Nixon's Children

Here's a trivia question of no small consequence. When, about what event and by whom was the following statement made?

But out of the gobbledygook, comes a very clear thing: you can't trust the government; you can't believe what they say; and you can't rely on their judgment; and the -- the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it's wrong, and the president can be wrong.
You could be excused if you said it was George W. Bush complaining about the recent revelations by WMD inspector David Kay, but you would be wrong. Actually, former President Richard M. Nixon heard those fateful words during a meeting in the Oval Office with aide H.R. Halderman, who uttered them. The date was June 14, 1971 and Nixon was obsessing over the publication a day earlier of the Pentagon Papers in The Washington Post.

I came across this remarkable quote quite by accident while doing research the other day. At first it simply struck me as ironic that three decades later another sitting president's pronouncements about the reasons and objectives for war had been publicly revealed to be false.

But then I realized that there might be something even more significant in this train of thought. Those closest to George W. Bush -- notably Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld -- learned some valuable lessons from the Nixon presidency and the events that led to its downfall.

After Nixon was forced from office, Cheney became White House chief of staff for Gerald Ford. It was during that job that Cheney first showed he had learned much from his former boss's downfall. While chief of staff for Ford, Cheney earned the code name "Backseat," a reflection of his insistence that his work remain behind the scenes and out of the public spotlight. Rumsfeld resigned his congressional seat to join the Nixon administration in 1969 as an advisor on domestic policy.

Both Cheney and Rumsfeld had front-row seats from which to watch the self-destruction of the Nixon presidency. Finding themselves in power again, both men well understood that it was not what Nixon and his cronies did that got them thrown out of office, but the evidence of what they did -- the tapes, the memos, the testimony.

Lesson learned: So when Vice President Dick Cheney formed his Energy Task Force he made certain that its members -- nearly all of whom hailed from big energy companies, including Enron -- would remain secret as would the advice they provided. When the General Accounting Office demanded the information they were told to mind their own business. Three years and several court challenges later it remains secret.

Back in 1971, when former RAND researcher Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, Nixon tried to close the barn door by having then-Attorney General John Mitchell threaten The New York Times and The Washington Post with prosecution if they published any more from the once secret report. Of course, that didn't work and two weeks later the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against the administration anyway.

Lesson learned: Once information gets loose it's too late. To make sure nothing like happens to this administration the whole operation has been virtually hermetically sealed. The power to classify information as Secret and Top Secret was expanded to every nook and cranny, including Agriculture and the EPA. Even within the Bush administration itself, information has become available strictly on a "need to know" basis. There would be no Daniel Ellsbergs leaving this administration with anything sensitive but what was in their heads -- and therefore deniable.

After failing to stop further publication of the Pentagon Papers -- which for those too young to remember, put the entire basis for and execution of the Vietnam War in doubt -- Nixon's first instinct was to kill the messenger by turning one of the war's chief architects, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, loose on Ellsberg. Kissinger started spreading the word that Ellsberg had shot at peasants from helicopters while in Vietnam and, furthermore, that Ellsberg was gay. When neither rumor stuck Nixon went looking for real dirt, organizing a break-in at the offices of Ellsberg's psychiatrist.

When the White House came under suspicion, Nixon complained to his press secretary. Ron Ziegler, "Goddamn to hell, I didn't tell them to go fuck up the goddamn Ellsberg place."

Lesson NOT learned: The Bush administration had its own Ellsberg on its hands this year when former ambassador Joe Wilson publicly contradicted the Bush administration's oft-stated claims that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger. The White House response was a ham-handed attempt to discredit Wilson by leaking to the press that Wilson's wife was a covert CIA agent who operated overseas undercover as an energy analyst.

Inevitably the smear blew back on the Bush White House, just as the Ellsberg break-in had, and now the administration is stuck with an investigation into just who leaked the story. It is illegal to reveal the identity of covert CIA operatives -- for obvious, and often deadly, reasons.

Lesson learned: But when it comes to digging up sensitive information, this administration did learn at least one important lesson from the Ellsberg case: If you are going to break into someone's private life, make it legal to do so first.

In the wake of 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft spearheaded the administration's push to enact a bundle of new laws that came to pass in the form of the USA PATRIOT Act. The legislation greatly expanded the power of the FBI and CIA. Among the powers extended was the right to break into a person's home or office without a warrant or what the courts had up to now painstakingly defined as "reasonable cause" The FBI, citing Section 215 of the Patriot Act, can now demand "any tangible thing," including books, letters, diaries, library records, medical and psychiatric records. Had the Patriot Act been in force in 1973, Nixon might well have obtained Ellsberg's psychiatric records legally by simply citing national security.

And that brings us back to the here and now and one final lesson from the Nixon days that manifested itself in Senate testimony. When David Kay testified before the Senate in January, disclosing for the first time that there are not now, nor were they before the war, any significant weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Kay went out of his way to exonerate the president and those closest to him. Instead Kay shifted the discussion to failures of "the intelligence community," describing the president as a victim of bad intelligence. Kay, no stranger to the palace politics of Washington and the hardball tactics of the current administration, was anxious to tell the truth, but equally anxious not to end up like Joe Wilson -- or Daniel Ellsberg.

Lesson learned.

Stephen Pizzo is a journalist who lives in Sebastapol, California.

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