Is the fix in?

September 10, 1993|By William SafireWilliam Safire

GEORGE Bush privately assured Bill Clinton that he would not criticize the new president during the first year of his term. I cannot attribute that to any source, but trust me. And Mr. Bush has kept his word.

But in what may be an unspoken quid pro quo, the Clinton administration has moved to quash any revelations about Mr. Bush's Iraqgate scandal.

You remember Iraqgate: the White House corruption of Agriculture's loan guarantee program to slip foreign aid billions through an Italian bank to Saddam Hussein, which he used to finance his secret nuclear buildup. The Bush Justice Department sought to contain the scandal by pretending the Italian bank knew nothing of its Atlanta office's huge Iraqi dealings -- despite suppressed CIA evidence to the contrary.

During the '92 campaign, Al Gore accurately charged that "the CIA reported to Secretary of State James Baker . . . that Iraq was clandestinely New administration, old coverup

procuring nuclear weapons" while State was urging more loan guarantees to appease the dictator. Candidate Clinton, asked if he would favor a special Iraqgate prosecutor under a new Independent Counsel Act, replied unequivocally: "Yes."

That was then. Last week, in Atlanta federal court, Clinton Justice arranged for the local Banca Lavoro manager to cop a plea on three minor charges of what had been a 347-count indictment, thereby blocking full disclosure of Rome's corrupt involvement -- with guilty knowledge of U.S. officials -- in a public trial.

John Hogan, Attorney General Janet Reno's longtime assistant in Miami, is the prosecutor who insists that the bank in Rome was innocent, over the plea bargainer's continued disputation. Federal Judge Marvin Shoob, the Sirica in this case, rejects Mr. Hogan's contention as "absurd . . . never-never land." He sees a "wider-ranging sophisticated conspiracy that involved BNL-Rome . . . and the governments of the U.S., England, Italy and Iraq."

But Ms. Reno's man, who joined Justice on June 7, has conducted what she falsely calls "a thorough independent investigation," resulting in "no reason to change our opinion."

Thus Clinton appointees at Justice have closed ranks with prosecutors and fixers desperate not to be brought before a grand jury by a truly independent counsel. Bush Justice appointed the lawyer for Saddam's main arms purchaser as U.S. attorney in Atlanta; Clinton Justice is appointing a lawyer from King & Spalding, BNL's law firm, who previously worked on the case as a prosecutor to be U.S. attorney there now.

Ms. Reno is unconcerned at how her assertion of BNL-Rome's innocence bolsters the Italian bank's claim against the U.S. for $380 million of the loans to Saddam that James Baker persuaded Agriculture's Clayton Yeutter to guarantee. If the Criminal Division holds that Rome was victimized, shouldn't the U.S. pay up? "Apples and oranges," Mr. Hogan tells me; that's the Civil Division's job.

Mr. Hogan is familiar with Italian suits, having once been accused of receiving stolen clothing in a Miami "hot suit" case; he earned a straight-arrow reputation by resigning as prosecutor despite his innocence.

But now he uses "ongoing investigation" to duck questions, despite St. Janet's claim of his work having already been "thorough." It is patently not "independent."

Did Mr. Hogan take testimony under oath from ex-Attorney General Dick Thornburgh about a White House meeting with Italian Ambassador Rinaldo Petrignani, directed by Rome to "raise the case to a political level"? Or ask the Criminal Division why an update on the BNL investigation was prepared for the AG just three days before that meeting?

Did he convene a grand jury to examine the Oct. 26, 1989, memo to Mr. Baker, with attached talking points and Baker notations, showing how commodity credits were abused for Saddam's backdoor financing?

Is it not a blatant conflict of interest for him to close out the Atlanta case while purporting to investigate the Atlanta prosecutors on whose work he depended?

St. Janet's man sayeth not. No wonder we hear not a peep of criticism about Mr. Clinton from the former president; he and his men are being well protected. Congress should pass the Independent Counsel Act and demand it be used in this case.

William Safire is a New York Times columnist.

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