.
Fitton, who acknowledges Judicial Watch’s conservatism on policy matters, is quick to point out that in its pursuit of public officials, it has been bipartisan, citing in particular its investigations into Cheney’s secretive “energy task force.” “Everyone assumes it’s the Clintons, it’s the Clintons. But that’s not true. … I don’t see our work changing at all if Republicans get in. … I remember Bush, and I have a feeling we’ll get more of the same,” Fitton told The Post recently in an interview.
But there’s no denying the obvious, that Judicial Watch’s main targets have been Democrats, particularly the Clintons and the administration of President Obama. “The Clintons have this point of view that the rules are for the little people,” not for them, he said.
And Hillary Clinton, in particular, makes the perfect prey. Because of her own reticence over the years on the many controversies surrounding her and her staff’s penchant for overmanaged damage control, little detailed information emerges from the Hillary Clinton camp itself. And when it comes, it comes in drips, like the slow flow surrounding the use of her email.
The less the public knows, the more significant even tiny pieces of the puzzle seem. In this information vacuum, even small revelations from Judicial Watch documents loom large and possible depositions under oath from Clinton aides, who don’t answer questions in public, seem downright explosive, even before they occur.
Fitton call them “the consequences are of her own making.”
“Judicial Watch has been more effective than Congress and much of the media in terms of providing disclosures of things that everyone’s talking about,” he said.
He could have added things that everyone is not talking about, as well, considering its focus on events that are decades-old and long-forgotten by many.
Fitton makes no apologies for Judicial Watch’s long memory. “In the media market right now,” he said, “if it didn’t happen within the last 36 hours,” it’s old. “Ancient history is something that happened a year ago.” And if it’s old, “it’s not worth talking about when you find new information. … But it’s the new information that all of a sudden makes it relevant.”