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Did Henry Kissinger Slander Christopher Hitchens?

Henry Kissinger came to the National Press Club here in Washington, D.C. last week to give a talk, sell his latest book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? and take questions from an audience of about 300 people.

We weren't as interested in the talk or the book as much as the question period. We figured, correctly as it turned out, that Henry hadn't change over the years -- his unspoken theory of foreign policy was still the same: the corporate state -- including his client corporations -- should dictate the country's foreign policy. As usual, his words barely masked that reality.

But scattered throughout the ballroom at the Press Club were little white note cards for questions, and it appeared that perhaps 100 questions were scribbled and sent up to the moderator, Richard Koonce, a member of the Press Club's book and author committee.

It was Koonce's job to sift through the questions, pick out some interesting ones, and ask Henry some probing questions. This system seemed to work well at luncheon talks, where the past three presidents of the Press Club -- Doug Harbrecht of Business Week, John Cushman of the New York Times and Dick Ryan of the Detroit News -- would ask speakers some pretty tough and newsworthy questions. We never got the sense that Press Club moderators were pulling punches.

But things have changed.

Earlier this year, Harper's magazine published a two-part series of articles by British journalist Christopher Hitchens,"The Case Against Henry Kissinger that has since been published as a book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (Verso).

Hitchens has drawn up an indictment, charged Kissinger with war crimes, and is begging some government to go after the former Secretary of State under Richard Nixon for the killings of innocents in Laos, Cambodia, South America, East Timor and elsewhere.

Magistrates in three countries -- Chile, Argentina, and France -- have responded and summoned Kissinger to answer questions.

Le Monde reported earlier this month that when French Judge Roger Le Loire had a summons served on Kissinger on May 31 at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, Kissinger promptly left the hotel, and then left town. The judge wanted to ask Kissinger about his knowledge of Operation Condor, an effort by the dictators of South America to kill or"disappear" dissidents.

The fact that Kissinger was being sought for questioning didn't make the mainstream media here in the United States, until the New York Times belatedly reported that the Chilean judge wanted Kissinger to"testify about the disappearance of an American in Chile when the dictator Augusto Pinochet seized power in the 1970s."

Kissinger began lashing back at Hitchens, not by answering the substance of Hitchen's argument, but by smearing the journalist.

Kissinger told Detroit radio talk show host Mitch Albom that Hitchens had"denied the Holocaust ever took place."

In response, Hitchens, who says both and he his wife are Jewish, told the New York Post:"Mr. Kissinger will be hearing from my attorney, who will tell him two things he already knows -- what he said is false, malicious and defamatory, and if he says it again, we will proceed against him in court."

So, you can imagine that the Press Club audience had questions. And so did we.

We wrote down six questions -- about the report in the Times, Kissinger's interview with Albom, the incident at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, Hitchen's articles in Harper's, about the three magistrates and simply this one:"If you are indicted for war crimes, will you defend yourself in court?"

We met a friend there who told us that in the 1970s, when Kissinger was asked about the bombing of Laos and Cambodia, he responded this way:"sometimes we have to operate outside the law."

Her question to Kissinger:"How do you square that with our Constitutional values?"

Koonce had other ideas. He lofted six or seven puff balls about Kissinger in China, about Kissinger on Nixon, about his generic views of foreign policy. Nothing about war crimes, nothing about operating outside the law, nothing about Hitchens.

After the event, we sought out Koonce.

"Was there an agreement with Dr. Kissinger not to ask questions related to Christopher Hitchens and allegations of war crimes?"

To our surprise, Koonce did not deny it.

"There was a definite sensitivity to that," Koonce said."He [Kissinger] was afraid that if we got into a discussion of that, for the vast majority of people that, it would take so much time to explain all of the context, that you know, he preferred to avoid that, and so . . ."

And so Kissinger's wishes were accommodated and the questions were avoided.

We asked Koonce how many written questions dealt with Hitchens or war crimes? Two or three, Koonce said.

We knew this not to be true. We handed up six ourselves. And we suspect that there were many more. (Only Kissinger knows for sure, since it's Press Club policy to deliver the written questions to the guest after the event.)

According to Press Club standards, these book events must be held in accordance with the Club's"Code of Ethics."

So, we want to know -- how can it be ethical to agree secretly with an author before hand not to ask a certain set of questions?

We're tracking down the Code of Ethics. Stay tuned.

(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman