Checked or Choked? How the Congressional Response to the Abscam Investigation Undermined the FBI’s Ability to Root Out High-Level Corruption

On February 2nd, 1980, the FBI announced the results of a massive sting operation, codenamed “Abscam,” conducted against members of the U.S. Congress. At the time, this was the largest FBI political corruption operation ever conducted: two years in the making, involving over a hundred agents and hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating costs. The details of the operation were so outlandish they sound like they could have been lifted from a Hollywood movie. The FBI recruited an international con artist named Melvin Weinberg for “creative direction” of the operation, and then had agents pose as wealthy Arab sheiks (hence the name of the operation, a contraction of “Arab scam” or “Abdul scam”) that came a-calling to Capitol Hill to purchase favors and votes. The operation took place on Key West yachts and in Atlantic City casinos, in limousines and on chartered jets, where the “sheiks” lured politicians to glitzy affairs with offers of $50,000 for a favorable licensing deal or immigration waiver. They had astonishing success. Not only were the approached targets receptive, several actively recruited other elected officials to the bribery scheme. Congressmen were caught on tape accepting paper lunch bags stuffed with cash, paired with made-for-movie dialogue such as: “Money talks in this business,” “I’m no Boy Scout,” and “I got larceny in my blood. I’ll take [the bribe] in a goddamn minute.” Weinberg and the FBI reckoned that the sting easily might have nabbed a great deal more Congressmen if the FBI hadn’t run out of bribe money and the press hadn’t scored an early scoop. What followed was a flurry of resignations, hearings, and criminal trials. After the dust settled, six representatives and one senator had been convicted of bribery and conspiracy. Despite controversy over the ethics of the FBI’s methods, every conviction was upheld on appeal.

The fact that these convictions stuck is a reflection of the fact that although the undercover FBI agents involved in Abscam got very close to the line that separates legal deception from unlawful entrapment, the FBI had been scrupulous about staying on the right side of that line: all tapes were immediately reviewed to ensure that agents had not improperly induced wrongdoing; the cash transfers were witnessed and monitored by Justice Department attorneys; and judges signed warrants and sanctioned the FBI’s methods. Nevertheless, Congress—perhaps unsurprisingly—thought that the FBI had gone too far. At hearings before House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights and the Senate Select Committee to Study Undercover Activities, Members of Congress aired grievances over FBI undercover procedures, and argued that while undercover investigations could be valuable, the FBI had gone too far, and had engaged in a wildly inappropriate exploratory fishing expedition.

Now, Congress’s actions may not have been purely self-serving. A few years prior to Abscam, a Senate select committee, known as the Church Committee, revealed significant FBI abuses, documented in a whopping fourteen reports that laid out intelligence agency abuses in extraordinary detail. Some suggest—controversially—that Abscam was the FBI’s retaliation against Congress for this public excoriation.

Whatever Congress’s motives, in the decade following Abscam, Congress circled the wagons, pressuring the Department of Justice to implement internal reforms by way of proffering dramatic legislative packages staunchly opposed by Attorneys General. The “compromise” result was a series of restrictive guidelines for undercover and sting operations, guidelines that effectively bar the FBI from ever again conducting an operation similar to Abscam.

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Rooting Corruption out of the Courts: The Use of Undercover Sting Operations

No anticorruption policy can succeed if the courts themselves are corrupt.  If those tempted to offer or accept a bribe or otherwise rob the public can buy their way out of trouble, laws against corruption are meaningless.  Ensuring judges decide cases honestly is thus the keystone of any broader effort to control corruption.  The best defense against judicial corruption is, as a recent U4 paper stressed, a rigorous process for selecting judges, one which screens out those willing to sell their integrity for a price.

Character tests are not foolproof, however, and so even with the most thorough screening a few crooked apples can slip through.  When they do, rooting them out is especially difficult, for proving a judge has taken a bribe to fix a case is extremely difficult.  A judge may acquit the defendant for any number of reasons, and even if the reason given seems obviously wrong, that alone is not enough to establish corruption.   Moreover, bribery is a consensual crime.  Neither the judge taking a bribe, nor the defendant paying it, nor a go-between facilitating the transaction will have any reason to reveal the crime and every reason to keep it secret.

Purging the judiciary of corrupt judges will thus almost always require an undercover operation, one where law enforcement personnel or informants pretend to be dishonest to elicit incriminating statements or conduct from the investigation’s target.  Such “stings” are often controversial and are fraught with risks, those targeting judges even more so.  Yet given the great harm judicial corruption causes, the risks will often be worth taking.  When they are, designers of a sting may find it useful to review how U.S. authorities minimize the risks of undercover operations in the judiciary. Continue reading