“I’m saying, taken in its totality, the system seems to operate fairly. We should be vigilant and look for potential discrimination, and you can always make improvements in the system. But the empirical studies I see suggest that people are treated equally in the system. That is, if a black and a white are charged with the same offense, generally they will get the same treatment in the system, and ultimately the same penalty.”
In seven months as U.S. attorney general, William P. Barr has converted the Justice Department into an agenda-setting agency from a reactive institution, focusing on cutting-edge issues high on many Americans’ minds. These include violent crime, gangs, health-care fraud, tighter immigration controls and competition-stifling foreign cartels. He had a running start, serving as deputy to Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh for a year and a half and quieting the bitterness that marked Thornburgh’s management style.
Expectations were that Barr would be a caretaker during an election year, making few waves. Instead, one of his programs — weeding out criminal elements in a community and then seeding with social reform–has been elevated to a leading domestic policy. He does not avoid controversy, most noteworthy being the opinion he wrote, in 1989, saying there was nothing illegal about U.S. agents seizing fugitives overseas without the host country’s permission. When the Supreme Court recently upheld this, Barr gave the State Department and White House fits in hailing the ruling, while Mexico writhed.
Barr was 41 when he took over the nation’s top law job. During the modern era, only a President’s brother and the son of a Supreme Court justice managed to assume the nation’s top law post when that young. Barr, a bookish-looking son of educators who speaks with a muted New York accent, brought no special credentials. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Chinese studies and picked up his law degree at night school while working at the CIA.
He landed this powerful job through a combination of genuine smarts, his effectiveness as a idea-generating conservative and his winning way with people, especially those on the other side of policy arguments. But Barr also happened to be in the right place at the right time.
He has stumbled along the way: Taking part in a hyped press conference on gangs that resurrected a long-standing investigation, for example. His training as a lawyer gives him difficulty in responding to questions with short answers. But overall, he has won plus marks inside the Administration and has managed to re-establish civilized relations with Senate and House overseers.
Barr takes his favorite form of relaxation–playing the bagpipes–seriously. He takes pride in his reputation for veracity, but sometimes risks it–claiming, for example, that his wife and three daughters enjoy the pipe-playing.
Question: More than any attorney general since Elliot Richardson nearly 20 years ago, you came into office with a specific agenda. Have the developments in Los Angeles and the possibility of urban unrest across the country changed your priorities?
Answer: Not at all. In fact, I think the riot in Los Angeles underscored the importance of those priorities.
Q: You don’t find yourself making any shifts?
A: No. Violent crime is a high priority, the role of gangs, the problem we have in the juvenile justice system. These are things that obviously were related to the riots in Los Angeles and the whole problem we have in the inner cities. The importance of prosecuting the war on drugs, similarly, I think, is responsive to one of the real problems we have in our cities in the United States. Even in the civil-rights area, where one of my chief priorities has been in fair housing and in lending practices and mortgage practices, that’s very important to rehabilitate in the inner cities. The problem of immigration enforcement–making sure we have a fair set of rules and then enforce them–I think that’s certainly relevant to the problems we’re seeing in Los Angeles.
Q: Is the civil unrest in Los Angeles an aberration–one city with its particular pressures, perhaps police department style and a chief immune from the normal political process? Or is it symptomatic of urban unrest throughout the nation?
A: I wouldn’t want to predict similar incidents of urban unrest throughout the nation. I think the problems in the inner cities are nationwide. There is, in fact, frustration and, in some segments of our population, a certain hopelessness over circumstances. I think there was anger and frustration over the verdict in the Rodney King incident that certainly wasn’t limited to Los Angeles, but I do think that there were a lot of unique circumstances in Los Angeles that came together in a way that added to the combustibility of the post-verdict hours and contributed to the intensity and the scale of the violence in Los Angeles.
Q: On the Rodney King investigation, we’re hearing it’s taking longer than first anticipated and it will be not until at least August that anything is presented to the grand jury or there’s any kind of decision. Is this timetable on the mark?
A: I can’t specify how much time I think it would take. If we decide to go forward with indictments, then we want to be sure we have built a strong case that will prevail in court. Any time we’re taking now would be necessary to developing such a case. I am in contact with the prosecution team, have talked to them about the investigation they’re conducting and am convinced that they are proceeding as expeditiously as possible.
Q: What we ‘ re hearing is the investigators have encountered Garrity problems (officers being required to answer questions for an earlier internal inquiry with the guarantee that the information cannot be used against them as evidence or leads to evidence in a criminal prosecution).
A: I won’t comment on that.
Q: My reason for asking is the theory that there might have been some deliberate use of an administrative inquiry to stonewall the criminal–
A: I have no comment.
Q: I wanted to ask you about fairness and justice as they’re perceived in the minority communities. You testified recently that you did not see the nation’s criminal-justice system as purposely discriminatory or biased. How do you account for the large number of blacks in prison?
A: . . . My view is that, overall, I think our system is fair and does not treat people differently. Obviously, our national criminal-justice system is a diverse broad one, and incorporates state systems and county systems.
I’m not suggesting that somewhere in the system there are not people who are biased. But I’m saying, taken in its totality, the system seems to operate fairly. We should be vigilant and look for potential discrimination, and you can always make improvements in the system. But the empirical studies I see suggest that people are treated equally in the system. That is, if a black and a white are charged with the same offense, generally they will get the same treatment in the system, and ultimately the same penalty. There are some laws that may have a disparate impact on minorities — laws that are not intentionally discriminatory, but as a practical matter, impact minority populations more than others.
Let me give you two examples. One would be the mandatory minimum for crack cocaine, which is a very low threshold. Five grams of crack cocaine gets you a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. Because of the use patterns and distribution patterns of crack cocaine, that penalty falls heavily on minority populations. But it’s not because of discriminatory intent. It has a disparate impact.
Another example are the differences in the laws among different geographic regions or states. Many of the large cities, with a high proportion of minorities, are in states that have heavier penalties or tougher criminal-justice systems and are less apt to grant probation, more apt to impose stiffer prison sentences. The application of those laws in those states may have a disparate impact on minorities because there are more minorities. . . .
Q: Along with every other attorney general since the Ethics in Government Act was passed in ’78, you’re no fan of appointing outside prosecutors. Yet you have named two special counsels of your own in particularly sensitive matters. Does this appointment by you of people who report to you, but nevertheless are outside the mechanism of the department, does that undercut your argument?
A: No, in fact I think it highlights the weaknesses of the independent counsel statute as it presently is structured. I think the problem with the statute now is that there’s no accountability. An individual is set up as a power unto themselves . . . I think there have to be some constraints.
Part of the constraints that exist in the Department of Justice are a set of policies, an institutional ethos about the proper role of a prosecutor, and the fact that we have here experienced prosecutors who see many cases and well understand the proper functioning of a prosecutor. What the statute does is set someone outside that milieu, not necessarily controlled by policies, not controlled or influenced by the ethos of the department, and with no accountability. No supervisor or anyone to make sure there’s no abuse of power going on. And unlimited resources. I think that any person concerned about civil liberties should be concerned about that kind of a structure.
I think what we’ve done here in the department, by appointing outsiders to come in and conduct independent investigations, is that on the one hand we’ve gotten a degree of independence to provide some additional assurance that an investigation is not going to be a whitewash or a cover-up, but at the same time, we’ve at least provided some degree of accountability by assuring that the attorney general still retains ultimate power to remove an individual who’s engaged in abuse, and also the individual has the ability of drawing resources from existing prosecutors who are familiar with the policies and the standards of the department. So you’re more likely to get professionally run investigations that are the same as what other citizens are subject to.
Q: When the act comes up for reauthorization later this year, will you oppose it?
A: No, I’ve already said I’m concerned about its current structure and we would be seeking changes to it, both to the trigger mechanism and also to the issue of accountability, also the selection methods, to be sure that people selected are familiar with the role of a prosecutor.
Q: You have certain qualifications, certain requisites which–
A: I haven’t drafted up a counterproposal, but I think we should look at something like that.
Q: The minute you try and solve the problem of accountability, aren’t you then on the edge of political control? Control by the attorney general, control by an appointee of the President committed to establish that accountability, and doesn’t that then defeat the purpose of the independent counsel in the first place?
A: I think it’s a question of striking the right balance. Also allowing, to some extent, political checks and balances.
Q: Could you be a little more —
A: For example, the Watergate independent counsel was also appointed by the attorney general and was not statutorily independent. Ultimately, the political process ensures that such an independent counsel will have independence.
Q: One thing you hadn’t mentioned, do you think the independent counsel should cover the legislative branch as well as the executive?
A: I think the same rules should apply to both branches.
Q: In the wake of the Machain decision, does the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the authorization of U.S. agents to seize fugitives overseas make these operations now more likely?
A: No, there’s been no change in policy. The Supreme Court opinion does not reflect any change in policy. As we’ve said all along, our policy generally is to cooperate with foreign governments.
Q: Were there any operations in this period since you wrote the rendition opinion as an assistant attorney general and the Supreme Court decision that you might have conducted but decided not to because it was up in the air?
A: No. None at all.
Q: Has the Administration ever considered implementing the rendition opinion?
A: There have been circumstances where we considered the feasibility of arresting someone overseas under circumstances that were governed by that opinion, but those situations were never really circulated outside of the department because they were not feasible.
November 19, 1991 — On Politics, by Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover
Republicans will have to put up with Duke in ’92
“Thanks to the voters of Louisiana, President Bush and the Republican Party have avoided the awkward embarrassment of having to deal with David Duke as a Republican governor… at the same time, however, it is clear that Duke has uncovered a mother lode of political gold in the angry resentment lower-income white voters feel about policies they believe use their tax money and affirmative action programs to give blacks special treatment. Although Duke was buried here… he did win a majority — about 55 percent — of the white vote.”
April 2, 1992 — Tough Line Urged for Young Offenders, by Ronald J. Ostrow
Law enforcement: The attorney general calls for changes to help cut crime by juveniles and to reach out to troubled youths.
WASHINGTON — While decrying the “moral lobotomy of public schools” and tax and welfare policies that he contends undercut stable families, Atty. Gen. William P. Barr called Wednesday for tougher punishment of juvenile offenders to reduce violent crime…
Speaking to the Wisconsin Governor’s Conference on juvenile crime, drugs and gangs, Barr dismissed as “simply wrong” the conventional wisdom that detaining a young offender will make him a more hardened criminal.
“The punishments imposed by the juvenile courts and the juvenile delinquency system are all too often light and ineffective, even for serious offenses,” Barr said.
He was most critical of what he called an erosion of public schools’ ability to exercise moral influence over children.
“This moral lobotomy of public schools has been based on the extremist notions of separation of church and state” and the rejection of the notion “that there are standards of right or wrong to which the community can demand adherence,” Barr said.
He called for early identification of habitual offenders who commit progressively more violent crimes and stepped up efforts to punish them as adults.
March 7, 1992 — Bush’s Justice Department bows to the right, by Anthony Lewis
The Justice Department used to have a certain esprit, a resistance to political interference. But that requires an attorney general with fortitude.
The [Environmental Defense Fund] had filed a brief supporting the federal government’s appeal from a judgement ordering the Army Corps of Engineers to pay a development company $2.68 million for forbidding it to fill in wetlands it owned. [James] Benkard had approved the filing of the brief, though not every detail of its rather broad advocacy.
That bothered the extreme right because one of its main agenda items these days is to get the Supreme Court to hold that any regulation of property is a constitutional “taking” requiring compensation. The government would then have to pay owners subject to environmental, health, safety and flood-control rules and the like.
Benkard was told to go and see Constance Horner, director of presidential personnel in the White House. At their meeting she seemed concerned that he would be too interested in enforcing environmental laws.
Barr, who became attorney general last November, never called again. Benkard just twisted in the wind until he read a story in the Legal Times last month saying that he had lost the job and it would go instead to Vicki Masterman, a young conservative from Chicago.
Even the conservative editors of The Wall Street Journal have called the Environmental Defense Fund a “more moderate” group. But in this election year, with Patrick Buchanan running, Bush is bowing ever more to the right.
When I telephoned Benkard, he sounded cheerful enough but troubled.
“I support George Bush,” he said. “But the constant pressure on him from the right will inevitably alienate moderate Republicans such as myself.”
For me the worst aspect of the episode is what it indicates about Barr. The Justice Department used to have a certain esprit, a resistance to political interference. But that requires an attorney general with fortitude, and it is a long time since we have had one who deserved the form we use in addressing him: general.
April 30, 1992 — Editorial: The crime surge
“Let the people know the facts and the country will be saved.” -Abraham Lincoln
The debate over causes and cures resumes with the report that homicides in the nation rose 7 percent and violent crime in general climbed 5 percent in 1991…
What gives the statistics a bite is this: They show that in America, a person’s chance of being the victim of a violent crime — homicide, forcible rape, robbery or aggravated assault — was the highest in three decades.
Criminologists, law enforcement authorities and others have different ideas about what caused the startling surge in the number of homicides in Indianapolis and eight other of the nation’s largest cities — those with populations of 300,000 or more.
Indianapolis, up 64 percent to 195, was third on the list, behind Omaha, Neb., up 192 percent to 35 and Virginia Beach, Va., up 69 percent to 27…
What caused the startling surge in homicides in Indianapolis?
Victims of violent crime, relatives and friends of victims and a great many other crime-conscious Americans probably would agree with what Attorney General William Barr said Sunday in an interview on ABC’s This Week With David Brinkley:
‘The real problem of violent crime today is the chronic violent offender, the repeat offender. The more we send those violent career criminals to prison and the longer we keep them there, the fewer crimes and fewer victims there will be.’
There is a school of thought that disagrees, asserting that nothing is to be gained by ‘warehousing’ criminals.
But something is to be gained by separating the chronically violent from society and keeping them isolated, and that is relatively improved safety of the individuals who make up society.”
May 2, 1992 — Rodney King’s plea for peace: ‘People . . . can we get along?’
May 9, 1992 — Bush Hopes Seed Money Will Sow Roots of Peace in L.A., by Ronald J. Ostrow
WASHINGTON — The Johnson Administration sought to solve American urban problems with Great Society programs. The Bush Administration’s showcase effort is known as Operation Weed and Seed, which was extended to riot-torn Los Angeles on Friday…
The Administration last month announced weed and seed grants to 16 cities that were supposed to serve as demonstration sites. But now the Los Angeles program, by virtue of its size, seems certain to provide the best test of whether Bush’s strategy for renewal is any better than earlier Democratic efforts he has so harshly criticized.
The 16 other cities, including Santa Ana and San Diego, are to receive about $1 million each spread over this fiscal year and next. Los Angeles will receive about $19 million, apparently most of it this year…
Despite the Administration’s upbeat view of the effort, is has not escaped criticism, including a warning by a White House drug office staff member.
In a March 6 memo, Marc Franc, a legislative analyst at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said many of the weed and seed dollars would be merely reshuffled funds.
“Man of these grants would be made with or without Operation Weed and Seed, something that will not be lost on congressional staff,” Franc said. “They will be in a position to allege that this is nothing more than an election-year gimmick and involves no new money, but is merely a reallocation of existing funds.”
In addition to Santa Ana and San Diego, cities designated for the $1 million federal backing are Atlanta; Charleston, S.C.; Denver; Philadelphia; Richmond, Va.; Washington; Boston; Chicago; Ft. Worth; Madison, Wis.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; San Antonio; Seattle and Wilmington, Del.
May 19, 1992 — Barr Says L.A. Requires More Police, by Ronald J. Ostrow
Law enforcement: The U.S. attorney general maintains that a larger force is needed to provide the kind of community policing that can head off urban violence.
Barr, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, said Los Angeles’ tradition of “response policing” is no longer adequate because it focuses on responding to complaints or crimes without enough attention to building a close relationship with communities.
Instead, he said, Los Angeles needs to follow the approach of such cities as New York, Philadelphia and Richmond, Va., where response policing is combined with an effort to build bridges of mutual trust within minority communities and high-crime areas. “We believe law enforcement has to have a close relationship with the community to provide adequate protection and effective law enforcement,” Barr said. “That requires having sufficient manpower.”
June 17, 1992 — The Fruits of Racism Ripen in Russia as in Los Angeles, by Vladimir Pozner
Inequality: Like the former Soviet minorities, U.S. blacks were never made whole.
“The force that brought the empire down, the force that continues to pull the former Soviet republics apart and defies attempts to create any lasting bonds between them is nationalism. Let that not be confused with the pride that comes from the discovery of self-identity: Those who respect themselves invariably respect others. This is the ugly nationalism that is born from fear, hatred, prejudice, all coming in turn from age-old persecution…
The blacks were brought over in irons, their roots destroyed. They were slaves and remained slaves for generations. When they were set free, nothing was done (with the short-lived exception of Reconstruction) to raise them to the general level. The gap between them and others has never been closed. They were never given the opportunity to cook in the melting pot, be part of the American dream. The Declaration of Independence did not and still does not apply to them.
Therein lie the reasons for riots past, riots present and the inevitable riots of the future.
‘When . . . you have succeeded in dehumanizing the Negro; when you have put him down and made it impossible for him to be but as the beasts of the field; when you have extinguished his soul in this world and placed him where the ray of hope was blown out as in the darkness of the damned, are you quite sure that the demon you have roused will not turn and rend you?’ Thus spoke Abraham Lincoln in 1858. Do those words not apply today?
Neither the White House ‘Weed and Seed‘ program nor sums of money can solve the problem. There must be a national recognition of the crime that has been perpetrated against an entire race, for it is only on the basis of such a recognition that the sustained effort of righting a historic wrong can be achieved. Should that not happen, the explosions of black rage will continue to rock America’s very foundations until they finally crumble.
For those who doubt that possibility, I say: Look to the experience of a country that is no more, the Soviet Union.”
July 10, 1992 — House Panel Urges Special Counsel for Iraq Inquiry, by Elaine Sciolino
The House Judiciary Committee today requested the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate whether the Bush Administration broke Federal laws in executing and defending its policy toward Iraq.
Today’s decision challenges President Bush’s contention that his policy toward Iraq before it invaded Kuwait in August 1990 was flawed, but not criminal, and focuses more attention on an issue that has already been used effectively by Democrats in the Presidential campaign.
In announcing the request, Representative Jack Brooks, the Texas Democrat who is chairman of the committee, said: “Our investigation and our request are not an attempt to second-guess the Administration’s policy in ’tilting’ toward Iraq. The stupidity of that policy speaks for itself, and even the President has acknowledged that it was an utter failure.”
“What we are concerned about,” he added, “is the possibility that high Administration officials, in their zeal to carry out this policy, and then to keep it from being exposed, may have broken the law.”
Mr. Bush has said that although the policy failed, it was well-intentioned, designed to bring the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, “into the family of nations” through economic and political means. He has reacted angrily to accusations that he or his aides did anything criminal in executing or defending the policy.
Twenty Judiciary Committee Democrats, in a letter to Attorney General William P. Barr formally making the request for an independent counsel, cited assertions that former and current officials illegally assisted Baghdad and that Administration officials tried to mislead Congress by making false statements and altering and withholding documents. It also cited assertions that the Administration interfered in the criminal prosecution of the Atlanta branch of the Italian-owned Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, which provided Iraq with billions of dollars in illegal loans and export credits.
Mr. Barr has 30 days to advise the committee if he will begin a preliminary inquiry into the appointment of the independent counsel and can delay his final decision for four months. That would mean that the matter would not be decided until early December, after the Presidential election and within days of the expiration on Dec. 15 of the Federal statute that allows for the appointment of independent counsels.
The House committee’s decision also follows the disclosure this week that a lawyer working on Mr. Bush’s personal legal staff discussed the criminal investigation directly with the Federal prosecutor supervising the case, suggesting that the White House may have interfered improperly in the bank case. Ex-Aide Denies Charges
The lawyer, Jay S. Bybee, confirmed in a telephone interview today that he had called the prosecutor, Gail McKenzie, twice in early November, just before the Administration decided to extend an additional $500 million in agricultural loan guarantees to Iraq.
But Mr. Bybee denied that the calls were an attempt to influence Ms. McKenzie’s investigation into allegations that senior Iraqi officials were involved in a multibillion-dollar bank fraud in the United States and that they used some of the money to build Baghdad’s huge military arsenal.
Rather, he said, the White House was concerned that both the Agriculture and State Departments were rushing through the loan program, and he wanted to know if she had any evidence that could embarrass the White House if it approved the credit extension.
“It wasn’t the indictments we were concerned about,” said Mr. Bybee, who now teaches law at Louisiana State University. “We were concerned about being embarrassed if we went ahead and guaranteed loans for Iraq given the track record at the same time the Justice Department was indicting Iraqi officials.”
Asked if his calls could be viewed as an obstruction of justice, Mr. Bybee said: “Baloney. To the best of my recollection I made it clear to her that I had no intention of influencing anything she did on the case. She didn’t seem uncomfortable, and we had a very friendly, professional conversation.”
Mr. Bybee, who said that the White House yesterday found and read him his notes of the phone conversations, denied that he had been ordered to call Ms. McKenzie by the chief White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray, but could not recall how he did come to call her. Nor could he say why he did not ask the Justice Department for information about the case, which would have been the normal channel. “On reflection, I probably should have,” he said.
Ms. McKenzie faxed Mr. Bybee a number of newspaper articles linking B.N.L. to Iraqi weapon programs, but disclosed no information about the case, which was before the grand jury, or when her office might issue indictments. Mr. Bybee said he also made calls to the State and Agriculture Departments as part of his inquiry.”
In 1991, after the Persian Gulf war, the Government charged two former executives of the bank with conspiring with Iraqi officials to arrange more than $4 billion in illegal loans and export credits to Iraq. A Complicated Connection
The connection between the Atlanta bank and the obscure farm loan program is complicated and has been misrepresented on many occasions by Congressional Democrats critical of the Iraq policy.
Since the 1983 fiscal year, when the United States first began to guarantee Iraqi farm loans, B.N.L. extended many but not all of the loans that would be repaid by the United States in case Iraq defaulted. By the fall of 1989, there were a number of reports that Iraq had used money from the bank to pay for weapons programs.
Because of the seriousness of the Federal investigation of the bank, the Bush Administration excluded B.N.L. from the program in September 1989, two months before the new loan guarantees were approved.
-Article courtesy of the New York Times TimesMachine.
August 9, 1992 — Iraq Policy Still Bedevils Bush as Congress Asks: Were Crimes Committed? by Elaine Sciolino
The players in this complex tale include the man accused of masterminding what may be the biggest bank fraud in history, a bulldog Congressman who seems determined to prove that the President’s top aides engaged in a vast cover-up, and a beleaguered President who cannot understand why the issue will not go away.
As President Bush’s re-election campaign shifts into high gear, it continues to be haunted by the dispute over United States policy toward Iraq before it invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The invasion led to the Persian Gulf war.
Under the policy, billions of dollars in American aid was used to try to moderate President Saddam Hussein and turn him into a stabilizing force in the Middle East. And the President has acknowledged that this policy failed. Three Vital Questions
But in its zeal to influence Mr. Hussein, did the Bush Administration ignore evidence that some of this aid was diverted to Iraq’s buildup of weapons? Did it try to delay indictments of high-level Iraqi officials accused in a United States bank fraud? And did the President’s aides lie to Congress in an attempt to conceal the full scope of their failed courtship of Iraq?
Those are the questions that lie at the heart of the affair. Mr. Bush accuses Congressional Democrats of “recklessly” distorting the record for political gain and characterizes his policy as an honest error in judgment. The Administration insists that the policy was widely known and generally accepted as a sound one — by United States allies in the Middle East and even by some of the lawmakers who are now leading the criticism.
The Democrats, however, blame the Administration for “coddling” the Iraqi leader in advance of his invasion of Kuwait, despite mounting evidence that he was building a formidable military machine even after the eight-year Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988. Had the Administration paid more heed to that evidence, they say, the gulf war might never have been necessary.
Beyond the heated public statements, this much is known: In the late 1980’s, under a Presidential directive to build closer relations with Baghdad, the United States Government permitted the sale of sophisticated American technology and equipment to Iraq, some of which is believed to have been used to build weapons. At the same time, Iraq was allowed to become a major participant in the Commodity Credit Corporation, through which the United States Government cosigns bank loans for poor countries that want to buy American farm products. Taxpayers May Have to Pay
The financially strapped Iraqis financed some of the food and technology purchases with loans from the tiny Atlanta branch of an Italian bank, the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro. The Iraqis chose this branch, law enforcement officials say, because its officers were willing to take bribes in exchange for making high-risk loans.
The loans made through the agriculture program, on the other hand, were no-risk, as the United States Government would make good on any that Iraq failed to repay. Congressional critics have said the United States taxpayers will ultimately have to repay hundreds of millions of dollars on defaulted loans.
The Congressional panels that are investigating various facets of the Iraq policy have turned up evidence that they say suggests that some of those farm loans may have been channeled into military purchases.
Some lawmakers also maintain that the Government interfered with prosecutors investigating the bribery of the Atlanta bank officials and that it tried to conceal from Congress the extent of Iraq’s purchases of technology.
