Secret Weapons Deals Only a Scandal When Republicans Make Them
No Surprise: Media Ignore Goregate
Op-ed by Tim Graham, director of media analysis, MRC,
as printed in the November 3, 2000 edition of Human Events
By Tim Graham
In the waning moments of presidential campaigns, political junkies always look for potential "October Surprises"–last-minute allegations, events, or decisions that could potentially sway the race toward one party or the other.
In recent years, those surprises have often focused on foreign policy controversies. Unsurprisingly, America’s "objective" national news media have shown a partisan variability in reporting or even creating these occurrences.
This year’s October Surprise is the story of the dog that didn’t bark. That’s because the big foreign policy scandal this October is a story that could kill the chances of the Democratic, not the Republican, presidential candidate.
For years, ABC’s Ted Koppel and PBS’s "Frontline" investigated the discredited theory that the 1980 Reagan campaign conspired with the Iranians to delay the release of the American hostages until after the election.
But, then, in 1992, no ABC or PBS specials probed Iran-Contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh’s October Surprise: Four days before the election, he re-indicted former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and asserted that then-Vice President George Bush was "in the loop" on Iran-Contra essentials. (In fact, ABC, CBS, and NBC did not even mention Walsh by name in their reports, characterizing Walsh’s extremely political maneuver as just the unsuspicious emergence of "new material" or "new grand jury evidence.")
Weapons to Iran
In October 1996, the Washington Post foreshadowed an Al Gore scandal by reporting on the now-infamous fundraiser at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple that would later lead to the conviction of Gore fundraiser Maria Hsia for hiding contributions from the FEC. But, this time, the networks stayed silent–not picking up the story until the following March, after Clinton and Gore had been safely reelected.
This October, the New York Times and the Washington Times have uncovered another potentially damaging story concerning Gore. First, in a 2,500-word front-page article in the October 13 edition of the New York Times, John Broder reported that in 1995 "Vice President Gore signed a secret agreement with Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, then the Russian prime minister." The deal allowed the Russians to continue selling conventional weapons to Iran until 1999. Among these weapons was a super quiet Kilo-class submarine that could threaten U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf. After the 1999 deadline passed, the Russian kept selling the Iranians weapons despite Chernomyrdin’s secret deal with Gore.
Broder added that the secret deal undercut a 1992 law principally sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) and then-Sen. Gore himself that required the administration to impose sanctions on governments discovered to be selling weapons to nations, such as Iran, that are tagged by the State Department for sponsoring terrorism.
McCain told Broder that he was unaware of the Gore-Chernomyrdin deal and that a "strong case can be made" that Russian arms deliveries to Iran, especially the hard-to-detect Kilo-class submarine, should have triggered sanctions under the Gore-McCain law. "If the administration acquiesced in the sale," said McCain, "then I believe they have violated both the intent and the letter of the law."
Although he had been the darling of the media when he was battling Bush in the primaries, McCain was not besieged by interview requests from the major network to discuss Gore’s illegal arms deal.
Four days after the New York Times story, Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz uncovered another secret deal that Gore had made with Chernomyrdin. In a classified 1995 letter, the Russian prime minister had informed the Vice President about Moscow’s involvement in helping Iran build and fuel a nuclear reactor. The letter referred to a prior agreement between Chernomyrdin and Gore on the matter, and insisted that the information about the Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation was "not to be conveyed to third parties, including the U.S. Congress."
"Sources on Capitol Hill," reported Gertz, "said Mr. Gore withheld the information from key senators who would normally be told of such high-level security matters." He added that Gore’s withholding of the information may have violated a provision of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, which requires the administration to keep congressional oversight committees fully informed on nuclear proliferation matters.
Senators began investigating the secret dealings, but their plans to hold hearings spurred no advance stories at ABC, CBS, NBC, or CNN. Only Fox News Channel covered the issue on "Special Report with Brit Hume."
