Watching Attorney General Michael Mukasey evade the obvious fact that waterboarding is torture – and the reluctance of Democrats to press him – I was reminded of how the first President Bush got away with an earlier batch of national security crimes.

Indeed, one of the common questions I’ve been asked over the years is – if the evidence really does show that the Reagan-Bush crowd was guilty of illegal dealings with Iran, Iraq and the Nicaraguan contras – why didn’t the Democrats hold those Republicans to account?

For people who have posed that question, I would suggest that they watch the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Jan. 30 hearing with Mukasey. Everybody in the room knew what the unspoken reality was, but nobody dared say it: George W. Bush authorized torture, which is a crime under U.S. and international law.

However, if the Attorney General – the highest-ranking law-enforcement officer in the United States – recognized the obvious, he would have to either commence legal action against President Bush or send a referral to Congress for the initiation of impeachment proceedings.

If such a referral were sent to Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would have little choice but to permit the start of impeachment hearings in the House Judiciary Committee. A wide range of Bush’s illegal actions would then begin spilling out, provoking a political crisis in the United States.

Not only do Bush’s allies want to avoid that possibility but so do Democratic congressional leaders. They fear an impeachment battle would boomerang, putting them on the spot with both angry Republicans and a hostile Washington news media.

On Dec. 20, 2007, Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now” that impeachment hearings could end up like Watergate in reverse, with today’s careerist press corps treating the notion of accountability for Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney like some kind of nutty idea.

“There is a very stark reality that with the corporatization of the media, we could end up with turning people, who should be documented in history as making many profound errors and violating the Constitution, from villains into victims,” the Michigan Democrat said.

So, Democratic senators weren’t all that upset when Mukasey mumbled through a variety of obfuscations.

Orwell Reference

At one point, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, even made a George Orwell reference in noting that Mukasey’s discussion about the criminality of waterboarding had “melted into the abstract.”

Mukasey responded: “We could engage in a discussion. It would not be a concrete and factual discussion because we would be talking about if this, if that, if the other.”

When Whitehouse called Mukasey’s answer “totally not credible” because Bush administration officials already have acknowledged that CIA interrogators did use waterboarding against several terror suspects, Mukasey continued:

“All of that depends on whether certification was given and whether it was permissibly relied on and it should not turn on one person’s current view of what the (anti-torture) statute requires or doesn’t require.”

Whitehouse, a former federal prosecutor, rejected that explanation too, noting that “there is no Nuremberg defense built into the criminal statute,” meaning that authorization from President Bush or some other senior official would not make torture legal.

However, Whitehouse, like other Democrats, finished his questioning with praise of Mukasey for taking a variety of steps to shield the Justice Department from the Bush administration’s political pressure.

Still, on the most sensitive issue to Bush – his assertion that he possesses unlimited presidential powers that let him violate criminal laws and ignore constitutional protections – Mukasey was as much in lock step with the administration as his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales.

The only significant difference was that the more mature Mukasey, a former federal judge, was less smug in his treatment of the senators than Gonzales had been. For their part, the committee Democrats seemed eager to look to the future.

“So today we continue the restoration of the [Justice] Department,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.

But that “restoration” apparently will not include holding the President and Vice President accountable for authorizing the commission of felonies – in permitting the torture of terror suspects, in ordering warrantless wiretaps of Americans, in exposing the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame, etc.

Not Good at Confrontation

The Democrats adopted a similar see-no-evil posture from late 1992 through the Clinton years when evidence surfaced about serious crimes committed by Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and some of their subordinates.

Like Marty McFly’s father in “Back to the Future,” the Democrats weren’t very good at “confrontation.”

So, when evidence implicated George H.W. Bush on issues ranging from the Iran-Contra cover-up and secret military support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to Nicaraguan contra drug trafficking and a politically motivated search of Bill Clinton’s passport files, the Democrats averted their eyes and slinked away from a fight.

In December 1992 and January 1993, for instance, evidence poured in to a House task force that was investigating the so-called October Surprise controversy, whether the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign had gone behind President Jimmy Carter’s back and contacted Iranian mullahs while Iran was holding 52 Americans hostage.

Carter’s failure to resolve that hostage crisis doomed his re-election and touched off Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory. Plus, Iran’s release of the hostages as Reagan was taking the oath of office gave Reagan an aura of heroism that has continued to this day.