But they have yet to come up with proof of any wrongdoing by public officials. That is why the House Judiciary Committee is eager for a positive reply from Attorney General William P. Barr about its request for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the charges. Mr. Barr must respond to the request by Monday. He may either approve or reject it or ask for more time for an investigation of his own before deciding.
What follows is a look at which accusations involve possible criminal violations, as opposed to misguided but legal policy issues. These accusations, involving obstruction of justice and lying to Congress, would be the focus of any independent investigation. The Altered Lists Changes Uncovered At Commerce Dept.
The strongest indication that a crime may have been committed involves alterations made on a Commerce Department list of high-technology items approved for sale to Iraq between 1985 and 1990. The list was sent in October 1990 to Representative Doug Barnard Jr., Democrat of Georgia, whose Government Operations subcommittee was investigating exports to Iraq.
After Mr. Barnard received an anonymous tip that the Commerce Department had tampered with the list, he asked the department’s Inspector General to investigate. The Inspector General concluded in a report that both the copy sent to Congress and the permanent record had been changed in 68 instances to delete references to military designations. It can be illegal to willfully falsify documents presented to Congressional investigators.
In one instance, a description of a 1989 license for frequency synthesizers for a military complex north of Baghdad that made equipment for missiles and atomic bombs was changed to delete the crucial sentence, “According to our information, the end-user is involved in military matters.” The synthesizers were designed to test surveillance radar at the complex, which was a primary target of allied bombers in the gulf war.
In another instance, the Inspector General’s report said that the deletion of “military” to describe the sale of $1 billion worth of trucks to Iraq was “misleading and unjustified.”
Senior Commerce Department officials have testified to Congress that Dennis E. Kloske, who was then Under Secretary of Commerce, was solely to blame. But Mr. Kloske, who resigned in April 1991, told Congressional investigators that White House officials and top aides to former Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher supervised the preparation of the list, although he did not actually accuse his superiors of ordering the changes. The Justice Department says that since it is investigating the alterations, there is no need for an independent counsel. The Officials’ Role Lawmakers Charge They Were Misled
Beyond the Commerce Department list, Democratic lawmakers are also investigating whether Administration officials purposely misled Congress about Iraq policy, either in public testimony, correspondence or conversations, or by withholding documents.
One line of inquiry involves the Commodity Credit Corporation program through which Iraq made grain purchases. In the fall of 1989 the Bush Administration was locked in a heated debate about whether to go forward with $1 billion in new credits for Iraq. State Department officials argued that the credits were crucial to improving relations with Baghdad. Agriculture Department officials had reservations but wanted to promote American exports. But both the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve were concerned about Iraq’s ability and willingness to pay back its debts. Bowing to White House foreign policy concerns, a compromise decision was made to extend the credits in two stages.
Some lawmakers, like Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who heads the Senate Agriculture Committee, believe they were misled when they raised questions about the wisdom of the loan guarantees.
For example, in late October 1989, Secretary of State James A. Baker 3d telephoned Agriculture Secretary Clayton K. Yeutter urging him to go forward with $1 billion in credits on “foreign policy grounds,” according to an internal State Department memo. But Mr. Yeutter assured Mr. Leahy in a letter in February 1990 that foreign policy considerations did not contribute to the decision-making process.
Other Democratic lawmakers charge that the Administration conspired to mislead Congress by withholding crucial documents. Representative Henry B. Gonzalez, the Texas Democrat who has taken the lead in the investigations, has said there was a cover-up formulated in meetings held at the White House by lawyers from various Government agencies to coordinate answers to Congressional demands for documents. He has dubbed the group the “Rostow gang” because its chairman was C. Nicholas Rostow, the legal adviser to the National Security Council and a special assistant to Mr. Bush.
White House officials call the charge absurd, saying that such coordination is routine. But a senior State Department official said that Mr. Baker was indeed upset to learn that Mr. Rostow was trying to control the flow of documents, and ordered Edwin D. Williamson, the legal adviser who represented the State Department at the meetings, to coordinate with no one except Mr. Baker. The Bank Investigation Did Administration Delay Indictment?
A third area of concern is whether the Bush Administration illegally interfered with the criminal investigation of the Atlanta branch of Bank Lavoro. Interfering with a criminal investigation can lead to charges of obstruction of justice.
Specifically, Congress is investigating whether the Administration, in an attempt to keep from embarrassing the Iraqi Government by exposing its role in the matter, delayed for a year the indictment of the man who is accused of being the mastermind of the suspected fraud, Christopher P. Drogoul. Mr. Drogoul has acknowledged taking cash and gifts from companies that did business with Iraq and benefited from his loans to Baghdad.
Internal documents show that in the months after the bank was raided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in August 1989 the prosecutors in Atlanta were telling other Government agencies that they could bring indictments within months. In fact, Gail McKenzie, the aggressive prosecutor who has run the investigation from the beginning, had prepared what one official described as a “bare bones” indictment in January 1990.
But the Justice Department did not announce the indictment until late February 1991, one day after Mr. Bush announced a cease-fire in the gulf war. Documents made public in recent months show that the investigation was the subject of high-level discussions in the State Department, with some officials arguing that the case could jeopardize United States relations with Iraq. Ms. McKenzie has acknowledged receiving a phone call early on from a White House aide inquiring about the status of the investigation.
The White House denies exerting any pressure on prosecutors, and the Justice Department disputes that the indictment was delayed. In interviews, department officials said that prosecutors exaggerated their ability to try the case early because of pressure from the United States Attorney in Atlanta at the time, Robert Barr, who was eager to get the prosecution of the biggest bank fraud case under way before he left office.
“The only reason we would ever seek an indictment is if we believed we had the evidence,” said Mr. Barr, a lawyer who is seeking the Republican nomination for the Senate in Georgia. “Whether I or anyone else was leaving the office was irrelevant.” The Suspect Loans A Hint U.S. Money Paid for Iraqi Arms
Beyond the question of interference, some lawmakers have also charged that some of the American farm loans were used by Iraq to buy military equipment — an explosive charge that would mean that the United States helped pay for some of the weapons it later went to war to destroy.
In a memo seized on by critics of the Administration’s policy, a Commerce Department official, Frank M. Lemay, warned that there was evidence suggesting that some of the loans guaranteed by the farm program may have been diverted into weapons purchases. But no investigation has established that that occurred. And Bush officials note that because of the Federal investigation of the bank, the Administration excluded it from the loan credit program in August 1989.
Misuse of the loans would not constitute a crime by the Government unless it knowingly took part. Even so, lawmakers say the Administration should have been more alert to the warning signs of Iraq’s arms procurement program.
-Article courtesy of the New York Times archive.
August 12, 1992 — Editorial of the Times: The Spirit of a Law Takes a Drubbing
Barr spurns special-counsel investigation of policy on Iraq
What can be done when those who have supreme responsibility for executing the laws of a nation are accused of lawbreaking? In the United States, after then-President Richard M. Nixon and, among others in his Administration, then-Atty. Gen. John Mitchell sought to evade rather than enforce the law in the Watergate scandal, Congress passed the Independent Counsel Act.
By the terms of the law, passed by overwhelming majorities of both houses of Congress in 1978, Congress may petition the attorney general to appoint an independent counsel to investigate alleged wrongdoing within the executive branch. The independence of the counsel means that he or she reports neither to Congress nor to the Administration. The Independent Counsel Act, in 11 investigations over 14 years, has repeatedly proven its value by de-politicizing investigations that otherwise could have been corrupted by politics. Both Republicans and Democrats have benefited; the GOP’s Raymond J. Donovan and Edwin Meese III and the Democratic Party’s Hamilton Jordan and Tim Kraft all were investigated but not prosecuted.
Both Congress and the attorney general can, of course, conduct investigations of their own. The congressional investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal preceded the ongoing investigation by independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh. Congressional investigations are, of course, not criminal investigations: Congress may not usurp the attorney general’s role by bringing charges in court. And such congressional probes are vulnerable to politicization, particularly when Congress and the executive branch are controlled by different parties. As for investigations by the attorney general, the fear, obviously, is that an official appointed by the President will put his boss’s interests ahead of the country’s.
On Monday, Atty. Gen. William P. Barr rejected the request of House Democrats for an investigation of their charge that the Administration broke laws in implementing its tilt toward Iraq before the Gulf War. Barr does not deny that the tilt was unwise, but, he says, “The letter [from the Democrats, requesting the inquiry] contains no specific information concerning crimes by any person, let alone any ‘covered’ person”; that is, any of about 50 Administration officials for whom appointment of an independent counsel is mandatory when requested.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) claims that Barr “has misconstrued — whether purposefully or not — what is required under the independent counsel statute. The statute does not require Congress to present a signed and sealed indictment of criminal wrongdoing for the U.S. prosecutor to simply execute the next day.”
The letter of the law aside, we regret that the attorney general has misconstrued its spirit. Quite possibly, the worst that any Administration officials could be convicted of is atrocious judgement. But the best way to determine that is not a congressional investigation or an investigation conducted by the President’s appointee, the possibilities that remain now. Even if the House Democrats’ agenda indeed were political, the attorney general would have better frustrated that agenda — and better served the country — by acceding to their request for an independent counsel.
September 18, 1992 — Defendant in Iraq Fraud Tries to Drop Guilty Plea, by Elaine Sciolino
The defense lawyer in a multibillion-dollar fraud case moved today to withdraw the guilty plea of his client, setting the stage for a trial featuring allegations that the Bush Administration knew about the fraud but ignored it because of its close relationship with Iraq.
The defendant, Christopher P. Drogoul, pleaded guilty in June to charges that he had masterminded a scheme to provide more than $5 billion in loans illegally to Iraq and other countries and companies from the Atlanta bank he managed without the knowledge or approval of the bank’s headquarters in Rome. Mr. Drogoul has also admitted to other charges, including the failure to pay Federal income taxes.
In a hearing at which he was to have been sentenced, his lawyer, Bobby Lee Cook, proclaimed his client’s innocence of all charges. He contended that there was no fraud because the Italian bank knew about the loans and was an accomplice in the scheme, adding that the United States Government was also aware of the scheme.
Jake Arbes, Mr. Cook’s co-counsel, argued that Mr. Drogoul had pleaded guilty because he was represented by an inexperienced public defender and that he was coerced by the Government into making untrue statements about his guilt. Possible Setback for U.S.
The surprise move is a potential blow to the Government, which had hoped to win a stiff sentence for Mr. Drogoul for his role in what Dick Thornburgh, Attorney General at the February 1991 indictment, described as “an international white-collar scam with dire global consequences.” Mr. Drogoul faces a maximum sentence of 390 years in prison, nearly $18 million in fines and payment of $1.8 billion in restitution.
His guilty plea had seemed to preclude the possibility that the politically charged case would get a public airing. But if Judge Marvin H. Shoob of Federal District Court accepts Mr. Cook’s arguments, an Atlanta courtroom will be the setting for a trial in which the defense will be based in part on the Bush Administration’s failed policy toward Iraq before President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Since the sentencing hearing opened on Monday, Mr. Cook has sought to portray the Administration as so blinded by foreign policy considerations that it conducted a half-hearted, incomplete investigation under the supervision of an inexperienced Agriculture Department agent. The agent, Arthur J. Wade Jr., who withstood nearly two days of withering cross-examination, vented his anger outside the courtroom today, saying: “I may be just a poor Southern boy who worked his way through college. But I know the facts. He hasn’t put out any facts.”
For Judge Shoob, a Carter appointee who has a reputation for lenient sentences, the motion poses a paradox. On the one hand he has been outspoken in his criticism of the Government’s handling of the case and its failure to appoint an independent counsel to investigate allegations that the Bush Administration committed crimes in executing its policy toward Iraq. Decision Due on Tuesday
On the other hand, Mr. Drogoul has repeatedly acknowledged that he is guilty of defrauding his superiors in Rome — in interviews with investigators, his first private lawyers and his public defender, in his written statements and in his guilty plea.
The judge, who said he would announce on Tuesday his decision on whether to toss out the plea agreement, made somewhat conflicting remarks on his intentions. At first he said that it was “unlikely” that he would grant Mr. Cook’s motion, noting the defendant’s guilty plea to defrauding the Rome bank. But he later clarified his statement, saying, “Candidly, I don’t know what I am going to do with the motion.”
Gerrilyn Brill, the Acting United States Attorney, said after the hearing: “This would not be a case of sentencing an innocent man. He has always maintained that he instigated the scheme and that no one higher up than himself knowingly participated.”
Judge Shoob said that if the case did go to trial, a new defense team would need “8 or 10 months” to prepare. Even then it is not clear who will represent Mr. Drogoul, who says he is indigent, although he received $2.5 million in bribes during the scheme.
Mr. Drogoul has paid only one-third of his $750,000 in lawyer fees, and his wife and their four children were evicted from their home this week. His current lawyer, who is representing him pro bono, said today, “I will not try it unless I’m paid.”
