Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Secretary of State recalls Iran-Contra nightmare

Constitutional crisis could have been averted and should be avoided at all costs says an experienced cabinet player turned distinguished academic

Palo Alto – From the heights of Stanford's Hoover Institute, with 40 years of hindsight at his disposal, George P. Shultz penned a chapter in his personal memoir in yesterday's “Wall Street Journal.”

A careful reading offers a rare glimpse into the political fallout that rocked the world of both career diplomats and political appointees in the Reagan White House.

With a headline that reads “The Constitution doesn't mention czars,” the piece begins just as quietly as Mr. Shultz served the nation as an appointee to the Nixon cabinet as Secretary of Labor and the Treasury and throughout his days as the Reaganaut Secretary of State.

When the narration slams into the reality of how a once orderly executive system coordinated by a chief of staff and cabinet secretaries turned into a free-for-all government by committee spectacle over the Iran-Contra scandal/affair/and-or-revelation-written-in-holy-electronic fire, events begin to move very quickly – in the wrong direction.

The gist is simple enough. Col. Oliver North and Company got in a heap of trouble and didn't bother to break it gently to the folks at Foggy Bottom.

They, too, learned all about it the way the rest of us did – by watching TV.

Problem: it's their constitutional duty as presidential appointees to handle the things Col. Oliver North and Adm. John Poindexter accomplished via back channels and a triangle trade of gungs, drugs and airplane parts that resembled Milo Minderbinder's legendary Catch 22 transactions of questionable legality and veracity.

Imagine the headaches all this must have caused a former Dean of the University of Chicago School of Business, to put out fires and then see new ones flare up in other areas on a daily basis while Congressmen sat and asked the tough questions and millions watched through the unblinking eye of the camera.

He's here to tell us about it.

Here's a sample: “In national security and foreign policy, the National Security Council (NSC) was established after World War II by the National Security Act of 1947. As late as 1961, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the NSC was supported by a small staff headed by an executive secretary with a 'passion for anonymity' and limited to a coordinating role. In subsequent administrations, that passion disappeared and staff members took on operational duties that formerly were the responsibility of constitutionally confirmed cabinet officials. This aggrandizement of the staff function then spread into fields far beyond national security.”

So far, so good; but, hang on to your hat. Don't get too comfortable. This is a man who once ran Bechtel International. He knows how to chew that behind, but good.

Now hear this.

To take on an appointment to fulfill that all-important constitutional responsibility, Mr. Schultz points out, one must fill out lengthy questionnaires regarding personal matters that really aren't anyone else's business. It's all about who you know and what they think about what'sit and who dat and this that and the other.

Beyond IRS and FBI records, asks Mr. Shultz, what's the point?

Control, he maintains. Got to be about the control.

Congressional committees don't get in any hurry to confirm appointments. Consequently, qualified people don't get all that interested in taking on those jobs. One key consequence is that if one is found making a mistake in his answers, he is subject to criminal prosecution, the federal kind that doesn't go away overnight and doesn't get handled with deferred adjudication or early parole or any of that frou frou stuff. We're talking hard time, here.

“These long delays make for great difficulty in assembling an administration, particularly in its crucial first year. The result has been appointment of people to the White House staff with de facto decision-making power over all the major areas of government. This practice also extends to foreign affairs, as a variety of special envoys and 'special representatives' are appointed often with ambiguity about whether they report directly to the president or to the secretary of state...Beyond constitutional questions, such White House advisers, counselors, staffers and czars are not accountable. They cannot be called to testify under oath, and when Congress asks them to come, they typically plead executive privilege.”

Here's the real burr under his saddle: “As secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, I experienced this with great pain when White House people developed and ran an off-the-books program of arms sales to Iran. It erupted in the Iran-Contra scandal involving the unconstitutional transfer of funds not appropriated by Congress to the Contras, and with close to devastating consequences for the president.”

Uh oh. This guy knows how to meet a payroll and he knows when it gets painful to sign the checks, you make some adjustments.

What, after all, did the Iran-Contra scam accomplish? They say it stopped communism far, far south of the Mexican border, that it stabilized a troubled region, etc. But, then, they also say it's classified, you know.

“The CIA. You don't know. You don't want to know.”

Uh, yeah. You're right. That's why it's a secret, over here.

“What must be done?”

Put the people with the constitutional responsibility back in the loop, says Mr. Shultz.

“With the help of staff coordinators in the White House, cabinet members might convene by themselves and then with the president. This would involve the departments and, at the same time, ensure that a presidential, rather than a departmental, point of view would prevail. Policy execution would be improved, as would support for legislative initiatives.”

Talk about ceramics in the dialect of high glaze. But, then, I always liked the guy's style. I think Mr. George P. Shultz is on to something, here. If it's not in the constitution, what's it doing on television, especially when the people who have the constitutional responsibility to handle the situation haven't been given a chance to sign off on the plans that went awry long before they were put in place?

“¿Quien sabe?,” as they say south of the Mexican border.

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