Lee Hamilton, the Un-Wise Man
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has become the latest voice of influence to sing the praises of former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who is almost universally hailed in U.S. power circles as a modern-day Wise Man, a Democratic centrist who shuns partisanship and puts love of country over politics.
But the sad truth is that Lee Hamilton has done great damage to the U.S. political process by elevating bipartisanship above a commitment to the truth. One reason why many Americans buy into baseless conspiracy theories today is that Hamilton failed to expose real conspiracies when he was in Congress.
For instance, it was surely "bipartisan" in August 1986 when Hamilton joined other members of the House Intelligence Committee, including Rep. Dick Cheney, in concluding that stories about White House aide Oliver North running money and guns to the Nicaraguan contras were false.
Hamilton, then the committee’s chairman, accepted denials from North and his boss, National Security Adviser John Poindexter, and agreed to kill a proposed congressional investigation into what was then known as “the North network.”
Since I and my Associated Press colleague Brian Barger had been writing the stories about North’s secret operation (based then on about two dozen sources), I got a call from one of Hamilton’s aides and was told that Hamilton and the panel had the choice of “believing you and your 24 sources or these honorable men. And it wasn’t a close call.”
It was, however, an erroneous call. And it was not without consequences, both in the larger scheme of things and on the personal side.
At the AP that summer, Barger had been assigned to the overnight desk as a way to transition him onto the AP regular staff (he originally had been hired into a temporary position to work with me on the North project). However, in August, Barger was informed that his time on the overnight would be extended indefinitely, a development that prompted Barger to quit.
If Hamilton had done his duty – by insisting on a real investigation to get at the truth about North's network instead of caving in to Cheney and the other Republicans – our situation at AP would have been quite different. With a congressional investigation validating our reporting, I probably could have sprung Barger from his overnight assignment and kept our team together.
Instead, Hamilton’s out-of-hand rejection of an investigation amounted to a repudiation of our work – our critics quickly noted that even the Democrats deemed our reporting not worthy of pursuit – and AP management was left with an impression that we had taken the news agency out onto a dangerous limb.
In the bigger picture, Hamilton was demonstrating what would become his M.O., putting bipartisanship and collegiality ahead of truth and accountability.
For the next few months, the AP investigation of North, which also had lifted the curtain on the Reagan administration’s tolerance of contra drug trafficking, remained in limbo.
However, on Oct. 5, 1986, one of the last planned flights by North’s little contra-supply air force was shot down over Nicaragua. One American onboard, Eugene Hasenfus, survived and began talking.
Between Hasenfus’s account and documents that were recovered from the plane, it became clear that not only were our earlier articles about the North network true but that the secret contra supply operation was bigger and more sophisticated than we had understood.
Nevertheless, President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush and other officials continued to deny a U.S. government connection to the downed plane. Apparently, the White House remained confident that it could fend off the growing evidence. After all, it had successfully co-opted Hamilton and the intelligence committee in August.
But the scandal continued to grow. In early November 1986, a Beirut newspaper disclosed Reagan’s secret arms-for-hostages deals with Iran.
Reagan and his subordinates issued another round of hearty denials, but their bluster was finally not enough. By late November, the two disclosures – the contra supplies and the Iranian arms deliveries – became linked when evidence emerged that North had crossed the two operations by diverting profits from the Iran arms sales to fund the contra war.
The Iran-Contra scandal was born. Yet, despite Hamilton’s earlier failure to detect the secret North network, the House Democratic leadership still turned to him to lead the investigation. Hamilton was made co-chairman of the joint congressional Iran-Contra probe, with Cheney assuming the role as the administration’s chief defender.
As the Iran-Contra investigation picked up speed in early 1987, I was offered a job at Newsweek, and – given all the strife that had surrounded our investigation at AP – I decided it was the right time to leave.
My first stories at Newsweek revealed that the Iran-Contra scandal reached much higher than had been known and that the White House had begun a frantic cover-up aimed at shielding Reagan from possible impeachment.
Amid this new investigative momentum, there also was an opportunity to examine possibly the darkest part of the Iran-Contra underbelly, the Reagan administration’s concealment of contra-connected cocaine traffickers – out of fear that Americans would recoil if they knew this ugly reality about Reagan’s “freedom-fighters.”
However, it soon became clear that Hamilton envisioned his role not as a determined pursuer of the truth but as a conciliator seeking a bipartisan solution that would bring the nasty scandal to a politically acceptable conclusion without damaging the capital’s fragile political comity.
In 1987, Hamilton undertook a series of decisions that altered the course of American history, at least as it is available to the public. Over the resistance of other Democrats on the Iran-Contra panel, Hamilton struck a generous deal with Cheney and the Republicans to grant North immunity in exchange for his testimony, without requiring pre-hearing questioning.
Hamilton also didn’t push very hard against the White House insistence that the scandal was just the work of a few overzealous underlings. Though Reagan was chastised for enabling violations of law, he mostly got a pass, as did Vice President Bush despite strong evidence that Bush’s office was overseeing the entire operation.