-Article courtesy of the New York Times archive.
September 30, 1992 — THE 1992 CAMPAIGN: The Democrats, by Elaine Sciolino
Gore Says Bush’s Efforts to Befriend Iraqi Leader Led to Gulf War
Attacking President Bush’s conduct of foreign policy, Senator Al Gore asserted today that the Administration’s efforts to befriend Saddam Hussein in the years before he invaded Kuwait led directly to an unnecessary war.
In an effort to transform what was once viewed as the President’s greatest foreign policy success — the Persian Gulf war — into a political liability in the final weeks of the campaign, the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate seized on an issue at which Democrats in Congress had been chipping away for months.
Citing recently declassified Administration memorandums and cables, Mr. Gore said Mr. Bush and his immediate predecessor, President Ronald Reagan, forged ahead with a policy of conciliation toward the Iraqi leader, approving the sale of sophisticated technology useful in Iraq’s arms buildup and extending billions of dollars in loan guarantees despite evidence of Mr. Hussein’s support for Palestinian terrorists, his military programs and his regional ambitions.
Mr. Gore’s speech before the Center for National Policy, a nonpartisan public policy research group, offered no new disclosures of the Bush Administration’s failed efforts to change Mr. Hussein’s behavior by giving him economic and political incentives. American Lives at Risk
But by sharpening the Democrats’ personal attack on the President’s character, the Tennessee Senator sought to portray Mr. Bush as a weak leader who followed an error-filled, duplicitous, amoral policy before Iraq’s invasion and takeover of Kuwait in August 1990. This policy, Mr. Gore said, also put American lives at risk and made too many concessions when the gulf war was over.
The Tennessean maintained that Mr. Bush’s “poor judgment, moral blindness and bungling policies led directly to a war that should never have taken place.”
As part of the Democrats’ larger effort to neutralize the issue of which candidate can be trusted, Mr. Gore also said the President not only mishandled policy on Iraq but also was less than truthful about it, and he contended that such blunders made him unworthy of a second term. The Senator said that on two recent occasions Mr. Bush erroneously stated that the Untied States did not enhance Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, biological or ballistic missile capability.
“Bush deserves heavy blame for intentionally concealing from the American people the clear nature of Saddam Hussein and his regime, for convincing himself that friendly relations with such a monster were possible, and for persisting in this effort far, far beyond the point of folly,” Mr. Gore saidin his speech, which was so dense with details that a heavily footnoted text was distributed to reporters.
The White House and the Republican leadership immediately dismissed Senator Gore’s remarks as patently untrue.
“This is another effort by the Democrats in Congress to rewrite history to conceal their opposition to the war,” said Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman.
Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, the Senate minority leader, called Mr. Gore’s speech a “reckless election-year attempt at rewriting history” that he said “only highlights his own ticket’s dangerous incompetence when it comes to foreign affairs.”
Mr. Gore, who voted in favor of the Senate resolution to go to war, did have praise for Mr. Bush’s display of “fortitude and skill” in mounting an international coalition against the Iraqi leader after his invasion of Kuwait and confronting him with war.
Although Mr. Bush “wants the American people to see him as the hero who put out a raging fire, he is the one who set the fire,” the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee said. “He not only struck the match, he poured gasoline on the flames. So give him credit for calling in the fire department, but understand who started the blaze.”
The speech addressed only briefly the issue of whether the Bush Administration’s policy toward Iraq was not only flawed, but also criminal. Some Democrats in Congress have maintained that the Administration willfully ignored evidence of Mr. Hussein’s aggressive behavior in pursuing its admittedly failed policy toward Iraq and then obstructed justice and lied to Congress to cover up its mistakes.
Senator Gore referred to “substantial evidence” that the Administration intentionally falsified export records and reports to Congress, a reference to a 1990 Commerce Department list of high-technology items to Iraq that was tampered with to conceal militarily useful items before the list was sent to Congress. Democrats’ ‘Division of Labor’
The Senator’s aides said Mr. Gore, rather than Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic Presidential nominee, delivered the attack on Mr. Bush because of the Senator’s prominence in foreign policy matters and as “an effective division of labor” between the Democratic candidates during the campaign.
But Republicans have portrayed Mr. Clinton as weak-willed on the decision to go to war, and Senator Dole today again repeated the Arkansas Governor’s ambiguous remarks on whether he would have voted in favor of the Senate resolution to authorize the use of force in the Persian Gulf.
Mr. Gore noted today that he protested Mr. Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against his Kurdish citizens in August 1988, a month after the Iran-Iraq war ended, and urged the imposition of sanctions against Iraq. But he, like most members of Congress, earlier supported the Reagan Administration policy of insuring that Iraq not lose the war against Iran.
Mr. Gore defended his record in the Iran-Iraq war, telling reporters later today, “I do believe that a different standard ought to be used in judging the mistakes made toward Iraq while the Iran-Iraq war was going on, compared to the one that should be used after that war was over in 1988, because the strategic justification for looking the other way at their acts of terrorism was all of a sudden gone.”
-Article and images courtesy of the New York Times archive.
October 8, 1992 — Justice Official Sees Weakening Of Moral Fiber, by David Johnston
Attorney General William P. Barr has singled out Woody Allen’s explanation of his affair with Soon-Yi Farrow Previn, the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow, as a graphic illustration of the rampant permissiveness that Mr. Barr said weakens the country’s moral fiber.
In a speech to a Roman Catholic group Monday night, Mr. Barr seemed to follow Vice President Dan Quayle’s lead in attacking entertainment figures on moral questions. But unlike Mr. Quayle, who has assailed the fictional single mother, Murphy Brown, as a poor role model, Mr. Barr focused on a famous living resident of New York City, also the Attorney General’s hometown.
Mr. Barr expressed dismay over Mr. Allen’s reaction in a magazine interview in August to criticism of the filmmaker’s relationship with Ms. Previn. The affair surfaced in a barrage of tabloid headlines as Mr. Allen and Ms. Farrow battled over custody of three children.
“Seeming genuinely puzzled by all the fuss,” Mr. Barr said, “Mr. Allen explained to Time magazine that he was in love with the girl. And having fallen in love, Mr. Allen implied, it must follow as night follows day that the two of them would consummate their love in sexual intimacy. After all, he said, ‘the heart wants what the heart wants.’ “
“There you have it,” said Mr. Barr. “In seven words Mr. Allen epigrammatically captures the essence of contemporary moral philosophy. The heart is presented as an unreasoning tyrant over which reason, and therefore morality, has no influence.” He added, “Try that as an instruction for your children when they ask you if a particular course of conduct is good or bad.”
Mr. Barr has never made a secret of his conservative posture on social issues. He has opposed distribution of condoms in schools and giving needles to addicts. He advocates overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision establishing a legal right to abortion.
He regularly warns in speeches that the breakdown of traditional values contributes to crime. But the Attorney General is usually extremely wary about singling anyone out for criticism, a potentially volatile issue in the case of Mr. Allen, who is a subject of a police investigation involving child abuse in Connecticut. Mr. Allen has denied any wrongdoing.
Today, Mr. Barr and his aides said it was unfair to compare the Attorney General’s speech with Mr. Quayle’s criticism of Hollywood’s portrayal of traditional values, and they asserted that the speech had not been aimed at Mr. Allen personally. In his speech, Mr. Barr said that Mr. Allen’s comments were a “pithy summary of contemporary moral philosophy.”
Mr. Barr’s brief comments on Mr. Allen formed the rhetorical high point of an otherwise dense discussion of morality and law delivered to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Mr. Barr is Catholic, and his three daughters attend parochial schools.
“This was a meeting of Catholic organizations, and I was addressing them as a Catholic as much as a public official,” Mr. Barr said today in a telephone interview. “This was not a media event.”
Mr. Barr’s speech was largely devoted to what he called “25 years of permissiveness, sexual revolution and the drug culture. People have been encouraged to cast off conventional morality and old-fashioned restraints.”
But Mr. Barr argued that the framers of the Constitution considered public morality essential to a successful government. “The founders believed that popular government and its laws necessarily rested upon an underlying moral order that was antecedent to both the state and to man-made law.”
Aides to the Attorney General said that Mr. Barr’s comments were not prepared for a political audience, and there seemed to be surprise among some aides that any reporters had heard the speech, which came to light in a report today by the Associated Press.
Mr. Barr said that Mr. Allen’s comments represent “the guiding principle behind our moral decline — the rallying cry of the long binge that began in the mid-60s.”
-Article and images courtesy of the New York Times archive.
October 14, 1992 — Coverup General William Barr orders Phony Iraqgate Probe, by William Safire
WASHINGTON — Never in the history of the Republic, in my opinion, has the nation’s chief law enforcement officer been in such flagrant and sustained violation of the law.
George Bush’s CIA-trained attorney general, William Barr, is a “covered person” in the law that mandates the appointment of independent counsel when evidence appears of crime in the high reaches of government. So is his chief henchman in the Iraqgate scandal, Robert Mueller 3rd, assistant attorney general in charge of the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice.
Unprecedentedly, and in my view unlawfully, these two political appointees of George Bush refused a congressional call — buttressed by the opinion of a federal judge — to seek a court-appointed special prosecutor to investigate charges of political interference in the long-delayed Iraqgate case.
Because they sought no evidence of their own cover-up, they of course found no evidence of crime by a “covered person,” and thereby found justification for blocking outside investigation of misdeeds.
They even snatched the Atlanta case away from the troublesome judge, I suspect in hope of finding a more tractable, Reagan-appointed team player.
But now the evidence to place the Bush attorney general in misfeasance of his sworn duty is on the front page of the New York Times.
Thanks to the aggressive digging of The Times’s Elaine Sciolino, backed by solid follow-up by The Washington Post, the public has now learned that:
- High CIA officials submitted a document to an Atlanta court that continued the agency’s long practice of withholding vital information about this crime, thereby misleading the judge in a criminal case; if intent to deceive can be shown, that is an indictable offense.
- As Sen. David Boren pounced on this abuse of the law, the CIA lawyers hastily drafted a memo to correct their false submission. But the Barr-Mueller operative at Justice most responsible for the year-long delay in the case, Laurence Urgenson, “strongly advised” the CIA legal chief against correcting the deliberate omission of pertinent evidence. His reason? They would have to explain the original “mistake.”
- The CIA Lawyer acquiesced, but the next day prepared a statement for Justice to sign that would cover the intelligence agency’s posterior. Mueller, chief of the never-so-aptly-named Criminal Division, said nothing doing and hung tough.
- Testifying in secret before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the power-abusers fell out. The CIA, which had foolishly allowed itself to be drawn into the cover-up of a Bush administration scandal, read the election polls and harkened to the adage: “When the water reaches the upper levels, follow the rats.”
- The CIA lawyers blamed the misleading of the court on Justice, citing its “strong advice” to keep mum. The Coverup General responded by ordering the FBI to investigate the CIA. Both agencies are furious with Ms. Sciolino for reporting the truth, but senators and other eyewitnesses do not contradict her account. (Sen. Joe Biden, supposedly in charge of oversight of Justice, is still out to lunch.)
Let us not deceive ourselves about the “FBI probe.” Career prosecutors at Justice, disgusted at the shame brought on their department by Barr and Mueller, have called to say that the FBI only follows the orders of those in charge of the coverup.
Let us see if FBI agents turn up in the offices of Barr and Mueller to seize all computer files, all calendars and private notes of these two men, who I think would be targets of any independent prosecutor.
Let’s see if the agents, after reading their bosses their rights, take hours of sworn testimony about their contacts with Italian, Iraqi or Jordanian go-betweens, and meetings with White House, State and Agriculture officials to delay the Lavoro case.
It won’t happen. Nor will the CIA’s phony investigation of itself turn up anything but more implausible denials of “mislaid files.”
The attorney general has shown he cannot investigate himself or his co-conspirators. In light of the undeniable evidence of misleading the court, President Bush should direct him to obey the law and seek independent counsel.
October 23, 1992 — Opinion: Abroad at Home; Time for Justice, by Anthony Lewis
The entire Federal Government is ripe for reform. But of all the agencies in Washington, the one that most desperately needs renewal is the Department of Justice.
For many years, through Administrations of different parties, the Justice Department held to a tradition of excellence and incorruptibility. It attracted the brightest law school graduates. It took the long view of the law, seeking not just to win cases but to live up to its motto that the United States prevails when justice is done.
The tradition has crumbled in recent years, and with it the Justice Department’s reputation. We have had criminal Attorneys General, and others whose priority was not law but ideology. The department has been politicized.
In one highly publicized matter the department now stands accused of political corruption. That is Iraqgate: the bungled prosecution of an Atlanta bank branch that fed huge loans to Saddam Hussein.
