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Context of 'Late August, 2001: Bush Selectively Classifies Portions of Transcripts of Conversations between Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister'

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Dan Burton.Dan Burton. [Source: US House of Representatives]Dan Burton (R-IN), the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, releases edited transcripts of taped White House conversations between then-President Bill Clinton and Israel’s then-prime minister, Ehud Barak (see Late August, 2001). President Bush’s counsel Alberto Gonzales decided to break with decades of tradition in releasing private conversations between a former president and a head of state, and gave Burton the tapes as part of Burton’s investigation into Clinton’s last-minute pardon of Marc Rich, a commodities trader who had fled the US ahead of tax evasion and fraud charges. Burton and other conservatives have charged that Clinton pardoned Rich at the behest of Rich’s wife Denise, a Clinton presidential library contributor, possibly in return for the contributions, or even sexual favors. However, the tapes indicate that one reason Clinton pardoned Rich was a request made by Barak. On December 11, 2000, Barak said to Clinton, “One last remark. There is an American Jewish businessman living in Switzerland and makes a lot of philanthropic contributions to Israeli institutions and activities and education.” Rich had “violated certain rules of the game in the United States,” Barak said, and wanted Clinton to consider pardoning him. Clinton replied, “I know about that case because I know his ex-wife. If your ex-wife wants to help you, that’s good.” Barak asked Clinton again on January 8, 2001, when Clinton called Rich’s case “bizarre” and said, “It’s best that we not say much about that.” In a third conversation, which took place just days before Clinton left office, Clinton said that such a pardon has “almost no precedent in American history,” and told Barak that he was pondering whether or not to allow Rich to return to the US if pardoned. [New York Times, 8/21/2001; Salon, 2/7/2002; Dean, 2004, pp. 85-86] Clinton, angered by the selective editing of the transcripts in an apparent effort to mischaracterize the Rich pardon, will request that all of the relevant portions of the transcripts be released; the White House will refuse and classify the rest of the transcripts (see Late August, 2001).

Entity Tags: House Committee on Government Reform, Bush administration (43), Alberto R. Gonzales, Dan Burton, Ehud Barak, Marc Rich, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Denise Rich

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Marc Rich.Marc Rich. [Source: Huffington Post]Former president Bill Clinton reacts angrily to edited transcripts of private conversations with former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, in which Barak requested that Clinton pardon fugitive American financier Marc Rich (see August 21, 2001 and Early September, 2001). The transcripts were edited and released to the public by House Government Reform Committee chairman Dan Burton (R-IN) as part of his investigation into whether Clinton acted improperly in pardoning Rich. After reading the transcripts, Clinton thinks that Burton has selectively edited them, and giving a false impression of the nature and content of the conversations between himself and Barak. Clinton asks the White House, which had provided Burton with copies of the tapes of the conversations, to release all of the relevant portions of the transcripts, which he says will portray the conversations in a different light. But the White House refuses, saying the remaining portions of the transcripts are now classified. [Dean, 2004, pp. 85-86]
'Hating Bill Clinton' - The classification of the documents is quite sudden. Earlier in the month, a White House spokesperson said that the release of the Clinton-Barak transcripts was nothing more than part of their efforts to make more information available to Congress. “The excerpts were not classified,” the spokesperson said. “The decision to make the documents available was entirely consistent with past practice. You don’t just slap Top Secret on a whole document.” However, some observers dispute this. “Given the secrecy that the Bush-Cheney administration has pursued, it’s inconceivable that they would turn this information over if it affected President Bush,” says Phil Schiliro, the Democratic staff director for the House Government Reform Committee, which is trying in vain to secure information from the White House about the Cheney Energy Task Force. Lynne Weil, the press secretary for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calls the sudden decision to classify the previously unclassified transcripts “highly unusual.” She adds, “People who have worked for the Foreign Relations Committee for years can’t recall the last time such a thing happened.” The National Security Archives’s Tom Blanton welcomed the original disclosure of the conversations, but says it came not from a sudden desire for transparency from the Bush administration, but from a desire to smear Clinton. The Bush administration passionately believes in secrecy, a belief rooted in its collective ideology, says Blanton. When asked why that same ideological concern didn’t extend to the Clinton-Barak transcripts, Blanton replies that the question ignores “a rather more focused version of that ideology that’s about hating Bill Clinton.”
Violation of Procedure - Typically, the Bush administration turns down requests such as Burton’s for private presidential conversations. However, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales decided to turn them over. At that point, Clinton could have attempted to block the release of the transcripts by invoking executive privilege, a move that may have cast him in a poor light politically. But the events as carried out by Burton and the White House—breaking with precedent to release potentially embarrassing transcripts, edit those transcripts to make their contents appear more damning than they actually are, then retroactively classify the remainder of the transcripts—is highly unusual. [Salon, 2/7/2002; Dean, 2004, pp. 85-86]

Entity Tags: Energy Task Force, Ehud Barak, Bush administration (43), Alberto R. Gonzales, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Tom Blanton, National Security Archives, Phil Schiliro, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Marc Rich, House Committee on Government Reform, Lynne Weil, Dan Burton

