Asking Henry Kissinger to investigate government malfeasance or nonfeasance is akin to asking Slobodan Milosevic to investigate war crimes. Pretty damn akin, since Kissinger has been accused, with cause, of engaging in war crimes of his own. Moreover, he has been a poster child for the worst excesses of secret government and secret warfare. Yet George W. Bush has named him to head a supposedly independent commission to investigate the nightmarish attacks of September 11, 2001, a commission intended to tell the public what went wrong on and before that day. This is a sick, black-is-white, war-is-peace joke -- a cruel insult to the memory of those killed on 9/11 and a screw-you affront to any American who believes the public deserves a full accounting of government actions or lack thereof. It's as if Bush instructed his advisers to come up with the name of the person who literally would be the absolute worst choice for the post and, once they had, said, "sign him up."
Hyperbole? Consider the record.
Vietnam. Kissinger participated in a GOP plot to undermine the 1968 Paris peace talks in order to assist Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. Once in office, Nixon named Kissinger his national security adviser, and later appointed him secretary of state. As co-architect of Nixon's war in Vietnam, Kissinger oversaw the secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, an arguably illegal operation estimated to have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Bangladesh. In 1971, Pakistani General Yahya Khan, armed with U.S. weaponry, overthrew a democratically elected government in an action that led to a massive civilian bloodbath. Hundreds of thousands were killed. Kissinger blocked U.S. condemnation of Khan. Instead, he noted Khan's "delicacy and tact."
Chile. In the early 1970s, Kissinger oversaw the CIA's extensive covert campaign that assisted coup-plotters, some of whom eventually overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and installed the murderous military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. On June 8, 1976, at the height of Pinochet's repression, Kissinger had a meeting with Pinochet and behind closed doors told him that "we are sympathetic to what you are trying to do here," according to minutes of the session (which are quoted in Peter Kornbluh's forthcoming book, The Pinochet File.)
East Timor. In 1975, President Gerald Ford and Kissinger, still serving as secretary of state, offered advance approval of Indonesia's brutal invasion of East Timor, which took the lives of tens of thousands of East Timorese. For years afterward, Kissinger denied the subject ever came up during the December 6, 1975, meeting he and Ford held with General Suharto, Indonesia's military ruler, in Jarkata. But a classified U.S. cable obtained by the National Security Archive shows otherwise. It notes that Suharto asked for "understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action" in East Timor. Ford said, "We will understand and will not press you on the issue. We understand the problem you have and the intentions you have." The next day, Suharto struck East Timor. Kissinger appears to be an outright liar on this subject.
Argentina. In 1976, as a fascistic and anti-Semitic military junta was beginning its so-called "dirty war" against supposed subversives -- between 9,000 and 30,000 people would be "disappeared" by the military over the next seven years -- Argentina's foreign minister met with Kissinger and received what he believed was tacit encouragement for his government's violent efforts. According to a U.S. cable released earlier this year, the foreign minister was convinced after his chat with Kissinger that the United States wanted the Argentine terror campaign to end soon -- not that Washington was dead-set against it. The cable said that the minister had left his meeting with Kissinger "euphoric." Two years later, Kissinger, then a private citizen, traveled to Buenos Aires as the guest of dictator General Jorge Rafael Videla and praised the junta for having done, as one cable put it, "an outstanding job in wiping out terrorist forces." As Raul Castro, the U.S. ambassador to Argentina, noted at the time in a message to the State Department, "My only concern is that Kissinger's repeated high praise for Argentina's action in wiping out terrorism... may have gone to some considerable extent to his hosts' heads... There is some danger that Argentines may use Kissinger's laudatory statements as justification for hardening their human rights stance."
