Sep
01
1988

George Bush: The Teflon Candidate

George H.W. Bush

George H.W. Bush: 1988 campaign coverage glossed over the most controversial episodes in his past.

As the media dominate the presidential campaign, the pattern of 1980 and 1984 seems to be repeating itself. Instead of analyzing and exposing George Bush’s tarnished record, the US press has coated the vice president with the same teflon which protected Ronald Reagan for the past eight years.

This is especially true with respect to the most controversial episodes in Bush’s generally bland past: his one-year stint as CIA director in 1976, and what was as described by a White House memo as his "solid” support for the secret 1986 arms shipments to Iran (New York Times, 12/18/87). According to a survey by the Conference on Issues and Media, the Iran arms fiasco got major coverage during the primaries--more than 74 minutes on CBS, NBC and ABC during the first three months of this year--but has generated only 5.2 minutes of news time since (Marin Independent Journal, 9/6/88). The New York Times, which called Iran/Contra a “political crime” in an editorial (2/9/87), ran stories about Bush and Iran on 18 days in January, three days in February and March, and four in April of this year. In May and June, after Bush had emerged as the certain GOP candidate, there were no more such stories; the teflonizing had begun.

Bob Woodward, regarded as one of the media’s top CIA watchers, has helped to polish Bush’s image in a six-part series in the Washington Post (8/7-12/88). Woodward and co-author Walter Pincus discussed Bush’s role as a team-player and problem-solver during his year as CIA chief, emphasizing how he restored "agency morale” while “rebuilding agency credibility" after the Watergate scandal.

Even Bush’s controversial appointment of an outside “B-Team," which challenged more moderate estimates of Soviet military capability and intentions by career ClA analysts (the A-Team), is cited in the Post (8/10/88) as in example of Bush’s ability to reconcile different factions by tiptoeing “successfully through the minefield.” Woodward and Pincus suggest that “the B-Team conclusions hid no real impact on the final strategic assessment sent to the White House.” In fact, the B-Team assessment, which appeared to many to be more ideological than empirical, was a major factor in the long-term decisions reached under Carter and implemented by the Reagan administration that resulted in a doubling of the US military budget.

Orlando Letelier (cc photo: Museo de la Memoria/Wikimedia)

Orlando Letelier: As CIA chief, George Bush Sr. helped protect his murderers. (cc photo: Museo de la Memoria/Wikimedia)

Ironically, in 1977, after Bush was replaced by Stansfield Turner as director of Central Intelligence, CIA sources gave Woodward information on some Bush-era CIA scandals about which Woodward is now conspicuously silent. One of these involved the terrorist group CORU, composed of anti-Castro Cubans who previously worked for the CIA. CORU was involved in the September 1976 assassination of former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier in Washington (on behalf of DINA, the Chilean secret service), and the mid-air bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner that killed 73 people a few days later. The CIA and FBI received early reports from CORU informants about both terrorist plots, yet took no steps to forestall them or warn the intended victims. According to Mother Jones (10/88), several reports about right-wing Cuban terror schemes had been sent directly to Bush prior to these attacks.

The first major book on the Letelier case (John Dinges and Saul Landau, Assassination on Embassy Row) noted how the CIA under Bush had withheld vital information about the chief assassin, GINA agent Michael Townley (a former CIA contact), and instead planted stories in the US press “saying the CIA had concluded that DINA had nothing to do with the Letelier assassination.... Bush was reported to have personally informed Secretary of State Kissinger of his conclusions about DINA’s innocence.” One newspaper which reported Bush’s false assurances at the time--with attribution to “informed sources”--was the Washington Post (11/1/76).

The principal suspect in the Cuban airline bombing, Luis Posada Carriles, escaped from prison in 1985 and shortly thereafter was hidden from public view at Ilopango airbase in El Salvador, where he played a key role in illegal Contra resupply operations. While based at Ilopango, Posada worked under his ex-CIA Cuban colleague Felix Rodriguez, who reported directly during this period to Donald Gregg, George Bush’s national security assistant. Of the 10 men present at the original CORU meeting wherein the Letelier murder and Cuban bombing were planned, at least four (including Posada) have been linked by various press accounts and official probes to the Contra resupply effort (Wall Street Journal, 1/16/87; Senate Subcommittee Staff Report, “Private Assistance” and the Contras, 10/14/86).

The US media have not made much of the lies which emanated from the vice president’s office concerning Bush’s role in the Contra supply operation. The Washington Post series (8/12/88) observes that Bush’s original denial that Felix Rodriguez was reporting to him from Ilopango “was misleading,” and that “a memo for Bush written in May [1986] noted that Rodriguez had come to brief Bush on the Contra resupply effort.” But the Post neglects to point out that discrepancies in sworn testimony about this memo from members of Bush’s office are so flagrant as to constitute grounds for perjury.

Skirting Bush’s involvement in the Iran/Contra affair, the same Post story merely notes that “questions were raised about the role played by his national security adviser, Donald P. Gregg,” and asks “whether Bush would be willing to face up to the errors of his subordinates if he were in the White House.” Bush’s support for the secret arms shipments to Iran--the major foreign policy disaster of the Reagan administration—is not even mentioned. The article merely suggests that because Bush “instinctively defends those involved with intelligence and covert action,” he “failed to see the pitfalls of dealing with Iran.”

But Bush’s “solid” support for the secret arms shipments to Iran was more active and more motivated than the media have thus far acknowledged. Bush’s most controversial policy initiative in early 1986 was to stabilize crude oil prices, then rapidly falling, by promoting a common price policy between the US and the oil producers of the Persian Gulf, above all Iran and Saudi Arabia. Higher oil prices were an explicit goal in some of Oliver North’s secret arms negotiations with the Iranians. It reflected the concerns of Bush, a former Texas oilman, rather than of Reagan, a believer in free-market pricing.

As the Report of the Iran/Contra Select Committee points out (R 229), secretaries Shultz and Weinberger were deliberately kept in the dark about the trip of McFarlane and North to Teheran in May 1986; Bush not only knew of the trip, he apparently helped plan it. In a little-noticed message of April 4, 1986, Poindexter told North, “If we can manage it, the VP would appreciate if the Iran trip did not take place until the VP leaves Saudi Arabia” (Poindexter Deposition Exhibit 30).

The note coincided with a secret visit to Washington by the Iranian middleman Ghorbanifar on April 3—4 to meet with North and three CIA officials about the forthcoming Teheran trip. A report and timetable prepared by North during this period projected that McFarlane and his team would be in Teheran April 19. But Bush’s tactful request was honored; McFarlane and North delayed their visit to Teheran until May 25—28.

The purpose of Bush’s mission to Saudi Arabia was to convince the leaders of that country to support stabilized oil prices, which had plummeted to less than $10 a barrel. Iran at OPEC had pressed for higher prices, but Saudi Arabia had balked (New York Times, 4/3/85; Wall Street Journal, 4/7/86). Bush’s efforts bore fruit months later when Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed at an autumn OPEC meeting to boost prices to $18 a barrel--a price which brought economic relief to oil-producing states like Texas, a key political base for Bush.

In addition to ignoring the oil issue, the US media have been silent about the collaboration between Bush and North in two related areas: “crisis management” and “counter-terrorism.” Under the rubric of crisis management--for which Bush was responsible under National Security Decision Directive 3 of 1981--North helped draw up what the Miami Herald (7/5/87) described as “a controversial plan to suspend the Constitution in the event of national crisis” such as “widespread internal dissent or national opposition to a US military invasion abroad.” Former Attorney General William French Smith disclosed that such a plan had been proposed in 1984, but his opposition killed it (Miami Herald, 7/19/87).

Oliver North

Oliver North worked out a plan to round up dissident aliens on the recommendation of Bush's task force.

But the Reagan administration implemented at least one element of the plan in 1986, laying the groundwork for the possible round-up of thousands of dissident aliens. Leaked secret documents from the Alien Border Control Committee reveal that the alien round-up scheme was the result of “specific recommendations by the [1985] Vice President’s Task Force on Terrorism,” whose NSC staff contact was Oliver North.

In 1986, Bush’s Task Force appointed North to oversee a new Office to Combat Terrorism (staffed by two veterans of the Task Force). One of North’s assistants testified that he devoted much of his time to Iran, while the other “knew everything...about Democracy Incorporated” (the illegal Contra support operation). In the name of combating terrorism, this office also coordinated the domestic propaganda activities of Carl “Spitz” Channell and Richard Miller (which included targeting of congressional opponents of Contra aid), the closing off of potentially embarrassing investigations by other government agencies, and the handling of wealthy right-wing donors who contributed money to buy illegal arms for the Contras (for which Channell and Miller eventually plead guilty).

In the wake of the Iran/Contra revelations, Reagan asked Bush and the Task Force “to review our policy for combating terrorism and to evaluate the effectiveness of our current program” (New York Times, 3/5/87). Bush duly reported that “our current policy as articulated in the Task Force Report is sound, effective and fully in accord with our democratic principles and national ideals of freedom” (Bush press release, 6/2/87). The only mistakes Bush found were those “involved in our contacts with Iran.”

Apparently Bush saw no mistake in using secret counterterrorism powers to evade the law and mount CIA-style covert operations against the administration’s domestic critics.

Peter Dale Scott is co-author of The Iran-Contra Connection (South End Press).

SIDEBAR:
Bush on Nerve Gas Puts Media to Sleep

In booming tones, George Bush declared in his Republican convention acceptance speech: “I will ban chemical and biological weapons from the face of the Earth.” As the LA Weekly’s Marc Cooper noted, not one TV correspondent or anchorperson at the convention bothered to mention that Bush’s tie—breaking votes in the Senate in 1983 allowed a renewal and escalation of US chemical-weapons production. In 1986, Bush cast a tie-breaking vote in support of the Big Eye (nerve gas) bomb.

--FAIR