The slow wheel of truth has been grinding – to the chagrin of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, whose assorted coverups are coming undone. And the reluctance of the Clinton administration to make them accountable leaves one wondering whether things will ever change.
Ten days ago, the State Department, Pentagon and CIA released thousands of documents confirming long-standing charges that the two former presidents were unfazed by intelligence reports of atrocities ordered and committed by Salvadoran governments, which Washington bankrolled during a decade-long civil war.
Then, on Tuesday, Christopher Drogoul, the former manager of the Atlanta branch of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro of Italy, confirmed to the House Banking Committee that BNL had been used by the Bush administration to funnel $5.5 billion in unauthorized loans to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the years before the Gulf War.
Neither story is new. The Reagan and Bush eras were punctuated regularly by news reports of civilian murders carried out by Salvadoran army battalions and government sponsored death squads. Nonetheless, Washington sent $1 billion in military aid to El Salvador between 1980 and 1991, winning congressional authorization by disingenuously certifying progress by the Salvadoran government in curtailing human rights abuses by its forces.
Similiarly, President Bush’s popularity was riding a postwar wave of euphoria and self-congratulation in early 1991, when reports began filtering out of Washington that Saddam Hussein’s military dictatorship had been propped up by billions in illegal loans that had been financed by US taxpayers and mostly went belly up.
Yet public outrage was for the most part muted given that the news in the ‘80s was about Nicaragua and Iran – not El Salvador and Iraq.
Similarly, the Reagan administration demonized Libya’s Moammar Khadafy and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini as international terrorists, while overlooking Saddam Hussein. The truth was that in Iran’s war with Iraq, Reagan and Bush both sought to ensure that neither country would dominate the region’s oil reserves – and so secretly supported both with arms. But the public learned only about Ollie North and the secret deals with Iran and Nicaragua’s contras.
After peace was renegotiated with El Salvador, a United Nations “Truth Commission” traced the record of human rights violations by both sides in the civil war. The commission pinned most abuses on the Salvadoran military – and fingered the State Department for misleading reports about the culprits. Under pressure from Congress, President Clinton ordered the department to examine its own files. The result was a whitewash.
In July, a 3-member panel appointed by Secretary of State Warren Christopher acknowledged that abuses had been committed by our Salvadoran allies, and that Washington had made “mistakes” in one or two cases. But the panel devoted most of its report to supporting its claim that the State Department had “performed creditably … in advancing human rights in El Salvador.”
A less rosy portrait is painted by 12,000 files released Nov. 5 by the State Department, Defense Department and CIA. The documents prove that the Reagan and Bush administrations turned a blind eye to atrocity. They show that Vice President Bush was well aware of the role played by cashiered Salvadoran army Major Robert D’Aubuisson in the 1981 assassination of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero – and that Bush stonewalled when Congress inquired. Similarly, Washington played dumb on the involvement of Salvadoran government agents and soldiers in the 1981 massacre of 800 civilians in a village, the 1980 rape and murder of three US nuns and a lay co-worker and the storming a university dormitory in 1989 during which six Jesuit priests were murdered.
Following the same nonpartisan pattern of denial and coverup, allegations of Washington’s coddling of Saddam Hussein in the years leading up to the Gulf War were met with denials by the Bush administration. This spawned another Clinton coverup.
Soon after the changing of the guard, Clinton’s Justice Department investigated the long-standing charges. In April, it decided not to prosecute, despite solid evidence.
Then, in August, federal prosecutor John Hogan concluded there was no evidence of conspiracy by President Bush and senior aides to cover up their actions in support of Saddam Hussein’s government. Federal district judge Marvin Shoob, who presided over the only big court case involving illegal loans to Iraq, characterized Hogan’s conclusion as possible only “in never-never land.” He appears to have been on the mark.
On Tuesday, Drogoul, who in September pleaded guilty before Judge Shoob to charges of bank fraud, testified before the House Banking Committee. Drogoul stated that when he was interrogated by Bush Justice Department officials about the billion-dollar loans, his efforts to cooperate “were frustrated by their continual unwillingness to allow me to tell them the truth.”
The truth, according to Drogoul, is that the Bush administration engaged in a scheme to secretly arm Iraq against Iran in their eight-year war between 1980 and 1988.
In an excerpt from his new book, “Spider’s Web: The Secret History of How the White House Illegally Armed Iraq,” printed in last Sunday’s New York Times, journalist Alan Friedman says that “after Mr. Bush took office, he turned the previous tilt to Baghdad into a bear hug.” National Security Directive 26, signed by Bush in October 1989, “stepped up military aid to Saddam Hussein even though the Iran-Iraq war had ended more than a year before.”
Reagan and Bush saw no problem in supporting government by death squad in El Salvador, or propping up Saddam Hussein before turning on him. President Clinton, all so naturally, covered up – as if he owed it to his predecessors.
What is at the heart of this nonpartisan, amoral and invariably boneheaded conduct of foreign policy?