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Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq

by Robert Parry

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America lives in a historical vacuum, empty of context and devoid of truthful reporting, especially when it comes to contemporary events. The corporate media cares little about actions or words from the past. As a result, Americans are left with a disjointed view of reality -- with no context.

But a new book by veteran journalist Robert Parry, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, gathers the fragmented pieces of the past into a disturbing picture of how the Bush family figures in the major scandals of the past 30 years. Robert Parry, an award-winning Washington journalist for 27 years, broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra Affair while reporting for the Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. His well-researched and "just the facts ma'am" style prose connects the dots on the Bushes -- many of which will surprise you.

If you ever ask yourself, "How did America get here?" then you simply must read this book. It gives the clearest, most concise history of contemporary politics -- including Watergate, the October Surprise, the Iran-Contra Affair, the arming of Saddam Hussein, U.S. support of death squads in Latin and South America, the birth of the right-wing media, the witch hunt of Bill Clinton, Al Gore’s unfair shake from the press, Bush’s failure on September 11th and Bush's lies to invade Iraq.

In 1995, Robert Parry started Consortium for Independent Journalism, Inc., and consortiumnews.com, the Internet’s first investigative magazine where he continues to research and write in-depth articles as editor. Parry also maintains an astonishing archive and clearinghouse for information on the Bush Family and a running list of scandals and corruption long forgotten by most of the media.

Robert Parry epitomizes the eloquent quote from Czech writer Milan Kundera: "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

We are pleased to bring you Part 1 of our interview.

* * *

BuzzFlash: Your new book is called Secrecy & Privilege, The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. It traces George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush’s rise to power in the context of major scandals and events over the last 30 years. You state at one point that American politics has fundamentally changed because of the two Bush administrations, and the most important thing is -- I like this quote -- “how information, the sustenance of democracy, is rationed to the American people, and how the government leads the people." In other words, there’s a disconnect between what the Bushes say and what they do.

Robert Parry: Right. The book tries to show how the U.S. got where it is today in terms of its dysfunction with information, with the use of fear, and the incredible use of dishonesty in the political debates. It shows, going back 30 years to the period of Watergate, how that has evolved.

At the time of Watergate, at the time of The Pentagon Papers, right after the Vietnam War, there was a more skeptical, more vibrant Washington press corps. The public seemed more alert in terms of deceptions that the executive branch, in particular, could bring to bear in getting the country to war. What happened? How come 30 years later we’re at a point where a president could lead the nation to war using information that even he now admits was wrong? Why wasn’t there a more skeptical press? Why wasn’t the public more alert to these kinds of deceptions?

The book goes back and starts following mostly the senior George Bush. I went back to Watergate. I also was able to show how some of these patterns began. Richard Nixon saw in the senior George Bush someone who would be very useful. The senior Bush had connections both to the Eastern establishment -- the New York, Wall Street crowd -- and to Texas oil -- two very important bases of political power. He’s also very presentable. He’d gone to the right schools. He could move in these different worlds.

So Nixon picked him out as someone he wanted to groom. Nixon provided Bush support in the 1970 Senate race in Texas, which actually was described somewhat as a forerunner to Watergate. There was an operation called the Townhouse Affair, where money was dispensed to candidates that Nixon wanted to get into office. The largest recipient of that slush fund was George H.W. Bush. But Bush was unable to win the Senate race for various reasons. But Nixon saw him as someone whom he wanted to work with and make use of.

After the Watergate period in '72, Nixon turns to George H.W. Bush in early '73 and makes him the chairman of the Republican National Committee, to essentially bury the Watergate scandal.

Bush had some pretty good success there, except that there was enough information and there were enough conflicting political viewpoints, that even with Bush collaborating with Bob Strauss, Chairman of the DNC, the two chairmen of the two parties were not able to put Watergate behind them. Other Democrats insisted on accountability. The press got involved, and eventually Nixon was caught up on his own obsession of having taped himself, making admissions of crimes.

