When John Kerry Was a Lone Hero in Congress

Harry E. Walker/Mct/ZUMAPress

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Thursday was a big day for Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat. The son of a foreign-service officer, he was appearing before the Senate foreign relations committee (which he used to chair) as President Barack Obama’s pick to be secretary of state. Though Kerry failed in 2004 to win the nation’s highest job, becoming the country’s top diplomat is a tremendous accomplishment and marvelous capstone for his decades-long public career, which began when he returned from service in Vietnam a war hero and led the movement against that war.

Over the years, it has been easy for some to poke fun at Kerry for his sometimes stodgy senatorial ways and for his occasional lapses, such as his 2002 vote authorizing President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. But those who weren’t around Washington in the 1980s or who have short memories might not realize that Kerry has been one of the more courageous members of the Senate. Back in 2004, when Kerry was running for president and some progressives were grumbling about him, I wrote an article for The Nation reminding folks of the gutsy actions Kerry had taken in the dark days of the Reagan-Bush era, when Republicans in the White House were cozying up to dictators, the CIA was using assets tied to drug smuggling to prosecute its secret wars, and Democrats were nervous about probing international banks with shady ties (that in several instances implicated Democrats). As Kerry reaches the pinnacle of the foreign-policy world, it’s an appropriate time to recall his years of noncombat bravery. Here’s the bulk of that article:

In the heat of battle, with his campaign crumbling, Howard Dean lashed out at John Kerry. First, he called the leader in the Democratic presidential race a “Republican.” Then he said, “When Senator Kerry’s record is examined by the public at a more leisurely time…he’s going to turn out to be just like George Bush.”

Just like George Bush? It is true that Kerry, another Yalie and Skull and Bones alum, has voted in favor of NAFTA and other corporate-friendly trade pacts, that he once raised questions about affirmative action (while still supporting it), that he has, like almost every Democratic senator, accepted contributions from special-interest lobbyists (while being one of the few to eschew political action committee donations), that he voted to grant Bush the authority to invade Iraq. But this hardly makes him Bush lite. There is, as evidence, his nineteen-year Senate record, during which he has voted consistently in favor of abortion rights and environmental policies, opposed Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, led the effort against drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, pushed for higher fuel economy standards, advocated boosting the minimum wage and pressed for global warming remedies. But what distinguishes Kerry’s career are key moments when he displayed guts and took tough actions that few colleagues would imitate. One rap on Kerry is that he is overly cautious and conventional. He’s no firebrand on the stump, nor does he come across as the most passionate and exciting force for change. But his history in Washington includes episodes in which he demonstrated a willingness to confront hard issues, to challenge power, to pursue values rather than political advantage, to take risks for the public interest.

Kerry arrived in the Senate in 1985. This Vietnam War hero turned antiwar leader had been lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. But he entered the body more as the prosecutor he had been in the late 1970s after graduating from Boston College law school. In early 1986 Kerry’s office was contacted by a Vietnam vet who alleged that the support network for the CIA-backed Nicaraguan contras (who were fighting against the socialist Sandinistas in power) was linked to drug traffickers. Kerry doubted that the Reagan Administration, obsessed with supporting the contras, would investigate such charges. He pushed for a Senate inquiry and a year later, as chairman of a Foreign Relations subcommittee, obtained approval to conduct a probe.

It was not an easy ride. Reagan Justice Department officials sought to discredit and stymie his investigation. Republicans dismissed it. One anti-Kerry effort used falsified affidavits to make it seem his staff had bribed witnesses. The Democratic staff of the Senate Iran/contra committee—which showed little interest in the contra drug connection—often refused to cooperate. “They were fighting us tooth and nail,” recalls Jack Blum, one of Kerry’s investigators. “We had the White House and the CIA against us on one side and our colleagues in the Senate on the other. But Kerry told us, ‘Keep going.’ He didn’t let this stuff faze him.”

Kerry’s inquiry widened to look at Cuba, Haiti, the Bahamas, Honduras and Panama. In 1989 he released a report that slammed the Reagan Administration for neglecting or undermining anti-drug efforts in order to pursue other foreign policy objectives. It noted that the government in the 1970s and ’80s had “turned a blind eye” to the corruption and drug dealing of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who had done various favors for Washington (including assisting the contras). The report concluded that “individuals who provided support for the contras were involved in drug trafficking…and elements of the contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers.” And, it added, US government agencies—meaning the CIA and the State Department—had known this.

This was a rather explosive finding, but the Kerry report did not provoke much uproar in the media, and the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill did little to support Kerry and keep the matter alive. His critics derided him as a conspiracy buff. Yet a decade later the CIA inspector general released a pair of reports that acknowledged that the agency had worked with suspected drug smugglers to support the contras. Kerry had been right.

