consortiumnews.com

Bush's War on History

By Robert Parry
March 1, 2006

“History will be on the ballot,” I wrote two days before Election 2000, though I didn’t comprehend how much the nation’s ability to know its recent past was weighing in the balance.

Indeed, declassification of records was not even a blip on the campaign’s radar screen, certainly nothing compared to the news media’s interest in Vice President Al Gore’s “earth-tone” clothing or Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s pledge to restore “honor and decency” to the White House.

But it’s now clear that government secrecy – covering both current events and historical ones – should have registered as a far more important election issue. Gore and Bush represented very different approaches toward the public’s right to know.

Toward the end of the Clinton-Gore administration, there had been a surge in the declassification of records that exposed the dark underbelly of the U.S. “victory” in the Cold War, records showing American knowledge and complicity in murder, torture and other crimes in places such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile and Argentina.

A continuation of these historical disclosures under Gore might have given the American people a more balanced awareness of what had been done in their name in the four-decade-long struggle with the Soviet Union.

Under a newly applicable presidential records law, those documents would have included papers from Ronald Reagan’s presidency, documents that could have implicated Bush’s father, Vice President George H.W. Bush, in misjudgments and wrongdoing.

So, my story, “History on the Ballot” dated Nov. 5, 2000, predicted that a victory by George W. Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, would mean that the flow of records “could slow to a trickle or be stopped outright.”

Little did I know, however, that the reality would be even worse, that Bush would not only block the release of those documents but move aggressively to reclassify papers already released – and let the heirs of presidents and vice presidents continue the withholding of historic records long after the principals had died.

New Secrecy

One of Bush’s first acts after being inaugurated President on Jan. 20, 2001, was to stop the scheduled release of documents from the Reagan-Bush administration. Supposedly, the delay was to permit a fuller review of the papers, but that review was strung out through Bush’s first several months in office.

Then, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Bush began considering how to lock those records away from the public indefinitely. On Nov. 1, 2001, Bush issued Executive Order 13233, which effectively negated the 1978 Presidential Records Act by allowing presidents, vice presidents and their heirs the power to prevent many document releases.

The Watergate-era public-records law had declared that the records of presidents and vice presidents who took office after Jan. 20, 1981, would belong to the American people and would be released 12 years after a President left office, except for still sensitive papers, such as those needing protection because of national security or personal privacy.

Because of those time frames, a large volume of Reagan-Bush records were due for release to the public on Jan. 20, 2001.

Eight years earlier, the senior George Bush had tried to undercut the Presidential Records Act before leaving office. On Jan. 19, 1993, the day before Bill Clinton’s Inauguration, George H.W. Bush struck a deal with then-U.S. Archivist Don W. Wilson, granting Bush control over computerized records from his presidency, including the power to destroy computer tapes and hard drives.

Wilson then landed a job as director of the George Bush Center in Texas in what looked like a payoff for ceding control of the computerized records. In 1995, a federal judge struck down the Bush-Wilson agreement, in effect, resuming the countdown toward the first implementation of the Presidential Records Act in 2001.

Facing that deadline while taking  the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2001, George W. Bush had his White House counsel Alberto Gonzales draft up paperwork that first suspended and then gutted the law. Bush’s Nov. 1, 2001, executive order granted former national executives – and their families – the right to control the documents indefinitely.

Bush’s order amounted to a grant of hereditary power over the nation’s history. Because of his father’s 12 years as Vice President and President and his own possible eight years as President, Bush’s order could mean that control over 20 years of American history might someday be invested in the hands of the Bush Twins, Jenna and Barbara.

[For more on Executive Order 13233, see Bruce P. Montgomery’s “Their Records, Our History” or Christopher Dreher’s “Hobbling History]

Bush Family Secrets

Though it’s not entirely clear what the Reagan-Bush records would have revealed if they had been released in 2001, the Bush Family had a lot to worry about. The Bush legacy could have suffered greatly from anything approaching full disclosure of the Cold War history.

