John Dean is in the news again. Thirty years ago as counsel to Richard Nixon he mesmerized the country with his testimony in the Watergate hearings about “a cancer growing on the presidency.” Eventually Nixon would resign and John Dean would go down in history for his role in the Watergate scandal. Now Dean has written a new book – his sixth – in which he concludes that the obsessive secrecy and deception in Washington today is “Worse Than Watergate.”
Is America on the threshold of a new nuclear arms race? In the months following 9/11, the administration issued an ambitious $500 million plan for the future of America’s nuclear weapons arsenal. That plan envisions new, specialized nuclear weapons and other devices that could be used in a first strike against terrorists and rogue dictators. NOW weighs the potential impact of a renewed nuclear arms development program and examines how efficient some of these new weapons might be against a terrorist enemy.
Following the ambush, murder, and mutilation of four US security contractors in Iraq on Wednesday, US troops vowed an “overwhelming” response to the brutal killings. With less than three months until June 30, the day President Bush wants to turn the country over to Iraqis, NPR’s Deborah Amos weighs in on how these recent developments might bode for the transition.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW. The headlines changed quickly this week, as usual. First there was the president’s decision to allow his National Security Advisor to testify in public before the 9/11 Commission under oath. A clever headline writer for the NEW YORK DAILY NEWs summed it up this way:
“BUSH SERVES UP RICE”
But then the news turned especially grim. As Iraqis danced over the mutilated bodies of the dead. We hadn’t seen images like that before from Iraq… And the news organizations struggled over what to do with them. If gruesome pictures are held back because they upset people, how can we understand what the future holds for Iraq… and for America?
We couldn’t help but think of the American general who once said that without censorship in war, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.
BILL MOYERS: More on Iraq and the 9/11 Commission a little later.
But we begin tonight with a story that has gone virtually unreported except for the attention of a few print journalists and technical publications. That’s unfortunate because what’s at stake is potentially a major shift in how we think about nuclear weapons and whether we’re prepared to use them.
Here’s our report, produced by our colleague Bryan Myers.
WOMAN AT MEETING: Absolutely no more nuclear testing in Nevada. We Utahans have had our share and we do not want any additional exposure!
BILL MOYERS: For months now, town meetings like this have been taking place all over the desert Southwest.
MAN AT MEETING: Radioactivity knows no race, no gender, no party affiliation. And if you’re a rancher, it will get your cattle. If you’re a parent, it will get your kids. It is unsafe, and there is nothing we can do to make it safe.
BILL MOYERS: What on earth is going on, you might ask? It’s been over a dozen years since the Cold War, and almost just as long since America’s last nuclear test. Yet these citizens of Utah are talking as if they’re facing an imminent threat.
MAN AT MEETING: I can’t urge you strongly enough that we have to oppose this in every way!
WOMAN AT MEETING: I think the whole thing is insane.
BILL MOYERS: What they’re talking about — what they fear — is the possibility of a new nuclear age. And it’s not as farfetched as you might think. Back in Washington, the government is moving forward on research for a new generation of nuclear weapons.
ANNOUNCER (FROM TAPE): Ladies and gentleman, the President of the United States!
BILL MOYERS: It was only a few weeks ago that President Bush described what he calls “the greatest threat before humanity today,” namely, terrorists and dictators who possess weapons of mass destruction.
PRESIDENT BUSH (FEBRUARY 11, 2004): Armed with a single vial of a biological agent or a single nuclear weapon, small groups of fanatics, or failing states, could gain the power to threaten great nations.
BILL MOYERS: Wrestling with how to counter that threat, the administration has put forward this document: the “Nuclear Posture Review.” Released in the months following 9/11, it’s an ambitious vision of the future role of nuclear weapons. It says, “new capabilities must be developed to defeat emerging threats,” and to, “deny the enemy sanctuary.”
This is what most people think of when they think of nuclear weapons, missiles devised during the Cold War carrying warheads aimed at the Soviet Union. New kinds of nuclear bombs are needed today, the argument goes — smaller bombs capable of pinpoint precision against terrorist sites. The very possibility of their use, advocates say, would make terrorists think twice about striking the U.S.
