Perhaps Henry Kissinger will escape final (on-this-earth) judgement. No trial for war crimes. No public shunning for his lying ways. No disinvitation from Nightline. Three judges in three different countries (Chile, France, Spain) have recently targeted him for questioning in cases involving human rights abuses in Chile in the 1970s, and Chilean human rights victims are suing him in the United States. (Kissinger directed the secret US program that aimed to overthrow the democratically-elected Salvador Allende in Chile and then supported the murderous regime of the military tyrants who mounted a coup against Allende.) But so far he has not had to enter the dock. He continues to pontificate freely about US foreign policy on op-ed pages and during media appearances.
But his public career appears to be ending on an ugly note. On Friday, the former Secretary of State removed himself as head of the commission created to study the failures of 9/11. Three days later, Bush chose former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, a moderate, well-regarded Republican not known for possessing much insight or experience related to national security, as Kissinger’s replacement. President George W. Bush had selected Kissinger the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in a give-them-the-finger move aimed at the Democrats and the 9/11 family members who had pushed, over White House objections, for the commission. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney had agreed to the commission’s formation, only after winning concessions granting the president the right to name the head of the commission and ensuring that subpoenas could only be issued with the approval of six of the commission’s ten members. With the panel divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats, that meant the White House would not have to worry about Democrats on their own issuing demands for (possibly embarrassing) information from the White House concerning what Bush and his aides knew of the al Qaeda threat before 9/11 and how they had responded. To further protect the White House, Republicans have resisted the families’ call for apppointing former Senator Warren Rudman, who previously co-chaired a national commission on terrorism, to the panel. Though a Republican, Rudman has a maverick streak and might sign on to subpoenas proposed by Democrats. Kean, by the way, is no Rudman.
Kissinger, an international consultant for transnational corporations, claimed he was forced to retreat to avoid a nasty fight over disclosing his clients. After Bush tapped Kissinger, much of the fuss over his appointment concerned his business ties–not his record as a prevaricator, his embrace of human rights-abusing regimes, or his experiences as a practitioner of secret warfare and a stonewaller. Kissinger maintained he has no clients–such as overseas governments or foreign firms–that would compromise his supposed independence. But that was not the point. Kissinger pockets millions of dollars advising US-based corporations looking to do business overseas, sometimes in countries where the government controls what firms receive what contracts. Consequently, Kissinger has a strong personal interest in maintaining friendly relations with foreign governments. If he is assisting US companies eager to do business in Saudi Arabia, could he be the independent-minded chair of a commission that might have to examine the role of the Saudi government in encouraging (or curtailing) terrorism? That is why it was important for the public to see his client list.
Kissinger tried to skirt the disclosure laws by telling the 9/11 families he would reveal his clients to a third party chosen by the relatives, an intermediary who would keep the names secret. And the White House tried to rescue the appointment by declaring Kissinger an executive branch appointment not subject to legislative disclosure requirements. (At one point, Kissinger or administration officials indicated to the 9/11 families that he would only be working one day a week on the commission and, thus, as a part-timer would be exempt from disclosure requirements.) None of the ruses worked. After the Senate Ethics Committee rebuffed White House pressure and released a legal opinion stating that all members of the commission would have to disclose their business connections, Kissinger bailed. (Former Senator George Mitchell, chosen by the Democrats to be vice-chair of the panel, had already withdrawn, citing time constraints and an unwillingness to take a leave from his law firm. Former Representative Lee Hamilton, who went into think-tankery instead of bucks-chasing after leaving public office, took Mitchell’s spot.)
At the end of the day, Kissinger allowed private-sector enrichment to trump public service. His business was more important than answering the president’s call. Of course, he was the wrong man for a job–a proven liar, a fan of government secrecy, a sycophant with no record of challenging presidents, a longtime coddler of state terrorists. All that aside, he was not willing to sacrifice for his country. Kissinger allies asserted he had signed confidentiality agreements with his clients and was not free to disclose the deals. But he could have asked these corporations for permission to name them, arguing that in these unusual circumstances such a step was necessary for the good of the nation. He also reportedly feared that, even if he made his clientele list public, his critics would have hounded him until he sold his firm. Administration officials told reporters Kissinger, in the words of The New York Times, “decided that severing his ties to his company was too big a price to pay for returning to public service.”
Kissinger’s greed is the nation’s gain. His appointment was an insult both to citizens who deserve accountability from their government and to the 9/11 families who still yearn for answers. Yet this episode exposed Kissinger’s true concerns. It may well be the last chapter in his public life; if so, it is a fitting end to a career of perverted values. And perhaps he has unwittingly served the public. His controversial selection and his less-than-noble departure brought much-needed public attention to the panel. Kissinger is gone, but, after all, the White House’s desire for a controllable commission remains.