Neocon Judge's History of Cover-ups
Laurence Silberman, a U.S. Appeals Court judge and a longtime neoconservative operative – part of what the Iran-Contra special prosecutor called “the strategic reserves” for convicted Reagan administration operatives in the 1980s – is back playing a similar role for the Bush-43 administration.
On Sept. 11, the eighth anniversary of the terror attacks on New York and Washington, Silberman issued a 2-to-1 opinion dismissing a lawsuit against the private security firm, CACI International, brought by Iraqi victims of torture and other abuse at Abu Ghraib prison.
Silberman declared that CACI was immune from prosecution because its employees were responding to U.S. military commands. The immunity ruling blocked legal efforts by 212 Iraqis, who suffered directly at Abu Ghraib or were the widows of men who died, to exact some accountability from CACI employees who allegedly assisted in the torture of prisoners.
"During wartime, where a private service contractor is integrated into combatant activities over which the military retains command authority, a tort claim arising out of the contractor's engagement in such activities shall be preempted," Silberman wrote.
But Silberman is not a dispassionate judge when it comes to the crimes of Republicans committed to advance the neocon cause.
In the 1980s, Silberman played behind-the-scenes roles in helping Ronald Reagan gain the White House; he helped formulate hard-line intelligence policies; he encouraged right-wing media attacks on liberals; and he protected the flanks of Reagan’s operatives who were caught breaking the law.
Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, a Republican himself, counted Silberman as one of "a powerful band of Republican [judicial] appointees [who] waited like the strategic reserves of an embattled army," determined to prevent any judgments against Reagan’s operatives who broke the law in the arms-for-hostage scandal.
In his 1997 memoir, Firewall, Walsh depicted Silberman as a leader of that partisan band, even recalling how Silberman had berated Judge George MacKinnon, also a Republican, who led the panel which had picked Walsh to be the special prosecutor.
"At a D.C. circuit conference, he [Silberman] had gotten into a shouting match about independent counsel with Judge George MacKinnon," Walsh wrote. "Silberman not only had hostile views but seemed to hold them in anger."
In 1990, after Walsh had secured a difficult conviction of former White House aide Oliver North for offenses stemming from the Iran-Contra scandal, Silberman teamed up with another right-wing judge, David Sentelle, to overturn North’s conviction in a sudden outburst of sympathy for defendant rights.
Trashing Anita Hill
Less publicly, in 1991, Silberman also went to bat for the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas, working with right-wing operatives to destroy the reputation of Anita Hill, a former Thomas employee who testified about his crude sexual harassment.
Author David Brock, then a well-paid right-wing hatchet man who published what he later admitted were scurrilous attacks on Hill, described the support and encouragement he received from Silberman and Silberman’s wife, Ricky. Even after Thomas had won Senate confirmation, Silberman still was pushing attack lines against Hill, Brock wrote in his book, Blinded by the Right.
While George H.W. Bush’s White House slipped Brock a psychiatric opinion that Hill suffered from “erotomania,” Silberman met with Brock to suggest even more colorful criticism of Hill.
“Silberman speculated that Hill was a lesbian ‘acting out’,” Brock wrote. “Besides, Silberman confided, Thomas would never have asked Hill for dates: She had bad breath.”
After Brock published a book-length assault on Hill, called The Real Anita Hill, the Silbermans and other prominent conservatives joined a celebration at the Embassy Row Ritz-Carlton, Brock wrote, noting that also in attendance was Judge Sentelle.
But Silberman’s anything-goes approach to promoting – and protecting – right-wing control of the government dated back even further, to his key role as a foreign-policy and intelligence adviser to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign.
During Campaign 1980, Silberman was a senior figure in what was then a fast-rising neoconservative faction that saw Reagan’s victory – and the defeat of President Jimmy Carter – as vital to expand U.S. military power, to confront the Soviet Union aggressively and to relieve pressure on Israel for a peace deal with the Palestinians.
More than a decade later, congressional investigators discovered that Silberman was assigned to secretive Reagan campaign operations collecting intelligence on what President Carter was doing to secure the release of 52 American hostages then held in Iran.
On April 20, 1980, the Reagan campaign created a group of foreign policy experts known as the Iran Working Group. The operation was run by Richard Allen, Fred Ikle and Silberman, the congressional investigators discovered.
After Reagan’s nomination in July, his campaign merged with that of his vice presidential running mate, George H.W. Bush, who had enlisted many ex-CIA officers who were loyal to Bush as a former CIA director.
