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November 1998 - Volume 30 Issue 11


The Other Side of
Henry Hyde

Will he do to Clinton what he did to Peter Galbraith?

by Robert Worth


Photo by Chuck Kennedy
To hear the press tell it, Bill Clinton should be getting down on his knees every morning and thanking God he has Henry Hyde as his judge. Ever since impeachment hearings began to loom last winter, journalists have been gathering verbal bouquets for Hyde, the aging Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. They speak in awed tones of his legendary fairness, his "bipartisan credibility," his "white mane" of hair and his towering physical presence. They coo over his boyhood apprenticeship with the works of Thomas Aquinas, and they cite approvingly his admonition that "politics must be checked at the door" of any impeachment discussion. The Washington Post's Mary McGrory declared in August that Hyde is "the nearest thing to a patriarch that Congress can provide."

Even those who acknowledge the extremism of his politics - he is, after all, the author of the Hyde Amendment, which restricts federal funds for abortions - have tended to brush it off by citing tributes to Hyde's personal charm from such leftish opponents as Rep. Barney Frank and Kate Michelman of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. When Salon magazine revealed Hyde's five-year adulterous affair and Hyde dismissed it as "youthful indiscretion," few pundits made much of the fact that Hyde was in his forties at the time and that the affair destroyed a marriage. Even after Hyde's committee unceremoniously dumped Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony onto the public in September, much of the media continued to blame Newt Gingrich.

Some of this media fawning was forgiveable - after all, everybody yearns to anoint a Wise Man in times of crisis, and Hyde certainly looks the part. But his bipartisan demeanor masks some truths that should make us worry about Clinton's chances for a fair hearing. Just consider the way Hyde behaved two years ago as chairman of a House investigation into U.S. policy toward Bosnia during the Balkan war. The charges were the same as in the Clinton mess - perjury and a coverup. In that case they proved groundless. And instead of giving the accused officials a chance to clear their names, Hyde's committee used its power to smear the administration's foreign policy and to seriously damage the reputations of eight public servants who had done no apparent wrong.

A Democratic Iran-Contra?

Hyde's investigation began in 1996, shortly after the Los Angeles Times broke what seemed like a momentous story: The U.S. ambassador in Croatia, Peter Galbraith, had given a secret "green light" in 1994 to allow arms shipments from Iran to the Bosnian Muslims. Although the Bosnians had long since gained the world's sympathy in their desperate struggle against the brutal and better-armed Serbs, the idea that the U.S. had allowed anyone to receive arms from a terrorist state like Iran, and in direct violation of the U.N. arms embargo on Bosnia, seemed shocking. Some Republican congressmen suggested that the truth was even worse - that U.S. officials might have actually run a covert operation to procure arms from Iran. To Bob Dole and other Republicans running for office later that year, the prospect of a "Democratic Iran-contra" scandal, with Peter Galbraith (son of the liberal establishment's saint, John Kenneth) as its Ollie North, was almost too good to be true. Dole ordered an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the House - after fierce debate and a close vote - appropriated $1 million for its own probe. Henry Hyde, selected by Gingrich to chair the investigation, told reporters that it had been "incredible folly" for the administration to allow Iran, "the most radical nation in the world," to become involved in Bosnia.

These charges, which were disingenuous from the beginning, collapsed under scrutiny. As Hyde and Dole knew very well, the Iranian military presence in Bosnia dated back to 1992, during the Bush administration. And although the green light decision increased it, that increase almost certainly saved the Bosnians. It also laid the groundwork for the Dayton Peace Accords, which mandated the removal of all foreign military forces - including the Iranians - from Bosnia. In short, the green light was a skillful piece of diplomacy, not a scandal. Yet Hyde, through a deft manipulation of public ignorance and journalistic credulity, used the incident to do lasting damage to the administration.

To see how, it's necessary to review the bloody and complex history that led up to the green light scenario. In April 1994 the U.S. had just negotiated an end to a brutal year-long war between the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims. The two groups had a common interest, because both were enemies of the Serbs, the principal aggressors in the larger Balkan war. Still, the Muslims might not have agreed to form a federation with the Croats if their access to the sea (and potential arms supplies) had not been through Croatian territory.

So it was no surprise to Peter Galbraith, the U.S. ambassador in Zagreb, when he received a call from a Croatian official asking him whether the U.S. would object to arms shipments across Croatian territory from Iran and other Islamic nations, in violation of the U.N. embargo. "The alliance was very fragile," Galbraith recalls, "and there were some Croats - including [president Franjo] Tudjman's son, and possibly Tudjman himself, who would have been just as happy to have us say no [to the arms transfers]." That, he says, would have led to more war between the Croats and the Bosnians. Such a war would have been disastrous to the Bosnians, because the Croats felt no scruples about smuggling in their own arms. And a weakened Bosnia would have been more vulnerable to the "ethnic cleansing" campaigns of the Serbs.

Why didn't the U.S. lift the arms embargo, or simply break it so as to arm the Bosnians themselves? That, after all, was what both Clinton and the congressional Republicans wanted to do in 1993-4. One reason was that the Europeans opposed it, and the U.S. (particularly the U.S. military) was reluctant to commit itself alone to what looked like the mother of all quagmires. Also, lifting the embargo could easily have inspired an immediate and ferocious attack by the Serbs, who would have used all their firepower to destroy the Bosnians before the rest of the world could step in to help.

Of course, allowing more Iranian weapons into Bosnia was a real risk; no one wanted to see the mujahedin add their anti-American fury to Bosnia's already murderous stew. But there had been Iranians in Bosnia almost since the beginning of the conflict. To suggest otherwise, as the Republicans did in the spring of 1996, was disingenuous. As Richard Holbrooke wrote in his 1998 memoir of the Bosnian conflict, To End a War, "These [Congressional] investigations were premised on the theory that secret arms shipments to the Bosnians from Iran had begun in 1994, and that the Clinton Administration had somehow acted illegally in not stopping them. It is especially noteworthy, therefore, that the activities in question were already taking place two years earlier, during the Bush administration, with the clear knowledge of the American embassy and U.N. official in Zagreb, and were even mentioned in newspaper stories at the time."

It is true that there is a difference between passively allowing arms transfers to take place and sending a positive signal that one does not object. But "in the middle of a war, you're not picking from good alternatives," recalls Galbraith. "In those years it was almost always the least horrible alternative." In the circumstances, Galbraith made up his mind that turning a blind eye to the Iranian arms transfers was the best course of action. He called Washington to offer his recommendation, and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, deputy NSA Sandy Berger, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, and President Clinton all agreed. Galbraith was told to let Tudjman know that the U.S. had "no instructions" on the arms shipments. In other words, the U.S. would not object.

"It was a judgment call," says Galbraith. "But I haven't regretted it for a single second." Richard Holbrooke, writing in To End A War, agreed, calling it "the correct policy decision" and adding that "the 'covert' support given to the Bosnian Muslims by Islamic nations (including Iran) had helped to keep the Sarajevo government alive at a time when its survival hung by a thread. For the United States to have continued to object to such assistance would in my opinion have been unconscionable."

The green light, in other words, may well have saved the Bosnians from extinction. By allowing them to arm themselves without breaking the embargo, the U.S. had helped to create a balance of power between the warring parties, which in turn made the Dayton peace accords of 1995 possible. And those accords mandated the removal of all foreign military personnel, including the Iranians. Even Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who directed the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation of the green light policy, concluded that "it's all worked out pretty well."

It is true that the Clinton administration showed poor judgment in failing to inform Congress and the CIA about the green light. Galbraith claims he did inform the local CIA station chief, but Washington left the matter unclear, leaving intelligence confused about U.S. policy for a few months.

However, for Hyde to attack the Clinton administration for not informing him and his colleagues was no small act of hypocrisy. During the Iran-Contra controversy in 1987, Hyde was one of the administration's most vehement defenders, arguing tirelessly that though the secret and illegal means used by the administration in its determination to fund the Nicaraguan contras were "wrong and bad and blameworthy," they were justified by the end: "the Nicaraguan resistance survived." In fact, Hyde made his defense of government secrecy a matter of general principle, arguing in a June 1987 Washington Post Op-Ed that it was dangerous to trust "the Hill's loose lips" on matters of national security. "Within Congress at large," Hyde wrote, "there is a widespread and often naive suspicion of both secrecy and covert actions In these circumstances, it is small wonder that the administration has become convinced that controversial programs will be leaked."

Nine years later, one might have supposed that the fair-minded Hyde would have applauded the adminstration's success at arming the Bosnian muslims - something he and Bob Dole had argued for in Congress during the Balkan war - and helping to fashion a peace agreement that successfully pushed almost all the Iranian forces out of Bosnia. After all, Hyde himself had voted for legislation directing the United States to cease enforcing the U.N. arms embargo on Bosnia only six months after the green light decision. In effect, Hyde voted to support the green light policy.

But that didn't stop him from declaring the administration's decision an outrage in 1996, and suggesting (in the Majority's report) that Galbraith and Tony Lake were part of an Ollie North-style weapons pipeline. With no real evidence to go on, Hyde's investigators clutched at straws that would make even a devoted conspiracy theorist frown. They exploited a minor difference between Galbraith's recollections about a meeting and those of his secretary to suggest a conspiracy - despite the fact that his secretary made it clear she didn't remember much, and later wrote a letter to the committee that clarified the discrepancy. The investigators also tried to probe Galbraith's personal meetings with an American woman - even though both were single, and she did not work for the government. "I never understood what my personal life had to do with arms to Bosnia," he recalls.

Ambassador Galbraith found these tactics unpleasant, but he also saw them as an indication that Hyde's witch-hunt was running out of steam and would soon be dropped. Instead, Hyde released a report on October 11, 1996, referring the matter to the Justice Department for possible appointment of an independent counsel. The report described Galbraith as a rogue ambassador who had wanted to funnel arms from Iran and had "no aversion to Islamic fundamentalism." The letter of referral that accompanied the subcommittee's report named Galbraith, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, Tony Lake, and five others for possible counts of perjury, obstruction of Congress, conspiracy, and making false statements to the government.

The accused officials were in shock; they had been given no hearing, no opportunity to defend themselves. Yet Hyde, as usual, insisted that he was only being fair: "This has not been a partisan exercise," he declared in his fluent baritone at the press conference, "it has been conducted discreetly without a three-ring circus atmosphere."

The Democrats on the committee could not have disagreed more. Their report described the allegations as "reckless," "shameful" and "absurd." Most revealing, however, was their response to Hyde's charges that the administration had hidden its crimes from the public. "The Majority asserts that the Administration has manipulated classification rules to hide damaging material [But] it is the Majority that has rushed to release its conclusions even before submitting the report to the Executive Branch for declassification. This tactic has allowed the Majority to make its most inflammatory charges in general and conclusiory terms, while using the classified nature of the underlying material to shield its allegations from close scrutiny."

But Hyde was not done yet. In late December Galbraith and the other accused officials received another rude surprise when the Los Angeles Times published a front-page story implying that Galbraith had indeed taken part in an "illegal covert action" in Bosnia. The article cited "hundreds of pages of classified documents obtained recently by The Times". It failed to acknowledge that those documents were leaks of selected classified portions of the Republican report. There was no indication that there had been a Democratic rebuttal to the charges raised in those classified documents. The FBI later investigated the leak, which included "very sensitive intelligence material whose compromise could have caused harm to American servicemen in Bosnia," according to a Clinton administration official. Although Hyde himself may not have been involved, the documents were almost certainly leaked by members of the subcommittee for which he was responsible.

When I asked a Los Angeles Times writer about this episode, he said: "I can remember laughing" about the paper's credulous acceptance of Hyde's version of the story. "I guess it was an example of journalistic naivete," he added, "Oops..."

Galbraith and the other accused officials are not laughing. Although the Justice Department found no indication of any wrongdoing, the controversy has had a "devastating" effect on some of their careers, one of them said. The lingering impression of a scandal certainly helped to kill Anthony Lake's nomination as CIA director in early 1997. Although such damage is hard to quantify, the other officials' names remain linked to the controversy. And they know who to blame. "Henry Hyde is portrayed as being above politics," said one of them. "That was not my experience."

Will Henry Hyde try to do to Bill Clinton what he did to Peter Galbraith? Who knows - perhaps he will live up to his reputation for fairness this time. But the Democrats, and the press, should watch him carefully. He could be the Republicans' ultimate weapon: an iron fist wrapped in a very civil velvet glove.

~Robert Worth


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