In the ’80s, few were better at getting in the public’s way
Will the Senate Judiciary Committee vote yea or nay on John Bolton today? If it’s yea, then the full Senate will definitely confirm, so today’s expected action will say it all.
Actually, what says it all about Bolton is that he’s a career obstructionist, first on behalf of the Reaganites and now for Bush Jr. He has hopped around in government “service” and inexplicably gained power and clout. Well, maybe not inexplicably. He has often fought Congress and the public to try to keep his bosses’ dealings secret. Following is just a brief glimpse of part of his work during the Reagan Administration:
March 1986: Newsday‘s Rita Ciolli writes that the personal financial documents of former Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos, a big pal of the Reagans who fled the U.S., “reveal a blueprint of his corrupt regime and how the billions of dollars in ill-gotten wealth were hidden in bank accounts and shielded in real estate worldwide.”
The 2,100 pages of Marcos documents, full of juicy info about alleged kickbacks and other chicanery involving U.S. firms and politicians, had been seized by U.S. Customs officials when the royal couple fled the Philippines for Hawaii. Naturally the White House wanted to stop their release. And who was given that task? From the Newsday story:
Sources said Justice officials could have sought a court order to stop the release, but did not want to appear to be protecting the Marcoses.
July 1986: The Senate Judiciary Committee, considering Reagan’s nomination of Supreme Court justice William Rehnquist to be Chief Justice of the United States, tiptoes around the topic of Rehnquist’s past health problems. The Wall Street Journal‘s Stephen Wermiel wrote:
Bolton makes an appearance in another unhealthy aspect of the Rehnquist matter. Typically, Bolton brought his stonewalling equipment with him. The Houston Chronicle explained:
The documents dealt with issues including civil rights, civil liberties, wiretapping and surveillance of radical groups.
Reagan’s decision to claim executive privilege was disclosed in testimony by Assistant Attorney General John Bolton, after Judiciary Committee Democrats objected to the Justice Department’s refusal to provide access to the documents.
Start of digression: Bolton has always been a stonewaller— with a heart to match, judging by the number of people his abrasive manner has pissed off. (See my colleague Jason Vest‘s April 14 piece, “Wanted: Complete Asshole for U.N. Ambassador.”)
It’s not hard to fathom why today’s Democrats have had such a tough time mustering up the goods to stop Bolton’s nomination as U.N. ambassador. It probably has to do with the fact that he spent his so much of his early career as a sleazy government lawyer trying to stonewall the press and public. He was just doing his job. Well, that’s fine; someone has to do it. But that career choice doesn’t qualify him for the important diplomatic post of U.N. ambassador. In fact, it disqualifies him. End of digression.
Let’s go back to ’86, when the Democrats were pissed at Bolton’s stonewalling on behalf of Rehnquist. The Chronicle explained:
From 1969-71, Rehnquist was head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice on critical issues to the attorney general and to the president. At the time, John N. Mitchell was attorney general.
Ted Kennedy, according to the Chronicle, called the Bolton argument “hogwash”:
Yeah, good luck on finding that out. It’s the same charade today as it was back then. Orrin Hatch, at the time a feisty, fairly young senator from Utah, was quoted by the Chronicle as calling the opponents’ quest for documents “a fishing expedition”:
October 1986: The Justice Department, headed by Edwin Meese, decides not to prosecute John McKean, chairman of the Postal Service Board of Governors, who was accused of violating conflict-of-interest laws. John Bolton, variously referred to throughout the year as either a regular assistant A.G. or as the Justice Department’s legislative lobbyist (same difference) explained it away, as this Wall Street Journal excerpt noted:
No chance of that happening. But you’re saying: This seems like a minor deal, right? Wrong. The Journal story noted that McKean’s only comment on the decision was that he “has confidence in the Justice Department process.” The story continued:
In 1983, the GAO and the Office of Government Ethics investigated those loans and Mr. McKean’s relationship to Messrs. Meese and Deaver. As a result of that probe, Mr. Meese corrected what were termed technical problems with his financial disclosure statement.
When the Justice Department reviewed the GAO report, it said there weren’t any criminal violations and further investigation wasn’t warranted.
Bolton was doing the smart thing: trying to stonewall so that no one would have to testify. The Reagan gang often got into deep legal trouble when they had to testify. Deaver, for instance, later got a prison sentence (suspended) for lying to Congress.
March 1987: Playing Post Office is one thing, but Iran-Contra was a grown-up scandal, requiring more sophisticated stonewalling. The Washington Post reported:
The holdup of the Federal Bureau of Investigation probe is one of four cases over which Walsh had assumed jurisdiction by late last week. The Justice Department has referred at least 52 investigations, most involving arms transactions, to Walsh’s office for review since he was appointed by a special three-judge federal court.
Oh, what a sticky mess Iran-Contra was. Bolton was right in the middle of the stonewalling effort, of course. Here’s an excerpt from the Washington Post story back then by George Lardner Jr. and Dan Morgan:
One category that Bolton cited as under Walsh’s control concerned “records relating to the delay of ongoing investigations relating to the contras, and any assistance provided to them, in particular the Southern Air investigations.”
The FBI began an inquiry into Southern Air’s role in ferrying weapons to Iran and to U.S.-backed rebel forces in Nicaragua last Oct. 6, the day after an unmarked C-123 cargo plane financed and serviced by Southern Air was shot down in Nicaragua. The Justice Department asked the FBI on Oct. 30 to delay the inquiry, ostensibly on the grounds that Southern Air was then involved in a “sensitive mission” in the Middle East. The delay continued until Nov. 26.
Walsh declined comment on his stance yesterday, but it has been drawing expressions of dissatisfaction from Capitol Hill, along with growing calls for grants of immunity to key figures in the probe such as former National Security Council aide Oliver L. North.
Check out the Wikipedia page on Iran-Contra for more info and links.
May 1987: By this time, the shit’s hittin’ the fan in Iran-Contra. As the Boston Globe‘s Steve Kurkjian reported:
And who was that Justice Department official? Here’s more from the Globe story:
Also, Bolton said, Reagan could, in effect, provide such immunity to North on his own by granting to his former National Security Council aide a pardon under Reagan’s constitutional powers.
June 1987: Bolton the attack dog. That’s a style we’ve heard about during his confirmation hearings in 2005. It’s not a deal breaker, to my mind. His sleazy actions then and now are. According to a 1987 story by the Washington Post‘s Mary McGrory, Bolton “complained bitterly about Lawrence Walsh’s “lifestyle,” referring to his fancy offices on the public dime.
March 1988: Bolton gets a new job at Justice: head of the Civil Division. He had been the assistant A.G. in charge of congressional liaison.
What’s laughable about that, in light of Bolton’s current battle through Senate confirmation, is that in ’88 Bolton got to escape a confirmation hearing—see, he not only helped stonewall documents and testimony by others and all that, but he also didn’t want to go through the public process himself.
Here’s how the Washington Post‘s Ruth Marcus wryly reported it back then:
Answer: When the nominee has already been confirmed by the Senate.
That bit of confirmation trivia comes courtesy of Attorney General Edwin Meese III’s recent decision to appoint John R. Bolton, now the assistant attorney general in charge of congressional liaison, as head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. Because Bolton is simply trading one assistant attorney generalship for another, he does not have to go through the confirmation process again.
Marcus added this context:
Thurmond was miffed? Maybe Bolton really is the right choice for the U.N. job.