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Morning Report 4/19/05 Bolton: Reagan’s Personal Stonewall Hero


In the ’80s, few were better at getting in the public’s way

State Dept.


Ill-will ambassador: John R. Bolton


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.”

Just like any number of tinpot dictators the current neocon regime cuddles up to, like Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea.

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:

In a letter to [Marcos critic congressman Stephen] Solarz, Assistant Attorney General John Bolton said immediate release of the papers could hurt “both existing federal criminal investigations and any future investigations which may develop from information contained in the documents.”

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:

Mr. Rehnquist attempted to keep his hospitalization secret in 1982 and has refused to discuss it since then, taking the position that his health isn’t a matter of public interest.

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 confirmation hearing on William Rehnquist’s nomination as chief justice of the Supreme Court took an unusual twist when President Reagan invoked executive privilege to prevent Democratic senators from reviewing memos the nominee wrote while working at the Justice Department during the Nixon administration.

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:

Bolton stressed that the claim covered only highly confidential internal memorandums by Rehnquist at a time when he was acting virtually as President Nixon’s lawyer.

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”:

Kennedy said the memos were critical because they were written “on the eve of Watergate” and could reveal Rehnquist’s thoughts on key civil rights questions.

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”:

The reason they’re so excited about fishing is they really don’t have anything to stop the nominee.

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:

In a letter to the committee on the decision, Assistant Attorney General John Bolton said the department won’t take action because of the “absence of any evidence of venality” and because “administrative action” is available. Rep. William Ford (D., Mich.), the committee’s chairman, said he will ask the department to explain those references.

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:

Mr. McKean also figured in a controversy surrounding Attorney General Edwin Meese. Mr. McKean, a San Francisco accountant, arranged a $40,000 loan for Mr. Meese, who later supported him for the Postal Service appointment. Mr. McKean also arranged a $60,000 loan to the wife of former White House aide Michael Deaver.

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:

House and Senate investigators have been blocked by independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh from obtaining Justice Department records on the delay last fall of an FBI inquiry into arms shipments to Nicaraguan contras.

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:

[O]n Feb. 25, Assistant Attorney General John R. Bolton informed the House select committee in a six-page letter of the Justice Department’s inability to supply a wide range of requested records.

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:

President Reagan can order the independent counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, to provide Lt. Col. Oliver L. North with immunity in his investigation of the Iran-contra affair and can fire Walsh if he refuses to do so, a Justice Department official told Congress in a letter . . . .

And who was that Justice Department official? Here’s more from the Globe story:

In answering a hypothetical question, Assistant Attorney General John R. Bolton stated that by refusing to follow Reagan’s directions on providing full immunity to North, Walsh could be liable for dismissal under the independent counsel law, which calls for such removals for “good cause.”

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:

Question: When does a nominee to a position requiring Senate confirmation not have to submit to the confirmation process?

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:

While there is some precedent for leap-frogging the confirmation process, Senate sources said some committee members—particularly ranking Republican Strom Thurmond (S.C.)—were miffed to have learned of the planned appointment in the press rather than receiving a courtesy call from the Justice Department to clear the move.

Thurmond was miffed? Maybe Bolton really is the right choice for the U.N. job.

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