News & Politics

Obama Should Worry About the Bush Family Tentacles Undermining His Plans

Bush may be gone, but his influence -- and the forces that put him in office -- aren't.

As George W. Bush leaves office and Barack Obama takes over, we are in danger of missing the opportunity for change our new president has promised -- unless we come to grips with what the great historian and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin called our "hidden history," not just of the past eight years but of the past half-century and more. 

President Obama will face a staggering array of challenges, most, if not all, of which stem from the policies of Bush. But efforts at reform will fall short if we fail to probe and confront the powerful forces that wanted this disastrous administration in the White House in the first place -- and that remain ready and able to maintain their influence behind the scenes today.

Like most people, I took the failings of George W. Bush at face value: an inattentive, poorly prepared man full of hubris, who committed colossal blunders as a result. Then I spent five years researching my new book, Family of Secrets and came to see that the origins go much deeper. This backstory is getting almost no attention in the talking-heads debate over the Bush legacy. Yet it will continue to play, affecting our country and our lives, long after Bush leaves office.

A more profound explanation for the rise of George W. Bush came as I studied the concerted effort  to convince the public that he was  independent of, and often in disagreement with, his father. The reason for this, it turned out, was that exactly the opposite was true. W. may have been bumptious where his father was discreet, but in fact the son hewed closely to a playbook that guided his father and even his grandfather.

Over much of the last century, the Bushes have been serving the aims of a very narrow segment from within America's wealthiest interests and families -- typically through involvement in the most anti-New Deal investment banking circles, in the creation of a civilian intelligence service after World War II, and in some of that service's most secretive and still-unacknowledged operations.

Through declassified documents and interviews, I unearthed evidence that George W. Bush's father, the 41st president of the United States, had been working for the intelligence services no less than two decades before he was named CIA director in 1976. Time and again, Bush 41 and his allies have participated in clandestine operations to force presidents to do the bidding of oil and other resource-extraction interests, military contractors and financiers. Whenever a president showed  independence or sought reforms that threatened entrenched interests, this group helped to ensure that he was politically attacked and neutralized, or even removed from office, through one means or another.

We are not dealing here with what are commonly dismissed as "conspiracy theories."  We are dealing with a reality that is much more subtle, layered and pervasive -- a matrix of power in which crude conspiracies are rarely necessary and in which the execution or subsequent cover-up of anti-democratic acts become practically a norm.

In 1953, 23 years before he became CIA director as a supposed neophyte, George H.W. Bush began preparing to launch an oil-exploration company called Zapata Offshore. His father, investment banker Prescott Bush, had just taken a Senate seat from Connecticut; and his father's close friend Allen Dulles had just taken over the CIA. A staff CIA officer, Thomas J. Devine, purportedly "resigned" to go into the oil business with young George.

Bush then began to travel around the world. His itineraries had little apparent relationship to his limited and perennially unprofitable business enterprises.  But they do make sense if the object was intelligence work. When his company at last  put a few oil rigs in place, they ended up in highly sensitive spots, such as just off Castro's Cuba before the Bay of Pigs invasion.

As part of his travels, Bush senior even appeared in Dallas on the morning of the Kennedy assassination, although he would famously claim that he could not recall where he was at that historic moment. After leaving the city, he called the FBI with a false tip about a possible assassin, pointedly emphasizing that he was calling from outside Dallas. It is also intriguing to learn that an old friend of Bush's, a White Russian émigré with intelligence connections, shepherded Lee Harvey Oswald upon his return to America in the year preceding the assassination. In any event, when Lyndon Johnson replaced Kennedy, the oilmen and the intelligence-military establishment once again had a friend in the White House.

The pattern continued. New evidence suggests that Bush senior and his associates in the intelligence services, far from being the loyalists to Richard Nixon they claimed to be, had turned on the 35th president early in his administration, unceasingly working to weaken and eventually force him out. These efforts culminated in what appears to have been a deliberately botched Watergate office burglary -- led by former CIA officers.

