Friday, February 3, 2012

Eric Holder, The First African-American Nixon

The important thing to remember about Watergate – other than the notorious cover-up, the stonewalling, the raft of lies told to the media, the imperious claims of “executive privilege” – is that nobody died there.

Some of the principal presidential miscreants responsible for Watergate were rounded up, paraded before various congressional committees and suitably harassed by the media. Some of them sang to avoid a term in jail, others went to the hoosegow. A grand jury indicted the “Watergate Seven” – President Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Attorney General John Mitchell, Charles Colson, Gordon C. Strachan, Robert Mardian and Kenneth Parkinson -- in March of 1974, and Mr. Nixon was secretly named as an unindicted co-conspirator. Mr. Nixon, Time Magazine said, was undergoing “daily Hell and very little trust.”

The fires of Hell were stoked and the trust disappeared altogether when a “smoking gun” tape was produced showing Mr. Nixon approving a plan to cover up a break-in at Democratic headquarters by his own operatives. Mr. Nixon’s own lawyers said of the tape that it “proved that the President had lied to the nation, to his closest aides, and to his own lawyers – for more than two years." Shortly after the tape came to light, a contingent of notable Republicans, Barry Goldwater among them, persuaded the president to resign his office.

The unraveling of Watergate began in 1973 after Chief Minority Counsel Fred Thompson asked White House assistant Alexander Butterfield in front of a live television audience whether he was "aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?" Following Butterfield’s disclosure of the taping system, the tapes were subpoenaed by both the special prosecutor and the U.S. Senate. Claiming executive privilege as President of the United States, Mr. Nixon refused to release them. When the special prosecutor insisted, he was summarily fired. Access to the tapes was decided in July of 1974 by the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that claims of executive privilege were void.

When the curtain was rung down on the Watergate scandal, 69 government officials had been charged and 48 were found guilty. It was a glorious mess that began with a presidential approved plan to bug Democratic Party headquarters and ended with the destruction of a president.

But no one died.

Currently the U.S. Senate is investigating a botched operation in which Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered in December 2010 by persons whose guns were supplied to them courtesy of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The bureau, operating under the auspices of the Justice Department, lost track of more than 1,400 weapons sold to low-level straw purchasers believed to be supplying Mexican drug gangs and other criminals. About half the weapons connected to suspects in the investigation were recovered, some of which were utilized in crime scenes in both Mexico the United States. Terry was murdered in Nogales, Arizona. Mr. Terry’s family has advised the U.S. government that if it does not respond to its inquiries concerning Mr. Terry’s murder, it will face a $25 million lawsuit.

When asked at a Senate hearing whether his assistants, Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler or Assistant Attorney Lanny Breuer, the head of the department's Criminal Division, ever authorized gunwalking or the tactics employed in Fast and Furious, Holder said not to his knowledge: "Not only did I not authorize those tactics, when I found out about them I told the field and everybody in the United States Department of Justice that those tactics had to stop. That they were not acceptable and that gunwalking was to stop. That was what my reaction [was] to my finding out about the use of that technique."

Questioned as to whether he had been forthright in responding to requests of the House Oversight and Government Relations Committee led by Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, Mr. Holder assured the committed, "There's no attempt at any kind of cover-up. We're not going to be hiding behind any kind of privileges or anything.”

At the same time, Mr. Holder pointedly refused in written testimony before the investigating committee to produce “additional deliberative materials about the response to congressional oversight or media requests that postdate the commencement of congressional review.”

And his rational for refusing to disclose information demanded by Congress is that such disclosure would “chill” relations between the executive and legislative branches “if our internal communications concerning our responses to congressional oversight were disclosed to Congress” and perhaps violate “the constitutionally-protected separation of powers.”

Mr. Holder’s written statement might easily have been composed by some legal functionary in the Nixon administration prior to the disclosure of the “smoking gun” tape:

“As I testified in a previous hearing, the Department does not intend to produce additional deliberative materials about the response to congressional oversight or media requests that postdate the commencement of congressional review. This decision is consistent with the long-standing approach taken by the Department, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and reflects concerns for the constitutionally-protected separation of powers.

“Prior administrations have recognized that robust internal communications would be chilled, and the Executive Branch’s ability to respond to oversight requests thereby impeded, if our internal communications concerning our responses to congressional oversight were disclosed to Congress. For both Branches, this would be an undesirable outcome. The appropriate functioning of the separation of powers requires that Executive Branch officials have the ability to communicate confidentially as they discuss how to respond to inquiries from Congress. I want to note that the separation of powers concerns are particularly acute here, because the Committee has sought information about open criminal investigations and prosecutions. This has required Department officials to confer about how to accommodate congressional oversight interests while also ensuring that critical ongoing law enforcement decision-making is not compromised, and is free from even the appearance of political influence. Such candid internal deliberations are necessary to preserve the independence, integrity, and effectiveness of the Department’s law enforcement activities and would be chilled by disclosure to Congress of such materials. Just as we have worked to accommodate the Committee’s legitimate oversight needs, I trust that the Committee will equally recognize the Executive Branch’s constitutional interests and will work with us to avoid further conflict on this matter.”
The Senate investigating committee has pledged to press on. What the committee may need is a Watergate “deep throat,” a more courageous and steadfast news media, and perhaps a little assistance from ethically upright Democratic U.S. Senators such as newly installed Senator Richard Blumenthal who, as Attorney general of Connecticut, had been intolerant of law breakers, constitutional scoffers and morally disoriented politicians.

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