The Watchdog Group that Feeds the “Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy”

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October 12, 2016; New York Times

According to its website, Judicial Watch is “a conservative, non-partisan educational foundation, promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law.” According to this New York Times article, Judicial Watch “was one of the Clintons’ original tormentors, a charter member of what Mrs. Clinton famously called a “‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ to destroy her and her husband by seizing on any potential scandal.”

Founded in 1994, this watchdog group uses Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits as its primary weapon of choice to expose alleged misconduct by government officials. NPQ has examined Judicial Watch’s tactics and initiatives occasionally in its nonprofit newswire through the years. The Times suggests that that this one nonprofit organization has accomplished more than any organization and even more than presidential nominee Donald Trump in pushing the meme that Hillary Clinton is untrustworthy.

To be fair, Judicial Watch also sued the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, and a glance at their website will show many initiatives on display. Nevertheless, as the Times reminded us, Hillary Clinton is presently the subject of more than 20 ongoing Judicial Watch lawsuits.

Another tool Judicial Watch is a master at wielding is the media. Despite the dwindling resources for investigative journalism, few stories end up in the media by accident. Many stories result from organizations like Judicial Watch convincing reporters to run what they have to offer. Since reporters rarely reveal their sources, readers cannot know whether to trust the stories or not. Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, explained to the Times that Judicial Watch is also a media organization. “We’re filling multiple roles here in a Washington where the traditional vehicles for government accountability have broken down.”

Judicial Watch publishes The Verdict and occasional special reports. Its website offers open records documents, legal filings, and other educational materials. They conduct direct mail campaigns to millions of Americans. Because of the success over time of the negative narrative they helped generate about Hillary Clinton, even among some supporters, the conviction that the Clintons are fundamentally honest and good people is not a popular opinion to have. When Judicial Watch and others make an accusation, too often the Clintons are guilty until proven innocent. Inasmuch as Hillary Clinton has survived so many inquiries, investigations and lengthy Congressional hearings, it would appear that that there never was any fire amid all that smoke.

But failure is in the eye of the beholder, and Judicial Watch has many admirers who keep supporting them. Their annual budget is about $35 million, they have some 50 employees, and they receive support from nearly 400,000 donors. Is all this investment and activity worth the outcomes? The Times offers this perspective:

Judicial Watch is a polarizing group, even among advocates for greater government transparency. Critics accuse it of weaponizing the Freedom of Information Act for political purposes. They argue that its unending barrage of lawsuits does more harm than good by draining federal resources, tying up the courts and wasting public servants’ time.

The Freedom of Information Act “is a legitimate tool for government transparency, but it’s possible to abuse it,” said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. “There is a question about whether they are enriching or distorting political discourse.”

The group’s defenders argue that its success in bringing to light thousands of buried emails speaks for itself, and that people can ignore the organization’s spin and make their own decisions about what the records mean.

Win or lose, what will become of the “the vast right-wing conspiracy” once the election is over? Now that WikiLeaks and even Russia are rumored to be involved, will the Clintons ever be free from the torment? When the Times asked this question of Fitton, he said, “Everyone wants to move on. We don’t move on.”—James Schaffer