Mar 27, 2008

Dr. Hamilton and Mr. Hyde | By Jerry Meldon | published in Consortium News and The Tufts Daily on March 27, 2008

This afternoon, Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who served with distinction in the House of Representatives from 1965 to 1999 and has received over a dozen honorary degrees, will present the keynote speech at the Fares Center’s symposium, “The United States and the Middle East: What Comes Next After Iraq?”

 The title of his talk is “Iraq: Today, Tomorrow, and Beyond,” and I imagine that Mr. Hamilton will be thankful not to discuss “Yesterday.”

 Also, he probably would prefer not to re-visit fateful decisions he made while chairing investigations into Republican dirty work, especially those that let George H.W. Bush off the hook and cleared George W.’s path to the White House. Mr. Hamilton’s chairmanship of numerous post mortem inquiries into ill-conceived U.S. foreign affairs have empowered him to decide just how high the veil over the machinery of power would be lifted, if at all.

 As veteran journalist Robert Parry has persuasively argued on, the Bush family name squeaked through the ’80s and early ’90s essentially mud-free for only a few reasons.

The first is that on Christmas Eve 1992, lame-duck president George H.W. Bush pardoned six of his earlier coconspirators in the Iran-Contra affair (the Reagan/Bush White House’s diversion of profits from illegal arms sales to Iran to bankroll Nicaragua’s contra terrorists in defiance of a congressional ban). Until he was pardoned, former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger had been expected to buy clemency by testifying against Bush.

The next reason is that President Bill Clinton cut short a congressional inquiry into Bush’s secret billion dollar loans to Saddam Hussein and Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s Iran-Contra investigation. And lastly, Mr. Hamilton soft-pedaled two key congressional inquiries: the first investigated Iran-Contra and the second examined allegations that the 1980 Reagan/Bush campaign team had struck a treasonous deal with the hostage-holding Iranian government.

Conventional wisdom has attributed the target-friendliness of those latter investigations to Mr. Hamilton’s celebrated spirit of bipartisanship. After all, what else could have persuaded Mr. Hamilton to narrow the scope of the Iran-Contra investigation in order to placate Dick Cheney and the rest of the committee’s Republicans? And how else can one explain the committee’s ill-advised decision to immunize the testimony of a man on whom it had the goods, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North (whose operations in the Old Executive Office building had been exposed by Parry)? Thus emboldened, the cocky Col. North proceeded to cover up for Vice President Bush.

Hamilton’s Iran-Contra performance was troubling. But he went several steps further when he chaired the October Surprise Task Force and handed the Reagan/Bush administration a deck full of get-out-of-jail-free cards. In the lead-up to the 1980 election, Republicans feared that Jimmy Carter would pull off an “October Surprise” and talk the Iranians into releasing 52 American hostages.

Carter’s failure to do so cost him the election. However, over the next several years a parade of individuals alleged that he failed only because the Republicans had secretly agreed to arm Iran in exchange for a delay in the hostages’ release.

Heated Republican denials notwithstanding, the fact remained that the Iranians chose to end the hostages’ 444-day ordeal within hours of Reagan’s inauguration. To put nasty rumors to rest, the House Foreign Affairs Committee formed a task force under the co-chairmanship of Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Lee Hamilton. The task force was charged with examining allegations that in the summer and fall of 1980, Republican heavyweights, notably the vice presidential candidate, former CIA Director George H.W. Bush, and the campaign director, future CIA Director William J. Casey, had secretly flown to Europe to strike the fateful deal. The key issue was the veracity of Bush’s and Casey’s alibis.

In the heat of his 1992 re-election campaign, an angry President Bush accused the task force of waging a “witch hunt.” Obligingly, the task force disclosed that Secret Service records backed his alibi. That prompted Spencer Oliver, counsel to the Foreign Affairs Committee, to challenge the accuracy of the Secret Service records. Oliver also charged the Bush administration with stonewalling the task force.

“They have sought to block, limit, restrict and discredit the investigation in every possible way,” he said. “President Bush’s recent outbursts [about] his whereabouts in mid-October of 1980 are disingenuous at best since the administration has refused to make available the documents and the witnesses that could finally and conclusively clear Mr. Bush.”

“The Bush administration flatly refused to give any more information to the House task force unless it agreed never to interview [Mr. Bush’s] alibi witness and never to release [that person’s] name,” Parry added. “Amazingly, the task force accepted the administration’s terms.”

Hamilton’s treatment of Mr. Bush was outrageously deferential. But it was pitbull-like compared to how he handled the attempts to provide the late Mr. Casey with an alibi. The Republicans first insisted that Casey could not have flown to meet with the Iranians at the alleged time because during that particular weekend he had attended a historical conference in London. But that alibi had to be ditched when historian and conference attendee Robert Dallek reported that Casey had missed a strategically timed morning session.

 No problem. A new alibi was introduced that instead placed Casey at California’s Bohemian Grove retreat. As it turned out, Casey had indeed stayed at the Bohemian Grove, only not on the decisive weekend.

Unfazed, Hamilton’s task force acted as if Casey’s alibi remained solid and issued a report that exonerated both Casey and Bush. Not long afterward, task force co-chair Henry Hyde acknowledged that Casey’s 1980 passport had vanished along with key pages in his personal calendar.

 Unperturbed, Lee Hamilton penned a New York Times Op-Ed in which he cited Casey’s so-called alibi in insisting that his task force’s report “should put the controversy to rest once and for all.” Only later did Robert Parry rummage through the task force’s records to discover a photograph of the 16 men who had been at the Bohemian Grove on that notorious weekend in the summer of 1980 in the company, supposedly, of William Casey. But Casey was not in the photo — a fact that the task force had conveniently neglected to report.

This afternoon the Tufts community will have the opportunity to ask Mr. Hamilton exactly why he has repeatedly kept Americans in the dark about critical episodes in their history. It is an opportunity not to be missed.