April 16, 2008—Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have shied away from the issue of holding George W. Bush and his top aides accountable for war crimes, torture and other offenses – apparently out of fear of alienating potential Republican crossover votes.
But – under questioning on April 14 – Obama agreed that, if elected, he would have his Attorney General initiate an investigation into whether Bush and other senior officials violated criminal statutes and thus deserved to face prosecution.
“What I would want to do is to have my Justice Department and my Attorney General immediately review the information that's already there and to find out are there inquiries that need to be pursued,” Obama told journalist Will Bunch. [Philly.com, April 14, 2008]
“I can't prejudge that because we don't have access to all the material right now,” Obama continued. “I think that you are right, if crimes have been committed, they should be investigated.”
However, the Illinois senator left himself an out, suggesting he would weigh evidence of Bush’s guilt against the potential political fallout from prosecuting a former President.
“I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt because I think we've got too many problems we've got to solve,” Obama said. “So this is an area where I would want to exercise judgment – I would want to find out directly from my Attorney General – having pursued, having looked at what's out there right now – are there possibilities of genuine crimes as opposed to really bad policies.”
Nevertheless, Obama said he would be inclined to take action “if I found out that there were high officials who knowingly, consciously broke existing laws, engaged in cover-ups of those crimes with knowledge forefront, then I think a basic principle of our Constitution is nobody is above the law – and I think that's roughly how I would look at it.”
It’s less clear how Hillary Clinton would handle evidence that Bush and his top aides violated criminal statutes in the “war on terror” and the Iraq War. But Bill Clinton has said his wife wants to collaborate with Bush’s father, suggesting that she would not pursue accountability for the son.
On Dec. 17, 2007, Bill Clinton disclosed that his wife’s first act in the White House would be to send Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush on an around-the-world mission to repair America’s damaged image.
“The first thing she intends to do is to send me and former President Bush and a number of other people around the world to tell them that America is open for business and cooperation again,” said Bill Clinton, who has accompanied the senior Bush on international humanitarian missions over the past several years.
The remark suggested Americans should be impressed that the country’s two dominant political dynasties would team up in early 2009 to tidy up some of the mess created by the headstrong son of the senior dynasty, the Bush Family.
The Bushes and the Clintons have held pieces of the nation’s executive power for more than a quarter century dating back to George H.W. Bush’s election as Vice President in 1980.
In responding to Bill Clinton’s remark, George H.W. Bush issued a statement making clear he would not join in any slap at his son’s foreign policy. That, in turn, means that Hillary Clinton’s “first thing” is unthinkable if her new administration were trying to exact any accountability from George W. Bush for his wrongdoing.
So, to get the senior Bush onboard for the worldwide tour, there would have to be an implicit understanding that the second Clinton administration wouldn’t investigate the younger Bush’s crimes – from authorizing torture, ordering warrantless wiretaps, exposing CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity, waging war under false pretenses and other abuses of executive powers.
If Hillary Clinton does get elected, Americans should expect to hear lots of talk about “leaving that one for the historians” or "no need to get bogged down refighting old battles.” That’s exactly what happened in 1993 when Bill Clinton entered the White House after defeating George H.W. Bush.
Clinton and other senior Democrats shut down or wrapped up four investigations that implicated senior Republicans, including Bush, in constitutional abuses of power and criminal wrongdoing during the Reagan-Bush years.
The Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages case was still alive, with special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh furious over new evidence that President George H.W. Bush may have obstructed justice by withholding his own notes from investigators and then ducking an interview that Walsh had put off until after the 1992 elections.
Bush also had sabotaged the investigation by pardoning six Iran-Contra defendants on Christmas Eve 1992, possibly the first presidential pardon ever issued to protect the same President from criminal liability.
In late 1992, Congress also was investigating Bush’s alleged role in secretly aiding Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during and after Hussein’s eight-year-long war with Iran. Rep. Henry Gonzalez, D-Texas, the House Banking Committee chairman, had exposed intricate financial schemes that the Reagan-Bush administrations employed to assist Hussein.
There also were allegations of indirect U.S. military aid to Iraq through third countries, including the supply of dangerous chemicals.
Lesser known investigations were examining two other sets of alleged wrongdoing: the so-called October Surprise issue (allegations that Bush and other Republicans interfered with Jimmy Carter’s hostage negotiations with Iran during the 1980 campaign) and the Passportgate affair (evidence that Bush operatives improperly searched Clinton’s passport file in 1992, looking for dirt that could be used to discredit his patriotism and secure reelection for Bush).
All told, the four sets of allegations, if true, painted an unflattering portrait of the 12-year Republican rule, with two illegal dirty tricks (October Surprise and Passportgate) book-ending ill-considered national security schemes in the Middle East (Iran-Contra and Iraqgate).
