The failure of the Clinton Democrats to fight for
an honest record of the Cold War – and to expose George H.W. Bush’s
complicity in wrongdoing – opened the door for George W. Bush to enter
the White House in 2001. If key documents had been declassified about
just a few scandals, such as the Iraqgate arming of Saddam Hussein and
the Iran-Contra Affair, that door almost certainly would have been shut
But Bill Clinton saw history as less important
than, say, his health-care program, which he thought (naively) might
garner some Republican support if he let the elder George Bush off the
hook. So, the American people were left with a misleading Cold War
history; Clinton never got his bipartisanship; and the way was cleared
for a comeback by the Bushes and their neoconservative allies.
Indirectly, the decision to avoid any
truth-commission-style accountability after “winning” the Cold War also
contributed to the quagmire in Iraq, a budgetary ocean of red ink again
at high tide, and a population that wallows more and more in myths and
It is a thesis of both my new book,
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq,
and my earlier book,
Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ that
Clinton and the Democrats grievously misunderstood the modern concept of
“information warfare” and how the Republicans were waging it at home.
The Republicans and especially the neoconservative
intellectuals realized that control of information – or one might say
replacing it with propaganda – was the key to solidifying their
political power within the United States.
That’s why the conservatives have invested billions
of dollars over the past quarter century in building their own potent
media infrastructure, ranging from cable networks and major daily
newspapers to AM talk radio and well-organized Internet bloggers.
Besides writing their own historical narrative, the conservatives
succeeded in throwing the mainstream press onto the defensive with
endless charges of “liberal bias.”
The conservative success was compounded by the fact
that while this media apparatus was under construction, American
liberals largely sat on the sidelines, thinking that the mainstream news
media would somehow respond or hoping that some metaphorical pendulum
would swing back in their direction. Neither has happened.
Instead, the Republicans consolidated their
dominance of the heartland “red states” where voters who listened to
talk radio in their cars had little choice but to tune in rants about
the evils of “librhuls” and “guvmint.”
Faced with this increasingly powerful Right-Wing
Machine and lacking a comparable defense mechanism, national Democrats
then tried to protect themselves by finessing issues and equivocating
their positions, which, in turn, made them look like they didn’t know
what they stood for.
Only in recent months have liberals even begun to
counter decades of conservative dominance of the AM radio dial with
“progressive talk” radio, such as the Air America Radio network which is
just one year old.
Though still vastly outgunned by Rush Limbaugh and
his right-wing colleagues, “progressive talk” has scored some early
successes in challenging conservative distortions, especially the
arguments used to support Bush’s plans for partially privatizing Social
For instance, Fox News’ Brit Hume and the Wall
Street Journal’s John Fund were forced into humiliating retreats when
they were caught making a false claim that President Franklin Delano
Roosevelt in the 1930s had foreseen the need to adopt a plan like
Bush’s. A year ago, the Right’s distortion of Roosevelt’s words would
have likely become a “fact” for millions of Americans. [For details, see
Al Franken Show’s blog for
Feb. 9, 2005, and
March, 14, 2005.]
The battle over information has other potential
bright spots for Democrats.
Indeed, the war over “information warfare” could
replace the increasingly bitter divisions within the Democratic Party
over what strategy to pursue in Iraq. That intramural battle now pits a
Washington-based leadership that fears challenging Bush on one side and
a rank-and-file base that is much more combative, on the other.
Many national Democrats don’t want to get trashed
as unpatriotic like Sen. Max Cleland did in 2002 and Sen. John Kerry did
in 2004. On the other hand, the Democratic base is furious that Bush has
avoided accountability for leading the nation into an unprovoked war
that has killed 1,500 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Common ground over the need to demand accurate
information from the government could replace some of the bitterness
over the internal conflicts. The Democrats also might find many
traditional Republicans agreeing on the need for telling the truth about
what’s happening in Iraq and how the United States reached this point.
While the idea of getting a Bush-controlled
government to throw open the records may seem daunting, there are
reasons for hope. For instance, many documents relevant to the Iraqgate
controversy – the Reagan-Bush administration’s secret arming of Hussein
in the 1980s – were found in Iraqi government files after the U.S.-led
Some of these documents also have moved outside the
strict control of the Bush administration, since they were shared with
the United Nations’ investigation into the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal.
U.S. conservatives have made a cause celebre
out of alleged U.N. corruption in the oil-for-food program, which
supposedly aided Hussein’s weapons programs. So far, conservatives have
focused only on the latter half of the 1990s (when, ironically, it’s now
clear that Iraq wasn’t building weapons of mass destruction).