Linton Brooks runs one of the most important, yet little known, government agencies — the National Nuclear Security Administration. His job is to maintain and modernize the nuclear arsenal.
LINTON BROOKS, NATIONAL NUCLEAR SECURITY ADMIN: We fear that a dictator, believing there is nothing we can do to hold at risk the things he values, would be emboldened. And so we think that it is prudent to look at whether or not the President out to have some tools in his tool kit to hold those things at risk.
VOICE FROM TAPE: Three, Two, One, Zero.
BILL MOYERS: Even the Pentagon concedes these “new tools” represent a shift in how we think of nuclear weapons. Historically, the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction served as a deterrent: neither side would strike first out of fear of retaliation. Linton brooks, for one, says there’s a reason America needs a more up-to-date nuclear arsenal.
LINTON BROOKS: It’s increasingly true that there are what we call hard, deeply buried targets throughout the world that can’t be attacked by conventional means.
BILL MOYERS: One of the new weapons researchers are working on is called the “Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator.” A nuclear bomb, that is, which could burrow deep into the earth to strike underground bunkers. The Pentagon estimates there are over 10,000 deeply buried bunkers worldwide, housing everything from weapons of mass destruction to military command centers.
LINTON BROOKS: This will be a weapon that will still cause collateral damage. It will still cause fallout. It will still be a hugely serious decision. But it will be quantitatively and qualitatively different from conventional weapons.
BILL MOYERS: The bomb would give America a first strike, pre-emptive capability. And it’s not a new idea. During the Clinton administration, the government even fielded a rudimentary version. But when the search for a bigger and better bomb started under President Bush, the controversy broke out into the open. The administration has insisted it’s only studying the idea.
REPORTER (MAY 20, 2003): But it seems a bit disingenuous to say this is only a study?
DONALD RUMSFELD: That’s exactly what it is.
REPORTER: And it’s not leading to anything else?
DONALD RUMSFELD: It may or may not. People study things all the time that don’t lead to things.
BILL MOYERS: Even so, the administration has requested almost $500 million dollars for the project over the next five years. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, that request, quote, “seems to cast serious doubt on assertions that the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator is only a study.”
CHARLES HORNER: What we’re worried about—
BILL MOYERS: The penetrator has attracted some unlikely opponents. Before he retired, Charles Horner was a four-star general in the Air Force.
CHARLES HORNER (JANUARY 18, 1991): What I have now to show you are some film clips of some actual weapons delivery.
BILL MOYERS: Horner commanded the Allied Air Forces during the first Gulf War. He’s one of the few people in this debate who has actual experience going after weapons of mass destruction stored in underground bunkers. He says he didn’t need nuclear weapons to take out Saddam’s stockpile.
CHARLES HORNER: He had four bunkers filled with anthrax and botulism. Our dilemma was, do we allow him the option of using those things or do we attack him and deny him the option?
BILL MOYERS: What did you do?
CHARLES HORNER: What we did do is we attacked him at first light in the morning and that gave us maximum sunlight, sunlight kills these spores on the debris after the attack, and also when the wind is calm. So anything that came up out of the attack would fall back into the immediate area. The other thing we did after we opened the bunkers up with these big 2,000-pound bombs, we put incendiaries in there to create as much heat as possible, and of course that also kills the spores.
BILL MOYERS: Horner’s pilots did it all with conventional weapons. Conventional weapons, he says, have a political advantage over nuclear bombs.
CHARLES HORNER: I’m not necessarily in favor of developing a small penetrating low-yield nuclear weapon.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
CHARLES HORNER: Because of the political baggage that goes with the use of nuclear weapons. During the Gulf War, I said to myself, what would I use these weapons for? How would I use them? We weren’t gonna do it, but I had to say to myself, if I was tasked to do it, what would I do? So I sat down with a nuclear planner, he got his computer models and we ran them and ran them. The only thing nuclear weapons were good for, really, was busting cities. And if we go around killing women and children in cities, we’ve lost the war.