In particular, the documentation might have added to an already troubling history about the senior George Bush and thus could have undercut the younger George Bush’s claim that he carried with him his father’s “good name,” arguably his strongest asset when he sought and claimed the presidency.

The records might have revealed attempts to frustrate investigations and protect secrets relating to earlier abuses. For instance, light might have been shed on what role Vice President George Bush played in the 1980s limiting investigations into the 1976 terrorist car-bombing of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and an American co-worker, Ronni Moffitt.

The elder George Bush had been CIA director at the time of the murders, which were carried out in Washington, D.C., by agents of the right-wing military dictatorship of his friend, Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Bush appeared guilty, at minimum, of gross negligence for not stopping the bombing and then obstructing the murder probe.

What was already known about the elder George Bush’s handling of the Letelier-Moffitt murders was disturbing. As CIA director, he had received a warning from a U.S. ambassador about a suspicious mission being carried out in the United States by Chilean intelligence then headed by a paid CIA asset, Col. Manuel Contreras.

But Bush’s CIA took no known action to stop the assassination. After the fatal car-bombing on Sept. 21, 1976, Bush’s CIA consulted with Contreras and planted false stories in the U.S. news media to divert suspicion away from the killers. The CIA also withheld evidence from the FBI. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “George H.W. Bush & a Case of State Terrorism” or Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Though several of the Letelier assassins were tracked down during Jimmy Carter’s administration, the investigation of the Chilean higher-ups languished through the Reagan-Bush years. The probe was then revived by Clinton’s Justice Department (before fading away again after the younger George Bush became President).

Arms Deals

The Reagan-Bush documents also might have revealed the senior George Bush’s role in a number of national security scandals from the 1980s – both his direct involvement and his efforts to thwart official investigations.

Those scandals included secret arms sales to Iran (dating back to the illicit “October Surprise” deal allegedly struck in 1980 behind President Carter’s back); a covert pipeline of war materiel to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (purportedly including chemical weapons); and clandestine dealings with Nicaraguan contra rebels (some implicated in cocaine trafficking).

At Consortiumnews.com, we have tried to compile as much of this history as we could. [For instance, regarding the early arms deals with Iran, see “The Imperium’s Quarter Century.”] But the throttling of the document releases has proved devastating.

George W. Bush has even moved aggressively to reclassify documents that had previously been released. A study by the privately funded National Security Archive at George Washington University found that more than 55,000 pages of records have been taken off the shelves of publicly available documents.

In my Nov. 5, 2000, article “History on the Ballot,” I noted that “while the Clinton-Gore record on openness has been mixed, the (Clinton-Gore) administration has given Americans back important chapters of their recent history. The record of a second Bush administration could be quite different.

“George W. Bush could be faced with choices early in his administration about releasing additional CIA records that could implicate his father in activities surrounding a double homicide (the Letelier-Moffitt case).

“The potential for other new disclosures about crimes – from the 1980 October Surprise operations to contra-drug trafficking to Iraqgate – seem unlikely, too, since they would cast a negative light on the Bush Family legacy.

“The inclusion of Cheney on the Bush ticket further suggests that continuation of Cold War cover-ups will be a hallmark of a Bush II administration. Cheney proved his mettle with the Bush Family by protecting the elder George Bush during the Iran-Contra troubles (when Cheney was a top Republican on the congressional Iran-Contra committee.) …

“Given the Bush Family’s success in containing unpleasant secrets from the past quarter century, it also might be easier to understand why George W. Bush has taken chances hiding his own personal indiscretions, as the recent disclosure of a driving-under-the-influence arrest has shown.

“Far more often than not, the Bushes have prevailed in keeping their secrets – and keeping a truthful historical record – from the American people.”

It turned out that those pessimistic predictions, made more than five years ago, have proven correct – in spades.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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