Can we talk judgment?
In spite of a warning from his Republican predecessor, one of Senator Joseph Biden's first acts as the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1987 was to abolish the Committee's Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism. Biden's action came just as one of the most famous spies in American history had begun leaking secrets to the Soviet Union. The spy -- Soviet CIA mole Aldrich Ames -- went undiscovered for nine years, almost the entire period of Biden's chairmanship of the Committee. Biden relinquished his post after Republicans re-captured the Senate in 1994. Ames was finally arrested that year.
The Subcommittee had been established by the GOP's South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond within a month of the Republican takeover of the Senate in the 1980 Reagan landslide. The election brought 12 new Republicans to the upper chamber, handing control of the Senate to the GOP for the first time in 26 years.
On December 14, 1980, the New York Times featured Thurmond in an article spotlighting his new role as the incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Saying that Thurmond was "ready to take the offensive" after the GOP's decades in the minority, the very first major change the Times cited was Thurmond's decision to move on national security issues. "Just created," wrote concerned Timesman Tom Wicker, "is a subcommittee on 'Security and Terrorism' which has the obvious possibility of reincarnating the old Communist-hunting Internal Security subcommittee. Chairing it will be the ex-admiral, ex-POW and new Senator from Alabama Jeremiah Denton…"
In a statement Thurmond brushed aside liberal concerns that the subcommittee would somehow bring Joe McCarthy back to life, warning "that if we don't know who the enemies of this country are then we're in real trouble." An aide to Denton, the ex-POW who had been held captive in North Vietnam along with John McCain, said that Denton "wants to get a better handle on the matter. He wants to talk to the FBI about what it sees as security dangers." As an added insult to liberals, Thurmond abolished a liberal favorite, or as Wicker described it, the "important Subcommittee on Anti-Trust and Monopoly." This jewel had been headed by Ohio's liberal Democrat Howard Metzenbaum and was scheduled to be run by a GOP liberal, Maryland's Charles Mathias. Thurmond, exercising his new power, simply abolished the subcommittee targeted at capitalists and replaced it with the new Security and Terrorism Subcommittee that would investigate Communists. This meant that the staff, research and investigative resources of the Senate Judiciary Committee could now be directed at various perceived threats to U.S. national security -- such as Soviet penetration of U.S. intelligence agencies.
Over the next six years Denton held 35 hearings of the subcommittee, to the disparagement of liberals even as Reagan was doing furious battle with the Soviets. By 1986, when Democrats gained control of the Senate once again, thus replacing Thurmond with Biden (and defeating Denton for re-election), the pressure was on for Biden to abolish Security and Terrorism. On February 5, 1987, the Washington Post derided the subcommittee as nothing more than a "platform" for the now defeated Denton "to spread his view that communist conspiracies lurked everywhere." In particular, the Post mocked Denton and Thurmond for holding hearings on Communist intelligence gathering inside the United States. It took special note of Biden's action this way: "Now, six years later [after Thurmond's creation of the subcommittee], Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del) is at the helm of the Judiciary Committee and the security and terrorism panel has vanished." In its place, Biden resurrected Metzenbaum's old anti-trust subcommittee and restored the Ohioan as chairman.
WHILE ALL THIS was going on, over in the Central Intelligence Agency the life of a career employee in the CIA's Europe Division/Counterintelligence branch was beginning to fall apart. Aldrich Ames had a bad marriage, was binge drinking and had begun an affair with Rosario Dupuy, an employee of the Colombian Embassy in Mexico. Ames divorced his wife and married Rosario, who had an expensive love of the good life. Soon enough Ames was in deep financial trouble and began spying for the Soviet Union in return for cash.
Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism, mocked for its concerns about Soviet spying inside the U.S., had, as the Post aptly described it at the time, "vanished" at the specific direction of Biden. Thurmond's warning that the Subcommittee was needed because "if we don't know who the enemies of this country are then we're in real trouble" went unheeded.
The end of this saga is picked up by no less than former President Bill Clinton, who wrote of the Ames affair in his memoirs. Describing his activities in 1994, the seventh year of Biden's chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee without the much maligned Security and Terrorism Subcommittee, Clinton writes:
"We also got a shock when the FBI arrested thirty-one year veteran CIA agent Aldrich Ames and his wife, breaking one of the biggest espionage cases in American history. For nine years, Ames had made a fortune giving up information that led to the deaths of more than ten of our sources inside Russia, and had done severe damage to our intelligence capability."
Seven of these "nine years" came after Biden had deliberately ignored Thurmond's warning about the importance of the Security and Terrorism Subcommittee. By the time Ames was doing serious damage to U.S. national security -- in addition to causing the murder of the ten sources cited by Clinton, Ames betrayed at least 100 American intelligence operations -- Biden had long since shut down precisely the tool Thurmond intended to discover spies like Ames.
BIDEN MAKES MUCH of his "experience" these days in the area of foreign policy. His critics frequently point out that length of service is no compensation for good judgment, as Biden has been on the wrong side of every significant national security issue from Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative to the nuclear freeze to the first Gulf War to, most recently, his insistent opposition to the surge in Iraq, the latter now credited with turning the tide to victory.
What is never mentioned is that when Joe Biden took over the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee he abolished -- against the specific advice of Strom Thurmond -- the one tool the Judiciary Committee had at its disposal designed to investigate Communist infiltration of American intelligence. A tool designed to discover national security threats exactly like Aldrich Ames.
Not for nothing did Bill Clinton later say that he was "shocked" at the discovery of Ames' existence. With Joe Biden deliberately blinding an investigative arm of the U.S. Senate to the possibility, to the applause of liberals, what else did Clinton expect?
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