BILL MOYERS: The Bush administration says that won’t happen. In fact, advocates for the new weapons argue these new, smaller nukes don’t have to be used to be effective. Like the Cold War weapons of old, their very existence is supposedly enough to deter terrorists.
LINTON BROOKS: It has the same utility that all nuclear weapons have, and that’s deterrence. It’s important to understand that the administration is not trying to alter the notion that nuclear weapons exist to deter. The question is, deter what and deter who?
FRANK GAFFNEY: You want these devices to be appropriate, such that those you are seeking to deter believe that you could use them, and could use them decisively and effectively.
BILL MOYERS: Frank Gaffney was an Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan. He now runs the Center for Security Policy, a conservative Washington think tank. He says the search for new nukes is a welcome change in direction. The U.S. Hasn’t deployed a new nuclear warhead since 1988, and hasn’t conducted a nuclear weapons test since 1992. His argument is, if we want to show an enemy we mean business, we have to update the arsenal.
FRANK GAFFNEY: If you are serious about having as the ultimate deterrent, a nuclear arsenal, you have to do these sorts of things to ensure that it is in fact a credible deterrent.
BILL MOYERS: But would a new generation of small nukes really be a credible deterrent to terror? General Horner doesn’t think so.
CHARLES HORNER: I don’t think you can deter the terrorist. If he doesn’t fear death, which obviously they don’t, if he … his goals are so ethereal such as bringing some revolutionary mindset change to the people, if he’s dealing strictly with hatred, our nuclear weapons are not gonna deter his use of nuclear weapons. He has to have something to lose, and quite frankly if he’s insane enough he has nothing to lose.
BILL MOYERS: No territory, no turf, no place, no country, no boundary
CHARLES HORNER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: What is the best deterrence for terrorists or outlaw regimes?
CHARLES HORNER: I think the best deterrence for an outlaw regime is to let them know that their aspirations cannot be achieved through the use of terror or the use of conventional forces.
BILL MOYERS: But some who believe in new weapons like the Earth Penetrator aren’t talking about deterrence at all. Former Republican speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is now a member of the Pentagon’s high level Defense Policy Board. In an article last year, he advocated, quote, “this would be a weapon designed to be used. It would not simply be a weapon of deterrence.” His point? That since the Robust Nuclear Penetrator would create “minimum collateral damage” — in other words, kill fewer civilians than other nukes — using it would be more acceptable.
And remember the administration’s “Nuclear Posture Review?” It flatly states, “nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack.” Frank Gaffney says it’s about time we started thinking like this again.
FRANK GAFFNEY: I believe that the policy that we have been pursuing as a government for most of the past ten years, at least, has been more or less a policy of deliberate denuclearization.
BILL MOYERS: And in another sign the Bush White House is repudiating policies of the past, the president’s team has expressed interest in developing other new weapons besides the penetrator. It’s been ten years since Congress banned research of so-called “low yield” bombs — weapons with about a third of the power of the Hiroshima bomb. Congress feared the temptation to use them might prove too great. The Bush administration didn’t like the restriction.
LINTON BROOKS: There was provision in the law put in 1993 that banned any research that could, and the word “could,” is important, lead to the development of a low-yield weapon. Since almost anything you do in nuclear research could lead to that development, we saw this as having a chilling effect on all forms of research.
BILL MOYERS: So last December, the administration prevailed and Congress repealed the research ban. Shortly afterwards, Linton Brooks wrote this memo to his team of nuclear researchers, telling them, quote, “We should not fail to take advantage of this opportunity.” Now’s Bryan Myers spoke with Brooks.
BRYAN MYERS: That was widely interpreted as “let’s go forward with research of low yield weapons.”
LINTON BROOKS: Well, yeah, apparently it was. And I’ve re-read the memo after that was pointed out to me. And I guess I didn’t draft it very well.
BILL MOYERS: Brooks says, right now, there is no research into low yield weapons, but he doesn’t rule it out in the future. Others who work for him haven’t been so restrained.
