Justice a l'Orange

Trailing behind the Bush administration: a growing gaggle of barely suppressed scandals

| Thu Feb. 19, 2004 4:00 AM EST

Okay, you're at the local multiplex, waiting for the main feature to begin. The ads are on screen, loud and insistent, reminding you that you could be home watching TV. But there's hope. The trailers are about to begin. Of course, these days movie trailers tend to last almost as long as the movies they're previewing, give away the plots, and show you all the best scenes. So how can you judge whether the film whose "trailer" I'm about to show you will be worth catching? All I can suggest is that you get your popcorn, take your seat, and judge for yourself whether you want to return in the spring or summer for the main feature.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Imagine, now, that the title flashes on screen -- Justice à l'Orange it's probably called -- followed by a wall-to-wall cast of characters. Far too many to absorb in a split second including our President, vice president, CIA officials, a supreme court justice, spooks and unnamed sources galore, FBI agents, prosecutors, military men, congressional representatives and their committees, grand juries, fuming columnists, an ex-ambassador, journalists and bloggers, sundry politicians, rafts of neocons, Vietnam-era National Guardsmen, oil tycoons, and of course assorted wild fowl (this being the Bush administration). If the director were Oliver Stone, it might immediately be retitled: The Bush Follies With Anthony Hopkins, fresh from his flop in The Human Stain, playing the president.

And the first scene would open -- like that old Jean Luc Goddard movie Weekend -- with a giant traffic jam. It would be epic. All of political Washington in potential scandal gridlock. And (as with Weekend) horns would be blaring, drivers and passengers arguing. It would be obvious that the norms of civilization were falling fast and people were threatening to cannibalize each other. (Remember, Hopkins also played Hannibal Lecter.)

Okay, it's a modern trailer, so let me just give away the plot right up front: The Bush administration has been in trouble ever since its arrogance met its incompetence at Intelligence Pass last summer; ever since Plame Gate began (see below), ever since George's guys tried to solve their problems -- all those already nagging lies and exaggerations, all the fun and games that panicked a country into war -- by throwing CIA director George Tenet to the sharks, and he refused to walk the plank.

Ever since then, they've been gathering angry constituencies -- in the military, in the "intelligence community," in Congress, in the bureaucracy, in the media, even on the right -- and trailing behind them an ever growing gaggle of barely suppressed scandals, investigative committees, nosy commissions, grand juries, and intra-bureaucratic buck-passing. Their pattern -- not completely unfamiliar, if you think back to previous administrations -- has been to mount the barricades, declare, "Thus far, and no farther… they shall not pass," and then, when the weather gets heavy, fall back to the next set of barricades.

The attorney general will not recuse himself; no special prosecutor will be appointed…. You complete that one. The president will not testify; the president will testify but only before one or two people and not under oath… and so forth. If you watched carefully, you would see the administration slowly and quietly giving ground for some time on issue after issue, problem after problem, a sign of weakness -- and an explanation, in part, for the sudden loss of media docility. (The pack smells blood.)

Recently, the pace has been upped. We're already in the midst of an early, down-and-dirty presidential campaign. (The President will remain presidential, concerned only with matters of office; he will not descend into the pit…The President will descend but only... you see it's a formula that holds up everywhere.) The polls tell us that the economy, health care, and jobs are what most "concern" Americans. As well they should. Figures on the war in Iraq, while dropping, have remained relatively high for the president. ("For the first time since the United States invaded Iraq a year ago," reports Brad Knickerbocker of the Christian Science Monitor considering the latest polls, "the nation is evenly divided over the war.")

But I think this is deceptive. The truth is that the ragtag insurgency, the missing WMD, and assorted other problems in Iraq as well as the steady drip of American casualties -- or rather the inability to shut it all down there, to deliver the Iraq promised to the American people -- has driven this administration before it (just as other administrations were once driven by the unending war in Vietnam). Issue by issue, the traffic jam in Washington can be traced right back to that.

