Kissinger's No-press Zone

Doctor Kissinger, you are one of the most notorious practitioners of clandestine warfare and secret government in U.S. history. You oversaw a covert -- and arguably illegal -- bombing campaign in Cambodia that killed hundreds of thousands, and you have opposed disclosure of information related to government misdeeds. Is that a liability or asset in your new post as head of the independent 9/11 commission?

Secretary Kissinger, when you served in government, you supported the terrorist government of dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile (after overseeing a CIA plot that tried to overthrow the democratically-elected Salvador Allende). You also were a fan of the fascistic military junta in Argentina. Both regimes kidnapped, tortured and murdered thousands of civilians. The Chileans were even responsible for a terrorist event in Washington in 1976, when one of their agents used a car bomb to kill a former Chilean diplomat and an American colleague? Do you believe that gives you valuable insight into the world of terrorists?

Oh wise man Kissinger, in your public life you have been caught lying. As an experienced prevaricator, are you in a better position to ferret out the lies of other government officials?

When Henry Kissinger hit the media circuit after being named by George W. Bush to oversee an investigation into what went wrong on and before 9/11, he did not encounter any questions like the polite queries above. (Notice the phrase "war criminal" does not have to be used.) It was a wonderful real-world test of modern-day journalism. If Bill Clinton were selected to lead a commission examining teenage delinquency, how many times would he be asked if his Oval Office antics rendered him less-than-suitable for the position? The only jab Kissinger had to fend off concerned his business dealings. For instance, when The New York Times editorialized about the Kissinger appointment, its single matter of concern was his decision not to leave his international consulting firm. This is like faulting Jeffrey Dahmer's housekeeping.

The Times huffed not a whit about Bush placing an untruthful fellow who has coddled terrorists and been a sycophant to power at the head of a truth commission that is focusing on an act of terrorism and that, to do its job well, will have to confront the White House. As Los Angeles Times media critic Timonthy Rutton sharply observed:

"Winston Churchill once described the pre-war Germans as people 'who are either at your throat or at your feet.' That's also a pretty apt description of the American media, at least when it comes to a certain kind of intellectual celebrity. And when that celeb is Henry Kissinger, most of the U.S. press definitely has bruised elbows and knees."

"Objections to the former secretary of State's appointment to head the official inquiry into whether intelligence failures contributed to the Sept. 11 disasters have been quietly -- even respectfully -- raised on various editorial pages....What is conspicuously missing, however, are the analytic profiles and investigative news reports concerning a factual record that is almost perversely dissonant with the responsibilities now laid upon him."

As one of the few journalists who ranted about the Kissinger revival, I was invited to argue the case against him on television and radio shows. In doing so, I was (once again) astonished by the ability of some to overlook the importance of integrity in public office (as many liberals and Democrats did during Monicagate).

On one public radio broadcast, I maintained that Kissinger was a demonstrable liar. In response, Clifford May, a former Republican Party spokesman and (years before that) a New York Times reporter, said, "if Henry Kissinger was not fully honest...that has nothing to do with this." May, who now is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a group advocating the invasion of Iraq, also tossed off this chestnut: "Sometimes it takes a thief to catch a thief." Here's a question for May -- whatever happened to moral clarity? Perhaps Bush should have told the 9/11 families that pushed so hard for an independent commission, "Heck, we all know the government's hiding stuff here, and we decided a fella who knows how to stonewall is the guy to get the job done."

Another public radio show used the Kissinger news to raise the question: Why have so many tainted Republicans been appointed by Bush? The list includes Iran-contra schemers John Poindexter and Elliott Abrams. Poindexter was convicted of five felonies, including obstructing official inquiries and lying to Congress, and sentenced to six months in prison. (His convictions were overturned on a legal technicality.) Abrams pleaded guilty to two counts of lying to Congress. (He was pardoned by Bush the Elder.)

Bush II tapped Poindexter to manage the Pentagon's controversial "Total Information Awareness" program, which intends to rifle through massive amounts of personal data (perhaps your personal data) in search of possible terrorists. Last year, Abrams, a neocon fave, was awarded a plum staff position on the National Security Council. Days after the Kissinger appointed, Bush promoted Abrams, handing him the NSC's Near East and Northern Africa portfolio.

These personnel decisions, I asserted, were blatant contradictions of Bush's campaign pledge to "restore honor and integrity" to the White House. But former Washington Post heavyweight Lou Cannon pooh-poohed my schoolmarmish view of the world. If everyone who lied to Congress was prohibited from federal employment, he said, there would be no one left to work in government. And Michael Ledeen, a conservative pundit who played a cameo role in the Iran-contra affair, claimed it was foolish to get worked up over "alleged illegalities." (Since when is a guilty plea an "alleged illegality"?)

I am sure there are millions in America (and many more overseas) who believe picking Kissinger was an insult to common decency, as well as to the quaint notion of honest, open and accountable government. And relatives of El Salvadoran peasants killed in the 1980s by U.S.-backed government troops in mass-slaughters that Abrams denied ever occurred probably would be aghast to learn this certified massacre-denier was again shaping Washington's foreign policy. Yet, as Rutton pointed out, the controversy behind these controversial picks goes unexplored by much of the media.

At best, mainstream news accounts note that Kissinger is a "controversial" figure with many detractors, but they leave mostly unsaid the reasons why. And, by the way, where are all those old conservative Kissinger-haters? The rightwing used to despise Henry the K for his soft-on-the-commies policies, including d├ętente with the Soviet Union and initiating diplomatic relations with China. Some of the paranoid spy-catchers of the 1970s even suggested Kissinger might be a Moscow agent. These days William Safire hails his selection, as do May and other cons.

If Kissinger wanted to inspire confidence among the skeptics, he failed right out of the chute. He refused to disclose his client list. Why should citizens who want straight answers care? If Kissinger is helping a telecom firm that is trying to cut a deal in Saudi Arabia, he probably would not want his commission to anger the oilcrats over there. Which means he might not be eager to pursue all roads that lead to Mecca. Kissinger also declined to commit to having the commission question Bush.

He spewed the customary and expectable boilerplate: "We want to make sure when [the investigation is] finished, the American public and the president know all the facts that are available." But sharing all available facts with the public has not been on the Bush-Cheney agenda. For instance, the White House prevented the House and Senate intelligence committees from disclosing information that could have embarrassed Bush. As the inquiry conducted jointly by the committees revealed,

"A briefing prepared for senior government officials at the beginning of July 2001 contained the following language: 'Based on a review of all-source reporting over the last five months, we believe that UBL [Usama bin Laden] will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties against U.S. facilities or interests. Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning.'"

Sources on the committees indicated to reporters -- myself included -- that "senior government officials" was a euphemism for Bush and his aides and that the committees had to use that phrase because the administration would not declassify Bush's participation in this briefing. This was an absurd move on the part of the White House. The Bush administration was allowing news of this top-secret warning to be released but was claiming Bush's knowledge of the information had to remain classified. Clearly, the White House did not want to face another firestorm like the one that struck after the White House acknowledged Bush had received a general briefing on August 6, 2001, suggesting al Qaeda was aiming to hit the United States.

The intelligence committees howled in protest at the White House coverup, but they lost the battle. Consequently, important questions regarding this particular episode linger. How did Bush and his team respond to this dramatic and accurate warning? What intelligence was this heads-up based upon? These ought to be matters for Kissinger and his to-be-named commissioners to examine. Deriving and providing answers will mean forcefully challenging a tight-lipped, cover-our-ass White House. Confronting the man who appointed him is not in line with Kissinger's M.O. -- just as confronting Kissinger is not part of the media's S.O.P.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.

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