As the committee’s final report was being written, some Democratic investigators pressed for inclusion of their discovery of a covert domestic propaganda campaign that the White House had organized to intimidate journalists – and even members of Congress – who brought to light unflattering information about the contras.
The investigators prepared a draft chapter dedicated to this remarkable discovery, but three “moderate” Republican senators – William Cohen, Warren Rudman and Paul Trible – balked at signing the majority report if it included this explosive new information.
Eager for some GOP support – since Cheney and the other Republicans were preparing a minority report denying any Iran-Contra wrongdoing – Hamilton agreed to delete the chapter although allowing a few of its findings to be sprinkled into the executive summary.
Hamilton got his three Republican signatures, but the “compromise” meant almost no American would understand how the public had been manipulated by pro-contra propaganda.
As for the contra drug trafficking scandal, the Hamilton-led investigation chose to take testimony only behind closed doors and to exclude the topic from the final report. That “compromise” served to solidify Washington’s misguided conventional wisdom that the contra-cocaine issue was a “conspiracy theory.”
In 1996, nearly a decade later, investigative reporter Gary Webb revived the contra-drug scandal with a series for the San Jose Mercury News, describing how contra cocaine helped fuel the nation’s crack epidemic. But his reporting was widely ridiculed by the major U.S. news media, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, which reflected Hamilton's earlier brushing aside of the contra-cocaine problem.
It would take until 2000 for the House Intelligence Committee – long after Hamilton had left the panel – to grudgingly acknowledge that the earlier stories about Reagan’s CIA protecting contra drug traffickers were true.
The committee released a report citing classified testimony from CIA Inspector General Britt Snider admitting that the spy agency had turned a blind eye to evidence of contra drug smuggling and generally treated drug smuggling through Central America as a low priority.
“In the end the objective of unseating the Sandinistas [Nicaragua’s leftist government] appears to have taken precedence over dealing properly with potentially serious allegations against those with whom the agency was working,” Snider said, adding the CIA did not treat the drug allegations in “a consistent, reasoned or justifiable manner.”
The House committee – then controlled by the Republicans – still downplayed the significance of the scandal, but the panel acknowledged, deep inside its report, that in some cases, “CIA employees did nothing to verify or disprove drug trafficking information, even when they had the opportunity to do so.
“In some of these, receipt of a drug allegation appeared to provoke no specific response, and business went on as usual.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “CIA Admits Tolerating Contra-Cocaine Trafficking.”]
These Iran-Contra-related secrets – the domestic propaganda operation and the tolerated cocaine smuggling – could have been pried loose in the 1980s if Hamilton had put informing the American public ahead of avoiding a confrontation with Republicans. [For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History. For more on the tragic saga of Gary Webb, click here.]
The Emerging ‘Wise Man’
But Hamilton’s career as the Republicans’ favorite Democratic investigator was only just beginning.
In 1991, while Hamilton was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, two scandals linked to Iran-Contra surfaced, one regarding clandestine Reagan-Bush support for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and the other relating to secret contacts between Iran and the Republicans that dated back to before Reagan became president.
The first of these two scandals, which was known as “Iraq-gate,” received almost no attention from Hamilton’s subcommittee, even as the courageous work on the topic by Rep. Henry Gonzales, D-Texas, the Banking Committee chairman, was getting laughed at by the Republicans and much of the mainstream news media.
Regarding the second -- dubbed the October Surprise case because the Republicans allegedly stopped President Jimmy Carter from engineering a 1980 pre-election release of 52 American hostages then held in Iran -- the House approved creation of a special task force.
(After leaving Newsweek in 1990, I was hired by PBS Frontline to look into whether the Iran-Contra scandal of 1985-86 had a prequel, i.e. the October Surprise case in 1980, and our documentary on that topic created new momentum for a fuller investigation.)
To my dismay, however, Hamilton was chosen to head the House task force, this time with Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Illinois, as vice chairman since Cheney had moved on to be President George H.W. Bush’s defense secretary.
Over the course of the next year, Hamilton oversaw a lackluster investigation that seemed more determined to clear Reagan and Bush of ugly suspicions than to get at the truth.
In a gesture of bipartisanship, Hamilton even gave Hyde veto power over who could serve as Democratic staff investigators. At one point, Hyde blackballed Rep. Sam Gejdenson’s choice of House Foreign Affairs Committee chief counsel Spencer Oliver because Republicans regarded Oliver as too hard-nosed and aggressive.
Hamilton’s eagerness to clear Reagan and the Republicans even withstood the arrival in December 1992 of a flood of new evidence pointing to Republican guilt. The new information was so damaging that the task force’s chief counsel Lawrence Barcella, who himself was onboard for an exoneration of the Republicans, concluded that the late-arriving evidence required about three additional months to evaluate.
Barcella has told me in phone and e-mail interviews over the past few years that he approached Hamilton and urged that the task force be extended three more months, but that Hamilton declined to make the effort.