Here is where America’s nuclear weapons are designed — the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sandia is overseen by Brooks, but it’s actually run by Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest defense contractor. The president of Sandia Lab, a Lockheed Martin executive, has said, quote, “The U.S. will undoubtedly require” lower yield nuclear weapons and he’s strongly advocated they be developed.
That doesn’t surprise Admiral Stansfield Turner. He’s a vocal critic of the push for new nuclear weapons.
STANSFIELD TURNER: Bill, there is a club in our security establishment that loves nuclear weapons.
STANSFIELD TURNER (MARCH 8, 1977): I, Stansfield Turner, do solemnly swear —
BILL MOYERS: Admiral Turner was the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Jimmy Carter. Since leaving office, he’s devoted himself to promoting nuclear non-proliferation.
BILL MOYERS: Is there a kind of military industrial complex at work here?
STANSFIELD TURNER: Oh, yes, very much so. It’s very hard to turn off, because they can concoct scenarios like this underground bunker in the middle of a city that sound plausible to people.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the risk in just beginning the research without any assurance of development or deployment?
STANSFIELD TURNER: It undermines our ability to lead the responsible nations of this world in a tough program of counter-proliferation, countering anybody’s attempts to make nuclear weapons.
BILL MOYERS: So you think that if we pursue the research and testing of even low-yield nuclear bombs, it would send a message that proliferation is back in business.
STANSFIELD TURNER: Yes, yes. It certainly makes us look very cynical to say, “Hey, North Korea, you can’t have even one nuclear weapon.” We’ve got about eight or ten thousand today, and we’re now going to invent some new ones. It just doesn’t sell.
BILL MOYERS: What about the argument from the supporters of these weapons that, well, we haven’t been testing for the last ten years and during that period of time, North Korea got a nuclear weapon. They didn’t pause because we paused.
STANSFIELD TURNER: Absolutely, but that’s not the issue. The issue is, do we get the Germans, the French, the Indians, other people to join with us in cutting North Korea off from the opportunity to have nuclear weapons? No, we’re not going to influence the North Koreans or the Iranians or others. But they have to have support from outside.
BILL MOYERS: Beyond the political debate, there’s another, practical, issue here. Many scientists say new weapons like the “Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator” simply can’t do what’s claimed.
Bob Peurifoy was once was a Vice-President and Director of Weapons Development at Sandia National Lab. There, he helped design some of the most lethal weapons ever, including the warhead poised aboard the Trident nuclear submarine. He says a nuclear penetrator could never get hundreds of feet into the ground, no matter how big the bomb.
BOB PEURIFOY: If you got ten meters into the soil, you’d be doing well indeed. Now, where’s your target? Is it the middle of Baghdad? Boy, oh boy, that would be a mess. Think of all the kids that would be killed.
BILL MOYERS: Whether these new weapons could ever work as designed is a big question which raises a whole new issue. Even though Congress has prohibited any testing of such weapons without its permission, the administration wants to refurbish the old Nevada Test Site, a necessary step if a decision is made to resume testing. Peurifoy says this is exactly what some of his colleagues have been hoping for.
BOB PEURIFOY: I know the anguish they suffered when the first Bush terminated device yield testing. I read the papers. And I see them biting around the edges.
MYRNA COX: We don’t need any more of this to taint Southern Utah. We’ve got to fight people!
BILL MOYERS: Which brings us back to those people in Utah. For decades, many of them have suffered the health effects from the radioactive fallout of the nuclear weapons tests of the past. From the time it opened in 1951 to the last test in 1992, over one thousand bombs were detonated at the Nevada Test Site — about one every 14 days. Myrna Cox has been speaking up at those town meetings.
MYRNA COX: I remember the testing very well. We would watch the mushroom clouds. They were absolutely beautiful. Big towering clouds of green and orange and whatever. And we were in awe. You know, standing there watching this happen. And not realizing what was really happening.