October Surprise Obsession
The general election campaign assembled a strategy team, known as the “October Surprise Group,” which was ordered to prepare for “any last-minute foreign policy or defense-related event, including the release of the hostages, that might favorably impact President Carter in the November election,” according to a House Task Force that in 1992 investigated allegations of Republican interference in Carter’s hostage negotiations.
“Originally referred to as the ‘Gang of Ten,’” the Task Force report said the “October Surprise Group” consisted of Allen, Ikle, Charles M. Kupperman, Thomas H. Moorer, Eugene V. Rostow, William R. Van Cleave, John R. Lehman Jr., Robert G. Neumann, Seymour Weiss – and Silberman.
While that reference made it into the Task Force’s final report in January 1993, another part was deleted, which said: “According to members of the ‘October Surprise’ group, the following individuals also participated in meetings although they were not considered ‘members’ of the group: Michael Ledeen, Richard Stillwell, William Middendorf, Richard Perle, General Louis Walt and Admiral James Holloway.”
Deleted from the final report also was a section of the draft describing how the ex-CIA personnel who had worked for Bush’s campaign became the nucleus of the Republican intelligence operation that monitored Carter’s Iran-hostage negotiations for the Reagan-Bush team.
“The Reagan-Bush campaign maintained a 24-hour Operations Center, which monitored press wires and reports, gave daily press briefings and maintained telephone and telefax contact with the candidate’s plane,” the draft report read. “Many of the staff members were former CIA employees who had previously worked on the Bush campaign or were otherwise loyal to George Bush.” [I discovered the unpublished portions of Task Force’s report when I gain access to its files in late 1994.]
Another deletion involved a Sept. 16, 1980, meeting ordered by Reagan’s campaign director William Casey, who had become obsessed over the possibility of Carter pulling off an October Surprise release of the hostages.
On that date, Casey met with senior campaign officials Edwin Meese, Bill Timmons and Richard Allen about the “Persian Gulf Project,” according to an unpublished section of the House Task Force report and Allen’s notes. Two other participants at the meeting, according to Allen’s notes, were Michael Ledeen and Noel Koch.
That same day, Iran’s acting foreign minister Sadegh Ghotbzadeh was quoted as citing Republican interference on the hostages. “Reagan, supported by [former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger and others, has no intention of resolving the problem,” Ghotbzadeh said. “They will do everything in their power to block it.”
Exactly what the Reagan-Bush “October Surprise” team did remains something of a historical mystery.
About two dozen witnesses – including former Iranian officials and international intelligence figures – have claimed the Republican contacts undercut Carter’s hostage negotiations, though others insist that the initiatives were simply ways to gather information about Carter’s desperate bid to free the hostages before the election. [For the most thorough account of the “October Surprise” case, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
The L’Enfant Plaza Mystery
One of the many unanswered questions about the October Surprise mystery revolved around a meeting involving Laurence Silberman and an Iranian emissary at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington in September or early October 1980.
Years later, an Iranian arms dealer named Houshang Lavi claimed to be the emissary who met with Silberman, Allen and Robert McFarlane, who was then an aide to Sen. John Tower, R-Texas. Lavi said the meeting on Oct. 2 dealt with the possibility of trading arms to Iran for release of the hostages – and was arranged by Silberman.
Silberman, Allen and McFarlane acknowledged that a meeting happened, but they insisted they had no recollection of the emissary’s name nor who he was.
In 1990, I interviewed a testy Richard Allen about the meeting for a PBS Frontline documentary. Allen said he reluctantly went to the meeting, which he said was proposed by McFarlane. Allen said he took along Silberman as a witness.
“So Larry Silberman and I got on the subway and we went down to the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel where I met McFarlane and there were many people milling about. We sat at a table in the lobby. It was around the lunch hour. I was introduced to this very obscure character whose name I cannot recall. …
“The individual who was either an Egyptian or an Iranian or could have been an Iranian living in Egypt – and his idea was that he had the capacity to intervene, to deliver the hostages to the Reagan forces. Now, I took that at first to mean that he was able to deliver the hostages to Ronald Reagan, candidate for the presidency of the United States, which was absolutely lunatic. And I said so. I believe I said, or Larry did, ‘we have one President at a time. That’s the way it is.’
“So this fellow continued with his conversation. I was incredulous that McFarlane would have ever brought a guy like this or placed any credibility in a guy like this. Just absolutely incredulous, and so was Larry Silberman. This meeting lasted maybe 20 minutes, 25 minutes. So that’s it. There’s no need to continue this meeting. …
“Larry and I walked out. And I remember Larry saying, ‘Boy, you better write a memorandum about this. This is really spaceship stuff.’ And it, of course, set my opinion very firmly about Bud McFarlane for having brought this person to me in the first place.”
