Features » February 19, 2004
The commission appointed by President George W. Bush to look into WMD-related “intelligence failures” can be considered “independent” only if the word now means “subordinated and allied.” The members lack the expertise required to uncover what really went wrong, and their limited mandate sidesteps the central question: Did the administration hype intelligence reports to march the United States into war?
Rather than allowing Congress to name the members and determine the scope of their investigation, the intelligence commission was established by executive fiat and is a mixture of centrists and right-wing ideologues—suggesting that Bush is less concerned with unraveling the Iraq fiasco than deflecting criticism until after the November elections.
Co-chairmen are Laurence Silberman, a retired appeals court judge appointed to the bench by Ronald Reagan, and Charles Robb, the moderate former governor and senator from Virginia. Other members are: John McCain, who called for the commission’s formation but advocated that it report back after November; Lloyd Cutler, legal counsel for two Democratic administrations; Richard Levin, president of Yale University, alma mater of the Bush clan; Patricia Wald, former chief judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals; and Adm. William Studeman, former deputy director of Central Intelligence and the only appointee with a solid knowledge of intelligence matters.
The cosmetic appearance of bipartianship doesn’t mask the politicking at the commission’s root.
Silberman has proved himself a valued ideological right-wing operative. After serving as deputy attorney general in the Nixon and Ford administrations, he represented the Reagan-Bush presidential campaign team in 1980 as its unofficial ambassador to Iran, secretly meeting with representatives of Ayatollah Khomeini.
As a reward for his service, Reagan appointed him to the Court of Appeals for Washington D.C., the most powerful circuit court in the country. In this capacity, he is best known for voting in 1990 to overturn the convictions of Lt. Col. Oliver North and Adm. John Poindexter, convicted of felonies relating to the Iran-contra scandal.
Silberman’s intervention played a key role in sabotaging the investigation of special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who later described the GOP majority on the U.S. Appeals Court as “a powerful band of Republican appointees [who] waited like the strategic reserves of an embattled army, … a force cloaked in the black robes of those dedicated to defining and preserving the rule of law.”
In addition to reversing the Iran-Contra convictions, Silberman tried overturning the independent counsel statute, a decision nullified by the Supreme Court on an 8-1 vote. A decade later, the judge helped right-wing activists pursuing allegations of sexual misconduct by President Bill Clinton and was a strong defender of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. When Clinton attempted to prevent Secret Service agents from being forced to testify before Starr’s grand jury in 1998, Silberman wrote in a legal opinion, “Can it be said that the president of the United States has declared war on the United States?”
Even the seating of McCain, widely regarded as an outspoken maverick Republican, does little to establish the credibility of the panel. Although McCain was an early advocate of a presidential commission “to prevent the United States from ever being misinformed again,” he declined to support Senate bill 1946, introduced last November to establish a congressionally mandated independent commission. He also allayed Bush administration concerns that the commission would influence the November elections by stating that it will take the panel more than a year to complete its work.
McCain is one of the most virulent hawks on Capitol Hill and has not deviated from the neo-conservative line regarding Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. Leading up to the war, McCain parroted administration claims on WMDs. On the eve of the U.S. invasion in March 2003, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly asked McCain, “If you were president, what would you have done differently in the run-up to this war?” The senator answered, “Nothing.”
McCain also suggested that the commission’s findings already are written when he told reporters: “The president of the United States, I believe, did not manipulate any kind of information for political gain or otherwise.”
White House press secretary Scott McClellan emphasized that commission members’ “independence will be spelled out in the executive order that the president will sign.” But the executive order Bush signed on February 6 provided that the panel is “subject to the authority of the President.”
Nat Parry is a writer and activist based in Arlington, Virginia.
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