Washington Prowler

Darkhorses to the Rescue

Jeb Bush may not know he's been dubbed. Bill Frist, meanwhile, doesn't know how long he can keep pulling this White House to safety. Also: Closing in on Senate leakers.

By 2.26.06

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IF NOT KATHERINE, WHO?
The plea agreement negotiated by Mitchell Wade, the founder of defense contractor MZM, Inc., presents more than additional embarrassing material in the case of disgraced former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who was the focus of the federal investigation. It now appears Wade's plea will also impact the Florida Senate race, though perhaps in a good way for Republicans.

In Wade's plea agreement, he admits to pressuring employees to donate campaign funds to two unnamed GOP House members in order to ensure that a provision worth millions of dollars to MZM would be inserted in an appropriations bill.

The two House members identified in press reports are Reps. Virgil Goode of Virginia and Katherine Harris of Florida. Hotline and the San Diego Union both identified the House staffers of the two Republicans as the possible conduit for the approps bill insertion, though neither Republican was aware that Wade had pressured employees to give to their campaigns.

There were good reasons for MZM to be focused on Goode and Harris. One of MZM's largest clients, the Army National Ground Intelligence Center, is based in Goode's district, where MZM also has a facility. Press reports had MZM looking to open a facility in Harris's district, even though its two clients in the area, the U.S. Central Command and the Special Operations Command, are actually in a neighboring congressional district.

Harris has probably collected more than $50,000 in MZM contributions, and seemingly aware of where this story was going announced that all of MZM's donations to her campaign were being handed over to charity.

That Harris has been drawn into the MZM scandal caps off what was a pretty bad week for the candidate who is seeking the Republican Senate nomination to take on Sen. Bill Nelson. Earlier in the week, she was running away from stories that both her finance chairman and campaign treasurer had resigned their positions.

It is at the point now where Democrats in the state are crowing about a Nelson landslide in the fall, with few prospects for Republicans to find someone to match up with Nelson this late in the game.

But some Republicans in Washington and down in Florida are talking about organizing a "Draft Jeb" campaign in the coming days. "The Governor is the only one who would be able to enter a race this late in the calendar and have a legitimate shot at knocking off Nelson," says a GOP political consultant, who does work throughout the South. "But getting Jeb to walk into this mess is probably a fantasy. A fantasy for Republicans, a nightmare of him."

For months, Republicans in Florida and Washington have been looking for some way to push Harris over the side. Now, with her ongoing campaign problems and the MZM scandal, which will dog her, some see an opening they hope they can talk advantage of.

FRIST AND TEN
Any questions about where Senate Majority Bill Frist sees himself in a few years is being answered very quietly both inside and outside the Beltway.

The two clearest examples were played out this past week, where according to Senate leadership sources, Frist engineered the new 45-day review timeline between the U.S government and Dubai Ports World to address security concerns as the UAE firm takes over major operations at five U.S. ports.

Part of the deal Frist fashioned requires that DP World create an American subsidiary that would function independently of executives in Dubai, and that during the 45 day waiting period an American citizen would serve as the chief security officer during that period, the company said.

Frist's leadership on the port issue takes yet another White House miscue out of the hands of Democrats, who have become increasingly eager to beat Republicans of all stripes over their respective heads with every communications failure coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania.

"At some point, someone in the White House has to look at the communications shop and just say, 'Enough is enough. We need professional help,'" says a former Bush White House staffer. "It wasn't great in the first term, and it's just gotten progressively worse. A number of us have pointed this out, but the folks at the top just don't get it."

Instead, the senior White House communications folks lash out even at folks who are helping them outside of the building, whether it be Frist or Boehner staff or former Administration types working behind the scenes.

"They [current White House communications staff] don't want the blame, and they don't want to share the credit. I hate to compare our team to the Clinton White House, but if the Clinton team had blown the Dubai port story, the deck chairs would have been re-arranged," says another former White House aide.

As for Frist and his team up in the Senate, they have to be looking at this latest White House debacle and wondering how many more lives they have before their quiet political maneuvers run out of gas. That may be another reason why Frist remains a hard charger out on the road, fundraising and clearly campaigning for a higher office.

Early last week -- on the day that he was announcing his opposition to the Dubai deal as it was then structured -- Frist was on the West Coast, including a fundraiser in San Francisco with the city's five or so Republicans. According to those in attendance, Frist was on top of his game, focused and clearly looking ahead to 2008. While the fundraiser was intended to seed money to his VolPAC leadership account, Frist isn't sitting back and letting Sens. John McCain and George Allen sop up all the GOP backing for the nomination race that begins in earnest nine months from now.

CLOSING IN
Word out of the Defense Intelligence Agency and law enforcement sources has the FBI and the Department of Justice comparing notes and dates on who in the U.S. Senate received national security briefings on both the overseas terrorist prisons and the NSA overseas terrorist monitoring programs, and when those briefings took place.

"The number of Senators who received briefings is not as large as people think," says one law enforcement source. "These were programs with a limited 'Need to Know" list on Capitol Hill."

Federal investigators looking into the leaks of both those programs to the press are zeroing in on the Senate, and are expected to continue to hold interviews of both Senators and their senior staff in the coming days. "This investigation is moving forward at a pretty fast clip," says the law enforcement source. "We're not looking at a two-year probe. We're talking about moving fast."

As yet, cooperation from the media outlets -- the Washington Post and the New York Times has been minimal, but investigators aren't sure they will need full cooperation to make the case. "The Hill may be all we need," says the source.

Focus of the investigation remains on the staffs of two Senators, Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Sen. Dick Durbin, as well as committee staff for the Senate Intelligence Committee and career intelligence staff detailed to U.S. Senate offices and committees. Last week, it was revealed that on February 17 Senator Rockefeller had sent a letter to the White House claiming that the Bush Administration had illegally leaked classified materials to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward for a book project he was working on with cooperation from the Bush White House.

A number of people of Capitol Hill and in the intelligence community interpreted the letter as an attempt by Rockefeller to play defense should it be revealed that his office or staff tied to him on the Intelligence Committee are somehow involved in the serious leak cases.

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