After the contra investigation, Kerry next turned to a far more sensitive target: a bank connected to a prominent Democratic Party fundraiser. During their investigation of Noriega, Kerry’s staff discovered that the Bank of Credit and Commerce International had facilitated Noriega’s drug trafficking and money laundering. This led to an inquiry into BCCI, a worldwide but murky institution more or less controlled by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. BCCI was a massive criminal enterprise, although this was not yet publicly known. It had engaged in rampant fraud and money laundering (to help out, among others, drug dealers, terrorists and arms traffickers) around the world. Its tentacles ran everywhere. Its political connections reached around the globe. Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger both became involved in the scandal. When banking regulators finally shut down BCCI in 1991, an estimated 250,000 creditors and depositors from forty countries were out billions of dollars.

One key issue was whether BCCI had secretly and illegally acquired control of First American bank in Washington, DC. The top officials of First American were Clark Clifford, a longtime Democratic graybeard and a party fundraiser, and Robert Altman, his protégé. Democratic senators grumbled about Kerry’s crusade, which put Clifford in the cross-hairs. “This really pissed people off,” Blum says. BCCI hired from both Democratic and Republican quarters an army of lawyers, PR specialists and lobbyists (including former members of Congress) to thwart the investigation. The Justice Department of the first Bush Administration did not respond to information on BCCI uncovered by Kerry’s staff. So Blum took the material to New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who then commenced an investigation of BCCI that led to indictments. And Kerry again found himself tussling with the CIA, for the agency had been using the services of BCCI even after it had learned that the bank was crooked and in league with terrorists (including Abu Nidal).

In the fall of 1992 Kerry released a report on the BCCI affair. It blasted everyone: Justice, Treasury, US Customs, the Federal Reserve, Clifford and Altman (for participating in “some of BCCI’s deceptions”), high-level lobbyists and fixers, and the CIA. The report noted that after the CIA knew the bank was “a fundamentally corrupt criminal enterprise, it continued to use both BCCI and First American…for CIA operations.” The report was, in a sense, an indictment of Washington cronyism. In the years since, there’s been nothing like it. Senator Hank Brown, the ranking Republican on Kerry’s subcommittee, noted, “John Kerry was willing to spearhead this difficult investigation. Because many important members of his own party were involved in this scandal, it was a distasteful subject for other committee and subcommittee chairmen to investigate. They did not. John Kerry did.”

While Kerry was in the middle of the BCCI muck, Senate majority leader George Mitchell asked him to assume another difficult task: investigate the unaccounted-for Vietnam POWs and MIAs. For years so-called POW advocates, like billionaire Ross Perot, had claimed American GIs were still being held in Vietnam, and the highly charged POW/MIA issue was the main roadblock to normalizing relations. Working closely with Senator John McCain, a Republican who had been a POW, Kerry got the Pentagon to declassify 1 million pages of records. His committee chased after rumors of American soldiers being held. He took fourteen trips to Vietnam. This was a hard mission: How could his committee say there were absolutely no POWs still captive in Vietnam? Yet anything less could keep the POW controversy alive.

On one trip to Hanoi, as Douglas Brinkley notes in Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, Kerry insisted that he be allowed to inspect the catacombs beneath Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, where, according to a persistent rumor, the remaining POWs were being held. Permission was granted, and with conservative Republican Bob Smith by his side, he inspected the tunnels and found no signs of POWs. In January 1993 Kerry’s POW/MIA committee released a 1,223-page report concluding that there was “no compelling evidence that proves any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.” Some POW die-hards howled. (Journalist Sydney Schanberg has accused Kerry of covering up and destroying evidence that POWs were left behind.) But the report mostly settled the issue. President Bill Clinton was able to drop the Vietnam trade embargo and normalize relations.

Investigations were not the only notable moments in Kerry’s Senate career. On September 10, 1996, as he was in a tight re-election contest against William Weld, the popular Republican governor of Massachusetts, Kerry voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which would deny federal benefits to same-sex couples and permit states to not recognize same-sex marriages conducted in other states. He was one of only fourteen senators to oppose the measure. Several leading Senate liberals—including Paul Wellstone, Tom Harkin and Pat Leahy—had voted for it. But on the floor of the Senate that day, Kerry, who noted that he did not support same-sex marriage, said, “I am going to vote against this bill…because I believe that this debate is fundamentally ugly, and it is fundamentally political.” He refused to pretend that the bill was not a wedge-issue trap devised by conservative Republicans. The legislation, he charged, was “meant to divide Americans,” and he argued fiercely that it was unconstitutional. “If this were truly a defense of marriage act,” he said, “it would expand the learning experience for would-be husbands and wives. It would provide for counseling for all troubled marriages, not just for those who can afford it. It would provide treatment on demand for those with alcohol and substance abuse…It would guarantee daycare for every family that struggles and needs it.”

It’s hard to think of a presidential appointee who deserved his position more.


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