So let me now give you just a glimpse of some of the scandals and investigations piling up which threaten to boil over in the coming months

Sitting duck

When, in a New York Times op-ed last June, ex-ambassador Joseph Wilson outed the administration over that fraudulent Niger yellowcake claim in the President's State of the Union address, he undoubtedly looked like a moving target. Hard to hit. (His very mission, among other things, had been requested by the vice-president's office.) On the other hand, Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA agent dealing with issues of nuclear proliferation, looked like a sitting duck. And so figures high in this administration decided to whack Wilson hard for embarrassing them (while possibly warning others in the intelligence community who might be inclined to speak out) by outing her -- a crime. This was done via a leak to conservative columnist Robert Novak, who has told a variety of tales about what how it happened and thanks to whom. Murray Waas reviews this part of the sordid tale in a piece for the American Prospect magazine on-line in Plame Gate, a piece that begins:

"Two government officials have told the FBI that conservative columnist Robert Novak was asked specifically not to publish the name of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame in his now-famous July 14 newspaper column. The two officials told investigators they warned Novak that by naming Plame he might potentially jeopardize her ability to engage in covert work, stymie ongoing intelligence operations, and jeopardize sensitive overseas sources. These new accounts, provided by a current and former administration official close to the situation, directly contradict public statements made by Novak… The two administration officials questioned by the FBI characterized Novak's statements [on how the column came about] as untrue and misleading, according to a government official and an attorney official familiar with the FBI interviews."

It's worth noting as well that Waas's information about the Novak leak comes via another leak - and in a super-secret case before a grand jury. It's but another sign of the anger bubbling up inside the Beltway. Many intelligence types and others have been deeply offended not just by Plame's outing by this administration, but by the visible lack of any desire on the part of the President to get to the bottom of the case. The grand jury convened by former Chicago prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald after Attorney General Ashcroft finally recused himself is now questioning high administration officials. James Harding of the British Financial Times reports (White House braced for outcome of CIA leak probe):

"As the White House seeks to fend off attacks on President George W. Bush's service record, Washington is alive with talk that it is readying for another assault on its integrity: indictments from the CIA leak investigation…

"Over the last 10 days…, senior staff to the president and Vice-President Dick Cheney have filed in to give testimony to the grand jury. They include: Scott McClellan, the press secretary, Mary Matalin, Mr Cheney's former press secretary and now adviser to the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign, Claire Buchan, a deputy press secretary, and Adam Levine, who previously worked in the White House communications site. There have also been "tip-offs" that indictments are in the offing. The names are circulating of senior staff in Mr Cheney's office."

So it's just possible that someone (or ones) high in the vice-presidential heavens may go to trial for outing Plame with 10 years in prison at stake.

Spreading canards

In the meantime, on a related front, the administration is also slowly retreating on the issue of prewar "intelligence" and how reliable it was. We're talking here about mushroom clouds over cities and UAVs -- small Iraqi planes -- spraying anthrax across the East coast. Before the war, these technically improbable, if not impossible fantasies were passed off as presidential realities based on "intelligence." (If you want to get a better bead on the realities of WMD in our world, check out Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis's most recent piece, WMD: A Primer.)

Up until now, the administration has tried to confine investigations of "intelligence" to the intelligence community itself, not to how the administration used, abused, and created "intelligence." So it was a distinct sign of the times when the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee decided to tack in quite a different direction. According to Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times (Senate's Iraq Probe To Include Bush, Aides):

"In a blow to the Bush administration, the Senate Intelligence Committee said Thursday that it planned to investigate whether White House officials exaggerated the Iraq threat or pressured analysts to tailor their assessments of Baghdad's weapons programs to bolster the case for war.

"The move puts claims made by President Bush and other senior officials in his administration squarely in the sights of the committee's investigation, and could add to the White House's political troubles as it tries to keep questions about the war from becoming a drag on Bush's reelection campaign.

