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The Michigan GOP's spying operation: an exclusive report

Parties may rely on trackers, but it's arguably without precedent to launch a spying operation, get caught and accidentally leave behind the evidence.
A frame from a video the Mark Schauer campaign says was created by the Michigan Republican Party while spying on a Democratic event with hidden camera glasses.
A frame from a video the Mark Schauer campaign says was created by the Michigan Republican Party while spying on a Democratic event with hidden camera glasses.
A fixture of many modern campaigns is a phenomenon known as "tracking" -- candidates for major offices are trailed publicly by someone from the opposing side, recording every speech, exchange, and off-hand remark throughout the campaign. As George Allen can attest, sometimes the footage recorded by these trackers can make the difference between winning and losing.
But candidates and their campaign teams realize these trackers are omnipresent, at least in public, and try to adjust accordingly. It's all out in the open. What happens, though, when a party wants to start recording private events, too? And what if that party doesn't want its targets to know they're being filmed?
That requires a spying operation.
Last week, the Detroit News published a striking report on the Michigan Republican Party's repeated efforts to record Democratic gatherings with a spy camera mounted to eyeglasses. State GOP officials made no effort to deny their efforts, conceding that the party sent Republican operatives to record Democratic events surreptitiously. Darren Littell, communications director of the Michigan Republican Party, described the spying as "a newer approach" to acquiring information.
What hasn't been previously reported is the scope of the Michigan Republican Party's spying operation.
As it turns out, some of the state GOP's operatives not only failed to record damaging information for later use; they also proved to be fairly clumsy in the spy business itself. The Rachel Maddow Show obtained an exclusive look at footage recorded by Republican staffers and interns, one of whom accidentally left their handiwork behind at a Democratic event on a minidisc.
The footage shows, for example, John Howting, the deputy research director for the Michigan Republican Party, conducting training sessions with would-be GOP spies, telling them how to use the camera glasses and encouraging them to misrepresent themselves when attending events.If Howting's name sound familiar, the New York Times reported a couple of years ago on "scams" the Republican operative has been involved in. "Mr. Howting, in fact, is a young conservative in a hurry," the article noted. "He matriculated at Miami University of Ohio, where he led the deeply conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute and invited James O'Keefe, the grandmaster of conservative undercover dirty tricks, to speak on campus. Mr. Howting was accused by fellow students of once slathering tanning oil on his face and trying to pass as a Latino liberal activist on campus." The same report cited incident in which Howting allegedly pretended to be interested in organizing a union for a company he apparently made up.
This new footage, however, appears to show Howting now working with the Michigan GOP, preparing members of the Republican team before they secretly film Democratic events, telling them to blend in the with the crowd and falsely claim that they learned about the gathering on Facebook.
It's worth emphasizing that Republicans do not appear to have had any success with their active spy operation. There have been no "macaca moments" to speak of.
Rather, what's striking is the operation itself. Parties on both sides may rely on trackers as a matter of course, but it's highly unusual -- indeed, it's arguably without precedent -- for a state party to launch a deliberate spying operation, get caught, and accidentally leave behind evidence documenting the scope of that operation.
As Jed Lewison recently noted, "The issue here isn't simply about secret recordings, or about the propriety of tracking, which is now ingrained in campaigns. It's whether political parties and their candidates should be systematically using subterfuge to spy on opposing campaigns in private venues."
I reached out to officials with the Michigan Republican Party, including John Howting, several times for comment. They did not respond to multiple inquiries.
Look for more on this on tonight's Rachel Maddow Show.
Update: The clip from Tuesday night's show you'll want to watch: