Give George W. Bush credit. Who would have dreamed that he could get by with a political maneuver so brazen as putting Laurence Silberman in charge of an "independent" commission to investigate the intelligence failures leading up to the Iraq war? The country should be boiling with outrage but hardly a whimper was heard.
Putting Vice President Dick Cheney or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in charge of the inquiry would have been too transparent, but even they do not have Silberman's record of protecting the Bushes from scandal and punishing their critics. Whitewater aficionados on both sides will recall Silberman's role in the campaign to destroy Bill Clinton. When the commission's work is done - long after the election - Silberman will see to it that much of the blame for anything requiring blame will be borne by, who else?, Bill Clinton. Silberman's co-chair is former U. S. Sen. Chuck Robb, picked for his reputation as a malleable man who never rocks the boat.
Silberman is a federal judge but he has never let the black robes or the code of judicial conduct stand in the way of getting dirty when he needed to. He has been a political loyalist first and a judge fifth.
But let's start from the first and you decide what chance you have of getting the straight story on why we were misled into the war.
Silberman was a young lawyer advising the Reagan-Bush team on foreign affairs in the 1980 campaign. As the election neared, the Republicans feared an October surprise by President Carter: Iran might release the American hostages, whose long captivity brought him down. Silberman was the unofficial "ambassador to Iran" for Reagan-Bush. He made behind-the-scenes contact with the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to be sure that the hostages remained captives through the election. They would be released at the moment Reagan began his inaugural speech.
Larry Silberman was rewarded by an appointment second in value only to the Supreme Court. Reagan placed him on the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which handles cases challenging activities of the federal government.
Reagan-Bush's Iranian connections would prove troublesome in another six years when it was discovered that the White House was trading anti-aircraft missiles to Iran for hostages and using proceeds to finance a secret war in Nicaragua, both in flagrant violation of the law. But Silberman would fly to the rescue again. A conservative Republican and former federal prosecutor and judge, Lawrence E. Walsh, was put in charge of investigating what became known as Iran-Contra. Walsh obtained convictions of Reagan's top national security advisers and was closing in on Vice President George H.W. Bush and maybe even the president, both of whom had denied any knowledge of what their advisers were doing. Silberman and his close friend, David Sentelle, overturned the convictions in a 2-1 ruling and established a standard that made it impossible to prosecute violators.
Walsh would describe it in his book, "Firewall," in 1996: "A powerful band of Republican appointees waited like the strategic reserves of an embattled army. The final evaluation of the immunity Congress had granted Oliver North and John Poindexter would be the work of yet another political force - a force cloaked in the black robes of those dedicated to defining and preserving the rule of law. Although the judiciary is theoretically a neutral arm of government and judges are expected to eschew partisan politics, the underlying political nature of all government institutions was evident. . ."
Silberman was critical of the special prosecutor and his efforts to gain sensitive information from the executive branch. He would change his mind when the quarry was the Democrat who had defeated Bush. It was Silberman's opinion in 1998 that President Clinton could not prevent his Secret Service agents from being forced to testify before a grand jury convened by Silberman's former colleague and Federalist Society friend, Kenneth W. Starr. Judge Silberman suggested that Clinton had "declared war on the United States" by claiming executive privilege.
While he was sitting on cases involving the president, Silberman and his wife were helping direct the political campaign to destroy the president. David Brock, who was writing for the right-wing magazine, the American Spectator, would reveal that Silberman was his mentor and encouraged him to write the articles, specifically the one reporting that Clinton had sexually harassed a state government employee, Paula Jones. Brock would apologize later for the article.
When George W. Bush ascended to the presidency, Silberman got a fresh assignment from Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Sitting on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review with two other Reagan-appointed judges, he decides the extent to which the Bush administration can abrogate civil rights. Last fall, after the foreign intelligence surveillance court had released a dossier of Justice Department abuses (the FBI had lied as many as 75 times on wiretap applications) and ruled that Attorney General John Ashcroft had illegally assumed broad wiretap powers, Silberman and his colleagues on the court of review allowed only the Bush administration to argue in the secret proceeding and then ruled for it.
The decision allows Ashcroft's agents to eavesdrop and make warrantless searches of homes and offices by claiming that it might turn up information on the activities of "agents of foreign powers" and then use any information they get in a criminal prosecution.
Bush can now relax. The rest of us can only hope the commission's findings become irrelevant.