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Democrats' Bipartisan Folly

By Robert Parry
February 19, 2001

In marked contrast to the continuing Republican investigations of President Clinton, the Democrats eight years ago cooperated with Republicans in shutting down substantive inquiries that implicated President George H.W. Bush in a variety of geopolitical scandals.

At that time, the Democrats apparently felt that pursuing those inquiries into Bush’s role in secret contacts with Iran – both in 1980 and during the Iran-contra affair – and getting to the bottom of alleged CIA military support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the mid-1980s would distract from the domestic policy goals at the start of the Clinton presidency.

That judgment, however, has come back to haunt the Democrats. Clearing George H.W. Bush in 1993 ironically set the stage both for the Republican scandal-mongering against Clinton and for the restoration of the Bush family dynasty in 2000.

Certainly, the Democratic gestures of bipartisanship were not reciprocated by the Republicans. They opted for a pattern of aggressive politics that challenged the Clinton administration from its first days and has continued through the 2000 Election and into the new round of investigations of ex-President Clinton.

The Democrats have found themselves constantly on the defensive, sputtering about the unfairness of it all. 

Historic Openings

It might seem like ancient history now, but eight years ago, as the White House was changing hands from Bush to Clinton, there were promising opportunities for getting at the truth about the Reagan-Bush era.

Lawrence Walsh’s Iran-contra investigation was still alive, although Bush had dealt it a severe blow in December 1992 by pardoning six Iran-contra defendants. That move blocked the Iran-contra cover-up trial of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and the possible incrimination of President Bush himself.

Despite that setback, Walsh’s investigation had made some new breakthroughs. Walsh had exposed details of the long-running Iran-contra cover-up. He also had learned that Bush had withheld his personal diaries from investigators.

Walsh was pressing Bush to sit down for an interview with the special prosecutor’s office to reconcile Bush’s earlier insistence of little Iran-contra knowledge with later disclosures revealing Bush’s deeper role. Walsh had agreed to postpone that questioning during the 1992 campaign, with the understanding that Bush would submit to the interview afterwards. But Bush was balking.

Also in December 1992, new witnesses had come forward with evidence that the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980 indeed had made secret contacts with Iran’s radical Islamic government while it was holding 52 American hostages. That hostage crisis in 1980 had eroded President Jimmy Carter’s reelection support and guaranteed Reagan’s victory.

Now, there was new evidence that the Republicans had been playing games behind Carter’s back to deny him the October Surprise of a hostage release before the election.

Privately, some of Walsh’s investigators had come to believe, too, that the Republican contacts with Iran in 1980 had been the precursor to the later Iran-contra arms sales in 1985-86. One investigator told me that otherwise the fruitless Reagan-Bush arms payoffs to Iran in the mid-1980s made little sense.

New pieces of the 1980 puzzle had surfaced in a congressional October Surprise inquiry that was still underway in late 1992. A detailed letter arrived from former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr describing the internal battles within Iran’s government in 1980 about how to respond to the secret Republican initiative.

In another development, a biographer of French intelligence chief Alexandre deMarenches testified about deMarenches’s private account of secret meetings between top Republicans and Iranians in Paris in the fall of 1980.

Perhaps, most remarkably, the Russian Supreme Soviet sent a confidential report to the U.S. Congress recounting what Soviet intelligence had learned while tracking the secret Republican-Iranian negotiations in 1980. The Russians reported, too, that leading Republicans had met with Iranians in Paris in 1980.

As Bill Clinton was about to take office, there were other lingering questions about secret Republican dealings with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1980s. The CIA allegedly had assisted in arranging third-country supplies of sophisticated armaments to Saddam Hussein in his border war with Iran.

President Bush had angrily denounced such charges after they were raised following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. But a number of witnesses were alleging that the CIA had helped arrange the supplies, including cluster bombs to Iraq through Chile.

In 1992-93, the Democrats were in a strong position to get to the bottom of all these historic questions that had so entangled U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s. The Democrats controlled both houses of Congress as well as the White House. Walsh was furious with Bush’s Iran-contra pardons and was considering impaneling a new grand jury to force Bush’s testimony.  [See Walsh's book, Firewall, for more details.]

Getting answers to these questions also made policy sense, if for no other reason than it was important for the new administration to know where diplomatic mine fields might be hidden in this delicate geopolitical landscape.

Shutting Down

But the Democrats -- led by then-House Speaker Tom Foley and Rep. Lee Hamilton -- chose a very different course. Apparently believing that battling for answers would distract from the domestic policy agenda, such as passage of a universal health care plan, the Democrats chose to shut down all the investigations.

In December 1992, Foley  signaled Bush that he would have no problem with the Iran-contra pardons. After the pardons were issued, a few Democrats groused but no hearings were held and no formal explanation was demanded, even though this may have been the first time a president had used his pardon powers to protect himself from possible incrimination.

After the Inauguration, the Clinton administration offered no help to Walsh in arranging declassification of documents that would have aided his investigation. When Bush refused to submit to an interview with Walsh’s prosecutors, the Democrats made not a peep about this final move to obstruct the Iran-contra investigation.

Faced with a lack of political support, Walsh decided not to call Bush before a grand jury and shut down his office.