Allen described the emissary as “stocky and swarthy, dark-complected,” but otherwise “non-descript.” Allen added that the man looked like a “person from somewhere on the Mediterranean littoral. How about that?”
Allen said this Egyptian or Iranian “must have given a name at the time, must have.” But Allen couldn’t recall it. He also said he made no effort to check out the man’s position or background before agreeing to the meeting.
“Did you ask McFarlane, who is this guy?” I asked Allen.
“I don’t recall having asked him, no,” Allen responded.
“I guess I don’t understand why you wouldn’t say, ‘Is this guy an Iranian, is he someone you’ve known for a while?’” I pressed.
“Well, gee, I’m sorry that you don’t understand,” Allen lashed back. “I really feel badly for you. It’s really too bad you don’t understand. But that’s your problem, not mine.”
“But wouldn’t you normally ask that kind of background question?”
“Not necessarily,” Allen said. “McFarlane wanted me to meet a guy and this guy was going to talk about the hostages. I met plenty of people during that period of time who wanted to talk to me about the hostages. … This was no different from anybody else I would meet on this subject.”
“It obviously turned out to be different from most people you’ve met on the subject,” I interjected.
“”Oh, it turned out to be because this guy is the centerpiece of some sort of great conspiracy web that has been spun,” Allen snapped.
“Well, were there many people who offered to deliver the hostages to Ronald Reagan?” I asked.
“No, this one was particularly different, but I didn’t know that before I went to the meeting, you understand.”
“Did you ask McFarlane what on earth this guy was going to propose?”
“I don’t think I did in advance, no.”
What also was unusual about this meeting was what Allen and Silberman did not do afterwards. Though Allen said that he and Silberman recognized the sensitivity of the approach, neither of Reagan’s foreign policy advisers contacted the Carter administration or reported the offer to law enforcement.
It also defied logic that seasoned operatives like Allen and Silberman would have agreed to a meeting with an emissary from a hostile power without having done some due-diligence about who the person was and what his bona fides were.
Iranian arms dealer Lavi later claimed to be the mysterious emissary. And government documents revealed that Lavi made a similar approach to the independent presidential campaign of John Anderson, although Anderson’s campaign – unlike Allen and Silberman – promptly informed the CIA and State Department.
For his part, Silberman denied any substantive discussion with the mysterious emissary but refused to discuss the meeting in any detail. He did insist that he was out of town on Oct. 2, the date cited by Lavi, but Silberman wouldn’t provide a list of dates when he was in Washington during the fall of 1980.
Though purportedly having arranged the meeting, McFarlare also insisted that he couldn’t recall the identity of the emissary.
Later, when a Senate panel conducted a brief inquiry into whether the Republicans interfered with Carter’s hostage negotiations, a truculent Allen testified – and brought along a memo that he claimed represented his contemporaneous recollections of the L’Enfant Plaza meeting.
However, the memo, dated Sept. 10, 1980, flatly contradicted the previous accounts from Allen, Silberman and McFarlane. It described a meeting arranged by Mike Butler, another Tower aide, with McFarlane only joining in later as the pair told Allen about a meeting they had had with a Mr. A.A. Mohammed, a Malaysian who operated out of Singapore.
“This afternoon, by mutual agreement, I met with Messrs. Mohammed, Butler and McFarlane. I also took Larry Silberman along to the meeting,” Allen wrote in the memo.
According to the memo, Mohammed presented a scheme for returning the Shah of Iran’s son to the country as “a figurehead monarch” which would be accompanied by a release of the U.S. hostages. Though skeptical of the plan, “both Larry and I indicated that we would be pleased to hear whatever additional news Mr. Mohammed might be able to turn up, and I suggested that that information be communicated via a secure channel,” the memo read.
Nearly every important detail was different both in how the meeting was arranged and its contents. Gone was the proposal to release the hostages to candidate Reagan, gone was the abrupt cutoff, gone was the Iranian or Egyptian – some guy from the “Mediterranean littoral” – replaced by a Malaysian businessman whose comments were welcomed along with future contacts “via a secure channel.” The memo didn’t even mention the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel, nor was McFarlane the organizer.
A reasonable conclusion might be that Allen’s memo was about an entirely different meeting, which would suggest that Republican contacts with Iranian emissaries were more numerous than previously admitted and that Silberman was more of a regular player.