Appropriately, Kissinger is a man on the run for his past misdeeds. He is the target of two lawsuits, and judges overseas have sought him for questioning in war-crimes-related legal actions. In the United States, the family of Chilean General Rene Schneider sued Kissinger last year. Schneider was shot on October 22, 1970, by would-be coup-makers working with CIA operatives. These CIA assets were part of a secret plan authorized by Nixon -- and supervised by Kissinger -- to foment a coup before Allende, a Socialist, could be inaugurated as president. Schneider, a constitutionalist who opposed a coup, died three days later. This secret CIA program in Chile -- dubbed "Track Two" -- gave $35,000 to Schneider's assassins after the slaying. Michael Tigar, an attorney for the Schneider family, claims that "Our case shows, document by document, that [Kissinger] was involved in great detail in supporting the people who killed General Schneider, and then paid them off."
On September 9, 2001, 60 Minutes aired a segment on the Schneider family's charges against Kissinger. The former secretary of state came across as partly responsible for what is the Chilean equivalent of the JFK assassination. It was a major blow to his public image: Kissinger cast as a supporter of terrorists. Two days later, Osama bin Laden struck. Immediately, Kissinger was again on television, but now as a much-in-demand expert on terrorism.
A fellow who has coddled state-sponsored terrorism has been put in charge of a terrorism investigation. A proven liar has been assigned the task of finding the truth. By the way, in 1976, when Kissinger was secretary of state, he was informed by his chief aide for Latin America that South American military regimes were intending to use Operation Condor "to find and kill" political opponents. Kissinger quickly dispatched a cable instructing U.S. ambassadors in the Condor countries to note Washington's "deep concern." But it seems no such warnings were actually conveyed. A month later, this order was rescinded. The next day, two of Pinochet's enemies -- and Allende's allies -- were murdered on Washington's Embassy Row. (Peter Kornbluh and journalist John Dinges recently chronicled this sad Kissinger episode in The Washington Post.) Kissinger's State Department had not responded with the force needed to thwart the official terrorism of its friends in South America. Perhaps this provides Kissinger experience useful for examining the government's failure to prevent more recent terrorism.
Other qualifications for the job, as Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney might see it? A leaks-obsessed Kissinger, when he served as Nixon's national security adviser, wiretapped his own staff. (One of his targets, Morton Halperin, sued and eventually won an apology.) And when he left office, Kissinger took tens of thousands of pages of documents -- created by government employees on government time -- and treated them as his personal records, using them for his memoirs and keeping them for years from the prying eyes of historians and journalists. He and the Bush-Cheney White House agree on open government: the less the better.
Remember, the White House was never keen on setting up an independent commission that would answer to the public. Cheney at one point reportedly intervened to block a compromise that had been painstakingly worked out in Congress regarding the composition and rules of the commission. Finally, the White House said okay, as long as it could pick the chairman and subpoenas would only be issued with the support of at least six of the commission's 10 members. With Kissinger in control, the secret-keepers of the White House -- who already have succeeded in preventing the House and Senate intelligence committees' investigation of 9/ll from releasing embarrassing and uncomfortable information -- will have little to fear.
The Bush-Cheney administration has been a rehab center for tainted Republicans. Retired Admiral John Poindexter, a leading Iran-contra player, was placed in charge of a sensitive, high-tech, Pentagon intelligence-gathering operation aimed at reviewing massive amounts of individual personal data in order to uncover possible terrorists. Elliott Abrams, who pled guilty to lying to Congress in the Iran-contra scandal, was warmly embraced and handed a staff position in Bush's National Security Council. But the Kissinger selection is the most outrageous of these acts of compassion and forgiveness. It is a move of defiance and hubris.
Kissinger should be subpoenaed, not handed the right to subpoena. He should be a legal target, not an investigator. With Kissinger's appointment, Bush has rendered the independent commission a sham. Democrats should have immediately announced they would refuse to fill their allotted five slots. But after Bush picked Kissinger, the Democrats tapped former Democratic Senator George Mitchell to be vice-chairman of the panel, signaling that Kissinger was fine by them. The public would be better served and the victims of 9/11 better honored by no commission rather than one headed by Kissinger.
David Corn is a columnist for The Nation (www.thenation.com), where this commentary first appeared.