Did Foreign Governments Blackmail Denny Hastert?
As former House Speaker Dennis Hastert prepares to plead guilty in accordance with a deal he has made with federal prosecutors, most media will focus on the crimes the FBI mentioned in his indictment. Since Hastert was charged in May, the public has been shocked to learn that the former high-school wrestling coach allegedly spent large sums trying to cover up past sexual abuse. But one prominent whistleblower has been speaking up about the possible misdeeds of Hastert for years now—and the way that they may have compromised national security.
Longtime readers of The American Conservative are familiar with the Sibel Edmonds saga. Edmonds, an FBI translator who revealed large-scale corruption throughout the government, has received multiple gag orders under the State Secrets Act. She has nevertheless persevered in spite of concerns that she would be prosecuted and possibly imprisoned. TAC interviewed her for a feature article in 2009, and I also reviewed her claims multiple times over the last few years, including when her book Classified Woman came out in 2012.
Many of Edmonds’s claims involved Turkish and Israeli front groups seeking to influence U.S. policy while sometimes also engaging in illegal activity. The scope of the corruption allegedly involved bribery of senior government officials and congressmen, arranging for export licenses to countries that were embargoed, and the exposure of classified information. Edmonds has been questioned by a congressional committee, by individual congressmen and staffers, as well as by the FBI inspector general, and her information was found to be “credible,” “serious,” and “warrant[ing] a thorough and careful review.” She also provided interviews for “60 Minutes” and Vanity Fair, both of which were able to confirm key elements of her story.
Some critics have opined that Edmonds overstates or misinterprets what she claims to know, but there is no reason to doubt her veracity when she describes documents and investigative files that she personally handled during her time with the bureau. No one has challenged her accounts of the investigations that were underway at that time. She has been gagged by the Justice Department precisely because the information she revealed is damaging to certain political and purported national-security interests.
In the course of her various media appearances, Edmonds provided significant information on Congressman Hastert, who was under FBI investigation while he was speaker of the House, a role he assumed in 1999 and held for eight years. In her TAC interview, Edmonds related that “In early 1997, because of the information that the FBI was getting on the Turkish diplomatic community, the Justice Department had already started to investigate several Republican congressmen. The number-one congressman involved with the Turkish community, both in terms of providing information and doing favors, was Bob Livingston. Number-two after him was Dan Burton, and then he became number-one until Hastert became the speaker of the House. Bill Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, was briefed on the investigations, and since they were Republicans, she authorized that they be continued… In 1999, [FBI agents in the Chicago field office] wiretapped the congressmen directly.”
In a deposition given in August 2009, Edmonds identified Hastert as “one of the primary U.S. persons involved in operations and activities that are not legal, and they’re not for the interest of the United States but for the interest of foreign governments and foreign entities.” She detailed what she believed to be Hastert’s wrongdoing: “This information has been public. The concerns, again would be several categories. The acceptance of large sums of bribery in forms of cash or laundered cash and laundering is to make it look legal for his campaigns, and also for his personal use, in order to do certain favors and call certain—call for certain actions, make certain things happen for foreign entities and foreign governments’ interests, Turkish government’s interest and Turkish business entities’ interests.”
When asked in the deposition, “Did you have reason to believe that Mr. Hastert, for example, killed one of the Armenian genocide resolutions in exchange for money from these Turkish organizations?” she responded, “Yes, I do… Correct… and not only taking money, but other activities, too, including being blackmailed for various reasons.” At the time of the deposition Hastert had left Congress and was working for the Washington lobbying firm Dickstein Shapiro as a registered lobbyist for Turkey, reportedly earning millions of dollars in commissions.