But I’ve been told by sources with access to the
documents that they also shed light on the secret dealings of the
Reagan-Bush administration in funneling war materiel to Hussein in the
1980s – when Iraq was building chemical and biological weapons. A
full examination of the documents could answer many important historical
questions and resolve whether George H.W. Bush was lying when he denied
that such a secret arms program existed.
Full disclosure of historical documents about U.S.
relations with Iran also might reveal whether former President Bush was
lying again when he denied any significant role in covert contacts with
that Islamic fundamentalist regime from 1980 to 1986, the period
covering the mysteries known as the Iran-Contra Affair.
Today, that U.S. history remains lost in the haze
of contradictory accounts.
For instance, the “official” version of Iraqgate is
that those suspicions of secret arms deals were a “conspiracy theory”
and that Reagan-Bush officials were innocent of facilitating shipments
of weapons and WMD-related materiel to Iraq. That “official” story was
embraced by both former President Bush and Clinton’s Justice Department.
In a report issued in January 1995, Clinton’s
investigators, led by John M. Hogan, an assistant to Attorney General
Janet Reno, cleared the Reagan-Bush team of Iraqgate suspicions.
Hogan’s investigators declared that they “did not find evidence that
U.S. agencies or officials illegally armed Iraq.”
But Hogan’s review noted, curiously, that the CIA
had withheld an unknown number of documents that were contained in
“sensitive compartments” that were denied to the investigators.
Remarkably, Hogan then concluded that those withheld “sensitive
compartments” must not have contained anything very important.
While Hogan’s analysis remains the “official”
version, a number of ex-government officials have since acknowledged
that the Iraqgate “conspiracy theory” was, in fact, true. For instance,
former CIA officer Melissa Boyle Mahle, a Middle East expert, stated
flatly in her new book, Denial and Deception, that in the
mid-1980s, “the United States was already deeply involved in providing
weapons and other military support to Iraq.”
Even a decade ago – indeed, just two weeks after
Hogan delivered his exculpatory report – incriminating evidence began
popping up. In late January 1995, in connection with a criminal case in
Miami, former Reagan-Bush national security official Howard Teicher
submitted a sworn affidavit confirming many Iraqgate allegations of
secret arms sales.
The Teicher affidavit was the first public account
by a Reagan insider that the covert U.S.-Iraq relationship had included
arranging third-country shipments of weapons to Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Teicher traced the U.S. tilt to Iraq to a turning point in the Iran-Iraq
War in 1982 when Iran gained the offensive and fears swept through the
U.S. government that Iran’s army might slice through Iraq to the oil
fields of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
“In the Spring of 1982, Iraq teetered on the brink
of losing its war with Iran,” Teicher wrote. “The Iranians discovered a
gap in the Iraqi defenses along the Iran-Iraq border between Baghdad to
the north and Basra to the south. Iran positioned a massive invasion
force directly across from the gap in the Iraqi defenses. An Iranian
breakthrough at the spot would have cutoff Baghdad from Basra and would
have resulted in Iraq’s defeat. … In June 1982, President Reagan decided
that the United States could not afford to allow Iraq to lose the war to
Teicher wrote that he helped draft a secret
national security decision directive that Reagan signed to authorize
covert U.S. assistance to Hussein’s military. “The NSDD, including even
its identifying number, is classified,” Teicher wrote.
The effort to arm the Iraqis was “spearheaded” by
CIA Director William Casey and involved his deputy, Robert Gates,
according to Teicher’s affidavit. “The CIA, including both CIA Director
Casey and Deputy Director Gates, knew of, approved of, and assisted in
the sale of non-U.S. origin military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to
Iraq,” Teicher wrote.
In 1984, Teicher went to Iraq with Reagan's special
envoy Donald Rumsfeld to convey a secret Israeli offer to assist Iraq
after Israel had concluded that Iran was becoming a greater danger,
according to the affidavit.
“I traveled with Rumsfeld to Baghdad and was
present at the meeting in which Rumsfeld told Iraqi Foreign Minister
Tariq Aziz about Israel’s offer of assistance,” Teicher wrote. “Aziz
refused even to accept the Israelis’ letter to Hussein offering
assistance because Aziz told us that he would be executed on the spot by
Hussein if he did so.”
Another key player in Reagan’s Iraq tilt was
then-Vice President Bush, according to Teicher’s affidavit.
“In 1986, President Reagan sent a secret message to
Saddam Hussein telling him that Iraq should step up its air war and
bombing of Iran,” Teicher wrote. “This message was delivered by Vice
President Bush who communicated it to Egyptian President Mubarak, who in
turn passed the message to Saddam Hussein.