When the Senate actually held the hearings on October 25, "The Early Show" on CBS and ABC’s "World News Tonight" noted them in passing. CBS anchor Diana Olick reported: "Questions about a secret arms deal and Vice President Al Gore. Today a Senate panel investigates Gore’s role in a deal allowing Russia to sell arms to Iran. Some former high-level Republican officials say the 1995 agreement should have been fully disclosed to Congress. A Gore official said it was and calls the charges political."
Peter Jennings’ 17 Seconds
ABC’s Peter Jennings gave it 17 seconds: "Presidential politics reached Capitol Hill today. When have they not? Republicans held hearings which may embarrass Mr. Gore. Senators said that Mr. Gore violated U.S. law by making secret deals about Russia’s arms sales to Iran. The White House says no laws were broken."
On the 26th, ABC "Good Morning America" co-host Charles Gibson asked Gore about the deal by relaying "questions for you from our audience through our website, and a number of them concerned a piece of legislation that you co-authored with John McCain in 1992. Under that legislation, sanctions would be imposed against any countries that sold advanced weapons to terrorist nations, like Iran, and now comes word that there was a secret agreement made with the Russians in 1995, that you signed with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin,
at that time, Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, which gave Russia a pass on that situation.
"Let me just voice the questions as they were submitted. Arlon Andrews, Corpus Christi, Tex.: ‘Why did you make a secret arms deal with Chernomyrdin and not tell Congress about it?’ Rob Williams, Hawthorne, Calif.: ‘How do you explain the secret arms agreement?’ Scott Fisher, Portland, Maine: ‘Did you allow Russian weapon sales to Iran to continue in defiance of the law you personally co-sponsored?’"
Gibson followed up: "Sen. McCain himself said that this agreement was intended to evade sanctions and Sen. McCain says the argument that these weapons, the weapons that were sold, were not covered by the agreement is provably false."
Gore tried to downplay the revelations: "Well, first of all, that didn’t happen because what happened under the agreement, or the understanding that we reached with them, stopped any new arms sales for the last five years. Congress was briefed on it. This has been the subject of extensive dialogue, and what happened was the old contracts that were signed before the Gore-McCain law was passed, and it didn’t apply to them, were allowed to, they were allowed to finish out those contracts, which did not include advanced weaponry, and they agreed not to have any new ones, and that’s been in the best interests of our country, for sure."
Gibson didn’t point out that the agreement called for an end to sales to Iran at the end of 1999, which the Russians are now violating. But he did follow up: "Senator McCain himself said that this agreement was intended to evade sanctions and Senator McCain says the argument that these weapons, the weapons that were sold were not covered by the agreement is provably false."
Gore blamed politics: "Well, look, we’re in the final 12 days of this election campaign, where the people in the other party are throwing their hardest fastballs and we’re doing the same, but the facts remain, Charlie, this understanding has been helpful to our country and to the peace and it stopped the reaching of any new agreements between Russia and Iran."
ABC gave McCain 14 morning show interviews while he was a presidential candidate, but he hasn’t been invited yet to discuss the
This is a far cry from the approach the networks took in 1992 on another alleged foreign policy scandal relating to dealing with a loathsome Middle Eastern regime. As President Bush’s reelection campaign floundered, several network programs aggressively promoted "Iraqgate," charging that Bush knowingly armed Saddam Hussein before the Gulf War.
Fanning the flames was vice-presidential candidate Al Gore, who told a crowd in Marietta, Ga., on October 25 that "This is a bigger cover-up than Watergate ever was ... It involves the decision by George Bush to arm Saddam Hussein and to lead him to miscalculate and launch a war that never should have taken place and would not have except for the poor judgment and bad foreign policy of George Bush, and he ought to be held accountable for it."
