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A year ago, attorney Manuel Miranda was a top aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), advising Frist on the best ways to combat Democratic filibusters against President George W. Bush’s nominees to the federal bench. Today, Miranda is jobless. He resigned from Frist’s staff under fire last month and now spends his time caring for his 5-month-old son and planning legal strategies to fend off his possible federal indictment on charges of unauthorized access to computer files. Miranda, 44, is the former staffer who stands at the heart of an explosive Capitol Hill controversy. He has acknowledged that, for almost a year, he accessed and read dozens of sensitive memorandums written to and from Democratic aides on the Senate Judiciary Committee — documents that he knew were not intended for his eyes. Miranda’s activities in 2002 and 2003 were sharply questioned earlier this month in a detailed report released by the Senate’s sergeant at arms and sent to the Justice Department for possible action. Committee members from both sides of the aisle — even his one-time boss, Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) — have condemned Miranda’s actions. Six of the panel’s 19 members, including three Republicans, have called for a special counsel. And Miranda faces a bar ethics complaint filed against him in New York by a liberal activist group. Yet Miranda, a Cuban-born child of refugees who came to the United States at age seven, seems poised at the center of the storm. He has unleashed a mini-media blitz, defending himself in an op-ed on National Review‘s Web site and on a C-SPAN morning show and responding to reporters’ questions. Miranda and his lawyers — D.C. solo practitioner Adam Augustine Carter and Arthur McKey of Hanson and Molloy — insist that Miranda has become a political scapegoat, and that he did nothing criminal or unethical in reading and using documents that were readily available on his computer desktop. “What I did was political hardball. I admit that. But it was not illegal or unethical,” Miranda says. “Working on Capitol Hill was an excellent experience. But it hurts to learn at the end of it that those you consider heroes are not so heroic.” Miranda has particularly strong feelings about his former boss, Sen. Hatch, who distanced himself from Miranda’s actions when the allegations became public. “This displays on Senator Hatch’s part a weakness that I already knew about, namely, that Senator Hatch is more concerned about appearances than standing firm for his beliefs,” Miranda says. Through a spokesman, Hatch declines comment. In submissions that they made to senators and to the sergeant at arms, Miranda’s lawyers emphasized that the former staffer did not “hack” into a site that he was barred from by a password or other means. Rather, Miranda says, he found the Democratic documents fully accessible to him under a “My Network Places” icon because of a lack of computer security at the Judiciary Committee. “The Democrat-controlled ‘server’ quite literally gave . . . Mr. Miranda the unprotected documents,” McKey, a computer-law expert, wrote March 10 to the GOP senators on the committee. “Under the law and practice, there can be no doubt that every authorized [Judiciary Committee] user had an affirmative grant of access and were entitled to read any unprotected document on the [Judiciary] server.” The sergeant at arms agreed in his report that there had been a “significant security vulnerability” caused by the inexperience of a since-departed systems administrator and “a lack of training and oversight” of committee staff. Miranda — an active Democrat until the late 1980s, when he began a move along the political spectrum, registering as an Independent and later moving to the GOP — has plenty of defenders in conservative circles on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. They call the flap over access to the documents a red herring and say that the documents reveal an unhealthy or even unlawful conspiracy between Democratic staffers and liberal interest groups to defeat Bush judge nominees. Barbara Ledeen, director of coalitions for the Senate Republican Conference, says Miranda is “an intelligent, engaging, dedicated person who motivated members of the conference to organize and move in a cohesive fashion on judicial nominations. “I’ve never found Manny to be anything but ethical,” Ledeen adds. Says C. Boyden Gray, chairman of the Committee for Justice, an activist group that promotes confirmation of Bush judicial nominees: “Manny was a terrific point person on nominations. In fact, except for the filibuster, which will now be a continuing problem for any administration, he did quite a job in getting both the district court and appeals court nominees moving.” But Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal activist group that last month filed the New York Bar complaint against Miranda, takes a different view. “His actions are the equivalent of a burglar saying that because the lock on the door of a house wasn’t good enough, he’s free to go ahead and take what he wants,” says Sloan, a former federal prosecutor. “The rules of the New York Bar are clear that you’re not allowed to review documents that you know are not intended for your eyes.” Miranda replies that for purposes of bar ethics, reading papers belonging to the opposite political party is not the same thing as reading the documents of an opposing party in litigation. “I can go where I want on a government computer,” he says. “There are no ‘parties’ here to a litigation. My paycheck says ‘U.S. Senate,’ and that’s a collegial body that’s part of the government. My client is not