WASHINGTON — Weeks before former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s criminal trial over his role in the 1980’s Iran-Contra scandal, then-Attorney General William Barr dropped a bomb on the prosecution.
“People in the Iran-Contra affair have been treated very unfairly,” Barr told USA Today in December 1992, blasting the charges as illegitimate. “People in this Iran-Contra matter have been prosecuted for the kind of conduct that would not have been considered criminal or prosecutable by the Justice Department.”
Weinberger faced charges of lying to Congress, brought by a special prosecutor, then known as an “independent counsel,” who accused him of withholding 1,700 pages of notes about high-level meetings that allegedly held “evidence of a conspiracy.”
“If you want a presidential cover-up, Barr is your guy.”
Barr’s broadside alarmed the lead prosecutor handling the case against Weinberger, James J. Brosnahan, who warned the judge that Barr may have just unduly biased his jury pool. Later that month, when the White House pardoned six top Iran-Contra defendants on Christmas Eve 1992 at Barr’s urging, Brosnahan believed he’d just witnessed the completion of a successful cover-up.
Three decades on, Brosnahan fears Barr has returned to his old job to run the same scheme again.
“If you want a presidential cover-up, Barr is your guy,” Brosnahan, now 85, told VICE News. “And I think we’ve already seen that.”
Barr again is facing scrutiny for his decisions at the helm of the DOJ, especially from leading Democrats who worry he may be planning to withhold key information in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report. Those concerns were inflamed in early April when Mueller’s team began grumbling to associates that Barr’s brief summary to Congress omitted important, damaging findings. Barr then spooked Democrats and ex-prosecutors by telling Congress last week he believed investigators had spied on the Trump campaign, while offering no evidence. After that testimony, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it plainly: “I don’t trust Barr, I trust Mueller.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the man who appointed Mueller in the first place, defended Barr against recent criticism, arguing his new boss is “being as forthcoming as he can” about the process of redacting and releasing the almost-400-page Mueller report.
“This notion that he’s trying to mislead people, I think, is just completely bizarre,” Rosenstein told The Wall Street Journal last week. The public, Rosenstein said, should have “tremendous confidence” in Barr.
Now, as Washington braces to see how much of Mueller’s final report Barr will actually reveal Thursday morning, Brosnahan said his experience gives him cause for concern.
“I was surprised that he was confirmed without much discussion about his role in the end of the Iran-Contra cover-up,” Brosnahan said. “I’ve been waiting for him to do the same thing with the Mueller report.”
Neither the Department of Justice nor the White House responded to requests for comment.
The “Coverup General”
Brosnahan isn’t the first person to spot parallels between Barr’s time under former President Bush and his current approach as Trump’s AG.
Barr’s defense of the first Bush administration was seen as so robust at the time he was dubbed the “Coverup General” in 1992 by William Safire, the former Nixon speechwriter turned columnist for The New York Times.
During his first run at DOJ, Barr played a key role in at least three contentious episodes that have come under fresh scrutiny as Washington scrambles to understand his potential influence over the Mueller report.
- The FBI Memo: In 1989, Barr reportedly misled Congress when omitting important parts of a Justice Department memo he wrote about the FBI’s ability to abduct suspects in foreign countries.
- Iran-Contra: He successfully advocated the pardon of six former White House aides, including those convicted of lying to Congress or withholding information during the investigation. The six-year probe centered around allegations that the Reagan administration had secretly sold weapons to Iran despite an arms embargo, then clandestinely funneled the proceeds to anti-Communist rebels in Nicaragua.
- Iraqgate: Barr refused a Congressional request to appoint an independent counsel, for the first known time since the statute creating the position was established 24 years earlier, according to contemporaneous accounts in the Washington Post and the LA Times.
Then, as now, Barr fashioned finely-tuned legal arguments to buttress an expansive view of executive power, including instances when he argued that certain potential crimes under investigation by a special prosecutor shouldn’t be looked into at all, because he didn’t think they were actually crimes.
Paul Rosenzweig, a member of the Ken Starr investigation into former President Bill Clinton and author of the lecture series “Investigating American Presidents,” said that all executive branch officials have a tendency to support the authority of the presidency — and in that sense, Barr’s approach wasn’t abnormal, and didn’t appear to constitute outright wrongdoing.
“Conservatives, historically, tend to favor executive authority in these matters,” Rosenzweig said. “Barr strikes me as coming out of that mold — if, perhaps, farther on one edge of the spectrum than other people. But I don’t think that any of these instances are so outrageous that they’d be characterizable as misconduct.”
A misleading memo
Barr asserted his legal prowess at the DOJ even before he ascended to the job of Attorney General. And he garnered criticism for it.
In 1989, Barr faced heat for blunting a request from Congress for information about a controversial legal opinion he’d written concluding that the FBI could forcibly abduct people in foreign countries without the consent of the host government. Barr refused to hand over the full memo — and then pulled a move with striking parallels to the present-day dispute over Mueller’s still-secret report.