In a December 2007 campaign ad, Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani cited Reagan’s supposed toughness with terrorists as the reason the Iranians suddenly freed the hostages after a 444-day standoff.

“They released the American hostages in one hour, and that should tell us a lot about these Islamic terrorists that we’re facing” today, Giuliani said. “The one hour in which they released them was the one hour in which Ronald Reagan was taking the oath of office as President of the United States.

“The best way you deal with tyrants and terrorists, you stand up to them. You don’t back down.” [NYT, Dec. 6, 2007]

But the House task force was learning a different reality in December 1992, as witnesses came forth and documents surfaced indicating that Reagan campaign operatives, including then vice presidential candidate George H.W. Bush, had engaged in their own secret diplomacy in 1980, promising a swap of arms for the hostages.

Among this new evidence:

--Former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr sent the task force a detailed letter describing the Iranian infighting that had occurred around this Republican overture and how Iran’s most radical elements favored a deal with the Reagan-Bush team.

--The biographer for French intelligence chief Alexandre deMarenches recounted how deMarenches had confessed his role in arranging secret meetings in Paris, a statement that was corroborated by several other French intelligence operatives.

--Former CIA officer Charles Cogan described a meeting in early 1981 at which Joseph Reed, an aide to banker David Rockefeller, boasted to then CIA Director William Casey about their success in thwarting President Carter’s hoped-for October Surprise of a pre-election hostage release.

So Startling

The new evidence was so startling that the task force’s chief counsel Lawrence Barcella approached chairman, Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, with a request that the investigation be extended a few months so the new information could be evaluated.

Barcella told me during an interview in 2004 that Hamilton rejected the request for an extension.

The task force then finished up work on a report that reached the opposite conclusion from what the new evidence indicated. The task force report claimed there was no credible evidence to support the long-standing allegations that the Reagan-Bush campaign had interfered with the 1980 hostage crisis.

The task force maintained this conclusion by hiding away much of the new evidence. (I discovered some of this evidence in 1994-95 when I gained access to boxes containing the raw files of the task force.)

In January 1993, however, there was one more surprise for the October Surprise task force. After its report was already at the printers, the Russian government responded to an earlier request for information about what its intelligence files showed about secret U.S. contacts with Iran.

On Jan. 11, 1993, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow forwarded to Hamilton a translated version of the Russian report, which stated that Soviet intelligence was aware of secret meetings between Republicans and Iranian officials that had occurred in Madrid and Paris during the 1980 presidential campaign.

Among the Republican operatives menioned by the Russians were George H.W. Bush, William Casey and Robert Gates, who was then a senior CIA official and who is now U.S. Defense Secretary. The Russian report flatly contradicted the findings of the House task force, which were to be released two days later, on Jan. 13, 1993.

Despite this extraordinary example of Russian-U.S. cooperation – and the stunning assertions of Republican guilt – Hamilton’s task force simply stuffed the Russian report into one of the file boxes.

There was no mention of the Russian report or other contradictory evidence when the task force report was issued, or when Hamilton wrote a New York Times op-ed entitled “Case Closed,” which relegated the October Surprise suspicions to the loony bin of conspiracy theories.

In 2004, I asked Barcella about the Russian report and why it hadn’t been released. He explained that it was a classified document and that the task force decided not to undertake the necessary steps to arrange for its declassification.

A more likely explanation was that the Democrats wanted to avoid a nasty fight with Republicans over the Reagan-Bush legacy. In early 1993, the Democrats, especially President Bill Clinton, saw a battle over history as a distraction from his domestic priorities. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Clinton adopted a tolerant attitude, too, toward George H.W. Bush’s unprecedented decision on Christmas Eve 1992 to pardon six Iran-Contra defendants (another scandal which implicated Bush and could be viewed as a sequel to the October Surprise case).

Clinton was equally disinterested when new evidence emerged in 1996 about Bush’s role in the Iraq-gate arming of Saddam Hussein, and in 1998 when the CIA’s inspector general compiled damning evidence on how the Reagan-Bush administration had protected drug traffickers linked to the Nicaraguan contras.

Instead of demanding the truth about these crimes and holding people accountable, the Clinton administration found it easier to sweep these unpleasant matters under the rug. One of Clinton’s rewards was a cozy relationship with the senior George Bush.

Now, the congressional Democrats seem to taking a similarly permissive approach toward the crimes of the junior George Bush.

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.

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