So even though Bush tried hard, he was not able to bail Nixon out. Bush then briefly is sent off to China to be President Ford’s emissary there. But Ford brings him back in '76 for similar reasons. Right after the Watergate period ends, the press then turns aggressively to looking at the CIA scandals. Nixon used the CIA partly to try to help contain Watergate. And after Nixon fell, the press kept looking at it. Some people in the CIA were cooperative in putting out some of the scandals and in disclosing some of the information.

That, in turn, led to a great deal of political embarrassment for President Ford and looked like it might jeopardize his chances of getting elected on his own in 1976. Then he brings back George H.W. Bush to do similar work, which is to see if he can get the CIA out of the papers. It's quite an important year in terms of the CIA. It's a year where there's a change in terms of how the agency is being used. The goal is to offer some limited cooperation with Congress through some narrow oversight fashion, but to essentially sweep as much under the rug as possible.

BuzzFlash: One of the problems is that we live in a complete vacuum, historically speaking, with regards to the press coverage. It's difficult to even understand how someone who is the head of a political party would later head the CIA. Even today, Porter Goss, the new head of the CIA, has taken a lot of heat about where his true loyalty would be -- and deservedly so. Give us some historical context -- was there a lot of criticism or questions about how Bush Sr. would manage the Central Intelligence Agency as Director since he was a former Chairman of the Republican National Committee?

Robert Parry: Secrecy & Privilege also looks at how the Democrats operate. I figure there are two basic groups of Democrats. There are the accountability Democrats who want to hold Republicans and other officials accountable. And there are the accommodating Democrats who just try to want to make things work the best they can and not push too hard.

We saw that same breakdown in that period. There were Democrats like Senator Church, for instance, who said it's really wrong to have someone who was head of the Republican Party -- a political figure like that -- become head of the CIA, which is supposed to, in its analysis, be very objective and non-partisan. It also has to do very sensitive operations for the executive branch, and those two should not be politicized. So there were Democrats who raised these objections, and they turned out to be very much prescient.

Even though Bush got in as CIA Director and was confirmed by the Senate, he did operate in a very political way. One of his most significant acts was to allow a group called Team B into the analytical division. And Team B was made up of conservative activists, including Paul Wolfowitz, who resurfaces later.

These folks wanted to make it appear that the Soviet Union was on the rise, that it was the emerging super power, and it was eclipsing the United States. Therefore there had to be a major response to that by the United States with a military buildup, more aggressive policies in Third World conflicts, et cetera. However, that was not the CIA's position.

The CIA analysts had done a pretty good job historically in terms of telling the truth, even if it was information that presidents didn't want to hear. They were saying that the Soviet Union was struggling -- that it was not this grand emerging power that the conservatives wanted to make it. It set up a key battle line between the analysts at the CIA and these ideological figures who wanted to use the CIA's analytical division for political purposes. Bush allowed that to happen.

In September of '76 when the Chilean government sponsored the worst terrorist attack at that time on U.S. soil -- the bombing murder of a dissident Chilean, Orlando Letelier, and an American co-worker, Ronni Moffitt -- Bush basically covered up the evidence that existed in the CIA that this was an operation carried out by the Chilean Secret Service. If that had come out at the time -- in September-October of 1976 -- it would have been a huge embarrassment to the Ford administration and would have likely caused Ford to lose votes. As it turned it, Ford almost overcame a very big lead that Jimmy Carter had had, but still lost in a fairly close election.

So at that point, Bush goes out of office. But the point is well taken that having a former RNC chairman running the CIA set up a precedent of politicizing the agency. Later, when Bush and Reagan come back in 1981, with Casey as CIA Director -- Casey was, of course, Reagan’s campaign manager -- the politicization of the CIA goes even further.

And we see this remarkable behind-the-scenes story of how the CIA analytical division was essentially broken in the early 1980s. They were forced to accept this bogus notion that the Soviet Union was an ascendant power. They were pressured to accept that the Soviet Union was supposedly behind all acts of terrorism, which they didn’t agree with, but that was sort of shoved down their throats, too. And this propaganda that was now being generated by the CIA was then very useful to the Reagan administration for its policies, both its military buildup and for supporting military operations in Central America, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But what the American people got was essentially a propagandized analysis out of the CIA. Since they were not getting objective information, the entire process was being routed with essentially exaggerated or false information. And that trend, which was never corrected, continues to this day and is an important fact to understand when trying to figure out how the CIA did so badly when it was being pressured again in the early part of the Bush administration to pretend that Iraq was some huge looming threat, far bigger than it was. The agency had already done the same thing back in the 1980s in exaggerating a Soviet threat.

BuzzFlash: You stated that in order to understand the two Bush family administrations, we have to understand the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s resignation, and also the Vietnam catastrophe. What would you say are the most important things to know about these events that contributed to the Republican and right-wing takeover of American politics? Many forces on the right saw these losses as an opportunity to build a right-wing infrastructure. At first it was meant as more of a defensive strategy -- to build think tanks, alternative media, public relations specialists, pressure groups -- to not let the fallout of Watergate continue. But eventually it would lead to a coordinated and sophisticated machine that could go on the attack.

Robert Parry: If you go back to the Watergate period, and the period right after the Vietnam War, you had a very demoralized Republican Party. And you had an essentially shattered conservative movement. They had lost not just the White House; they were the minority in the House and the Senate. They’d lost a lot of seats in the '74 election in particular. They’d been faced with a popular movement there that they could not really deal with, and they felt it undercut them. They felt that the press was hostile to them. But they decided the world they saw was a very weak environment.

Now what they did about it is very important. They started building in their own institutions. A person who was the Treasury secretary under Nixon, William Simon, plays an important role here. He starts pulling together these conservative and right-wing foundations, and they begin making strategic investments in media, in think tanks, in attack groups. They build effectively their own establishment in Washington and make it heavily focused in Washington, which is their key point.

So they begin to counteract very aggressively what they see as this hostile situation. It starts relatively modestly by some standards. It's in the tens of millions of dollars, but then it accelerates. After the Reagan-Bush victory in 1980, the Executive Branch gets behind this effort.

There is coordination that we find in documents that came out -- especially during Iran Contra hearings -- about the role of the Reagan-Bush White House in helping to build this infrastructure. So you had this development of this counter-establishment that has more and more magazines, more and more commentators and supporters, larger and larger think tanks. And suddenly Washington begins to react to it. And reporters who try or tried to do their jobs in disclosing some of the negative information that existed about the Reagan-Bush operation -- those reporters find themselves under heavy pressure.

And I think traditionally newspapers and news organizations have been more Republican-oriented than Democrat. Historically, far more publishers endorse Republican candidates than Democratic.

But this got darker and more difficult for reporters to deal with. There was also an effort to do what'’s called "perception management" which is a concept that really comes out of the Central Intelligence Agency, that is then applied increasingly to the domestic political operations in the United States.

Because of the Vietnam demonstrations, and the opposition to the war generally, the conservatives came to see the American people as the strategic threat. Their response to that was to develop these mediums to do what they called perception management. They felt that if they could control how the American people perceived events, especially overseas, then they could keep the American people in line in supporting the policies that the Reagan-Bush Administration wanted to carry out.

So in other words, if the right-wing could make the American people really angry about the Nicaraguan Sandinista government, then that would help build support for the contra operations to attack and undermine it. If the White House could minimize or contain the information about atrocities being committed in El Salvador and Guatemala by security forces, then again the Reagan Administration would have a freer hand in sending weapons to those security forces that are carrying out these mass blood baths.

So the idea was, if you could control how Americans perceived events, and use essentially CIA tactics to do it, then you could make these policies work.

There was a combining of these different factors. There was a growing infrastructure that was essentially a conservative echo chamber. There was an ability to beat down reporters or other people who were coming up with information that said otherwise. There were these new strategies for putting in place propaganda to manage the perceptions of the American people. And that’s what evolved in the 1980s. And sadly, it was remarkably effective.