He offered Congress an account that “summarizes the key conclusions” — but in reality, left out key parts, according to Ryan Goodman, a former top Department of Justice legal advisor under Barack Obama and now co-editor-in-chief of the legal forum Just Security.
Barr’s summary “omitted some of the most consequential and incendiary conclusions from the actual opinion,” even though he had “evidently no justifiable reason” for doing so, Goodman wrote in an article Monday. Congress had to issue a subpoena to read the full legal opinion. The public, however, didn’t see it until 1993, after Barr left office.
“Conservatives, historically, tend to favor executive authority in these matters.”
Barr used strikingly similar language in his letter to Congress about the Mueller report, in which he claimed to summarize its “principal conclusions.”
Barr wrote that Mueller had not found that anyone in the Trump administration had entered a criminal conspiracy with Russian agents by colluding with Moscow’s efforts to tip the 2016 election. And he wrote that while the report didn’t “exonerate” Trump on the question of obstruction of justice, Barr had determined the evidence was insufficient on that score.
Since then, however, questions have been raised about the reliability of Barr’s ‘principal conclusions,’ after Mueller’s team reportedly began complaining to associates that the letter had left out the most damaging information, including summaries they’d prepared for quick release.
Rep. André Carson, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, called reports that Barr may have soft-pedalled Mueller’s findings in his letter to Congress “extremely troubling,” if confirmed.
“It lends itself to the concern I have, and many others have, that the administration is seeking to tell its own version of a story by leaving out certain parts that don’t fit its narrative,” Carson told VICE News.
Barr played a key role in another potentially explosive scandal that has been largely forgotten since, known as “Iraqgate.”
At the time, investigative reporting in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere suggested that the Bush and Reagan administrations may have secretly funneled billions in loan guarantees and military technology to Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein from 1986 to 1990.
The reports indicated the funds may have gone to buy weapons that were later used against U.S. troops during the first Gulf War — and that Bush administration officials might have later altered documents that were given to Congress to thwart investigators. A bank manager involved in lending $5 billion to Iraq pleaded guilty to fraud, and six separate Congressional investigations were spawned to find out what really happened.
When the House judiciary committee asked Barr to launch an independent counsel investigation, he did something unprecedented: He said no, breaking with previous Attorneys General, who had granted every formal request for an independent counsel appointment since the post-Watergate legislation was passed in 1978, according to The Washington Post.
A probe by the Clinton administration officially cleared Bush’s team of any criminal wrongdoing — but not before Barr fought hard with Congress over whether the matter should be independently probed at all.
“Why did Trump pick Barr? There’s only one reason for that, which I think we’re going to find out this week.”
Instead, Barr responded with a 14-page letter to Congress peppered with phrases like “not a crime,” “simply not criminal in any way,” “nothing illegal” and “far from being a crime.”
Barr did appoint a non-independent “special counsel” to look into the matter, prompting complaints from Congress that the official would have to report directly to the agency he was investigating.
The House Banking Committee Chairman at the time, Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez, a Democrat from Texas, demanded Barr resign over “repeated, clear failures and obstruction” in the case. When Rep. Gonzalez began placing documents marked “secret” into the Congressional Record, arguing they revealed corruption, Barr threatened to cut off his access to more documents.
“Public disclosure of classified information harms the national security,” Barr said. “In light of your recent disclosures, the executive branch will not provide any more classified information.”
“Your threat to withhold documents has all the earmarks of a classic effort to obstruct a proper and legitimate investigation,” Gonzalez shot back.
Few positions, however, were as controversial as Barr’s role in the biggest American political scandal of the 1980s: Iran-Contra. As attorney general Barr oversaw the dramatic and controversial endgame of a years-long investigation run by a determined independent counsel.
Barr later admitted he pushed hard behind the scenes for Bush to pardon the former top officials who were charged with a variety of crimes — including lying to Congress — by the independent counsel, Lawrence Walsh.
“I favored the broadest [pardons],” Barr recalled. “There were some people arguing just for Weinberger, and I said, ‘No, in for a penny, in for a pound.’”
Afterwards, Walsh himself blasted Bush, Reagan and their advisors for staging what he believed was an epic cover-up that concealed the truth about what top officials really knew.
“George Bush’s misuse of the pardon power made the cover-up complete,” Walsh wrote in his memoir, Firewall. “What set Iran-Contra apart from previous political scandals was the fact that a cover-up engineered in the White House of one president and completed by his successor prevented the rule of law from being applied to the perpetrators of criminal activity of constitutional dimension.”
Brosnahan worries that scandal, and how it ultimately ended, laid the blue-print for this one.
“By advising president Bush to grant the pardons, Mr Barr was quite aware that he would bring the Iran-Contra investigation to an end,” Brosnahan said. “Why did Trump pick Barr? There’s only one reason for that, which I think we’re going to find out this week.”
Cover: Attorney General William Barr appeared before a House Appropriations subcommittee to make his Justice Department budget request, Tuesday, April 9, 2019, in Washington. He is joined at right by Assistant Attorney General for Administration Lee J. Lofthus. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)