A neo-conservative but ostensibly bipartisan counterterrorism think tank has lost all its Democratic board members by running an attack ad in Democratic congressional districts through an affiliated enterprise.
The think tank, called the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, is a 501(c )3 — meaning it was incorporated as a non-profit and non-partisan organization, barred from political activity. Last week, it established Defense of Democracies, a 501(c )4 "non-profit, non-partisan advocacy organization," that ran an advertisement urging the House of Representatives to pass the Senate’s version of a bill providing retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications companies that collaborated with the Bush administration’s constellation of warrantless surveillance programs. The arrangement is probably legal, experts say, but the parent think tank receives several grants from the State Department — at least one is worth $487,000 — for democracy-promotion programs, making its political activities questionable.
On Friday, Defense of Democracies ran an ad in 15 congressional districts that erroneously stated, "the law that lets intelligence agencies intercept Al Qaeda communications expire[d]." In fact, the intelligence community has the authority to intercept Al Qaeda communications under other laws; the expired Protect America Act allowed the National Security Agency to intercept communications between any two persons of interest to a foreign intelligence investigation, even including U.S. citizens, without a warrant. Featuring ominous music, it showed a picture of Osama bin Laden before saying — again erroneously, according to members of the intelligence community — "new surveillance is crippled." In the 15 districts, Defense of Democracies got specific about what it wanted. In one of them, for instance: "Tell Tim Walz that Congress must do its job and pass the Senate’s terrorist surveillance bill."
Walz is a Democrat from Minnesota’s first congressional district. The ad flashed his face about 16 seconds after it showed bin Laden’s. Similar ads ran in the TV markets of Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire’s first district; Ron Klein of Florida’s 22nd district; Tim Mahoney of Florida’s 16th district; Chris Murphy of Connecticut’s 5th district; and Joe Courtney of Connecticut’s 2nd district. All are Democrats. Now their faces appear beside bin Laden’s.
"These ads are irresponsible and false," said Clark Pettig, a spokesman for Shea-Porter, "and Congresswoman Shea-Porter resents this attempt to politicize our national security for partisan politics."
On Friday, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies had four prominent Democrats on its board of advisers: Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Eliot Engel of New York; former Al Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile; and Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia. By Tuesday afternoon all had resigned.
"The organization is using fear mongering for political purposes and worse, their scare tactics have the effect of emboldening terrorists and our enemies abroad by asserting our intelligence agencies are failing to do their job," Brazile said in a statement released Monday night and highlighted by Matt Stoller on the liberal blog Open Left. "I am deeply disappointed they would use my name since no one has consulted me about the activities of the group in years."
Schumer and Engel resigned on Friday. "While I remain committed to the proud cause of defending our nation’s democratic principles, I can no longer support an organization that has ventured so far afield from that goal," Schumer said in a statement released Tuesday. Marshall resigned Tuesday evening. Democratic sources who declined to be named said Marshall was "appalled" by the ad.
The Foundation for the Defense of Democracy’s board features a litany of conservative and neo-conservative eminences: Steve Forbes, Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, the late former ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Gary Bauer, Bill Kristol, Richard Perle, ex-CIA Director Jim Woolsey, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va), and others. Its remaining ties to Democrats are tenuous: Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent neo-conservative from Connecticut, is on the board of advisers; as is former Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, who delivered a McCarthyite speech at the Republican National Convention in 2004 against Democratic nominee John F. Kerry; and former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, who ran unsuccessfully for the Reform Party’s presidential nomination in 1996. (Its Web site has yet to remove Engel, though the organization acknowledges his departure, as well as the deceased Kirkpatrick, who presumably is not advising the foundation from the Beyond.)
The board’s director, Cliff May, is a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee and a mainstay on National Review’s group blog, the Corner, where he lays into liberals and Democrats with the subtlety of a meat cleaver. Another Corner contributor from the foundation, Andrew McCarthy, wrote yesterday that "the top Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill" is "roll[ing] the dice with American national security."
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that President George W. Bush addressed the organization in March 2006, and expressed thanks for its work on behalf of his administration. "You have trained Iraqi women and Iranian students in the principles and practice of democracy, you’ve translated ‘democracy readers’ into Arabic for distribution across the broader Middle East, you’ve helped activists across the region organize effective political movements — so they can help bring about democratic change and ensure the survival of liberty in new democracies," said Bush, who thanked May specifically for his introductory remarks.
A spokesman for the foundation, Brian Wise, said he did not know the exact monetary worth of the foundation’s grants, which it mostly receives from the State Department. But he said one grant was worth $487,000 for an unspecified democracy-promotion program. Wise conceded that the foundation had founded the Defense of Democracies organization last week "for tax purposes," adding that "Defense of Democracies [provides] issue advocacy, whereas the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies is a policy institute and academic institution."
Brett Kappel, a campaign-finance lawyer in Washington, said it was "not permissible for a 501(c )3 to take federal funds to transfer those to a ( c )4 for the purposes of the (c )4 running attack ads on political candidates," though it was possible that such money could fall into an exception that courts recognize for issue ads. "The involvement of federal funds is a troubling thing," Kappel said. "If someone filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service, the IRS is going to look very closely at any funds used for any political activity."
Wise said he was "100 percent sure" that no federal funds received by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies went to the Defense of Democracies. "They are completely separate organizations with separate funding sources," he said.
Wise said he did not know if Democrats held all 15 of the targeted congressional districts. When asked, he declined to release the list of districts in which Defense of Democracies placed its ad. "To be honest, because we didn’t look at party affiliation when the ads were created, I really don’t know," Wise said. "Whether Democrat or Republican we [would target any member] we feel would be effective in persuading the House leadership to vote [on the Senate surveillance bill]. I would assume Democrats would be most effective in persuading them. However, if a Republican were as influential, we’d also then push the House to vote [in that member's district] as well." The ad has now aired on national cable TV, he said, eliminating the need to run it against specific members.
He added, "We’re more than willing to praise both Democrats and Republicans on these issues. We’re here to support a strong national security." Wise declined to comment on the walkout by Democrats. "We don’t care if we’re Democrat or Republican," he said. "Like I said, we’re an issue-based organization. We care about what [politicians] say about national security, we care if they care about defeating the threat of radical Islamic extremism."
Brazile saw it differently. "When I first joined the foundation several years ago, it was a bi-partisan organization that was committed to defending democratic values and protecting the nation against threats posed by radical Islamic terrorism," she said in her statement yesterday. "Unfortunately, due to the influence of their funders, in the last few years, FDD has morphed into a radical right-wing organization that is doing the dirty work for the Bush administration and congressional Republicans. I have made it clear to the organization that these types of lies undercut our national security and serve only to divide us."