“Similar strategic operational military advice was
passed to Saddam Hussein through various meetings with European and
Middle Eastern heads of state. I authored Bush’s talking points for the
1986 meeting with Mubarak and personally attended numerous meetings with
European and Middle East heads of state where the strategic operational
advice was communicated.”
Teicher’s affidavit represented a major break in
the historical mystery of U.S. aid to Iraq. But it undermined the
“official” history that the Clinton administration had just accepted and
complicated a criminal arms-trafficking case that the Justice Department
was prosecuting against Teledyne Industries and a salesman named Ed
The defendants had allegedly sold explosive pellets
to Chilean arms manufacturer Carlos Cardoen, who used them to
manufacture cluster bombs for Iraq. The prosecutors took their fury out
on Teicher, insisting that his affidavit was unreliable and threatening
him with dire consequences for coming forward.
Yet, while deeming Teicher’s affidavit false, the
Clinton administration also declared the document a state secret,
classifying it and putting it under court seal. A few copies, however,
had been distributed outside the court and
the text was soon posted on the Internet, which was then just
emerging as a force in modern media.
After officially suppressing the Teicher affidavit,
the Justice Department prosecutors persuaded the judge presiding in the
Teledyne-Johnson case to rule testimony about the Reagan-Bush policies
to be irrelevant. Unable to mount its planned defense, Teledyne agreed
to plead guilty and accept a $13 million fine. Johnson, the salesman who
had earned a modest salary in the mid-$30,000 range, was convicted of
illegal arms trafficking and given a prison term.
Establishment Democrats also took a dive on
Reagan-Bush scandals involving Iran.
After Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush in November
1992, the Democrats lost interest in both the ongoing Iran-Contra
investigation by special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh and a congressional
probe of secret contacts between Republicans and Iranians during the
1980 campaign, known as the “October Surprise” controversy. [For
details, see Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
On Dec. 24, 1992, Bush struck his own decisive blow against any hope
those mysteries would be solved by pardoning six Iran-Contra defendants
and drawing only a muted Democratic protest.
Clinton wrote in his 2004 memoirs, My Life, that he “disagreed
with the pardons and could have made more of them but didn’t.” Clinton
cited several reasons for giving his predecessor a pass.
“I wanted the country to be more united, not more divided, even if
that split would be to my political advantage,” Clinton wrote. “Finally,
President Bush had given decades of service to our country, and I
thought we should allow him to retire in peace, leaving the matter
between him and his conscience.” [See Bill Clinton, My Life, p.
Yet by worrying more about George H.W. Bush’s image than a truthful
history, Clinton unwittingly paved the way for a restoration of the Bush
political dynasty eight years later. Clinton also left the American
people unprotected from the Reagan-Bush neoconservatives who marched
back to power behind George W. Bush’s victory parade.
If the American people had understood how incompetent and deceitful
the neoconservatives had been in the 1980s, that would have made the
sale of the Iraq War in 2002-2003 a lot trickier.
It all could have been different if Clinton – the first president to
take office after the Cold War – had invested some political capital in
setting up truth commissions to give the American people the history of
that half-century struggle, both the good and the bad.
If Clinton had released the Cold War secrets, the electorate would
have been much better armed to assess how propaganda had come to
permeate the relations between the U.S. government and its citizens.
Instead, the Bush administration and its conservative allies have
been free to continue their sophisticated brand of “information
warfare,” feeding the American people distortions, half-truths and
outright lies to manipulate their fears and emotions. [For a sample of
those tactics, see Consortiumnews.com’s “America’s
But Bush’s hostility to what one White House adviser has dubbed the “reality-based
community” also represents an opening for the Democrats, a way to
bridge their own differences and to draw in Republicans who consider
themselves foreign policy realists.
While Democrats may argue over whether U.S. troops should stay in
Iraq or come home now, there should be little dispute that the American
people are owed the truth about the history of U.S. relations with both
Iraq and Iran.
In a larger sense, it is long overdue for the U.S. government to
conduct a serious examination of all the secret chapters of the Cold
War, especially the moral compromises that pervaded U.S. policies in
Latin America and the Middle East.
Beyond political embarrassment for the Bush family and some former
officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations, it’s hard
to understand why those historical records are still being shielded from
the American people, as I argued in my 1999 book, Lost History.
“There is a cynical old saying that the victors
write the history,” I wrote. “But it is one of the ironies of the long
Cold War that it is the American people – the supposed victors – who are
seeing their own history sanitized and miswritten. Even as the archives
of ex-communist nations are opened, even as truth commissions wring the
painful reality out of ex-rightist regimes, the American people are the
ones most thoroughly kept in the dark about the unsavory secrets of the
past half century.”
It is still not too late – and indeed it may be
just in time – for the restorative powers of truth to be given a chance
to rejuvenate American democracy.