In a November 1994 article in The American Lawyer, former New York Times legal reporter Stuart Taylor declared that reporters made a huge mistake in playing up the Iraqgate allegations: "Any journalist–or judge–who took the (substantial) time necessary to study the evidence on the public record in 1992 should have been able to discern that there wasn’t much beef in this gigantic
On October 28, six days before the presidential election, Ted Koppel of ABC’s "Nightline" declared that 18 months of searching by ABC had revealed a series of "legal and illegal technology transfers" to Iraq. He began by underlining the massive legwork the major media had done to expose the Bush Administration: "It’s a story that ‘Nightline’ has revisited repeatedly over the past year and a half. The Los Angeles Times reported today that they have done more than 100 stories on the subject, over 90,000 words. This week’s New Yorker did a massive report. New York Times columnist William Safire has been relentless in pursuing the issue."
Koppel then underlined how the still-unresolved allegations were a political liability for Bush: "Indeed, last week a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed that 68% of the American public has major doubts about George Bush’s explanation of his administration’s role in providing aid to Saddam Hussein before the Persian Gulf war. For all that, there is little reason to believe that the issue is having much impact on this campaign. So, why raise it yet again? Precisely because the President’s denials have been so emphatic while the evidence contradicting those denials keeps mounting. We felt that we should present the story in all its parts, together with new information that became available in the past few days, one more time."
Koppel had aired at least eight shows on the Reagan-Bush tilt toward Iraq (in addition to a one-hour special on Reagan’s alleged "October Surprise"). A viewer could be forgiven for getting the impression that Koppel was upset that his programs weren’t hurting Bush more.
Koppel concluded his late-hit scandal program with charges by Democratic Senators David Boren (Okla.) and Patrick Leahy (Vt.) of a Bush cover-up.
Koppel emphasized that this issue could not be dismissed as political: "It is easy enough, given the political season, to dismiss charges of a cover-up coming as they do from two Democratic senators as purely partisan. As I told you at the beginning of the broadcast, though, a number of serious news organizations have been pursuing [the Italian bank] BNL and the Iraqgate story for almost two years. And in a campaign where trust has been made into such a central theme, this story is no trivial issue."
On Sunday, November 1, two days before the 1992 election, CBS "60 Minutes" reporter Mike Wallace promoted the charges of flaky liberal Rep. Henry Gonzalez (D.-Tex.) that Bush and his aides were guilty of obstruction of justice and were "principally responsible for arming Saddam Hussein."
Wallace began: "If you have trouble understanding exactly what it is that people mean when they say Iraqgate, perhaps you’ll understand it better after you hear from the man who has probed into it longer than anyone else in Washington, the chairman. He has never talked about it as fully and freely as he does tonight."
Wallace’s first question to Gonzalez: "Who are the main players who have tried to stop your investigation?"
In his American Lawyer exposé, former New York Times legal reporter Stuart Taylor called the segment a "20-minute tag-team number on the Bush Administration littered with distortions." No critics of Gonzalez appeared.
Why would members of the Bush team want to put themselves in front of Mike Wallace for an edited hit job two days before the election?
Taylor, a political moderate, felt Iraqgate was as phony as he felt Iran-Contra was real: "Most of the nation’s major news organizations seemed intent upon spreading the impression that much of the top echelon of the Bush Administration could be implicated in illegally arming Iraq and covering it up. This edifice of innuendo was erected on a foundation of factual errors and distortions that spread like a contagion."
Instead of spending months and millions of dollars trying to create a foreign-policy sleaze factor for Al Gore, the networks have instead questioned whether Texas Gov. George W. Bush is up the challenging job of handling foreign policy, since he does not have the experience of the Vice President.
Although he mentioned the New York Times report on Gore and Chernomyrdin in passing, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter recently wrote: "During his nearly quarter century in public life, Gore has assiduously studied national-security issues. He has arguably played the most significant foreign-policy role of any Vice President in history."
No foreign failure, from the potential dangers of the Russian arming of Iran to the recent low-intensity war in Israel and the tragic loss of American lives aboard the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, has been investigated by the Wallaces and the Koppels as a potential complication in Gore’s attempts to present himself as a masterful foreign policy specialist.
That’s what we’re getting from the networks this October, and, of course, it’s no surprise.
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