What's Right With Kerry
After the contra investigation, Kerry next turned to a far more sensitive target: a bank connected to a prominent Democratic Party fundraiser. During their investigation of Noriega, Kerry's staff discovered that the Bank of Credit and Commerce International had facilitated Noriega's drug trafficking and money laundering. This led to an inquiry into BCCI, a worldwide but murky institution more or less controlled by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. BCCI was a massive criminal enterprise, although this was not yet publicly known. It had engaged in rampant fraud and money laundering (to help out, among others, drug dealers, terrorists and arms traffickers) around the world. Its tentacles ran everywhere. Its political connections reached around the globe. Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger both became involved in the scandal. When banking regulators finally shut down BCCI in 1991, an estimated 250,000 creditors and depositors from forty countries were out billions of dollars.
One key issue was whether BCCI had secretly and illegally acquired control of First American bank in Washington, DC. The top officials of First American were Clark Clifford, a longtime Democratic graybeard and a party fundraiser, and Robert Altman, his protégé. Democratic senators grumbled about Kerry's crusade, which put Clifford in the cross-hairs. "This really pissed people off," Blum says. BCCI hired from both Democratic and Republican quarters an army of lawyers, PR specialists and lobbyists (including former members of Congress) to thwart the investigation. The Justice Department of the first Bush Administration did not respond to information on BCCI uncovered by Kerry's staff. So Blum took the material to New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who then commenced an investigation of BCCI that led to indictments. And Kerry again found himself tussling with the CIA, for the agency had been using the services of BCCI even after it had learned that the bank was crooked and in league with terrorists (including Abu Nidal).
In the fall of 1992 Kerry released a report on the BCCI affair. It blasted everyone: Justice, Treasury, US Customs, the Federal Reserve, Clifford and Altman (for participating in "some of BCCI's deceptions"), high-level lobbyists and fixers, and the CIA. The report noted that after the CIA knew the bank was "a fundamentally corrupt criminal enterprise, it continued to use both BCCI and First American...for CIA operations." The report was, in a sense, an indictment of Washington cronyism. In the years since, there's been nothing like it. Senator Hank Brown, the ranking Republican on Kerry's subcommittee, noted, "John Kerry was willing to spearhead this difficult investigation. Because many important members of his own party were involved in this scandal, it was a distasteful subject for other committee and subcommittee chairmen to investigate. They did not. John Kerry did."
While Kerry was in the middle of the BCCI muck, Senate majority leader George Mitchell asked him to assume another difficult task: investigate the unaccounted-for Vietnam POWs and MIAs. For years so-called POW advocates, like billionaire Ross Perot, had claimed American GIs were still being held in Vietnam, and the highly charged POW/MIA issue was the main roadblock to normalizing relations. Working closely with Senator John McCain, a Republican who had been a POW, Kerry got the Pentagon to declassify 1 million pages of records. His committee chased after rumors of American soldiers being held. He took fourteen trips to Vietnam. This was a hard mission: How could his committee say there were absolutely no POWs still captive in Vietnam? Yet anything less could keep the POW controversy alive.
On one trip to Hanoi, as Douglas Brinkley notes in Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, Kerry insisted that he be allowed to inspect the catacombs beneath Ho Chi Minh's tomb, where, according to a persistent rumor, the remaining POWs were being held. Permission was granted, and with conservative Republican Bob Smith by his side, he inspected the tunnels and found no signs of POWs. In January 1993 Kerry's POW/MIA committee released a 1,223-page report concluding that there was "no compelling evidence that proves any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia." Some POW die-hards howled. (Journalist Sydney Schanberg has accused Kerry of covering up and destroying evidence that POWs were left behind.) But the report mostly settled the issue. President Bill Clinton was able to drop the Vietnam trade embargo and normalize relations.