But beyond that notorious case, there are numerous indications that this once admired agency has lost its legal — and its ethical — footing.
Consider the case of Brett Kimberlin, the Federal prisoner who on the eve of the 1988 election was scheduled to tell the press that he had supplied marijuana to Dan Quayle in the 1970’s. The director of the Bureau of Prisons, J. Michael Quinlan, ordered the press conference canceled and had Mr. Kimberlin placed in a punishment cell. Later Mr. Kimberlin’s parole date was put off. By all signs the reason for those actions was politics.
I think about two Attorneys General I knew: Robert Kennedy, who held the office under his brother, and Edward Levi, Attorney General under President Ford. They were men of different parties, but they would have reacted the same way to a prison director who let politics dictate his actions. They would have fired him forthwith.
Instead, the Justice Department under Edwin Meese and Dick Thornburgh and William Barr has done its best to cover up the Kimberlin case. It has stalled, refused to answer questions from Congress and the press, fought a lawsuit. For anyone who cares about that department, it is a disgusting performance.
Justice has played a large part in one of the most dangerous structural trends in American government: the attempt to increase the power of the President and make it legally unchallengeable.
A current example is a Haitian refugee case before the Supreme Court. President Bush ordered the Coast Guard to intercept Haitians on small boats and send them back to Haiti without any procedure to see whether they qualified for asylum in this country as victims of Haiti’s military dictatorship.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in New York held that the Haitians were entitled to an asylum procedure because a U.S. statute forbids the return of aliens to countries where they may be punished for their political views. A dissenting judge said the law was meant to cover only aliens already within this country.
The issue is a traditional one of law: the scope of a statute. But in the Supreme Court the Justice Department argues that the courts have “intruded intolerably into matters assigned by the Constitution to the President.” Immigration and asylum law have always been written by Congress. But the department sounds as if the Framers of the Constitution had created a President on the model of King George III.
Now the department is trying to undo a 1990 law that repealed the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act’s notorious provision for deportation of aliens who belong to suspect organizations. Instead, it said aliens should be deported only for “engaging in terrorist activity.”
The Justice Department is trying to deport two Palestinians who the F.B.I. found had not engaged in any terrorist activity. Why? Because they belong to a political group that was also involved in some terrorism. By that standard any alien who raised money for Nelson Mandela’s speaking tour here this year could be deported, because the African National Congress has committed some terrorist acts.
Attorney General Barr recently made a speech deploring the country’s weakening moral fiber. Physician, heal thyself.
-Article courtesy of the New York Times archive.
October 27, 1992 — Attorney General William Barr Is the Best Reason to Vote for Clinton, by Frank Snepp
A federal judge accuses the Justice Department of trying to “shape” a case involving illegal loans to Iraq. The House Judiciary Committee blasts federal attorneys for compromising their reputation for impartiality in the investigation of a computer-software theft. CIA officials charge a deputy attorney general with advocating the suppression of evidence in a sensitive sentencing hearing.
To even the most avid scandalmonger, these may sound like the ravings of a fevered Orwellian imagination. But in fact they are all part of a litany of wrongdoing leveled at George Bush’s Justice Department in the past two months alone. And at the center of the criticism is the chief articulator of Bush’s imperial presidency, the man who wrote the legal rationale for the Gulf War, the Panama invasion, and the officially sanctioned kidnapping of, foreign nationals abroad — Attorney General William P. Barr.
So fast has Barr’s star dimmed in recent months that even conservative pundits like The New York Times’s William Safire have taken to calling him the “Cover-Up General.” But so poorly understood are Barr’s ties to the president himself that the fires now threatening the Justice Department have barely singed the Oval Office.
To some Washington insiders, that comes as a surprise, for Barr is surely the closest thing this administration has to a court philosopher. Through the policy decisions he has authored, first as assistant attorney general and finally as the chief himself, he has fashioned a coherent, radical ideology for a White House that is only ostensibly middle-of-the-road.
While the president, for example, hails a “new world order” based on the rules of law, Barr’s briefs give us broken international covenants. Though conservative purists pretend that the Justice Department remains reactive, the attorney general, bolstered by an activist Supreme Court, sets aggressively conservative social agendas on everything from abortion to immigration — while stalling off inquiries into a myriad of scandals. Indeed, nothing better sums up the political gospel and failings of George Bush’s reign on the eve of this election than the handiwork of his chief lawyer.
SON OF THE CIA
It was 21 years ago, in 1971, that I first encountered William Barr. Both of us were working for the CIA at the time, he as a novice China analyst, I as a member of the agency’s Vietnam task force. Jovial and unassuming, he took his cues easily from an overly politicized office chief. It was a token of things to come.
Three years before, we had brushed shoulders unknowingly on Columbia University’s roiling campus. Both of us were on the other side of the barricades as antiwar demonstrations there blasted our generation into a decade of rage. Barr, a conservative student spokesman, preached toughness to the university administration, of which his father, then dean of the engineering faculty, was a leading light. Years later, this same damn-the-torpedoes zeal would commend Barr to his ultimate father figure, George Bush. When Cuban refugees penned up at an Alabama prison rioted and took hostages in the summer of 1991, deputy attorney general Barr ordered the place stormed. Soon afterward, Bush tapped him for the attorney general slot itself.
Barr first met Bush in the CIA. In 1976, having shifted to the agency’s legislative office, he helped write the pap sheets that director Bush used to fend off the Pike and Church committees, the first real embodiments of Congressional oversight of the CIA. Intimates say the experience was formative for Barr, turning him into an implacable enemy of congressional intrusions on executive prerogative.
“The most radical period I had probably was when I was sort of a moderate Republican,” he later acknowledged. Sure enough, Barr stayed safe within conservative clutches even after leaving the agency in 1977. Armed with a night-school law diploma, he asked for — and got — Bush’s backing for a clerkship appointment to Malcolm Wilkey of the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. Years later, as attorney general, Barr would name Wilkey to investigate the House Banking scandal. Wilkey repayed the favor with a wrenchingly partisan inquiry. Feeding the press overheated charges of wrongdoing, he scored points off the Democratic Congress just as the administration itself was being pilloried for its failed economics.
THE EDMUND BURKE CLONE ASCENDENT
During the 1980s Barr bounced between government service and a prestigious Washington law firm that would later represent one of the key defendants in the BCCI affair. Barr assured Congress in 1991 that he was long gone from Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge by the time it took on its dubious BCCI client. Still, the appearance of compromised interests would dog Barr at Justice, particularly as its own investigation of BCCI stalled.
“Like your typical Wall Street lawyer… not a table pounder” was how one of Barr’s legal sparring partners remembered him during his days at Shaw, Pittman. Indeed, “corporate” was written all over him. Though he never tried a case in court, he took on the causes of some of the firm’s starchiest clients, including a nuclear utility in a whistleblower case.
Briefly, in 1982, Barr left the firm for a stint in the White House’s Office of Policy Development. Congress took no action on his two main portfolios, abortion and tuition tax credits for low-income parents of private school students. But he did strike up a useful friendship with White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray. This relationship would later help propel Barr to the top spot at Justice and nurture speculation among critics that he was a White House toady.
In 1983 Barr returned to law practice and laid low for the next five years, thus avoiding the Iran-contra tar baby. But as Bush launched his presidential bid in 1988, Barr joined the campaign team and, among other things, helped fend off attacks on Dan Quayle’s character. His loyalty was quickly repaid. In late 1988, Barr became the first assistant attorney general to be installed in the wake of the election.
He also began flexing his ideology in public. During a congressional hearing at the time he boldly acknowledged having “doubts” about the constitutionality of the independent counsel statutes because of what he saw as their limiting effect on presidential power.
For the next two years, as chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, Barr played a key role in shaping Richard Thornburgh’s stormy tenure as attorney general. In a job that was essentially political, he helped maintain the administration’s ideological purity by screening out judicial candidates who weren’t conservative enough. He also drafted two key documents rationalizing the U.S. invasion of Panama and the seizure of General Manuel Noriega.
If Barr had made no other contribution to the imperial pretensions of George Bush, these documents would nevertheless qualify him for hero status in the Republican pantheon. The first “opinion,” written in June 1989, recognized the president’s right to dispatch FBI agents abroad to arrest foreigners even in violation of international treaties. The second document, issued the following December as American forces geared up to invade Panama, gave a patina of legality to the president’s desire to use the military in similar takedown operations. Together, the two memos enshrine what has come to be known as the president’s “snatch authority.”
In an inevitable seignorial flourish, the administration refused to release the complete contents of these documents, even to Congress. But over the years, enough of their flavor has seeped into the press to take one’s breath away. Writing in the June memo, Barr argued that both the president and, through him, the attorney general have an “inherent constitutional power” to authorize certain overseas operations, including abductions, to fend off “serious threats” to U.S. domestic “security” from “international terrorist groups and narcotics traffickers.” Such actions, he said, are mandated by the Constitution and domestic law and can be undertaken even in the face of objections from a foreign government or provisions of the UN Charter barring the use of force against member nations.
When Congress first got wind of these astonishing theories, in November 1989, Barr insisted that they represented no policy change. But weeks later, the Panama invasion kicked off, and the following spring federal agents infuriated the Mexican government by arranging to have a Mexican doctor, who had helped torture and murder a DEA agent, abducted and spirited to the U.S. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the legality of that action. Though the conservative majority approved it on the grounds that our extradition treaty with Mexico did not specifically bar kidnapping as a law enforcement tool, Justice John Paul Stevens, in dissent, seemed to be speaking for many Americans when he decried the ruling as “monstrous.”
“It is shocking” he wrote, “that a party to an extradition treaty might believe it has secretly reserved the right to make seizures of citizens in the other party’s territory.”
From the moment the “snatch” memos became news, nobody on Capitol Hill seemed in doubt about their authorship. But surprisingly, the rancor didn’t rub off. Somehow Barr kept even his critics convinced that he was a conciliator, the type of moderate conservative you wouldn’t mind having to dinner. Journalists tell the story of how on the eve of the Panama operation he charmed the guests at a Thornburgh Christmas party by showing up in kilts with bagpipes under his arm to play for hours. Where Thornburgh rankled, Barr soothed. For an administration increasingly beset by scandal and economic malaise, this capacity for the light touch proved a valued asset.
In mid 1990, as Thornburgh’s own problems with Congress deepened, Barr was tapped to run interference, and was named deputy attorney general. The appointment came just in time for him to draft another landmark tract for the administration, the legal pretext for the undeclared war against Iraq. It would have made any Nixonite proud. Explaining it later to Congress, Barr said he believed there was a “gray zone” between a declared offensive war and an emergency defensive action where “there is latitude for the president, if he believes that the vital interests of the United States are threatened by foreign military attack, there is room for him to respond.”
Barr did not make clear how the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait equaled an attack on vital American interests, but to his credit, at the moment of decision itself, he did counsel the president to soften the impact of his unilateral rush to war by seeking a declaration of congressional support. That piece of advice, much akin to Johnson’s leveraging of the Tonkin Gulf resolution, helped to keep the naysayers at bay.
Barr’s service to the administration, however, wasn’t limited simply to such flashes of political savvy. In 1991 he became active in stone-walling the Iraqgate and the BCCI investigations and further gratified conservatives by keeping up the tattoo on their favorite hot-button issues. Embracing immigration policy as his own, he helped craft an exception rule that automatically barred HIV-positive sufferers from entering the country. Civil libertarians charged illegal discrimination and even racism, since many of those excluded were black Haitians. Barr assured Congress that the policy was meant only to keep out people who might be thrown back on public welfare.
Flogging another conservative hobbyhorse, Barr fought hard as deputy AG to keep federal courts from expanding their right to review state criminal convictions on writs of habeas corpus. As a devout Catholic, he also pandered to the antiabortion crowd, even “torquing” the law in August 1991 to advance their crusade. The challenge came when a federal judge in Wichita issued an order barring anti-abortion demonstrators from blocking access to a clinic. The Justice Department intervened to try to force a lifting of the ban. Later asked about this by Congress, Barr gave an exquisitely technical rationale, asserting that though the demonstrators were “lawbreakers… treading on other people’s rights,” they “should be dealt with” in state court, not federal court — thus the federal judge’s order was unenforceable.
It was vintage Barr, a neat fileting of the law for a political end. Democratic predecessors had done the same. But what made Barr an irritant to critics was his adeptness at it.
ATTORNEY GENERAL AT LAST
If any single event assured Barr’s final ascendancy, it was the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas confrontation. At his confirmation hearings in November 1991 Barr admitted that Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel had gathered evidence against Hill and communicated with her congressional critics, but he denied any impropriety. “It is my understanding,” he testified, “that OLC lawyers did not go proactively to investigate Anita Hill… [but] performed the traditional role of lawyers, which was to take the information coming in, transcripts, statements, and so forth and analyze them.”