a political party or a person.” As for any criminal liability, Miranda says, “The law requires that you break into a computer system for a crime to occur. In other words, you have permission to go wherever your mouse click takes you. DOJ won’t be able to make a case on this.” Computer-law experts unconnected with the case, and with the byzantine politics of judicial nominations, tend to agree. “If someone failed to safeguard the materials, it would depend on the facts, but it would be difficult to prosecute him for unauthorized access,” says J.T. Westermeier, a D.C. partner at Piper Rudnick and former president of the Computer Law Association. “Criminal law has to be construed strictly, and if it’s not clear that the access is unauthorized, then the prosecutor would have a problem. Then again, my regular advice to clients is, if you know you’re not supposed to be somewhere [in a computer], get out.” David Opderbeck, a computer law professor at Seton Hall Law School, says, “The key question in an unauthorized-access prosecution is, ‘What is authorization? Is placing something on this network akin to placing it on the Internet or not?’ It sounds as if that’s going to be the issue.” Miranda is in some ways a surprising person to be at the center of a supercharged political controversy. He’s hardly a longtime Senate veteran or GOP activist. His position as nominations counsel to Sen. Hatch, which began in 2001, was his first job on the Hill. But some of Miranda’s political opponents still see him as overly partisan. “He more than anyone else sowed the seeds that sprouted the unprecedented, vicious, and personal right-wing attacks on members of the committee,” says an aide to a Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee. “He is the pied piper of the poisoning of the judicial confirmation process.” Miranda moved to Spain at age one with his parents. The family then relocated to Queens, N.Y., when Miranda was seven. A graduate of Georgetown University with a 1982 degree in foreign service, Miranda received a law degree from the University of California Hastings College of the Law. For a decade he worked for a series of D.C. and New York law firms, including what was then Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts and the D.C. firm of Russin & Vecchi. In 1989, when he was an attorney representing a dissident group of Georgetown alumni in a dispute over control of the alumni association, Miranda had a small brush with the law. Carrying with him a power of attorney from his client, he tried to enter and participate in an association board meeting. Association leaders refused to let him stay in the room, and he was bodily removed from the meeting by campus police. Miranda was arrested for unlawful entry, but the U.S. attorney declined to prosecute. Miranda then sued Georgetown University and the District of Columbia on false arrest, civil rights, and a host of other counts. Harold Greene, then a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, dismissed Miranda’s claims in 1993. “It is clear as a matter of law that the actions taken by the various defendants were legal, for plaintiff was at the time guilty of unlawful entry,” Greene wrote in the civil case. “Notwithstanding plaintiff’s effort to portray this case in apocalyptic terms as if it were an overriding human rights or civil rights struggle on a par with those of Rosa Parks or Nelson Mandela rather than a relatively pedestrian disagreement between groups of alumni, the issue before the Court is not complex.” After working from 1996 to 1998 in the D.C. office of White & Case as an associate doing project-finance deals, Miranda, a devout Catholic, moved to a completely different kind of job. He became president of the Cardinal Newman Society for Catholic Higher Education, a nonprofit group founded in 1993 that promotes traditional Catholic values in the nation’s Catholic colleges and universities. That job was an unpaid one. Miranda lived for more than two years on his savings. (He was single at the time; he did not marry or have a child until 2003.) In his Newman Society job, Miranda testified on the Hill for legislation providing religious protection for Catholics and members of other faiths. Within the Church, he strongly opposed secularism and advocated preserving the Catholic identity of the schools. Miranda’s appearances before the Judiciary Committee drew the attention of Hatch staffers, and in 2001, he was offered one of three positions of senior nominations counsel to the senator. While on Hatch’s staff, he spearheaded four controversial appeals court nominations — D. Brooks Smith and Dennis Shedd, both of whom were confirmed, and Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen. Estrada withdrew his nomination, and Owen was filibustered. Miranda was about to leave the Hill in early 2003, he says, when he was offered a similar nominations job with Frist, who was assuming the post of majority leader. “He’s very much an ideologue and very partisan,” says Elliot Mincberg, legal director of the liberal People for the American Way, who twice debated Miranda on judicial nomination issues. “At one of the debates, he made a very strong pitch that, since the president of the United States is elected, he can put anyone he wants on the judiciary,” Mincberg recalls. “But that’s not what the Constitution says. The Constitution calls for advice and consent. I found his position troubling.” Miranda says he was proud to try to land Senate approval of Bush nominees. “I took the Miguel Estrada nomination personally,” he says. “Estrada had a strikingly similar story to mine. That’s why I wanted to work on that nomination.”

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