BuzzFlash: Let’s skip ahead a little bit. When President Clinton took office in 1993, you listed four major scandals and high crimes that Clinton could have and should have pursued against the Bush Sr. Administration as new evidence surfaced. They included the October Surprise, the Iran-Contra Affair, Iraqgate, and Passportgate. The decision by Clinton to not pursue legitimate, important national security scandals and crimes had enormous consequences to the Clinton presidency and to international affairs. Explain what those four scandals were, and how the right wing, instead of being put on the defensive for those crimes and scandals, turned into attack mode and went on the offensive against Clinton.

Robert Parry: During the '80s and into the early '90s, the Republican conservative machine was largely built for defensive reasons. It was to prevent another Watergate. It was to protect Ronald Reagan and, to a degree, George H.W. Bush. And despite all the efforts that they had made, there were still scandals that managed to break out.

It was hard to get them out. I was involved as a reporter, as you know, in Iran-Contra. The Associated Press, where I was working at the time, came under a lot of pressure not to run my stories. But we got a lot of stories out including the first story on the operations -- the first stories about some of the contra units being caught up with drug traffickers. These were stories that were not welcomed at the White House. And when the Iran-Contra scandal finally broke in the fall of '86, there were efforts immediately to contain the damage -- to essentially shift the blame to relatively low-level people like Colonel Oliver North or even John Poindexter, the National Security Advisor. Again, all of this to protect Reagan and Bush, from evidence that they were directly involved in many of the key points of these scandals.

BuzzFlash: Would you say at all costs?

Robert Parry: All costs -- it was a huge priority. We now know, based on the work later that Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh conducted, that there was a major cover-up put into place -- a criminal cover-up. Meanwhile, there also were elements of the news media that didn’t want to pursue this because it was too complicated, and because they discounted it in the first place.

Later when I moved over to Newsweek -- which is owned by the Washington Post-Company and had been involved in investigating the Watergate scandal -- Katherine Graham, the late owner and publisher of the Post, did not really want another Watergate on her hands. There was not really the stomach in some of these institutions to go through that again.

These combined factors lead to a willingness to accept a lesser version of the story. And the Democrats -- the accommodation Democrats -- decided that they would simply agree that Oliver North did it, Reagan was just inattentive, and Bush really wasn’t involved. They kind of bought the cover story. And that cover story basically held for quite a while, until Lawrence Walsh was able to break through and find out that there had been this major cover-up, which doesn’t occur really until 1991 or so.

Another scandal breaking out in 1991 after the Persian Gulf War was known as Iraqgate. And Iraqgate was in a sense the opposite side of the coin from Iran-Contra because, while one part of the Reagan Administration was helping the Iranians in the mid-'80s, another part was helping the Iraqis, who were at war with the Iranians. Essentially the United States was playing both sides in providing sophisticated equipment, including material that could be used for weapons of mass destruction, to Saddam Hussein. Now this was also an embarrassing set of facts that George H.W. Bush did not want to have out. He had been calling Saddam Hussein worse than Hitler at that point. And so the idea that he had been secretly involved in a program in the 1980s to assist Saddam Hussein was information that they wanted to keep under board.

During that same time, I was asked by "Frontline" to look at these tangled allegations that had existed for a while over arming Saddam Hussein. While doing research, evidence and leads were uncovered that suggested more damning information about the October surprise. The October Surprise was whether or not back in 1980, the Republicans had secretly made contact with the Iranians behind Jimmy Carter’s back to delay the release of the 52 Americans held hostage until after the election. It was a major issue in the 1980 campaign. The question was, did the Republicans, in any way, obstruct Carter’s negotiations to get the hostages out?