"The White House and Republican leaders in Congress had sought for months to confine the inquiry to the performance of the CIA and other intelligence agencies, and to insulate the administration. But the Senate panel voted unanimously Thursday to expand the probe after some GOP members appeared ready to break from the Republican position."

In the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton-eras, one reason administration scandals gained traction was that the non-presidential party controlled Congress and so could launch and tailor investigations. This also left an opening for people in the Washington bureaucracy to come forward and speak their minds with some sense of protection. The fact that the White House and Congress have since 2000 been led by the same party -- a party intent on imposing a kind of party-line discipline seldom seen before in Washington -- has retarded this scandal-season.

What's striking then is that Republican Senator Chuck Hagel and others suddenly jumped sides on the Intelligence Committee on this matter, opening the way for what will evidently be an investigation of the Office of Special Plans, the neocon intelligence operation set up in the Pentagon, and of the information provided by Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi exile organization, the Iraqi National Congress, information which, possibly via the vice-president's office, ended up in the National Intelligence Estimate that bolstered the war party. (I wonder who will play Chalabi in the future film, Sex, lies, and mushroom clouds?)

We now know for sure that as Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, Knight Ridder's excellent investigative team, report (Majority of Iraqi exiles slanted stories):

"U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that almost all of the Iraqi defectors whose information helped make the Bush administration's case against Saddam Hussein exaggerated what they knew, fabricated tales or were 'coached' by others on what to say. As investigations expand into the intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq, questions are growing about the defectors' role in building the momentum toward last spring's invasion. Most of the former Iraqi officials were made available to U.S. intelligence agencies by the Iraqi National Congress, a coalition of exile groups with close ties to the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office. The INC had lobbied for years for a U.S. military operation to oust Hussein."

In other words, our "best" intelligence essentially came from a single well-coached "witness," Ahmed Chalabi, now sitting on the Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad -- and there lies a sordid tale indeed. (Check out Maureen Dowd's latest New York Times column on Chalabi, the man who wanted to rule Iraq, and Cheney, the man who may be ruling our country, included below.)

One curious little paragraph from that LA Times piece;

"The former chief U.S. weapons hunter in Iraq, David Kay, said recently that he believed an examination of the administration's claims should accompany the review of the intelligence."

Despite all his initial caveats and seeming attempts to shield the administration from responsibility for the missing WMD in Iraq, the improbable David Kay, former head of the Iraq Survey Group, in his statements in Congress seemed to single-handedly turn the tide of American public opinion and now, bafflingly, he simply won't shut up. ("David Kay said there was no point in continuing to hunt for arms he said 'really did not exist. I think finding them is probably the wrong approach, the wrong strategy,' Kay told a news conference.") His recent statements were probably key factors in the Senate Intelligence Committee's decision to expand its investigation. If you want to check out this part of the story, read Walter Pincus of the Washington Post whose Feb. 11 piece began (Study of Rhetoric on Iraq Is Urged):

"David Kay, the former chief U.S. arms inspector in Iraq, said yesterday that President Bush's new commission on intelligence should study how the president and his senior policymakers used the information they received from intelligence agencies. 'The charges are out there,' Kay said during a talk at the U.S. Institute of Peace, 'and if there was misuse or distortion, we need to know it.' He added that he did not believe that was the case and that he was told to 'find the truth' when he was given the job of searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

There's a story here re: Kay that I don't think we know. Someday someone will undoubtedly explain.

Meanwhile, don't forget two other investigatory bodies: There's that commission the President set up without the help of Congress to investigate "our" (but not his) intelligence failures which is to report back long after the election. Then there's the congressionally mandated 9/11 commission, which has been struggling obscurely with the President for months over whether and then how he would share his pre-9/11 daily briefings from the intelligence community and is now pushing for presidential testimony on which, again, the Bush administration has slowly given ground -- and then taken part of it back. Dan Eggen of the Washington Post writes:

"The White House said yesterday that President Bush plans to meet only with a limited number of representatives from the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, despite a statement issued Friday that suggested he would meet with the whole panel."