Democratic senators were not convinced, but because the Hill-Thomas fight had been so bitter — and because no one wanted a replay of the fractious hearings that had greeted Robert Gates’s bid to become CIA director — Congress cleared Barr’s nomination with barely a protest.
When Barr finally moved into the AG’s chair in late 1991, he talked tough about combatting drugs and crime and immediately shifted 300 FBI agents from counter-intelligence work to antigang and violent-crime squads. In addition, an inner-city program that he dubbed “Weed and Seed,” aimed at weeding out violent criminals and revitalizing neighborhoods, was soon elevated to administration policy.
For all the fanfare, however, critics sensed little more than smoke and mirrors. The Noriega conviction, which Barr touted as a major blow to narcotrafficking, produced no slackening of the drug flow through Panama. Moreover, the Rodney King affair and the subsequent L.A. riots exposed a glaring contradiction in the department’s get-tough policy on crime.
Responding to the acquittal of King’s police attackers, Barr empaneled a federal grand jury to investigate. But, lest he offend Bush’s law-and-order constituency, he continued to stall off other initiatives. Over a year ago, Representative Don Edwards introduced a bill making it a federal crime for a police officer to engage in a “pattern” of excessive force and empowering victims to sue to stop such abuses. But under the hammering of Justice and some friendly senators, the still-pending bill lost its teeth, degenerating into a simple authorization that would permit the attorney general himself to sue offending police departments.
On top of this, Justice officials have pigeonholed until after the election two long-promised, potentially explosive studies of 15,000 police brutality complaints from across the-country. The delay outrages black leaders, who fear further frustration and violence. “The department’s response to this issue has been totally inadequate,” the NAACP’s Washington director Wade Henderson recently told the Legal Times.
On other fronts, displays of partisan excess under Barr’s stewardship are becoming bolder, more transparent. Last summer, in deference to the administration’s anti-regulation agenda, the attorney general himself overruled the EPA and his own staff and wrote an interpretation of the Clean Air Act that dismantled its most important pollution regulation. He also took another imperious swipe at the immigration issue by helping devise a new policy that authorizes the Coast Guard to intercept Haitian refugees on the high seas and return them to their island. The initiative was a response to the flood of refugees unleashed by the military coup in Haiti last fall. But human rights organizations have gone to court to challenge its legality, declaring that it violates UN protocols that forbid the repatriation of those who face political persecution at home. “It is another example,” says human rights lawyer Michael Ratner, “of the Barr regime flouting the law for political ends.”
The truest measure of Barr’s extremism, however, lies in the coils of three unfolding national scandals. The central question they pose is: How far will he go to protect his master? The answer, some feel, already exposes Barr to the risk of a grand jury investigation and maybe worse.
Nobody knows how much the American taxpayer has lost in the BCCI affair, but after years of start-stop investigations it is apparent that federal authorities knew as early as 1983 that the London-based Bank of Credit & Commerce International was trying to buy into the American banking system illegally, even as it engaged in a variety of crimes abroad.
Why the Justice Department was so slow to step in has never been adequately explained. Some accuse Thornburgh and Barr of trying to cover up BCCI links to Irancontra and the CIA, which has admitted using the bank’s facilities abroad in covert operations. No substantiation has been found for this charge, but few doubt that a stall-off did occur at Justice.
The initial culprit appears to have been the CIA, which, though aware early on of BCCI’s inroads into American banking, chose not to inform the attorney general. Even so, by 1988 the violations were so blatant that Senator John Kerry stumbled on them while heading up a subcommittee on drug trafficking. He alerted the Justice Department — to no avail. Later, a Customs bust prompted indictment of some BCCI officials in Tampa, but inexplicably the Justice Department pursued only low-level prosecutions, while leaving top BCCI officials untouched.
Finally, in July 1991, banking authorities worldwide moved to shut BCCI down. Deputy Attorney General Barr admitted to Congress at the time that there had been “coordination” problems in the investigation and promised to remedy them. But a top federal prosecutor in Miami later accused Barr and other Justice officials of repeatedly thwarting his own efforts in 1991 to indict the bank of fraud charges.
What broke the logjam was Senator Kerry’s own impatience. Frustrated with Justice’s inaction, he eventually had one of his investigators, Jack Blum, turn some dirt on BCCI over to New York state district attorney Robert Morgenthau, who promised an investigation of his own. That did it. In December 1991, the Justice Department joined Morgenthau in announcing a plea arrangement with BCCI that nailed the bank for various criminal violations and obligated it to fork over $550 million, the largest criminal forfeiture ever obtained by the government. Last July, Morgenthau and federal attorneys in New York dropped the other shoe, announcing the indictments of Democratic Party patriarch Clark Clifford and his law partner on charges of lying to banking regulators, bribe-taking, and falsification of records — all in service of their onetime client, BCCI. Both men pleaded not guilty.
Barr gloated, declaring after the initial plea agreement that this “resolves all United States charges against BCCI as an institution.” But Senator Kerry’s own analysis of the scandal, released only a few weeks ago, makes clear that the Justice Department’s investigation of BCCI was often too little, too late.
Says Blum, whose approach to Morgenthau levered Barr into action: “Justice’s handling of BCCI gives the lie to the adminstration’s claim to being hard-line on crime.”
Barr has long been a critic of the independent counsel law and has argued that Justice officials are professional enough to investigate themselves and their own masters. But a report on the Inslaw affair, released in September by Representative Jack Brooks’s Judiciary Committee, obliterates that claim.
At issue is whether the Justice Department itself stole valuable computer software from the Washington-based Inslaw company in the early 1980s. Four years ago, a lawyer for Inslaw called for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate, but Thornburgh resisted, and at his own confirmation hearings in November 1991 Barr announced that he was naming an in-house counsel under his own control to handle the inquiry. According to the recently released Brooks report, that investigation has yet to bear fruit in part because Barr delayed granting his appointee subpoena power.
Even worse, says the report, Justice officials stonewalled the committee’s own efforts to get at the facts, by blocking access to witnesses, and by denying and even “losing” relevant documents. The report blames this “lack of cooperation” for the tenativeness of its own conclusions, but leaves little doubt where the committee’s sympathies lie. Pointing out that Justice officials concluded as early as 1986 that Inslaw’s claim to the disputed software was “legitimate,” the report says the department nonetheless spent $1 million fighting the issue in court, thus raising the “spectre” of “an abuse of power of shameful proportions.”
“The Department of Justice is this nation’s most visible guarantor of the notion that wrongdoing will be sought out and punished irrespective of the identity of the actors involved,” the report concludes. “The Department’s handling of the INSLAW case has seriously undermined its credibility and reputation in playing such a role.”
Last week the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee lent his voice to a chorus already calling for an independent counsel to investigate how the Justice Department, CIA, and FBI bungled a case in Atlanta involving $5 billion in illegal loans to Iraq. Over a month ago, William Barr rebuffed a similar congressional request and bridled at suggestions that his department couldn’t handle the inquiry itself. But since then, the CIA has accused one of Barr’s subordinates of having “strongly advised” that relevant intelligence be withheld from the federal judge in Atlanta who until recently was handling the case. In response, Barr has just announced that he’s appointing a special prosecutor — a Republican judge — to investigate under Justice Department supervision. It’s precisely the kind of stall tactic Barr used so effectively in the INSLAW affair.
In basic terms, the controversy is over the classic cover-up question of who knew what when — and bears critically on the most sensitive foreign policy issue of the Bush presidency, the coddling of Saddam Hussein prior to the Gulf War.
To be up to speed, you have to understand a few arcane facts. First, the administration is accused of having allowed U.S. agricultural loan guarantees to be used to underwrite military purchases by Iraq during the late 1980s when the official policy was: moderate through conciliation. Second, the Atlanta branch of the Italian bank Banca Nazionale del Lavoro is said to have floated $5 billion in illegal loans to Iraq during the same period. Third, the Justice Department is suspected of having deliberately singled out BNL’s Atlanta branch manager for prosecution, saying he acted alone, so as to avoid embarrassing his higher-ups in Rome and opening a can of worms that could reveal deeper administration complicity in the funding of Iraq’s military buildup.
Along the way, evidence has surfaced that the Commerce Department altered documents that pointed to the dual use (read: military) applicability of certain items the Iraqis had purchased with U.S. aid.
Still awake? Please, there’s more. In February 1991, the Justice Department struck a plea agreement with the BNL manager in Atlanta that pledged him to clam up, making no statement in court, in exchange for having the charges against him lessened. Members of the Senate Judiciary wondered: what gives? So did the Atlanta federal judge, Marvin Shoob, who late last summer was about to sentence this apparent fall guy. Shoob called for an independent counsel to sort out the mess.
That’s when the bureaucrats began quick-stepping. On September 4, the CIA sent the Justice Department a classified letter that glossed over early intelligence reports indicating top-level knowledge within BNL Rome of the Atlanta branch’s illicit Iraqi loans. Ten days later, House Banking committee chair Henry Gonzalez, who’d previously goaded the CIA into giving him the facts, spilled them in a speech on the floor of the House. Inevitable conclusion: the U.S. intelligence community knew, by late 1989, that BNL from top to bottom had played fast and loose with American banking regulations. Why, then, such a delay in prosecution?
The CIA continued to duck and weave, claiming in a letter to Shoob on September 17 that nobody knew nothin’ about the early intelligence reports implicating BNL-Rome in the scandal.
As the heat intensified, however, so did the weakness in bureaucratic knees. On October 8 CIA lawyers, testifying to the Senate Intelligence Committee, declared that a devil at Justice had made them do it – that one of Barr’s subordinates had encouraged them to skimp the truth in the letter to Shoob. Justice officials struck back by playing victim. How do you suborn the CIA? they demanded publicly. The CIA again parried by claiming that the early tell-all intelligence reports fingering BNL-Rome had been known to FBI and thus Justice officials since late 1989. Barr in turn ordered FBI chief William Sessions investigated on unrelated ethics charges — a probe that some see as an attempt to buffalo the Bureau at the very moment it might be tempted to investigate Iraqgate on its own.
You can’t be awake. But what’s important is this: The Justice Department stands accused by the nation’s premier intelligence agency of having abetted the cover-up of a possible crime, even to the point of shaving evidence. Maybe this simplifies it, but the allegation itself should give pause even to the most devout law-and-order conservative. And no, this ain’t a mugging, baby. The lawlessness espoused in Barr’s snatch memos inevitably breeds offspring.
There is, too, the more basic issue of equity: Imagine you’re the manager of Atlanta’s BNL branch who’s wound up in Barr’s cross hairs because the Justice Department and everybody else in the Bush administration needed a scapegoat for their own policy errors. On October I he did get a reprieve of sorts: The Justice Department decided to try him rather than embarrass itself further by sticking with the plea agreement that so artfully found him guilty without giving him a chance to speak. Even so, if you’re in his shoes, do you place any stock in American justice? Or, as one critic said of the snatch memos, do we have here a regime of law that says: when the president declares it’s illegal, it is?
-Article and images courtesy of the Village Voice, with an update from the author in 2019: https://www.villagevoice.com/2019/04/18/attorney-general-william-barr-is-the-best-reason-to-vote-for-clinton/
October 15, 1992 — SENATOR DEMANDS BANK-CASE INQUIRY, by Elane Sciolino
In an extraordinarily blunt letter to Attorney General William P. Barr, Senator David L. Boren, the Intelligence Committee chairman, asserted today that the Justice Department and the Central Intelligence Agency had misled prosecutors, a Federal judge and the American people in the case of a multibillion-dollar bank fraud involving Iraq.
The Senator’s letter, laying out the reasons for his concern, called for Mr. Barr to immediately reverse his decision rejecting the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the two agencies’ handling of the case.
Mr. Barr turned down a similar request in August from the House Judiciary Committee, and Senator Boren’s appeal is likely to put new pressure on him to reconsider. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was consulting members of his panel today on the issue.
The Intelligence Committee, which will open its own investigation on Friday, informed the Justice Department today that it intends to send a team to Atlanta to take sworn statements from the prosecutors and investigators.
Gates Expected to Testify
Mr. Boren, who is a lawyer, will also call a number of C.I.A. officials, including Robert M. Gates, the Director of Central Intelligence, to determine whether the agency cooperated fully in the investigation of the case, which involved the making of billions of dollars in loans to Iraq. The committee will also interview senior department officials, but has not yet decided whether to interview Mr. Barr or former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.
“A truly independent investigation is required to determine whether Federal crimes were committed in the Government’s handling” of the case, Mr. Boren said in the letter.