You also had, in the 1992 campaign, another scandal, which was directly involving George H.W. Bush -- it became known as Passportgate. Going into the fall of 1992, with Bill Clinton ahead, George H.W. Bush was rather desperate. They were looking for what they called a silver bullet to take out Bill Clinton. The outgrowth of this pressure was to search Bill Clinton’s passport file to see if there had been some possible letter denouncing his citizenship. That was the rumor. There was no such letter, but they found a tear in the corner of the passport file. And from that, the Bush Administration formulated a criminal referral to the FBI and then leaked it. The Senior Bush began using that to raise suggestions that he was unpatriotic. And Clinton’s numbers started to fall. It was a very effective dirty trick.

But there were Democrats who were checking into this, and they were able to find out how flimsy the case was. And they sort of spun it back on the Republicans. The FBI looked at this, too, and said this is ridiculous. There is no case here. And they rejected their criminal referral. So it became a sort of a scandal that bounced back on the Bush campaign in 1992, and led to the appointment of a Special Prosecutor.

But after Clinton won in 1992, he and other winning Democrats basically decided to not help or shelve those investigations. At that point, we forget that Lawrence Walsh, the Independent Counsel who was a Republican, wanted to pursue George H.W. Bush because he had found out that George H.W. Bush had been withholding documents that had been long requested for the investigation. Bush also refused to submit to a second interview, which Walsh had postponed until after the '92 election, so Bush would not be distracted. But then after Bush got voted out, he issued pardons for six of the Iran-Contra defendants, which effectively crippled Walsh’s investigation.

Bush was allowed essentially to walk off into the sunset with his reputation intact-- when there was a potential from all four of these investigations to have implicated the Senior Bush in misconduct -- his alleged involvement in the October surprise, his involvement in Iran-Contra, his involvement in Iraqgate, and his involvement in the Passportgate affair. But Clinton and other Democrats felt that it was important to try not to stir things up, to see if they could work with the Republicans cooperatively and with the new Administration coming in. It turned out to be a gross misunderstanding of the situation.

BuzzFlash: You broke many of the Iran contra stories as a reporter for AP and then later Newsweek. And it must have been surreal for you to hear Vice President Dick Cheney state in the recent Vice Presidential debate that El Salvador was a model of how U.S. policy can bring democracy to another country. And of course, that policy included funding and supporting death squads, not only in El Salvador but also other Latin American countries. So as someone who fought to print those stories while it was happening back in the '80s, what was your response to what amounted to a throw-away comment by Cheney?

Robert Parry: Well, the real problem here is that we have essentially a false history that has been created for the American people. And it's somewhat a reassuring history, but it's not real. It's a history that has the United States seem like it was always doing the right thing during this era. It has whitewashed the very bloody, horrible experiences that people in Central America went through. It has tried to justify everything by supposedly winning the Cold War. The reality was that the Soviet Union was heading toward collapse according to folks inside the CIA, which I think is now historically proven.

But we had this false history created. And it's very difficult to go back and correct it. The press corps didn't want to take on that responsibility. Many popular historians, as we saw after Reagan's death this past June, ended up just wanting to go with the flow of sentiment, not trying to ask the hard questions or point out the hard facts.

So the outcome of this is that people like Dick Cheney can cite events that really didn't happen. I was down there with him at that time in '82 during the El Salvador election, and I don't recall any attacks on polling places which he suggested. And the bigger picture was that there were 75,000 people, as you said, who were killed. But they were killed overwhelmingly by government security forces who dragged people out of their houses and murdered them. And in Guatemala, there were 200,000 people who were killed. And when a truth commission investigated the Guatemalan case in the late '90s, it was concluded that a genocide had occurred against the Indian populations in the highlands. This was all covered up in the 1980s. And as a nation, we have not wanted to go back and look at the American role in this in any serious way.

So I think the problem is, and what Secrecy & Privilege tries to address, is to tell a different and more honest -- I hope as honest as possible -- version of the history that actually happened. The false history that we are forced to deal with has contributed to a weakened democratic system. ( )
  addict | Nov 11, 2006 |
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Describes the rise to power of George Bush and his son George W. Bush, and their impact on American history and politics.
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