So many bodies, so little time.

Justice à l'orange

Oh, and let's not forget our Veep and his hunting pal Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, "alone in the rushes," as the Los Angeles Times put the matter in a devastating and devastatingly funny editorial recently. ("Scalia insists that neither his long friendship with Cheney nor the freebie shooting trip will bias his decision in the pending secret-records case [on Cheney's energy task force], and he dismisses any suggestion that he recuse himself. You don't have to know field game to smell a rotten odor here.")

The justice himself had the following incisive comment on the matter:

"'[The case before the court] did not involve a lawsuit against Dick Cheney as a private individual,' Scalia said in response to a question from the audience of about 600 people. 'This was a government issue. It's acceptable practice to socialize with executive branch officials when there are not personal claims against them. That's all I'm going to say for now. Quack, quack.'"

Quack, quack indeed.

We know that the vice-president slaughtered pheasants by the scores at a hunting camp outside Pittsburgh -- this sort of manufactured massacre using captured fowl makes normal hunters mad as hell -- and stalked ducks in Southern Louisiana with his buddy-in-justice. And we're assured that nothing untoward ever happens in this sort of "social" gathering. But Jane Mayer in her recent must-read New Yorker profile of the Veep and his little company that could named Halliburton had this tidbit to offer on Cheney's hunting habits less than two years after his tenure as Secretary of Defense ended with the arrival of the Clinton administration (Contract Sport):

"Cheney was hired by Halliburton in 1995, not long after he went on a fly-fishing trip in New Brunswick, Canada, with several corporate moguls. After Cheney had said good night, the others began talking about Halliburton's need for a new C.E.O. Why not Dick? He had virtually no business experience, but he had valuable relationships with very powerful people. Lawrence Eagleburger, the Secretary of State in the first Bush Administration, became a Halliburton board member after Cheney joined the company. He told me that Cheney was the firm's 'outside man,' the person who could best help the company expand its business around the globe… Under Cheney's direction, Halliburton thrived. In 1998, the company acquired its main rival, Dresser Industries. Cheney negotiated the $7.7-billion deal, reportedly during a weekend of quail-hunting."

Fish, quail. You get the picture. Oh, throw in one other factor -- the innocent party who was kind enough to take Cheney and Scalia hunting in Louisiana was, as Tony Mauro of Legal Times points out:

"Wallace Carline… president of the Diamond Services Corp., an Amelia, La., oil industry services company. According to Federal Election Commission records, Carline has donated $4,000 to GOP candidates and groups since 1998, including $1,500 to Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La. [David] Bookbinder [Washington legal director for the Sierra Club, one of the two parties that has brought the suit] wants to know who paid for Scalia's trip and lodging, and whether Carline has links to the energy task force. Carline declines comment."

Editorial pages around the country demanded, with generally highspirited, punning headlines, that Scalia recuse himself. Typical was the Oregonian whose editorial began strongly (Supreme Indifference):

"If U.S. Supreme Court justices regularly went on hunting trips or spa vacations with plaintiffs or defendants appearing before them, they would no longer be seen as the law of the land. They'd be seen, rightly, as a random gaggle of people who put their personal lives above the long-term credibility of the nation's judicial system.

"They might even be seen as quacks."

And most made some version of the following point that appeared in a Miami Herald editorial:

"The issue isn't the friendship between the justice and vice president, but rather the cavalier disregard for the customary -- and necessary -- protocol involving judges and parties to a case."

But really while not wrong, this does miss the essential nature of this administration, as Jane Mayer commented in a follow-up interview to her recent piece at the New Yorker on-line:

"The Halliburton story can be seen as the old Washington revolving-door story, but on steroids… While Cheney was in the private sector, working as Halliburton's C.E.O., he spent a great deal of his time personally lobbying for government credit guarantees, and he increased the number of subsidies to the company hugely. So, after years of championing the private sector and opposing big government, Cheney's own business career was very much dependent upon the federal government."

