News and Features
The Bush Administration is turning into one big rehab center for the Iran/contra schemers of the Reagan/Bush White House. The latest case involves retired Adm. John Poindexter, who's been hired by the Pentagon to head a new agency, the Information Awareness Office. Created after September 11 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, it is developing high-tech systems to provide government officials immediate access to new surveillance and information-analysis systems. Its focus, of course, includes terrorist groups.
Poindexter certainly has extensive experience dealing with terrorists. As Ronald Reagan's National Security Adviser, he was a key mover in the Iran/contra scandal of the 1980s, when the Reagan White House tried to pull off a secret arms-for-hostages deal with the terrorist-supporting regime of Iran. Poindexter also was one of the few Reagan officials who, according to the available evidence, knew that proceeds from the arguably illicit arms sales to Iran were diverted to the Nicaraguan contras. He later testified that he had deliberately withheld information from Reagan on the diversion because "I wanted the President to have some deniability so that he would be protected."
After the arms-for-hostages deal became public in late 1986, Poindexter "repeatedly laid out a false version" in order to distance Reagan from the most questionable weapons transactions, according to Iran/contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh. Poindexter, with his aide Oliver North, also attempted to shred and destroy records regarding their Iran/contra activities.
Poindexter was tried and convicted of five felonies, including obstructing official inquiries and lying to Congress. He was sentenced to six months in prison. But he walked. In a two-to-one decision in 1991, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned Poindexter's convictions on the ground that his trial had been tainted by his immunized Congressional testimony. (North, convicted of three counts, avoided jail for the same reason.) This was escape, not vindication. Since leaving government service, Poindexter, a physicist by training, has been active as a military technology consultant. But the record remains: Poindexter admitted withholding information from his boss, he destroyed government documents and he misled official investigators. Does that sound like someone to entrust with a new government agency?
No problemo for the Bushies. They have happily provided homes to other Iran/contra reprobates. Elliott Abrams, who as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America in the Reagan years supervised contra policy, pleaded guilty to two charges of withholding information from Congress. Today, the fellow who downplayed reports of military massacres in Central America works for the National Security Council, overseeing human rights and democracy issues. (Abrams was pardoned by Bush I.)
Otto Reich ran a State Department office during the Iran/contra affair that "engaged in prohibited covert propaganda," according to a government inquiry. Now he has Abrams's old job at State. John Negroponte was US Ambassador to Honduras and facilitated a clandestine quid pro quo deal, under which the Reagan Administration sent aid to Honduras in return for Honduran assistance to the contras, at a time when Congress had banned the Administration from assisting the contras. Negroponte's embassy also suppressed information about human rights abuses committed by the Honduran military. Negroponte is currently our UN ambassador.
Perhaps the most significant Iran/contra rehabilitation concerns the President's father: "41" was an Iran/contra ringleader who lied about his role. After the scandal broke, Bush claimed he had not been "in the loop." But according to documents later released, he had attended high-level meetings on the Iran initiative and had participated in the Administration's quid pro quo with Honduras. It was only after Bush I was bounced out of office that his personal diary notes--long sought by investigators--became available. His entry for November 5, 1986 (two days after the Iran initiative was revealed by a Lebanese weekly), reads, "I'm one of the few people that know fully the details.... This is one operation that has been held very, very tight, and I hope it will not leak." That boastful note wins Bush the Elder a top spot in the roster of Iran/contra prevaricators. Yet he went on to become a rather important adviser to a high-ranking member of the present Administration.
There has been one exception to the all-is-forgiven rule at the Bush II White House. In October, Duane Clarridge, a CIA official involved in the scandal who was indicted for lying to Congress, was set to become an assistant in the NSC's counterterrorism office. But then the White House yanked the welcome mat. In speaking to one reporter, a disappointed Clarridge cited Abrams, noting that, unlike Abrams, he had not pleaded guilty. (Clarridge was pardoned by Daddy Bush before his case could be tried.) Poor guy, he does have a point. Why embrace Abrams--and Poindexter, Reich and Negroponte--but not Clarridge? Was secretly mining Nicaragua's harbor, a Clarridge initiative that earned a World Court ruling against the United States, worse than shredding, or lying to Congress, or covering up human rights abuses?