The Justice Department said that Mr. Boren’s demand for an independent prosecutor was motivated by partisan politics. “You can expect the Democrats to make these calls every day for the next three weeks,” said Paul McNulty, a department spokesman.
A C.I.A. spokesman, Mark Mansfield, said the agency would not comment.
In his letter, Senator Boren listed four reasons why Mr. Barr should reverse himself: the recent discovery of classified documents relevant to the case; the strong public criticism of the prosecution by Judge Marvin H. Shoob, who recused himself because of his opinions about the case; a C.I.A. admission that, at the strong urging of the Justice Department, it produced what the Senator called a “misleading letter” to the prosecutors, and the announcement by both the C.I.A. and the Justice Department that they have started investigations of the case.
The Senator also made new charges. He said that documents continue “to trickle out of the C.I.A.,” adding that prosecutors and Judge Shoob were not given documents that his committee had earlier received, and that his committee only last week received documents that had been given to the Justice Department.
Who Was Responsible?
And Mr. Boren called into question the Justice Department’s charge that the C.I.A. failed to produce documents. He said in a statement that the F.B.I., part of the Justice Department, “received or was knowledgable of nearly all of the key classified reports at the time they were originally issued.”
Over the last few months, the case has turned from a simple bank fraud into one that had implications for American relations with Italy and Iraq.
A newly disclosed Justice Department memo, for example, shows that Rinaldo Petrignani, Italy’s Ambassador to the United States, in a breach of diplomatic protocol, accompanied bank officials to a meeting with the Atlanta prosecutors and investigators.
A year and a half after Federal agents raided the Atlanta branch of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, prosecutors indicted the manager, Christopher P. Drogoul, charging him with loaning Iraq billions of dollars in violation of bank regulations, and therefore, of defrauding his superiors.
More than three years after the raid, the C.I.A. is still uncovering documents that might have helped establish the complicity of the Rome headquarters in the case. But such revelations would have weakened the case against Mr. Drogoul and might have implicated the Rome bank, which is almost wholly owned by the Italian Government.
The Senate panel’s investigation will also focus on whether C.I.A. officials themselves had access to all relevant documents when writing certain reports, or whether the internal system is so compartmentalized that it shuts out the agency’s own officials.
-Article courtesy of the New York Times archive.
October 17, 1992 — ATTORNEY GENERAL NAMES PROSECUTOR IN IRAQ-LOANS CASE, by Elaine Sciolino
Attorney General William P. Barr today named a retired Federal judge from New Jersey to investigate the Bush Administration’s handling of a billion-dollar bank-fraud case involving illegal loans to Iraq.
The appointment of the former judge, Frederick B. Lacey, a Republican, as a special prosecutor drew immediate criticism from Congressional Democrats and from the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate, Senator Al Gore. They said that only a judicially appointed special investigator would have the independence to conduct a credible investigation of accusations that the Justice Department stifled the fraud inquiry to cover up an Administration policy of aiding Iraq before the Persian Gulf war. A Change of Heart
In August, Mr. Barr rejected a Congressional request for such a special investigator. But today he seemed to acknowledge that the appointment was needed to control political damage to the Bush Administration caused by the bank scandal, which has provoked a ferocious struggle involving the Justice Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He said Judge Lacey would also investigate the disclosure of ethics charges against William S. Sessions, the Director of the F.B.I., who faces a Justice Department criminal inquiry into his travel and management practices.
“I have no reason to believe that any officials at the Department of Justice have acted improperly or unprofessionally,” Mr. Barr said at a news conference. “Nevertheless, in the current politically charged environment, nothing could be worse than to have this matter tried in the press based on allegation, rumor and leaks.” Agricultural Loans to Iraq
The case involves the Atlanta branch of an Italian bank, which made loans to Iraq that were supposed to be for agricultural purposes but were apparently used for arms. An official of the bank, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, was indicted on charges of loaning Iraq billions of dollars in violation of bank regulations, and therefore, of defrauding his superiors.
The bank official, Christopher P. Drogoul, first pleaded guilty to charges that he acted alone, but Federal prosecutors later reversed themselves and allowed him to withdraw his plea. The case will now go to trial.
Mr. Barr’s announcement came a day after the intelligence agency uncovered a document suggesting the possible payoff of government officials in the United States and Italy in the elaborate bank-fraud case. The document, a cable sent from the C.I.A. station chief in Rome, quotes a source of unknown reliability as saying that officials of both nations were bribed in connection with the loan scheme, American officials familiar with the cable said.
The existence of the document and the fact that it was not turned over to the Federal prosecutors handling the bank fraud case in Atlanta raises new questions about the extent of C.I.A. cooperation with prosecutors and about the thoroughness of the United States Government’s investigation. Similar to Watergate Action
Mr. Barr said Mr. Lacy would examine whether the intelligence agency withheld documents from the Justice Department, either inadvertently or intentionally, and whether Justice properly handled the prosecution of crimes in the case.
The judge’s appointment comes under a Federal rule providing for the appointment of outside prosecutors to investigate accusations of wrongdoing by the Justice Department. A similar rule created the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, who was dismissed by the Nixon Administration in the midst of his inquiry.
In August, Mr. Barr refused a Congressional request for an independent counsel under the Ethics in Government Act. Unlike a special prosecutor, an independent counsel is appointed by a panel of Federal appeals court judges, who could review any effort by the Attorney General to remove him.
The ethics law expires on Dec. 15 because Congress, with the enthusiastic support of Mr. Barr and the Administration, did not renew it.
Since Mr. Barr rejected the call for an independent counsel, the Administration’s handling of the bank scandal has erupted into an unusually public feud between the Government’s two most secretive agencies. In the past week, C.I.A. lawyers accused the Justice Department of having urged them to provide prosecutors and the judge in the bank case with incomplete, and therefore misleading, information. And the Justice Department said the C.I.A. had failed to turn over all its secret documents relevant to the case. Will Report to Barr
Although Mr. Barr insisted that Judge Lacey will be independent, his instructions are to advise the Attorney General “on an ongoing basis concerning the conduct of the Department’s continuing investigation and prosecution of all aspects of the bank case.”
In the last two weeks, the admittedly failed policy toward Iraq before its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the Administration’s handling of the bank-fraud case have emerged as important issues in the Presidential campaign. On Thursday, Mr. Gore asserted that the Administration’s cover-up of its dealings with Iran and Iraq was bigger than the Watergate scandal. Today he criticized Mr. Barr for “taking a half step when a full step is needed.”
Mr. Barr acknowledged that if Gov. Bill Clinton wins the Presidential election next month, he will have to decide after his inauguration whether Judge Lacey would continue his investigation. By contrast, the mandate of an independent counsel would automatically continue in a new Administration.
At his news conference today, Mr. Barr also announced the creation of a separate task force that will essentially reopen the criminal investigation of the bank, including the prosecution of Mr. Drogoul, the possible complicity of the Rome bank and the possible diversion of American-backed loans for weapons and kickbacks.
The task force will also investigate two other issues that the House Judiciary Committee wanted an independent counsel to consider.
One involves alterations made on a Commerce Department list of high-technology items approved for sale to Iraq before the list was sent to Congress, apparently to conceal their military use or destination. The second involves the charge by Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who heads the Senate Agriculture Committee, that he was mislead by Agriculture Secretary Clayton K. Yeutter.
Today’s move means that there are now three separate investigations within the Bush Administration related to the bank: those by the special prosecutor and the task force, and a C.I.A. inquiry into the level of its own cooperation with the Justice Department and the agency’s problem of internal document retrieval.
In the last two-and-a-half weeks, the C.I.A. has uncovered at least six more documents related to the bank case. In the last few days, it has launched an intensive “hand search” of all agency files, since its computerized retrieval system had failed to turn up all documents that could be helpful in the case. New Evidence Unfolding
The cable discovered on Thursday, for example, is particularly important because it indicates that the C.I.A. official assigned to the American Embassy in Rome discussed the matter with the Federal Bureau of Investigation representative at the Embassy. That means that the F.B.I., and therefore, the Justice Department, should have been made aware of its contents at the time and could have used the information in the bank investigation.
Mr. Barr declined to say whether the Justice Department had received new documents. But he hinted that was the case, saying, “I think even today we’re finding other new information surfacing.” The C.I.A. would not comment on the cable.
Judge Lacey said he will also investigate news leaks about the Justice Department’s investigation of Mr. Sessions. Senator David L. Boren, the Oklahoma Democrat and chairman of the Intelligence Committee, linked the timing of the accusations to an apparent dispute between the Justice Department and the F.B.I. over Judge Sessions’s mandate in investigating the handling of the bank fraud case.
Oct. 18, 1992 — Correction: Because of an editing error, a front-page article yesterday about the Justice Department’s appointment of a prosecutor in the bank fraud case involving loans to Iraq described the loans incorrectly. There have been allegations that some loans used to finance Iraq’s weapons program were guaranteed by an American farm credit program, but it has never been proved that those credits “were apparently used for arms.”
-Article courtesy of the New York Times archive.
October 18, 1992 — THE WORLD; A Budding Scandal, in Brief, by Elaine Sciolino
A Primer on the ‘B.N.L. Affair’
It is called “Iraqgate” and “the B.N.L. affair,” and it could have the makings of a major scandal. But what is it?
It began with charges by Congressional Democrats that the Bush Administration was wrong to try to curry favor with President Saddam Hussein before he invaded Kuwait. If the United States had been tougher earlier, some said, the United States and its allies might never have had to go to war.
Then it evolved into a myriad of charges and suspicions that the policy was not only flawed but criminal. There were allegations, still not proven, that fraudulent loans from an Atlanta bank to Iraq, backed by an obscure Federal credit guarantee program, ended up paying for some of Iraq’s weapons. A Commerce Department list of goods approved for sale to Iraq was altered before Congressional review, disguising the military utility of American high-technology items for Iraq’s arms buildup. Democratic lawmakers charged that senior Administration officials misled them about the policy afterward.
More recently, there were accusations that the Administration was less than thorough in its investigation of a huge fraud scheme at the Atlanta bank.
The result: charges that the Bush Administration was engaged in one or more coverups, and the appointment by Attorney General William Barr on Friday of a special investigator to examine the charges.
The pieces do not fit together yet. But an outline is beginning to emerge of what investigators know and what they are trying to find out. Here is a summary:
What was the old United States policy toward Iraq?
In October 1989, President Bush signed a formal directive to use economic and political incentives to try to moderate the actions of President Hussein, described in one 1988 State Department document as a dictator “who believes that power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Mr. Bush has said the policy was an attempt to bring Mr. Hussein into “the family of nations.”
In the nine months after the Bush Administration settled on its policy — as Iraq grew steadily more belligerent — the United States sold Baghdad high-technology equipment that could be used in its military programs, and provided intelligence on Iran’s political and military situation. It fought Congress’s attempts to impose economic sanctions and to brand Iraq a supporter of terrorism. And it played down the importance of Iraq’s human rights record.
Most controversial was the White House decision in November 1989 to provide $500 million in loan guarantees and push for $500 million more under an obscure program run by the Agriculture Department’s Commodity Credit Corporation to promote sales of American farm products abroad. The United States did not lend money to Iraq under the program. Rather, it told banks it would make good on their loans if Iraq didn’t repay.
How did the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro become involved in dealings with Iraq?
The Rome-based bank, now widely referred to as B.N.L., is one of Italy’s largest commercial banks. In the early 1980’s, its Atlanta branch, seeking new business opportunities, began lending money to Iraq under the Agriculture Department program. The relationship between the Iraqis and the branch manager, Christopher P. Drogoul, grew, and an elaborate illegal loan scheme began. Prosecutors say Mr. Drogoul concocted the scheme, in which he would use his bank’s high credit rating to borrow from other banks, then turn around and lend to Iraq at a slightly higher interest rate. These transactions were recorded in a separate set of books. His negotiations were conducted through phony telexes and faxes. Inside the bank branch, the transactions were known as “Perugina,” after the Italian candy maker.
Some of the loans and credits directly funded Iraq’s purchase of weapons and weapons technology, according to the indictment. Federal prosecutors in Atlanta and Administration officials scattered throughout the Federal bureaucracy raised suspicions, but never proved, that loan money backed by the United States Government was diverted into weapons purchases. Other critics say that this misses the point because money is fungible and the loans would at least have freed up other Iraqi funds for arms purchases.
Whether the bank’s Rome headquarters knew of the scheme is one of the main questions in the current inquiries, because that would bring the scandal to high levels of the Government of a major American ally.
What made these transactions criminal?
On Aug. 4, 1989, Federal agents, acting on a tip from two bank employees, raided the bank’s Atlanta branch. More than 18 months later, the Justice Department indicted Mr. Drogoul and other bank employees, a Turkish national, four Iraqi officials and two Iraqi banks, alleging a five-year scheme to extend more than $5 billion in loans and credits to Iraq and other countries and companies. The charge was based on the thesis that the money was lent without the knowledge and approval of the Rome bank, which was therefore defrauded.