Remember when Americans used to blast Japanese and other Asian "tiger" economies for "crony capitalism." Well, this is the real thing. It's what "privatization" in Washington or Baghdad really means. You hunt duck. You make deals. You "rely" on the government, which, in modern computerese, means that you download what's valuable in the federal system into the companies of friends and they download various kinds of support into your coffers and the door revolves at supersonic speeds. On all this, more to come, I believe, this spring.

Ducking Vietnam

If you think I can really follow the ins and outs of George Bush's Vietnam-era military record, think again. But let's simply start by commenting on the degree to which this administration's Teflon coating is wearing thin. Walter Robinson of the Boston Globe brought up the issue of the President's service record, which had more holes than Swiss cheese, in the 2000 election, but at that time it gained no traction at all in the media. Here's a little figure that more than tells the tale. According to Antonia Zerbisias of the Toronto Star, "A database search of that period turned up some 13,000 references to former President Bill Clinton's having avoided the draft -- and only about 50 about Bush's military career." Think that one over.

Robinson is a dogged journalist and is now back on the job (Bush's loss of flying status should have spurred probe and Bush releases his military records). Check out his pieces or a recent review of the record to date by Richard Serrano of the Los Angeles Times (What did Bush Do in the Guard?) for some of the latest details of the Bush story. The White House has fallen back several times to new lines of defense, starting with that Meet the Press presidential interview when Bush sort of agreed to release all documentation on his wartime service. Two very limited document releases followed, and then last Friday a document dump that seems to have added up to little. The president's war(time) record still has more holes than Swiss cheese.

It's instructive to put the Bush and Clinton records side by side as Mark Crispin Miller, author of The Bush Dyslexicon and the upcoming Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney's New World Order, did in an unpublished letter to the New York Times:

"To the editors:

"Inevitably, one of your readers has complained of the 'hypocrisy' of Democrats who seek a full accounting of George W. Bush's military record, yet 'gave Bill Clinton a pass on his total avoidance of military service."

"This hardy lie should have been buried long ago. Despite his opposition to the war in Vietnam, Bill Clinton did not dodge the draft, although he did consider it. His first step was to join his home state's Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). While that move would have allowed him to defer the moment of his formal military service, it also would have meant his ultimately serving as an officer in Southeast Asia. But that step gnawed at him, because he did not want some less advantaged Arkansan to take his place in Vietnam; and so he asked to be removed from ROTC, so as to take his chances just like everybody else. A few months later he pulled a high number in the new draft lottery -- a break that bought him time (although it did not mean he never could be drafted).

"All of this is amply documented. On the other hand, the tale of Mr. Clinton's sly draft-dodging was based wholly on a dubious, belated affidavit, suddenly produced in 1992, and said to have been written by Col. Eugene Holmes, the ROTC officer with whom the future president had dealt back in the Sixties. That statement raised more questions than it answered. (The aged Holmes himself was inaccessible to journalists.)

"While Mr. Clinton agonized about the war, Mr. Bush and his friends gave it little thought ('I don't think we spent a lot of time debating it,' he said in 1999). While Mr. Clinton did not want his place filled by somebody else, Mr. Bush had no such qualms. With the help of powerful friends, he gained quick admittance to the Texas Air National Guard, despite the lengthy wait-list for positions there. And while Mr. Clinton was resigned to going eventually to Vietnam, Mr. Bush checked 'DO NOT VOLUNTEER' when asked if he would go to fight that war (which he supported).

"From the start, this president has postured as the patriotic and upstanding opposite of bad Bill Clinton. It is now time for us to rise above the fog of rightist propaganda, and try to see both men for who they really are."

Another point is amusingly made by Paul Woodward of the War in Context website, writing of White House explanations of George's missing Guard time: "Does anyone recognize a familiar line of White House reasoning here? Lieutenant Bush must have been present in Alabama because so far no one has proved that he was absent. Perhaps Hans Blix can shed some light here."