BILL MOYERS: In other words, while the government was telling them not to worry, it was intentionally sending radioactive clouds over their communities. Myrna Cox herself is a cancer survivor and she says that here in the desert, government credibility is in short supply.
MYRNA COX: We thought that it was safe before. We really thought that. But now our eyes are opened. And now I believe we have a great responsibility to do something.
BILL MOYERS: Despite the assurances of the Bush administration, Cox and her neighbors are worried by the prospect that we are about to enter a new nuclear age.
MYRNA COX: Once they put policies into place, it seems like there’s no end — what’s coming next. You know, I would like to know what’s coming next. If we allow this, what can we expect in the future? I do not want that kind of future for my children.
ANNOUNCER: There’s more to come on now—John Dean, who helped expose President Nixon during Watergate, says George Bush is worse.
JOHN DEAN: It’s taking a nation to war in a time when they might not have had to go to war – that is worse than Watergate.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: As the specter of a new generation of nuclear weapons looms, the War on Terror took new shape this week as those pictures of hideous brutality from Falluja flooded our living rooms. Do they signal things are getting worse there … Or do they serve as a reality check of what America is really up against?
To talk about all this is Deborah Amos. She’s made three trips to Iraq as a correspondent for National Public Radio, most recently in February.
Welcome back to NOW, Deborah.
DEBORAH AMOS: Thank you.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: What are we to make of these horrendous images of this incident in Fallujah? Do they tell us anything that we didn’t really already know?
DEBORAH AMOS: Well, I think that part of the shock is that death has been shrouded in Iraq. Remember that the US military doesn’t let reporters photograph coffins coming back to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. So, this was a huge change in the kind of pictures that we’ve been seeing from Iraq.
What does it tell us about Fallujah? Fallujah, I suppose we could call a loser town. Almost everything that people did before the war — how they made money — came from Saddam. They were policemen. They were in the army. They were in the security services. They were smugglers, in that town. So, everything that was their life is now gone.
One thing that we can say about the Americans so far, is they haven’t had a good political strategy for the Sunnis. Mostly, it has been about the Shias, 60 percent of the country. These are the Sunnis. They see —
DAVID BRANCACCIO: The minority in Iraq.
DEBORAH AMOS: The minority in Iraq, who see no future for themselves. They see no place for themselves in the new Iraq. When they look to Baghdad, they see none of the people on the governing council represent them.
I can also say that both the insurgence and the American military, as well as the civilians there, are all looking at the calendar. We come in July first. It is the turnover to sovereignty. The insurgents would like a spiral downward. The US-led coalition would like to keep it on an even keel until then. And they are in a duel with each other.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: What’s the calculation, though, in the run-up to July? The idea of, if we keep assaulting our occupiers, it will lead to what? Some sort of anarchy? That will help whom?
DEBORAH AMOS: This is a long history of how you approach the Americans. The film BLACK HAWK DOWN is very popular in the Middle East. And in fact, some of the insurgents have been making homemade videos in studios in Fallujah. And they include part of that film in their own propaganda. In their recruiting.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: This is the Hollywood version of the incident in Mogadishu in the early ’90s, when 18 American servicemen were killed, their bodies dragged through the streets.
DEBORAH AMOS: And the lesson of that particular incident is that if you hit the Americans hard enough, they will go home. And so, this is Mogadishu replayed in Fallujah.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Give me a better sense of the tribalism that you see in places like Fallujah. And the tradition of retribution, of revenge, that may have played a role in these images that we saw.
DEBORAH AMOS: Well, Fallujah is a very tribal town. But let me tell you, the tribal people can have college degrees and drive BMWs. However, it is a culture of revenge. Back in the early days of the occupation, in April US soldiers were occupying a school in Fallujah. And the local people came to complain.
The problem is, that the Americans had no translators. So, they had no idea what this crowd wanted. In the end, 18 people were shot that day. Eighteen people were killed in Fallujah. And I think that at the time, the US military didn’t realize the implications of that. And that that act would require the families to take their revenge.
