Column: The Trail Leads Back to Bush I and Iraq

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois and a columnist for HNN.

The political scene is getting very, very weird when we have right-wing Dan Burton denouncing the Bush administration as a “monarchy” and left-wing Barney Frank praising the eccentric Indianan as a man of “genuine intellectual integrity.” Indeed, the scene is too weird to even venture a reasonable prediction on the legal or political outcome of the growing warfare over executive-privilege claims. But while the outcome may yet be unintelligible, there’s substantial evidence that at the root of the claims lay the quite intelligible intent of obstructing historical justice. Let it remain with constitutional scholars if such an intent constitutes an obstruction of criminal justice.

11Bush II’s decision makes sense only if framed within the context of protecting Bush I from the potentially provable charge that it senselessly and illegally got us into a messy international fix in which we find ourselves today. Clearly the current administration’s refusal to hand over documents relating to a mothballed mob case has nothing to do with confronting unreasonable demands “contrary to the national interest.” The same goes with the handling of documents surrounding Clintonesque fund-raising escapades. Releasing to the Burton committee internal Justice Department materials would, however, establish the precedent of executive willingness to be up front with Congress when it comes to the latter’s general oversight responsibilities, and that could prove to be excruciatingly painful for father Bush, son Bush, and all the little subservient Bushies.

What looms over the executive-privilege controversy is the White House’s still-cold war with Iraq. Saddam Hussein no doubt poses a real danger to international stability, but the White House also undoubtedly perceives a political need to keep the electorate focused on an enemy--any enemy--right up to 2004. Iraq just happens to be a deserving and well-qualified candidate. Given Bush’s emphasis on the Iraqi threat, curious congressional types may once again begin snooping around how it came to be that Podunk Iraq could possess such a mighty military capacity through its “weapons of mass destruction.” And the last thing this White House wants re-publicized is that Saddam possesses a certain ominousness only because Bush I handed it to him. It was Papa George and his coterie of Cold Warrior masterminds who armed Iraq to the teeth in direct contravention to the law.

As the Boston Globe reported in November, 1993, “Several congressional committees had found evidence that senior members of the Bush administration knowingly approved US-guaranteed loans for Iraq and technology transfers that were diverted into Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program, his chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. They also discovered evidence suggesting obstruction of Congress, false statements and perjury.” And how did G.H.W.Bush respond to the House Judiciary Committee’s 1992 call for a “special prosecutor to investigate evidence that members of the executive branch broke the law while assisting Saddam Hussein’s military buildup”? By instructing his attorney general, William Barr, to reject the request based on “larger claims of foreign policy” and executive privilege.

According to a 1993 account in the Observer, prior to the White House’s defiance of the Judiciary Committee a half-dozen Bush administration lawyers had gathered in the Old Executive Office Building to “co-ordinate a response to the numerous congressional requests for documents” pertaining to the Iraqi policy. “The group . . . decided on a plan to create multiple hurdles for any congressman wishing to obtain documents,” including the assertion of executive privilege and the insistence that even the notes taken by a congressman allowed access to papers were “to be marked as classified documents.” A State Department official later characterized this and subsequent meetings as having a “bunker mentality,” and a presidential aide confessed “there was a lot of hand-wringing and at times it was quite pathetic. We couldn’t figure out what to do.” Finally, the president himself “began to play a personal role in the efforts to keep Congress from learning of his Iraqi policies. The sheer inability of [the] group to sort out the problem seemed to warrant Oval Office attention.”

Concluded the Observer, Bush’s strategy “proved highly effective in slowing down congressional investigations and many of the documents . . . were withheld for another year.” A House committee chairman summarized the administration’s actions with unconcealed contempt: they “advance[d] the notion that cover-up mechanisms have become an integral cog in the machinery of this administration.” The matter evaporated from the pages of the press when Clinton took office, as Republicans quickly shifted public attention toward Whitewater, “Nannygate,” gays in the military, and various other issues utterly insignificant in comparison to the level of executive wrongdoing in the Bush White House.

These press reports leave aside the still-unanswered questions about Papa Bush’s involvement in another arms scandal: the Iran-Contra affair. According to the independent prosecutor’s final report on that wretched business, Vice President Bush, despite indignant protestations to the contrary, “was fully aware of the Iran arms sales.” A complete investigation was blocked by President Bush in 1992 when he granted post-election pardons to six officials involved in the illegal dealings. Said the prosecutor in a January 19, 1994 press conference, “I think President Bush will always have to answer for his pardons. I think that was the most unjustifiable act. There was no public purpose served by that.”

Nor is there any public purpose served today by Bush II’s claim that cooperating with investigations by a coextensive branch of government is “contrary to the national interest.” Circumstances suggest that such a position comports only with this administration’s “personal interest” in retaining the keys to any closets filled with Papa’s skeletons. It intends to keep the doors firmly locked. In what could be one of the greater ironies of American politics, however, ultraconservative Dan Burton may be the one who strips away two conservative, collaborative administrations’ cloak of secrecy.


© Copyright 2001 P. M. Carpenter

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castorita - 12/25/2001

Disrespectful? After the way people treated Clinton from Day 1 of his candidacy all through 8 years, and you take issue with this? It is entirely fitting and apropos, due to the sense of entitlement and arrogance of this Administration. The extradordinary amassing of power to the Executive Branch that is going on should give us all pause. You are completely missing the point. The way things are going, if Bush II can continue or intensify this war, you can bet he will use it to justify re-selecting him in 2004.

Jeff Hess - 12/20/2001

No more disrespectful and comtemptable than to ride around in a golf cart with your father wearing "41" and "43" on your baseball caps.

Pierre Troublion - 12/19/2001

I find "Papa" and "Junior" more descriptively appropriate for the hatching, burying, and blundering undertaken by the one-termer and the unelected respectively.

The Rt. Rev. Jack E. Holman - 12/19/2001

Hardly as disrespectful or contemptable toward the American public as the actions and policies of the Bush I & II. Secrecy and coverup is the leitmotif of both their administrations. Gives a new meaning to "beating around the bush". Mr. Carpenter has it right! As usual. +Jack Holman

Tristan Traviolia - 12/19/2001

The author should be ashamed of himself for putting a monarchal "I" behind a president's name.