The newest twist on George's splendid Vietnam-era adventure is the focus not on the Bermuda Triangle that was his Guard "career" in Alabama, but on how he got into his "champagne unit" of the Guard in the first place. And it's a fascinating tale of privilege that adds up to a wealthy version of "draft dodging."

Dave Moniz and Jim Drinkard of USA Today, for instance point out that the recent minor legal brushes on his Guard application had a certain relevance (Bush driving records disclosed):

"The traffic violations are significant in the context of Bush's military career. At the time Bush enlisted in the Texas National Guard, the Air Force typically would have had to issue a waiver for an applicant who had multiple arrests or driving violations. An officer who served at the same time as the president, former Texas Air National Guard pilot Dean Roome, was required by the Air Force to get a waiver for a $25 speeding ticket when he enlisted in the Air National Guard in 1967. There is no record of an enlistment waiver in Bush's military file."

By far the best account I've seen of how George made it into the Guard -- a tale of influence trading far too complex to explain here but (and this will surely surprise you) involving among others a figure from the oil business -- was written recently by Lou Dubose for the LA Weekly. To whet your appetite I include just his summary paragraph of the best picture the Bushes could paint of the process. Check it out, then go read the full piece for yourself:

"So this is what we're supposed to swallow: A close friend of the Bush family took it upon himself to get G.W. Bush a billet in the Air National Guard. A Democratic House Speaker who had nothing to gain from helping a two-term Republican from Houston did so because it was the right thing to do - while he was, in the Wild West of campaign finance, raising money to run for statewide office. And the younger Bush, after scoring the absolute minimum on his flight test, was moved to the top of the recruiter's list by Guard officers who recognized his potential as a flyer. If you buy that, then you'll buy my Enron stock."

Does all of this matter? I think so, though when pollsters ask people whether they care about this issue, they generally say no. So much ancient history. But as with the mess in Iraq, this drip, drip, drip of little lies and inconsistencies from a man who walked that aircraft-carrier flight deck in uniform, wears versions of uniforms when addressing the troops, as he did today, claims to be a "war president," and appealed to Americans as a man who was completely trustworthy, has an erosive effect. It's another issue threatening to drive the President rather than be driven by him. The effects of all this are likely to be cumulative. Check out an evocative piece by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ruth Rosen on the question of the president's character included below.

To end, let me cite a joke that seems to catch a truth. This came to me via a friend's e-list from historian John Baick, who teaches at Western New England College. It was simply too amusing to resist:

"After reading President Bush's description of the American economy of the past ('It used to be, you know, crank somebody out of high school, and if they could run a backhoe, that's going to be fine') and considering former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's comments about the president's lack of interest in a 2001 economy briefing, I realize that a new investigation should be added alongside the search for missing National Guard records: did George W. Bush attend any classes at Harvard Business School?"

So there we go -- and I haven't covered the fullness of the terrain. Here, for instance, is British Guardian reporter Julian Borger on two more grand juries sitting now in Washington:

"A parallel grand jury [to the one working on Plame Gate] is looking into the forgery of a document that surfaced in Italy before the war, purporting to show Iraqi attempts to buy uranium in Niger. Despite doubts over its authenticity, the document underpinned US and British claims, since proved groundless, that Saddam was reconstituting his nuclear weapons programme.

"A third grand jury in Washington is looking into allegations that a Halliburton subsidiary paid $180m in bribes to secure lucrative contracts to build a gas plant in Nigeria, at the time Mr Cheney was chief executive, from 1995 to 2000."

And who knows what still awaits or which of these matters will burst from the flock and take on a political life of its own, or how, like multiple drugs ingested by a single system, they will all interact with each other and the American public. That's the trailer. I suggest you check out the film when it appears at your local multiplex.

Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a web-log of The Nation Institute.