Also, Silberman, McFarlane and Butler – when questioned by the House Task Force investigating the issue in 1992 – disputed Allen’s new version of the L’Enfant Plaza tale. They claimed no recollection of the A.A. Mohammed discussion.
Nevertheless, the House Task Force, in its determination to turn the page on the complex October Surprise issue, accepted Allen’s memo as the final answer to the L’Enfant Plaza question and pressed ahead with a broader rejection of any wrongdoing by Republicans – even though that required concealing a host of incriminating documents. [See Secrecy & Privilege.]
The House Task Force also turned a blind eye to another tantalizing clue related to the L’Enfant Plaza mystery. Lavi’s lawyer, former CIA counsel Mitchell Rogovin, provided me a page of his notes from that time period.
Rogovin, who was an adviser to the John Anderson campaign, wrote on his calendar entry for Sept. 29, 1980, a summary of Lavi’s plan to trade weapons for the hostages. After that, Rogovin recorded a telephone contact with senior CIA official John McMahon to discuss Lavi’s plan and to schedule a face-to-face meeting with a CIA representative on Oct. 2.
The next entry, however, was stunning. It read, “Larry Silberman – still very nervous/will recommend … against us this P.M. I said $250,000 – he said why even bother.”
When I called Rogovin about this notation, he said it related to a loan that the Anderson campaign was seeking from Crocker National Bank where Silberman served as legal counsel. The note meant that Silberman was planning to advise the bank officers against the loan, Rogovin said.
I asked Rogovin if he might have mentioned Lavi’s hostage plan to Silberman, who was in the curious position of being a senior Reagan adviser and weighing in on a loan to an independent campaign that was viewed as siphoning off votes from Carter. (Crocker did extend a line of credit to Anderson.)
“There was no discussion of the Lavi proposal,” Rogovin insisted. But Rogovin acknowledged that Silberman was a friend from the Ford administration where both men had worked on intelligence issues, Rogovin from the CIA and Silberman at the Justice Department. Later, Rogovin and Silberman became next-door neighbors and bought a boat together.
In a normal investigation, such coincidences would strain credulity, especially given Lavi’s claim that he took part in a meeting with Republicans at the L’Enfant Plaza on Oct. 2, the same day that he talked with a CIA representative. Lavi also claimed that Silberman had arranged the meeting, which would make sense given Rogovin’s personal ties to Silberman.
However, as on a host of other compelling leads, the House Task Force chose to look the other way.
On Nov. 4, 1980, with Carter unable to free the hostages and Americans humiliated by the year-long ordeal with Iran, Ronald Reagan won the presidency in a landslide.
For his loyal service in the campaign, the neoconservative Silberman was put in charge of the transition team’s intelligence section. The team prepared a report attacking the CIA’s analytical division for noting growing weaknesses in the Soviet Union, a position despised by the neocons because it undercut their case for a costly expansion of the Pentagon’s budget.
Silberman’s transition team accused the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence of “an abject failure” to foresee a supposedly massive Soviet buildup of strategic weapons and “the wholesale failure” to comprehend the sophistication of Soviet propaganda.
“These failures are of such enormity,” the transition report said, “that they cannot help but suggest to any objective observer that the agency itself is compromised to an unprecedented extent and that its paralysis is attributable to causes more sinister than incompetence.”
In other words, Silberman’s transition team was implying that CIA analysts who didn’t toe the neoconservative line must be Soviet agents. Even anti-Soviet hardliners like the CIA’s Robert Gates recognized the impact that the incoming administration’s hostility had on the CIA analysts.
“That the Reaganites saw their arrival as a hostile takeover was apparent in the most extraordinary transition period of my career,” Gates wrote in his memoir, From the Shadows. “The reaction inside the Agency to this litany of failure and incompetence” from the transition team “was a mix of resentment and anger, dread and personal insecurity.”
Amid rumors that the transition team wanted to purge several hundred top analysts, career officials feared for their jobs, especially those considered responsible for assessing the Soviet Union as a declining power rapidly falling behind the West in technology and economics.
According to some intelligence sources, Silberman expected to get the job of CIA director and flew into a rage when Reagan gave the job to his campaign director William Casey, who also was tied to the October Surprise operations. (The U.S. hostages in Iran were released immediately upon Ronald Reagan taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1981.)
Silberman’s consolation prize was to be named a judge on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, where he helped frustrate the Iran-Contra investigation by overturning Oliver North’s conviction in 1990 and to this day is a defender of the neocons’ foreign policy -- as witnessed by his Sept. 11, 2009, ruling blocking civil lawsuits against U.S. government contractors implicated in torturing Iraqis.
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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