So is there anyone left to be rehabilitated? Oliver North has a good gig at Fox News, where he shares his expert opinions on how to deal with terrorists. (Sell them missiles and bring them a nice cake?) Richard Secord, the wheeling-dealing general-turned-arms-merchant who managed North's secret contra supply operation, may well be seeking business opportunities arising from the war on terrorism. Perhaps retired Gen. John Singlaub could be assigned a mission. Recently, at a conference of conservatives I bumped into Singlaub, who ran the World Anti-Communist League in the 1980s and plotted with North to raise money covertly for the contras from foreign countries. Are you active these days? I asked. "Yes," he said, adding no more. Same sort of stuff as always? "Yes," he replied and shifted his feet. Like what? I asked. He stalked off. The man can still keep a secret--sign him up. By the way, Robert McFarlane, Poindexter's predecessor as National Security Adviser and a co-author of the Iran deal and the contra policy, re-emerged in October as an adviser to an anti-Taliban Afghan fighter who was ambushed and killed during a botched operation. Maybe there's a spot available for him. When it comes to personnel, Iran/contra is no stigma for the Bush clan. In most instances, it seems to be a mark of honor.
Secrecy is the guiding philosophy of the Bush Administration.
Questions about Enron's links to the White House and Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force are reassuring. They mean that the nation, after the September 11 attacks, is now confident enough to focus on some of the more traditional threats to our democracy, like the corporate takeover of our political system.
Following the release of the White House energy plan last year, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) demanded the Energy Task Force's records, including any interactions with major Bush campaign donors like Enron's Ken Lay. The Vice President's office refused to release the documents, claiming that Congress was exceeding its oversight authority. One of the oil and gas men whose privacy the White House wants to protect is Cheney himself, who in 1999, as CEO of Halliburton, was a member of the Petroleum Council, an advisory group to the Energy Department. The council issued a report calling for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and of roadless areas of the West to fossil fuel exploitation, proposals incorporated into the White House plan.
The GAO was preparing to sue for the first time in its eighty-year history when the terrorists struck. It then put its suit on hold so it could focus on "homeland security" and let the White House do the same. With the collapse of Enron and the beginning of Congressional hearings on the largest bankruptcy in US history, that holding pattern appears to be ending.
Still, even as environmental groups backed away from criticizing the President after September 11, the White House continued to push its "free market" environmental agenda. This past October, Interior Secretary Gale Norton had to explain why she'd altered scientific data, in a letter to the Senate, to make it appear that oil operations in the Arctic would not harm hundreds of thousands of migratory caribou, when in fact her own Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had provided her with data suggesting it would. "We did make a mistake. We will take steps to clarify and correct that," she told reporters in explaining one of the many discrepancies in her letter.
Norton has also concluded that drilling in the Arctic won't violate an international treaty that protects polar bears. The FWS, which has twice issued reports stating that drilling poses a threat to the bears, was directed to "correct these inconsistencies" with Norton's position. Polar bears can live with oil drilling, the FWS now tells us. They'll just look more like panda bears.
Ten years after President Bush Sr. pledged "no net loss of wetlands," George W. has signed off on an Army Corps of Engineers proposal that will make it easier for developers and mining companies to dredge and fill America's vital wetlands through a "general permitting" process that is rarely if ever challenged. Again, Norton failed to forward comments from her FWS to the corps, even though the FWS had written that the proposed policy change would result in "tremendous destruction of aquatic and terrestrial habitat."
Among the beneficiaries of the new engineer corps rules will be mining companies involved in "mountaintop removal" in Appalachia. J. Steven Griles, Norton's deputy, was a longtime mining lobbyist, and Norton herself lobbied for the lead industry.