“Lee was sympathetic to my request to ask for an add'l 3 months, but felt it was quite unrealistic given a new Congress and new President [Bill Clinton],” Barcella wrote in an e-mail on July 30, 2010. “One of the most honest, straight shooters in Congress [Hamilton] told me we wouldn't be able to get a re-authorization.”
So, instead of fighting for the three-month extension to asses the evidence, the Hamilton-led investigation simply wrapped up its business, hoping that no one would notice the loose ends. The task force released its final report on Jan. 13, 1993, declaring that it found “no credible evidence” to support the allegations of Republican skullduggery with Iran in 1980.
At a Jan. 13 news conference and in later writings defending their probe, neither Hamilton nor Barcella made any reference to Barcella’s belief that a three-month extension was warranted because of late-arriving evidence that implicated the Republicans. (For his part, in recent interviews with me, Hamilton has denied that Barcella ever asked for a three-month extension.)
[For more on the October Surprise cover-up, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege, or these Consortiumnews.com stories: “Key October Surprise Evidence Hidden,” “The Tricky October Surprise Report,” and “The CIA/Likud Sinking of Jimmy Carter.”]
Toast of the Town
The few people who knew enough to see through Hamilton’s whitewashes of Republican wrongdoing grumbled that he had become the GOP’s favorite Democratic patsy. But pretty much everyone else in Official Washington regarded Hamilton’s bipartisan approach to investigations as proof that he was a reliable new Wise Man.
Hamilton became the toast of the news media, winning praise from the likes of Washington Post columnist David Broder, who is called the dean of the Washington press corps and who specifically cited Hamilton’s handling of the October Surprise investigation as proof of Hamilton's statesmanship. As an ex-congressman, Hamilton became a regular on blue-ribbon inquiries, such as the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group.
The latest pundit to hail Hamilton is the Post’s Ignatius, another fixture in the Establishment press and a strong supporter of George W. Bush’s Iraq War. Ignatius interviewed the 79-year-old Hamilton as the former congressman and chief of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a mainstream foreign policy think tank, was preparing to leave Washington and return to his native Indiana.
Ignatius framed his column as a lament for the lost era of bipartisanship, noting how in Hamilton’s early career Republicans and Democrats cooperated.
To illustrate the point, Ignatius offered an anecdote describing how when Hamilton “came to Washington 45 years ago as a freshman Democrat from Indiana, he made a dumb parliamentary error that would have scuttled the bill he was advocating.
“The House Republican leader at the time, Gerald Ford, sent over one of his colleagues to help Hamilton fix the mistake. The story sounds almost unbelievable in today's bitterly partisan climate, and Hamilton smiles and shakes his head as he tells it.”
Calling Hamilton “one of the wisest and most experienced people in Washington,” Ignatius portrayed Hamilton as a Mr. Smith who went to Washington and stayed to fight the good fight.
“Hamilton still manages to look like someone from the middle of America, even after all these years inside the satanic Beltway,” Ignatius wrote. “He leans back in his chair and stretches his gangly legs out as if he's sitting on a porch back home. And then there's that trademark crew cut, which bespeaks an America when haircuts were cheaper and blow dryers weren't a politician's best friend. “
When Ignatius asked Hamilton to reflect on what had changed to make Washington such a sulfurous place, Hamilton responded: "The big question in politics today is, 'What happened to the center?' "
At a time of Republican-Democratic gridlock and Tea Party uprisings, Hamilton recommended that the way to get beyond the seeming insanity of modern American politics is to put the country’s interests first.
"You must encourage the mind-set that if you're elected, your first obligation is to see that America works and succeeds," Hamilton said, adding that this approach requires flexibility that can make pragmatic compromises possible.
"If you get a politician locked into a position, it reduces his freedom of maneuver," Hamilton said, adding that whether the country’s fortunes are up or done, "our responsibility is the same, which is to make the country work."
Ignatius called Hamilton a battler who “has fought to defend the ground for compromise and consensus”
However, as admirable as some of Hamilton’s sentiments may sound to Ignatius and others, what Hamilton misses in all his struggles for “compromise and consensus” is that, in a democracy, there is also the need to find the truth and share it with the American people.
Making the government “work” by covering up crimes and other serious abuses by senior officials is a dangerous trade-off because it erodes public trust in the political system and builds up cynicism and suspicion. It also encourages the offenders to keep on committing abuses.
Meanwhile, denied reliable information, people turn to conspiracy theories to explain events.
In a twist on the old lesson about “the boy who cried wolf,” Hamilton has contributed to the loss of public confidence in government by his refusal to cry wolf when wolves are present. Now, when he assures people that everything’s just fine, many don’t believe him.
It’s never easy to demand accountability – especially when the offenders belong to a powerful political apparatus – but it is necessary.
If one really wants to understand why the American political "center" has failed, a good place to start is by examining how Lee Hamilton’s “bipartisanship” has encouraged Republicans to play fast and loose with democracy.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. (To make a blog comment about this or other stories, you can use your normal e-mail address and password. Ignore the prompt for a Google account.) To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.
Back to Home Page