Ironically, Nixon's career had been launched with the quiet backing of Wall Street finance figures upset with the man Nixon would defeat, a leading congressional supporter of banking reform, and Prescott Bush himself had played a key role. Yet, when Nixon finally achieved the presidency, he became surprisingly resistant to pressure from the very power centers that had helped him get to the top. He turned a deaf ear to the demands of the oil industry,  battled with the CIA and cut the Pentagon out of the loop as he (and his aide Henry Kissinger) negotiated secretly with Moscow and Beijing.

These acts estranged Nixon from those who felt he had betrayed his sponsors -- men who had the means to do him in. Bush senior, it turns out, was closely allied with the surprising number of White House officials with covert ties to the intelligence service that surrounded Nixon. Through it all, Bush senior would routinely claim to be "out of the loop," as he would later pretend during the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan era, although we know that as vice president he was at the center of that and other abuses of power.

None of this let up after Nixon was forced to resign. His pliant successor, Gerald Ford, brought in young staffers named Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and the two participated in the so-called Halloween massacre, which saw the administration veer in a far-right direction on foreign policy, a development that paved the way for the appointment of Bush senior as CIA director. This happened just as Congress was launched into the deepest investigation ever of intelligence abuses, and public voices were clamoring to reopen official inquiries into the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, his brother, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

Then came Jimmy Carter, whose plans to reform the CIA were an echo of JFK's intent to scatter the CIA to the winds after the ruinous Bay of Pigs invasion.  When Carter defeated Ford, ousted Bush from the CIA helm and sought to bring the intelligence juggernaut under control, he ended up deeply compromised by complex financial shenanigans orchestrated by figures from the same  intelligence circles -- and undermined by the crisis with Iran, exacerbated by covert dissident CIA elements tied to Bush. Carter was a one-term president, defeated by a ticket with none other than George H.W. Bush, backed by a phalanx of CIA officers, as vice president. And then Bush senior became president himself.  

Bill Clinton apparently grasped the pattern. He cultivated a friendly relationship with the elder Bush and instituted virtually no significant reforms in, or issued challenges to, either the intelligence or military establishments.

All this is relevant today because the furtive forces and pressures that haunted, and ultimately dominated, these past presidents have not abated.

Indeed, what the presidency of George W. Bush truly represented was the unfettered, most reckless manifestation of the objectives this group has pursued for many decades. In Bush 43's trademark pattern of showing the old man how it's done, the son was bringing virtually into the open the kinds of things his father preferred pursued sub-rosa. But behind the different façade it was the same game all over again.

The dirty tricks of Karl Rove, who got his first job under Bush 41 at the Republican Party during Watergate; the use of the Supreme Court to force an election their way; an early move to suppress the records of prior presidencies; the maniacal secrecy of Vice President Cheney; the false rationale used to justify the seizure of Iraqi oil reserves through invasion; the clampdown on dissent and the unauthorized domestic eavesdropping, the efforts to smear independent voices like Joseph Wilson (the husband of  CIA officer Valerie Plame) and newsman Dan Rather; and last and perhaps most significant, the unleashing from government oversight of their friends and allies in finance and industry -- these and more emerged from the old dreams and methods of this anti-democratic culture. 

Now, as a new president enters the White House promising reform, how much will he be able to achieve if his reforms step on the same big toes? We must begin to take seriously, and speak openly about, the true nature of the forces behind the Bush family enterprise. If we do not, we will find ourselves, several years from now, shaking our heads at new disaster, still unable to comprehend what has happened -- and why.

Russ Baker is an award-winning investigative reporter. He has written for the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Nation, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Village Voice and Esquire. Baker received a 2005 Deadline Club award for his exclusive reporting on George W. Bush’s military record. Information on his new book, Family of Secrets: the Bush Dynasty, the Powerful Forces That Put It in the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America, can be found at www.familyofsecrets.com.