In addition, Mr. Drogoul was charged with lying to bank officials and Federal and state bank authorities, a scheme to illegally sell Cuban sugar, and tax evasion.
In return, the indictment charged, Mr. Drogoul was paid $2.5 million in bribes from exporters whose goods were paid for by the loans.
Lending money to Iraq was not in itself a crime. But the indictment asserted that Mr. Drogoul, who pleaded guilty to masterminding the scheme, had defrauded his superiors and lied about it. Throughout the investigation, however, the Atlanta prosecutors and the Justice Department clashed repeatedly on whether Rome was involved. Is there proof of a coverup?
The most sweeping charge, made by some Democrats in Congress — that the Administration allowed the bank to make the loans and then covered up that decision — has not been proven. But in some instances the Administration has been less than candid in explainingits policy decisions and its handling of the case.
On the first day of Mr. Drogoul’s sentencing hearing last month, for example, Representative Henry B. Gonzalez, a Texas Democrat, disclosed the existence of C.I.A. documents indicating that Rome had some knowledge of the scheme. A C.I.A. letter was sent to prosecutors three days later omitting the fact that the agency had received classified reports about Rome’s involvement. Since then, the C.I.A. and the Justice Department have been locked in a bitter feud over the handling of the case. C.I.A. lawyers accused the Justice Department of urging them to provide prosecutors and the judge in the bank case with incomplete information via the letter. And the the C.I.A. has admitted failing to turn over all its secret documents to the Justice Department.
In addition, lawyers believe they were misled in two other major instances. One involves alterations made on a Commerce Department list of high-technology items approved for sale to Iraq, before the list was sent to Congress. The second involves a charge by Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who heads the Senate Agriculture Committee, that Agriculture Secretary Clayton K. Yeutter misled him when he argued that the decision to extend the loan guarantees had nothing to do with foreign policy considerations. In all of this, what are the stakes for the Bush Administration?
On the policy level, the release of thousands of pages of classified and recently declassified documents has been deeply embarrassing. It has exposed the workings of secret policy making: the interagency battles, the candid cables, the impulse to fulfill the President’s wishes.
On another level, however, the most insistent conspiracy theorists, including Mr. Drogoul’s defense attorney, suggest that the United States might have known about the irregular lending from the tiny Atlanta bank and promoted it, perhaps in collusion with Italy, to help Mr. Hussein. Therefore, this line of thought goes, the Administration had no other choice but to cover its tracks afterward. One way of doing that would be to absolve the Rome bank of any wrongdoing, placing the entire blame on Mr. Drogoul.
Has anyone accused Mr. Bush of direct involvement in a coverup?
Both Congressman Gonzalez and Mr. Drogoul’s defense lawyer, Bobby Lee Cook, have suggested that Mr. Bush was involved in a coverup. Although there are some examples of highly unusual behavior by the Administration — White House and State Department phone calls to the Atlanta prosecutors, for example — there is no proof that Mr. Bush engaged in a coverup.
On the other hand, Mr. Bush has made several public remarks that have been contradicted by internal documents. For example, he denied that the United States enhanced Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, biological and ballistic missile capability, but one document showed that one week before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Secretary of State James A. Baker 3d was urgently warning that Iraq was secretly using American technology in its vast arms buildup.
Does the bank fraud case affect the American taxpayer?
When Iraq invaded Kuwait, it defaulted on all of its loans to the Atlanta bank. Some $1.9 billion of those were guaranteed by the agricultural credit program and the Government has already paid back about $1.5 billion in loans that have come due. The Administration says taxpayers will eventually be reimbursed through Iraqi assets now frozen in foreign banks or by forcing Mr. Hussein to give up some profits from oil sales.
-Article and image courtesy of the New York Times archive.
-Images courtesy of Newsweek Magazine, Archive.org.
November 13, 1992 — Step Toward Independent Counsel Is Taken in the Iraq Bank Inquiry, by Elaine Sciolino
The Justice Department has taken the first step toward appointing an independent counsel to investigate the Government’s handling of a politically sensitive bank-fraud case involving Iraq, the official leading the department’s internal inquiry said today.
The official, Frederick B. Lacey, a former Federal judge who was appointed by Attorney General William P. Barr last month to help him decide whether to appoint an independent counsel, said in an interview that allegations of wrongdoing by American officials were serious enough to move on to the next phase of the investigation. A Significant Hurdle
Mr. Barr accepted that recommendation, Judge Lacey said, and directed him to complete his inquiry by Dec. 8 and give him a final recommendation on whether Mr. Barr should seek the appointment of an independent counsel. Such an appointment would be made by a panel of Federal appeals court judges.
Judge Lacey made his recommendation to Mr. Barr on Oct. 26. He said that he was making his disclosure in response to news-organization inquiries about the status of his investigation.
Judge Lacey’s recommendation is a further embarrassment for Mr. Barr, who has resisted appointing an independent counsel in the bank-fraud case and has expressed reservations in general about the law under which such prosecutors operate. By accepting Judge Lacey’s recommendation, Mr. Barr, in effect, acknowledged for the first time the possibility of criminal wrongdoing by Bush Administration officials in the scandal involving the Atlanta branch of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro.
While the escalation of the inquiry will not guarantee the appointment of an independent counsel, it was a significant procedural hurdle. In August, in his response to the House Judiciary Committee’s demands for an independent counsel, the Attorney General refused to begin a broader inquiry on the ground that the allegations of wrongdoing were not specific enough to warrant further investigation. A Credible Inquiry
Mr. Barr appointed Judge Lacey, a retired Federal judge from New Jersey, last month under increasing pressure from Congress and from a ferocious struggle over the Government’s handling of the multibillion-dollar bank-fraud case among the Justice Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
From the moment he was named, Democratic lawmakers said that only a judicially appointed prosecutor would have the independence to conduct a credibile investigation of accusations that the Justice Department stifled the fraud inquiry to cover up an Administration policy of aiding Iraq before the Persian Gulf war.
In a letter to Mr. Barr on Oct. 26, Judge Lacey said he had not determined whether any American Government officials had broken the law, but suggested that the case had progressed considerably since August. He said accusations made by Senator David L. Boren, the Oklahoma Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had convinced him that there was “sufficent and credible evidence” to move to the next stage in the process of appointing an independent counsel.
“I gave the Attorney General my letter recommending that under the independent counsel statute the response to Senator Boren warranted in my judgment that a preliminary investigation be commenced,” he said.
The next day, Mr. Barr authorized Judge Lacey to begin the process, he said. Mr. Barr also told him to make his recommendation by Dec. 8, seven days before the Ethics in Government Act, which authorizes the appointment of independent counsels, expires. An ‘Aggressive Resolution’
Today, Justice Department officials would not comment on Judge Lacey’s letter or Mr. Barr’s decision to accept the Judge’s recommendation.
Senator Boren said Mr. Lacey’s recommendation did not go far enough.
“While this is a useful step, I continue to believe that the Attorney General must act immediately to appoint an independent counsel,” he said in a statement through his spokesman, Dan Webber. “It is the only way we can hope to get an aggressive resolution of the many disturbing questions surrounding the bank case.”
The case involves charges against Christopher P. Drogoul, a banker accused of masterminding a scheme to extend billions of dollars in loans and credits to Iraq from the Atlanta branch of an Italian-owned bank in violation of the bank’s regulations. Some of the loans were used to finance Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs. At issue is whether the C.I.A. fully cooperated with the Justice Department and prosecutors in the case, and whether the Justice Department bungled the prosecution.
In an extraordinarily blunt letter to Mr. Barr last month, Senator Boren, who is also a lawyer, asserted that the Justice Department and the C.I.A. had misled prosecutors, a Federal judge and the American people in the bank-fraud case.
He listed four reasons why Mr. Barr should reverse himself and appoint an independent counsel: the recent discovery of classified documents relevant to the case; the strong public criticism of the prosecution by Federal Judge Marvin H. Shoob, who headed the case but recused himself because of his strong opinions; a C.I.A. admission that, at the strong urging of the Justice Despartment, it produced what the Senator called a “misleading” letter to the prosecutors, and the announcement by the C.I.A. and the Justice Department that they have started investigations of the case.
Senator Boren told reporters today that his committee was expanding its own investigation into the case to include the questioning of White House as well as Justice Department and C.I.A. officials.
His committee wants to know what the C.I.A. knew about the fraud, when it knew it and whether it passed the information on to the Justice Department. Another focus of the inquiry is to determine whether the Bush Administration intentionally mishandled the prosecution of the bank case or the C.I.A. withheld information to protect sources of information about Iraq’s weapons-buying network.
“The worst case” scenario, he said, would be if Government officials decided that “the gathering of information took precedence over the criminal prosecution” of any individuals or otherwise compromised the case in Atlanta. The committee has requested information on the C.I.A.’s knowledge of and relationship with more than 30 people and more than a dozen companies involved in Iraq’s weapons buildup.
The committee has asked the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies whether any of those companies borrowed money from the Atlanta bank and whether they were allowed to continue to operate business even though the C.I.A. knew about their arms deals.
The C.I.A. has not yet responded, Mr. Boren said.
-Article courtesy of the New York Times archive.
September 3, 1993 — Frequent liar program, by Russell Baker
The Government’s story, which may be a lie, is that the scheme to make illegal loans of $5 billion to Iraq was the work of five branch-bank employees in Atlanta. They worked for the Atlanta branch of Italy’s Banca Nazionale del Lavoro with headquarters in Rome, and the deed was done back during the Bush Administration when Washington still thought Saddam Hussein was one of the good guys.
Five billion seems a considerable sum for an American branch of an Italian bank to be dispensing without so much as an “O.K. by you?” to the home office in Rome, but the Justice Department says, believe it or not, that’s the way it happened.
Naturally, patriotic Americans will assume the Government is lying. That’s because the Government is supposed to lie about such matters. Throughout the cold war it lied about matters far more scandalous because it had to protect the national security. It was lying for the public good.
Complaining too shrilly about it was bad form. Didn’t you know there was a cold war on? What did you expect the Government to do? Let you in on the secret tricks it was playing to protect the country?
To protect the country the C.I.A. was licensed to spread lies abroad. Never mind that the world had become so small that these patriotically motivated lies would be circulating back to the U.S. before they were a day old.
Sometimes the C.I.A. even had to lie, without official license of course, to Congress. Who had the loosest lip in America? Congress. Tell Congress what was up, and you might as well broadcast it to Moscow Station.
Sure, lying to Congress was deplorable, but sometimes it had to be lied to for good patriotic reason. Not all Americans, of course, reasoned this way, but enough did so that Presidents could treat Congress with contempt and get away with it by pleading “national security.”
Since the country has become hardened to the assumption that the Government is a frequent liar, bad things have followed. There has been the loss of faith in Government as an honorable enterprise. This has strengthened the know-nothings by reinforcing their slogan that “government is the problem, not the solution.” Once a government is widely recognized as a frequent liar, it is undeniably a problem, all right.
It has also added to the growing public disgust with politics and government, which repels people from taking part in public affairs. This amounts to subverting democracy itself.
Moreover, it has created a corrosive cynicism. “Fool me once, shame on thee; fool me twice, shame on me,” goes the old rule of self-preservation. Thus we are inevitably tempted to assume that Attorney General Janet Reno was not leveling with us last week when she defended the Justice Department’s handling of the Atlanta bank loan to Iraq.
Last year President Bush’s Attorney General, William Barr, declining to have an independent counsel investigate it, declared that Justice had handled it correctly. In effect, the Bush people insisted that branch-bank small fry had engineered the Iraq loan on their own and that Bush Administration heavyweights had not conspired with Italy to arm Iraq before the Persian Gulf war.
Federal Judge Marvin Shoob, who tried the Atlanta case, is skeptical. Only “in never-never land,” he said last week, could a small branch bank have carried out the loan scheme without the home office’s knowledge. He has sentenced the five Atlanta employees to probation or home detention, saying, “It would be the height of hypocrisy to sentence these defendants as if this were a simple case of wrongdoing by a branch’s employees.”
It’s depressing being forced to ponder that Attorney General Reno may not be giving it to us straight from the shoulder. Still, with speculation involving the C.I.A. and an Italian Government already in grave trouble, this is precisely the kind of matter in which the Government has felt obliged to lie in the past for “national security.”
It’s one more example of how our cold-war heritage corrupts and poisons relations between government and people.
Campaigning for President, Bill Clinton promised a review of the Italian banking case if elected. Ms. Reno’s statement last Thursday said “a thorough independent investigation” had given Justice no reason to change its opinion. Case closed. Quit grinning.