Over at the EPA Christie Whitman won greenie points when she ordered GE to begin dredging PCBs out of the Hudson River. At the same time, the EPA has begun moving top career people (from the office of wetlands, enforcement, etc.) around the agency in a strange reorganization no one quite understands. "Are they purposely designing this to hamstring EPA for the next twenty years?" wonders a career employee who also complains that enforcement actions (as opposed to industry-friendly out-of-court settlements) are down significantly in the past year.
Under White House and lobbyist pressure, the EPA is also getting ready to relax clean air standards (that, as governor of New Jersey, Whitman supported) requiring old coal-fired power plants to shut down or significantly reduce gaseous emissions that contribute to acid rain and other forms of pollution.
Even Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's recent Detroit auto show announcement that the government will work with the auto industry to develop pollution-free hydrogen-fuel-cell cars got mixed reactions. That's because he used the announcement to abandon a program aimed at improving existing auto fuel-efficiency standards. As usual, most of these environmental policy decisions are rife with corporate conflicts of interest, but conflicts that in recent months have gotten even less media attention than they normally would.
In her public appearances Whitman now emphasizes the need to protect America's water supply from terrorists (if not arsenic). Norton has been pushing the argument that drilling in ANWR can provide as much oil as we import from Iraq in eighty years (or the oily equivalent of sixteen years of Cheney's diet), and President Bush insists that Arctic drilling will make us "more secure at home." If nothing else, America's new "war on terrorism" is helping the Bush White House in its old war on the environment.
Congress returns--will the Democrats challenge Bush?
It was a mistake--and a beaut--in Matt Bivens's piece "The Enron Box" where he confused the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers. It is hereby duly acknowledged and regretted. But what really astonished us was the way it unleashed a slick triple play by the Right-Wing Conspirators (a Class C club that plays the Washington-New York corridor). You've heard of Tinker to Evers to Chance? Well, this was Wall Street Journal to The Weekly Standard to Fox News's Brit Hume. The WSJ caught Bivens's blooper; then The Weekly Standard grabbed amd waved it long enough to say "Nyah, nyah" before Brit (Mr. Inside) Hume gobbled up the ball and hinted darkly of cover-up (or something) on Fox News. This dazzling play illustrates how the opposing team will seize on a minor miscue and use it to clear George W. Bush of any involvement in the Enron scandal. OK, we admit the error shows we are sometimes sports-challenged; next time we'll check with a baseball expert like George Will. Lest the real issues be lost out in right field, however, we bring you a comment on Bush and baseball posted by the witty sportswriter Charles Pierce, a commentator on NPRs Only a Game and the author of Sports Guy: In Search of Corkball, Warroad Hockey, Hooters Golf, Tiger Woods, and the Big, Big Game. He posted it on Jim Romenesko's Media News (www.poynter.org):
"As to The Nation's unfortunate collision with the national pastime--the passage ought to read:
'When George Bush co-owned the Texas Rangers with a bunch of businessmen who had all the real money, construction began on The Ballpark At Arlington, after the ownership group finagled the eminent domain laws in order to swindle some property owners out of the market price for some valuable land. The property owners sued and won, but The Ballpark arose anyway, enabling Mr. Bush to cash out his original investment several times over without ever having done any actual work. This helped launch the successful portion of his political career, culminating in his becoming President of the United States, a job from which he took an evening off last spring in order to be the guest of Kenneth Lay for the opening of Enron Field in Houston. Mr. Lay was CEO of Enron and a well-known political supporter of the president who, these days, of course, would not recognize him from a box of turnips.'
"The Nation, I am sure, regrets the error."
Indeed we do.
For weeks, conservative commentators and Bush White House defenders have been huffing that the Enron matter is a corporate scandal, not a political controversy--that it is an affair of business sku
Welfare reform has left America dangerously undefended against hard times.
It was not without warning that Congress voted to end welfare-as-we-knew-it in 1996, but still, it seemed to catch the progressive community off-guard.
As Congress revisits the welfare debate, it's time to look at what the law has wrought.