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Dan Burton (R-IN), the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, asks for more than twelve sets of internal Justice Department documents that detail purported fund-raising abuses by the 1996 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Burton also wants documents relating to the FBI’s use of mob informants by its Boston office, where evidence indicates that the office literally let the informants get away with murder and suppressed evidence that allowed an innocent man to go to prison. Burton’s request causes a dilemma for the White House. On the one hand, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have given explicit instructions for staffers to resist such calls for information. On the other hand, when Burton had delved into the questions surrounding Clinton’s last-minute pardons, Bush had already given him unprecedented access to Clinton’s private conversations (see August 21, 2001). Burton immediately released edited transcripts of the tapes (see August 21, 2001). The administration ponders whether or not to release the documents, and in the process perhaps further impugn Clinton, or to refuse, preserving their standard of executive privilege. It will eventually come down on the side of secrecy (see December 13, 2001). [Dean, 2004, pp. 85-86]

Entity Tags: William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, US Department of Justice, Ehud Barak, Albert Arnold (“Al”) Gore, Jr., Bush administration (43), Dan Burton, George W. Bush, Federal Bureau of Investigation, House Committee on Government Reform

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Bush administration solves the dilemma surrounding a request by Congressman Dan Burton (R-IN) for documents from the Clinton administration (see Early September, 2001) by placing secrecy and executive privilege above a chance to potentially attack Clinton. Burton has tucked the request for the Clinton documents in with another request on a far more serious matter, possible malfeasance by an FBI office. President Bush instructs Attorney General John Ashcroft not to turn over the documents on either case, explaining that turning over the documents would violate the “national interest” by giving Congress documents related to “prosecutorial decision making.” Burton, the Republican and Democratic members of the House Government Reform Committee, and editorial writers and commentators around the country criticize the administration over the refusal to turn over the documents, particularly the FBI information. The White House adds fuel to the controversy by claiming, both on this day and in a January 2002 letter from White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, that the refusal is consistent with long-standing Justice Department policy (see January 10, 2002). The committee will secure an opinion from eminent Constitutional scholar Professor Charles Tiefer, who will show that the White House’s argument is flatly wrong. [Dean, 2004, pp. 85-88]
'Your Guy's Acting Like a King' - An infuriated Burton confronts a lower-level Justice Department official sent to testify about the government’s position: “We’ve got a dictatorial president and a Justice Department that does not want Congress involved. Your guy’s acting like he’s king.” In his official comments, Burton accuses the Bush administration of setting a “terrible, terrible precedent” in the name of executive power. “This is not a monarchy,” Burton says. “The legislative branch has oversight responsibilities to make sure there is no corruption in the executive branch.” In the Senate, Charles Grassley (R-IA) agrees with Burton. “Anything that limits legitimate Congressional oversight is worrisome,” he says. “This move needs to be carefully scrutinized, particularly in an atmosphere where Congress is giving the Justice Department additional powers and authority.”
Politics over Principles - But the storm of Congressional criticism will have little lasting effect. In 2007, author Charlie Savage will write: “[P]olitics defeated… principles. Most Republicans were unwilling to challenge Bush, and many Democrats opposed Burton’s probes of the Clinton campaign fund-raising, so few members of either party were interested in fighting the White House about it. And because Bush’s first invocation of [executive privilege] was done in part to protect Clinton and the Democrats, the gesture seemed principled rather than self-serving. It was tactically brilliant.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 98]
Administration Later Turns Over Documents - After the media controversy, the administration quietly, and without public acknowledgment, will provide the FBI material to the committee. The committee’s final report on the FBI investigation will conclude with six pages of withering criticism of the administration’s fallacious claim to executive privilege. However, as former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will note in 2004, the criticism from the committee is essentially meaningless to the White House, because it will garner no attention from the media and thereby cost the administration no political capital. And while some observers cannot understand why the administration would take such a hardline stand on an issue that lacks any implications for national security, the public interest, or the protection of ongoing criminal investigations, Dean will write that “it makes absolute sense if the administration’s aim is total information control.” He adds: “Accordingly, its policy remains to employ executive privilege aggressively, as long as the political price is not too high. If this administration is given a second term, there will be no price too high to expand this presidential privilege, enabling the executive branch to remain completely unaccountable.” [Dean, 2004, pp. 85-88]
Court Upholds Bush Actions - In 2003, a district court will uphold the Bush administration’s refusal to turn over the documents to Burton’s committee (see March 28, 2003).

Entity Tags: John Dean, House Committee on Government Reform, Dan Burton, Clinton administration, Bush administration (43), Charles Tiefer, Charlie Savage, Federal Bureau of Investigation, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

White House counsel Alberto Gonzales issues a letter stating that the administration’s refusal to turn over documents about possible FBI malfeasance to Dan Burton (R-IN), the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, is consistent with long-standing Justice Department policy. Gonzales’s assertion will be disputed by the Committee, based on an assessment by law Professor Charles Tiefer of the University of Baltimore (see December 13, 2001). [Dean, 2004, pp. 87]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Alberto R. Gonzales, Dan Burton, US Department of Justice, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

US District Court Judge Gladys Kessler, appointed to the bench by former President Bill Clinton, rules that the Bush administration is within the law in refusing to release documents pertaining to pardons issued by Clinton to Congress (see August 21, 2001 and December 13, 2001). Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton accuses Kessler of endorsing the Bush administration’s claim of executive privilege in order to protect Clinton’s reputation. The White House hails the ruling, and spokesman Scott McClellan notes that the courts have now recognized that the privilege “applies to former, current, and future presidents.” In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write that the ruling hands “the Bush-Cheney legal team another victory in its bid to expand the White House’s power to keep its inner workings secret.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 99]

Entity Tags: Charlie Savage, Bush administration (43), Clinton administration, Gladys Kessler, Tom Fitton, Scott McClellan

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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