Edmonds described her work on Turkish-language transcripts of investigations relating to Hastert covering the period 1996 until January 2003, elaborating on the possibility of blackmail. She recalled that Hastert “used the townhouse [in Chicago] that was not his residence for certain not very morally accepted activities. Now, whether that was being used as blackmail I don’t know, but the fact that foreign entities [Turkey and Israel] knew about this, in fact, they sometimes participated in some of those not maybe morally well activities in that particular townhouse that was supposed to be an office, not a house, residence at certain hours, certain days, evenings of the week. So I can’t say if that was used as blackmail or not, but certain activities they would share. They were known.”
In testimony before congressional staffers and committees, Edmonds has reported hearing Turkish wiretap targets boast of their secret relationship with a “Hastert.” They discussed giving him tens of thousands of dollars in clandestine payments in exchange for political favors and information. Many of the transcripts involved a suspect at the city’s Turkish Consulate, as well as several members of the American-Turkish Council and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, business entities that some FBI agents believed served as occasional covers for organized crime. Some calls appeared to be referring to drug shipments and other possible crimes.
One important contact was repeatedly referred to by Turkish callers under the nickname “Denny boy,” later identified as Hastert. The wiretaps revealed that tens of thousands of dollars were paid to Hastert’s campaign fund in small checks because donations of less than $200 need not be itemized in public filings.
Vanity Fair did its own due diligence in covering Edmonds’s claims, and the magazine’s David Rose wrote:
Hastert himself was never heard in the recordings, Edmonds told investigators, and it is possible that the claims of covert payments were hollow boasts. Nevertheless, an examination of Hastert’s federal filings shows that the level of un-itemized payments his campaigns received over many years was relatively high. Between April 1996 and December 2002, un-itemized personal donations to the Hastert for Congress Committee amounted to $483,000.
Edmonds noted that the phone taps contained repeated references to Hastert’s volte face in the fall of 2000 over the campaign to have Congress designate the killings of Armenians in Turkey between 1915 and 1923 a genocide. In August 2000, Speaker Hastert declared that he would support the resolution and send it to the full House for a vote. The resolution, vehemently opposed by the Turks, did indeed pass in the International Relations Committee by a large majority. Then, on October 19, shortly before a full House vote, Hastert withdrew it.
Hastert explained his switch as being based on a letter he had supposedly received from President Clinton arguing that the resolution, if passed, would be damaging to U.S. interests. It is not known if a payoff ever occurred but, per Edmonds, a senior official at the Turkish Consulate indicated in one recorded conversation that the price for convincing Hastert to withdraw the genocide resolution would be at least $500,000.
Fast forward to the Dennis Hastert case making the rounds today, which focuses on relatively minor federal banking laws and ignores the other evidence that has been collected by the FBI on Hastert for the past 20 years. One has to ask, “Why Hastert and why now?”, but there does not seem to be a simple answer. It might be little more than the result of frustrated FBI investigators demanding that some action be taken.
Edmonds, for her part, has described how the Hastert case has been ignored by the media and has predicted that it would eventually be made to go away by the government. Indeed, legal action following up on the original indictment has been delayed through postponement after postponement and more recently sidetracked into a plea bargain that will allow the former congressman to plead guilty to reduced charges while at the same time sealing forever the unsavory details linked to his being blackmailed.
Hastert and his lawyers understand that they are well placed to effectively threaten the government prosecutors because Hastert knows where a lot of bodies are buried, metaphorically speaking. By demanding that the investigative files on him—which could include reports of illegal activity by a broad range of former officials—be released as part of his defense, he can force the government to drop or mitigate the charges against him. It is a ploy similar to that used by alleged AIPAC spies Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman in 2009, which led to the presiding judge’s dismissal of the case.
Glenn Greenwald writes that “Those with political and financial clout are routinely allowed to break the law with no legal repercussions whatsoever. Often they need not even exploit their access to superior lawyers because they don’t see the inside of a courtroom in the first place—not even when they get caught in the most egregious criminality.” There is a particular irony here: criminals in high office may avoid punishment through their willingness to implicate their peers who are engaged in much the same practices, in effect blackmailing the government to leave them alone or face the consequences. That is what the Dennis Hastert story appears to be all about.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.