JANUARY 21, 2002
He pronounced Bill Clinton a "scumbag." He presided over endless
hearings on every Clinton scandal, real or imagined. He fired a
bullet into a "head-like object"--reportedly a melon--in his
backyard to test the theory that former White House counsel Vincent
Foster was murdered. And so, not surprisingly, Indiana Congressman
Dan Burton was widely viewed by Democrats during the Clinton years
as a partisan wacko. In May 1998 Massachusetts's Barney Frank spoke
for many of his colleagues when he labeled the silver-haired scold
"incompetent, abusive, out of control, the worst kind of
McCarthyite."But at a little-noticed committee hearing last month, Frank sang a
very different tune: "Mr. Chairman, I want to begin by apologizing
to you," he told Burton, in all apparent sincerity. "[I]n the past,
I had a question about whether there was too much partisanship in
some of your approaches. And by the intellectual integrity you were
displaying today, I think you've made it clear that that was not a
basis for what you were doing. And I admire you enormously."
The cause of this startling encomium from the normally acerbic Frank
was Burton's latest battle--this one with the Bush White House.
Furious that the administration has invoked "executive privilege"
to prevent the release of various Justice Department documents,
Burton last month called a hearing of the House Government Reform
Committee, which he chairs, to investigate the case of an innocent
man whom the Boston FBI allowed to spend 30 years in jail for
murder. Demanding access to internal agency memos detailing the
case, Burton sounded like the 1990s all over again: "[T]his is not
a monarchy.... [I]f this president and if his legal staff continues
to try to block us from getting access to records at the White
House or at the Justice Department to which we're entitled, then
they are going to be having to deal with this committee, day in and
day out, for ... as long as I am chairman."
Frank's not the only liberal who's reevaluating Burton in light of
his squabble with the Bush administration. A recent New York Times
editorial denouncing the president's executive-privilege claim
cited Burton approvingly. When Burton appeared on Fox's "Hannity
%amp% Colmes" in December, liberal host Alan Colmes gushed, "I know
for years I've not always said the nicest things about your attacks
on Bill Clinton, thinking that it was partisan ... but I certainly
see that you are consistent in your views." And Burton is promoting
this man-of-principle story line himself. At last month's hearing he
declared that Democrats who had denounced his Clinton
investigations "are going to find that it was because I really
believe what we were trying to get to the bottom of."
But Democrats may want to think twice before accepting Burton's
makeover at face value. For while it's true that he's angry about
Bush's efforts to restrict public and congressional access to
executive branch documents, the dispute is ultimately procedural.
Unlike his battles during the Clinton years, the ultimate goal of
Burton's current crusade is not to dig up documents that will
embarrass the current White House. Indeed, Burton's latest
fulminations may actually be a convenient way for him to continue
pursuing his old obsession with Clinton and Janet Reno. Frank's
praise notwithstanding, many Democrats are convinced that Burton's
real concern is that if Bush persists in claiming executive
privilege over law enforcement papers, Burton could lose access to
Clinton administration memos capable of proving his wildest
conspiracy theories. "He's afraid of what this means for Clinton
[documents]," says a Democratic aide to the Government Reform
Committee. "The Clintons are gone, but not from our committee."
From its beginning the Bush administration has shown a disturbing
penchant for secrecy. First there was the stonewalling of
Democratic efforts to get details about Dick Cheney's energy task
force--tactics that appalled even the former GOP activist who heads
the General Accounting Office. Then, in November, Bush issued a
constitutionally dubious executive order effectively restricting
the release of papers from former presidential administrations,
which are supposed to be easily available after twelve years (see
"Cover Letter," by Josh Chafetz, August 27, 2001).
But Burton did not go into attack mode until last month, when the
president invoked executive privilege in response to document
requests from the Government Reform Committee. The most publicized
of these was for decades-old memos related to the Boston FBI
fiasco, in which a corrupt relationship between federal agents and
brutal mobsters during the 1960s resulted in the framing of an
innocent man, Joseph Salvati. Some bureau officials may have been
aware of Salvati's innocence but said nothing in order to protect
their mob contacts. (Salvati spent three decades locked up until he
was exonerated by a judge last year.) Committee members, including
Burton, were understandably taken aback at the White House's
decision: It was the first time a president had denied Congress
access to so-called "deliberative documents." In what sounded like
a statement of new White House policy, administration lawyers
argued that turning over such papers endangers legal
confidentiality and could cause a specter of political
recrimination to influence future Justice Department deliberations.
But the Salvati papers weren't all Burton was after. Less noted was
his simultaneous request for Justice Department memos from the
investigation-- surprise!--of the 1996 Clinton-Gore fund-raising
scandals. Specifically, Burton wants to see a memo to Reno, written
by former Justice Department lawyer Robert Conrad, detailing the
case for a special prosecutor to investigate Al Gore's
fund-raising. The memo, which has never been made public, holds a
Grail-like appeal for Clinton conspiracy enthusiasts. Burton is
also after memos that might show why the Justice Department didn't
indict other figures from the fund- raising imbroglio, including
former Clinton White House aide Mark Middleton. While these
questions may seem stale now, they'll freshen up quickly if Gore
runs for president again in 2004. And as long as Hillary is in the
Senate, Clinton scandals will make GOP hearts quicken.
Bush's secrecy edicts could ultimately lead to a tense showdown with
Burton and other erstwhile allies in the congressional GOP. "There
are a lot of people on the Hill who see this as part of a much
larger effort to retrench on providing information to Congress and
the public," says a House Republican aide. "A lot of people are
willing to go to war on that broader effort." Connecticut
Republican Chris Shays, a member of Burton's committee, agrees.
"There has to be a battle. The House just can't sit back." Burton
has scheduled four more hearings on the FBI issue, and aides say
House legal staffers have begun discussing legislation to force the
White House to hand over the Justice Department memos and relax its
new proposal governing presidential records.
But the brewing fight over administration secrecy is notable for
what it's not--namely an effort to uncover wrongdoing by the Bush
White House. So don't hold your breath waiting for a return to the
old days of marathon hearings on White House ethics. Because to
date Burton's fight with the current administration has been
primarily about his desire to keep investigating the former one.
Indeed, Burton treats the question of whether he will examine the
ethics of the Bush White House as borderline preposterous. When new
admirer Colmes asked the congressman about a possible investigation
into Enron's ties to the administration, for example, Burton
snapped, "Alan, let's don't go way beyond the pale here."
Sorry--for a minute we forgot whom we were dealing with.