On the 1980 Iran issue, a congressional task force chose to obscure or cover up the new evidence of Republican guilt. Bani-Sadr’s letter was misrepresented in the task force’s report as mere speculation. Bani-Sadr's detailed account of the interplay inside the Iranian government was simply ignored.

Only those who bothered to dig through the task force report’s appendix could find out what the Iranian president had actually said. Not a single story about Bani-Sadr’s letter appeared in major newspapers.

In an odd twist, the task force accepted the testimony about deMarenches’s account of Republicans meeting Iranians in Paris as “credible,” but then incongruously dismissed it as irrelevant, since it conflicted with Republican denials.

The extraordinary Russian report describing what Soviet intelligence files had shown about the Republican-Iran initiative was simply hidden. There was no serious follow-up with the Russians to determine how solid their intelligence was and how they had obtained the information.

The Russian report itself was not mentioned in the final task force report, nor was its existence disclosed at a news conference unveiling the bipartisan congressional findings that cleared the Republicans of all wrongdoing in January 1993.

The Russian report was stuck in a storage room on Capitol Hill where I found it in 1994. A story about its contents appeared at this Web site in 1995, but its existence has never been reported by anyone else.

[For a more detailed summary of Bani-Sadr's letter, the deMarenches account and the Russian report, see a story about the report's author, former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin. For more on the congressional task force, see Robert Parry's book, Trick or Treason, or the October Surprise X-Files series at this Web site.]

Unexplored avenues of the 1980 investigation – such as alleged Republican use of the Palestine Liberation Organization to contact Iran – were never followed. [In 1996, however, PLO leader Yasir Arafat personally told former President Carter that the Republicans had approached the PLO as potential emissaries to Iran in 1980, a fact that appeared in Diplomatic History, fall 1996, and in our writings, but again no where else.]

As for the secret Republican-Iraqi ties, those too were buried by the new Clinton administration. In 1995, when a Reagan national security appointee, Howard Teicher, submitted a sworn affidavit describing the CIA’s secret operation to supply Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with cluster bombs through Chile – just as earlier witnesses had alleged – Justice Department lawyers attacked Teicher’s credibility. They forced him to back away from his affidavit, which had been submitted in connection with a criminal case in Florida.


Beyond obscuring these important chapters of recent history and thus adding to the confusion of the American people, the Democrats discovered that their deferential strategy gained them nothing from the Republicans. If anything, the Democratic behavior was taken as a sign of weakness.

After the Democrats folded the Reagan-Bush investigations, the Republicans simply swept their easy winnings off the table and raised the stakes.

In early 1993, Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., informed President Clinton that the Republicans would oppose every part of his economic plan – a threat they backed up with unanimous GOP blocs against Clinton’s budget proposals, which survived solely with Democratic votes. Republicans also helped turn Clinton’s ambitious health-care plan into a fiasco.

Beyond that, the Republicans used the bipartisan findings of Reagan-Bush innocence to attack and isolate news organizations and investigators who had pressed for full disclosure. PBS Frontline, which had recruited me to examine the 1980 Iran hostage case, came under fire for taking seriously a “baseless conspiracy theory.” The once-courageous documentary program began trimming its sails and tacking more toward pro-Republican positions to help protect PBS’s government funding.

Middle East expert Gary Sick, who had judged the 1980 allegations credible, was denounced and effectively blacklisted from returning to a position in government. Rep. Henry Gonzalez, D-Texas, who had championed the Iraqi arms investigation, was left high and dry, looking like an eccentric old man.

By undercutting Walsh, the Democrats gave the Republicans more ammunition when they chose to use the special-prosecutor apparatus in partisan warfare against Clinton. Though Walsh was himself a conservative Republican, he was transformed in the fuzzy minds of the Washington pundit class into a partisan Democrat who thus justified the appointment of partisan Republicans to run the investigations of Clinton and his aides.

The consequences inside the mainstream media also were damaging. Reporters who had taken the Reagan-Bush side in these controversies of the 1980s were rewarded when those investigations were deemed to be baseless. These pro-Reagan-Bush reporters got promoted while reporters who had pushed for thorough investigations were marginalized as “liberals” or “conspiracy theorists.”

By the time, the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994 and stepped up their investigations of the Clinton administration, the national press corps had few voices left willing to stand in the path of a conservative-driven stampede.

Increasingly through the 1990s, the national media could be viewed as having two primary parts. One was a relentless conservative media – from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News to Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times, from the talk radio world of Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy to the racks full of hard-right magazines, such as the American Spectator and the Weekly Standard, from the Christian right TV to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, from conservative newspaper columnists to TV pundits.

The other part of the media was the mainstream press that was owned by bottom-line-oriented corporations and staffed by journalists who understood that their careers were best promoted by avoiding the tag “liberal.” These journalists had learned the lessons of the 1980s and recognized that there was no danger in tilting their reporting to the right. There also were real benefits in reporters proving that they were not liberal, by being especially hard on Democrats.

There was also a tiny “leftist” media – The Nation, Mother Jones, In These Times, etc. Many of these leftist publications and their commentators despised Clinton because of his New Democrat policies and thus ended up on the same side as the conservatives in attacking his administration, though for different reasons.

Page 2: Clinton Scandals