With the orchestrated release of the Mueller Report, Attorney General William Barr has again proven his mettle as a fixer for presidents plagued by national security scandals.
I last wrote about Barr in October 1992 in a story about Iraqgate. The article featured a 12-year timeline of the scandal, revolving around the fact that, prior to the 1990 Gulf War, the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush provided Saddam Hussein with billions of dollars to subsidize the development of Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons infrastructure.
In 1987, then-Vice President Bush had argued the United States must build a “solid relationship with Iraq for the future.” In February of that year, the United States provided $2.1 billion in secret commercial loans to Iraq, laundered through an Italian state bank, Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, or BNL. Two years later, in 1989, Bush took the Oval Office and House Banking Committee Chairman Henry Gonzalez (D‑Texas) opened an investigation into the covert funding operation, against the wishes of Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.
In 1992, Bush’s new attorney general, William Barr, entered the picture.
May 15: Attorney General William Barr writes Gonzalez charging that he has “harmed national security” by revealing details of the Bush administration’s policy toward Iraq prior to the Gulf War, but Barr provides no evidence of how national security was harmed. Gonzalez writes back that Barr’s complaints are politically motivated. …
July 24: CIA Director [Robert M.] Gates writes Gonzalez, claiming that the CIA has cooperated fully with federal prosecutors in the BNL case. Gates chides Gonzalez for disclosing the fact that U.S. intelligence agencies were aware of Iraq’s military development program.
July 30: Gonzalez publicly releases Gates’ letter. …
August 10: Barr rejects the House Judiciary Committee’s request for appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the Bush Administration’s pre-invasion policy toward Iraq.
September 4: Barr informs Gonzalez in writing that he will not comply with a House Banking Committee subpoena for BNL-related information. [The State Department, the Commerce Department, the Customs Service, the CIA, the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency follow Barr’s lead, and refuse to cooperate.]
September 23: Gonzalez announces that he has received classified information showing that in January 1991 the CIA knew that BNL headquarters in Rome had approved the loans. He writes CIA Director Gates, admonishing him for lying to federal prosecutors about the BNL scandal. …
October 13: Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D‑Ohio) of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence writes Barr, asking him to appoint a special prosecutor. He explains that allegations raised in the BNL-Atlanta court proceedings indicate that this case could involve “secret U.S. government involvement in arms sales to Iraq, as well as a possible cover-up.” … Gonzalez writes to Barr, asking him to appoint a special prosecutor and to “address the repeated, clear failures and obstruction of the leadership of the Justice Department.” The best way to accomplish this, advises Gonzalez, is to “do the right thing and submit your resignation at once.”
October 14: [Sen. David] Boren (D‑Okla.) writes to Barr asking him to appoint an independent counsel. [Boren] states, “A truly independent investigation is required to determine whether federal crimes were committed in the government’s handling [of the BNL case].” Boren charges that both the Justice Department and the CIA have engaged in a BNL cover-up. …
October 19: The Senate Select Committee begins to investigate charges that CIA or NSA front companies were used, in violation of federal law, to supply Iraq with arms and weapon technology. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee call for Barr to appoint an independent prosecutor.
An independent prosecutor was never appointed. On March 20, 2003, the United States, under President George W. Bush, invaded Iraq once again, ostensibly to search for weapons developed by the infrastructure his father had helped provide 16 years prior.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.