Had the full stories been told, the American people might have perceived the legacies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush quite differently.
But the Clinton administration and congressional Democrats dropped all four investigations beginning in early 1993, either through benign neglect – by failing to hold hearings and keeping the issues alive in the news media – or by actively closing the door on investigative leads.
Clinton let George H.W. Bush retreat gracefully into retirement. [For details on the scandals, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
In his 2004 memoir, My Life, Clinton wrote that he “disagreed with the [Iran-Contra] pardons and could have made more of them but didn’t.” Clinton cited several reasons for giving his predecessor a pass.
“I wanted the country to be more united, not more divided, even if that split would be to my political advantage,” Clinton wrote. “Finally, President Bush had given decades of service to our country, and I thought we should allow him to retire in peace, leaving the matter between him and his conscience.”
By his choice of words, Clinton revealed how he saw information – not something that belonged to the American people and had intrinsic value to a healthy democracy – but as a potential weapon that could be put to “political advantage.” Rather than wield the Iran-Contra club, Clinton opted for a cover-up in the name of national unity.
Similarly, the Democratic congressional leadership ignored the flood of incriminating evidence pouring in to the “October Surprise” task force in December 1992.
Chief counsel Lawrence Barcella told me later that he urged task force chairman Lee Hamilton to extend the investigation several months to examine this new evidence of Republican guilt, but Hamilton ordered Barcella to wrap up the probe with a finding that the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign had done nothing wrong.
Some of the new incriminating evidence – including an unprecedented report from the Russian government about its knowledge of illicit Republican contacts with Iran – was simply hidden away in boxes that I discovered two years later and dubbed “The October Surprise X-Files.”
The “Iraqgate” investigation met a similar fate under Clinton’s Justice Department, which chose to ignore or dismiss evidence of covert shipments of war materiel to Saddam Hussein during the 1980s.
In 1996, when former Reagan national security official Howard Teicher came forward with an affidavit describing secret U.S.-backed arms shipments to Iraq in the 1980s, Clinton’s Justice Department went on the offensive – against Teicher, trying to discredit him and bullying him into silence.
That same year, the Clinton administration did nothing when Reagan’s 1984 campaign chief Ed Rollins wrote in his 1996 memoir Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms that a top Filipino politician had admitted delivering an illegal $10 million cash payment to Reagan from Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
"I was the guy who gave the ten million from Marcos to your campaign," the Filipino told Rollins in 1991, according to the memoir. "I was the guy who made the arrangements and delivered the cash personally. ...It was a personal gift from Marcos to Reagan."
The stunning anecdote did attract some press coverage in 1996 but the story died because the Clinton administration made no effort to follow it up. No government investigator demanded that Rollins reveal the identities of the Filipino politician and the Republican lobbyist who handled the pay-off.
Similarly, in 1998, when CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz confirmed that the Reagan-Bush administration had helped cover up cocaine trafficking by the Nicaraguan contra rebels, including evidence that traced directly into the White House in the mid-1980s, the Clinton administration chose to look the other way. [For details, see Parry’s Lost History.]
In the 1990s, even as the Republican attack machine pounded the Clintons with allegations about alleged ethical lapses and marital infidelities, the Clinton administration acted like it was determined to prove it could be trusted with the nation’s dark secrets, that it could cover up wrongdoing with the best of them.
The consequences for America, however, were less pleasant. With George H.W. Bush’s sinister history hidden, the door was opened to the restoration of the Bush Dynasty. If the full truth had been known about former President Bush, it’s hard to conceive how his son, George W. Bush, ever could have become President.
If Bill Clinton now is right about Hillary Clinton’s “first thing” to do as President – recruiting George H.W. Bush for a worldwide goodwill tour – she seems heading in the same direction that her husband took, looking to the future rather than insisting on an honest accounting of the past.
Sen. Obama may offer only slightly more hope for Americans who believe that another cover-up of the Bush Family’s wrongdoing would represent another severe blow to the Republic.
Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have rejected grassroots demands for the impeachment of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. In the April 14 interview about a possible Justice Department examination of Bush’s crimes, Obama reaffirmed his opposition to impeachment.
“I often get questions about impeachment at town hall meetings and I've said that is not something I think would be fruitful to pursue because I think that impeachment is something that should be reserved for exceptional circumstances,” Obama said.
Though one could argue that impeachment at this late stage of the Bush presidency doesn’t make political sense, what is alarming about Obama’s answer is that he seems to be willfully ignoring evidence that Bush’s record represents something that is indeed quite “exceptional.”
Still, a new President’s promise of at least a criminal investigation into Bush’s actions is surely more promising than the idea of an arm-in-arm world tour by the new President’s husband and the old President’s dad.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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This story was published on April 16, 2008.