Not necessarily on the soldiers who did the shooting. But anybody in an American uniform. Let’s fast-forward to a month ago. An insurgent attack on the Fallujah police station. More than a dozen Fallujans were killed in that police station.
All the people who were brought to the hospital were both the insurgents, and those who were killed. The doctors there told me, “It was pandemonium.” There were families, you know, crawling through the windows of the hospital. They wanted at the insurgents. They had to get revenge, because their relatives had either been injured, or killed. This is a culture that depends on revenge.
Remember, when there’s no justice system, these are old ideas that flourish not just in the Middle East, but in Latin America. In Africa. This is not off the charts as human behavior. It is what our court systems essentially do for us, without us having to do it. But in Fallujah, you are duty-bound, honor-bound. to take revenge.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: US officials in Iraq are trying to make the case that this was, in a sense, an aberration. That generally, things are on track toward that July first date. Institutions are being built up. Iraqi police are being trained to help bring some measure of order to parts of Iraq. What’s your assessment of how things are going?
DEBORAH AMOS: Well, all of that is true. You saw, just in the last month, that some of the main ministries are being, quote, “turned over” to the Iraqis. And what that means is they write their own budgets. They hire all their own personnel. They are essentially running those parts of the country for instance, the Health Ministry, very important. The Education Ministry has been turned over.
But there will still be Western advisors in all of those ministries. But the question really is, what is that turnover? Now on paper, it’s a turnover of sovereignty to the Iraqis. But it’s unclear exactly how much will change.
There are also plans now apace for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which is the civilian administrators of Iraq, to become the US Embassy. And those plans are moving quite rapidly now. It’ll be the biggest embassy in the world, after July first. There will be more than 100,000 American troops in Iraq after July first.
So, the Iraqis will have their sovereignty. They will be a sovereign country. They will be able to take their seat at the United Nations. But the Coalition that brought the war to Iraq will also still in some ways be there behind the scenes. Sometimes in front of the scenes. But that turnover, despite what we’ll all see on television– a lot of handovers, a lot of ceremonies, will not really change much from what it looks like today.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Now, when we see that handover, it’s gonna be specifically to whom? Are they shopping for like, a Prime Minister or something now?
DEBORAH AMOS: Well, it’s very odd that we are less than 100 days away from the turnover, and there’s some big questions to answer. Exactly that. Who are we turning this over to? I think that that has not been decided yet. There are also big questions about how the elections will go.
The Bush Administration has placed all of its bets on the United Nations. That the special representative from the UN can work out all of the arguments about the elections, and he can do it fairly soon, so that this country doesn’t devolve into some kind of civil war. And it’s a rather big bet. So, I think that there are some very tough times ahead, both on the political side and on the military side.
You know, the US military has been saying for some time, that we are just about turning the corner on the insurgency. And they’ve been saying that for months.
I think that it stretches imagination that they are turning the corner. They are not turning the corner. There is a long way to go. On quelling this insurgency. And in the last couple of days, you are now seeing, you know, senior military people saying, “Well, I don’t think it’s outsiders.”
These are Iraqis. These are nationalists, they are anti-occupation, they are anti-American. And this is going to go on for some time. Not just to July, and everybody agrees that the run-up ’til July will probably be a very violent time. But much after July.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: So, Deb, you really want to go back to Iraq?
DEBORAH AMOS: I want to see the transition. I mean, once you start it’s hard not to be there. It is, if you are a Middle East correspondent — and I started — I hate to tell you this, but — in 1982, covering the Middle East. This is the Super Bowl. This is your finals. This is your Ph.D. in Middle East.
This is a revolutionary act, by an administration who believes that to bring democracy to the Middle East will improve US security. I know of nothing like it in the last 100 years. It is a revolutionary change. And the region will be forever changed by it.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, Deborah Amos, I always learn so much when I speak with you. Thank you very much for coming back to NOW.
DEBORAH AMOS: Thank you.
ANNOUNCER: And… Connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS on line at pbs.org
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BILL MOYERS: You could barely keep up with the news about the 9/11 Commission this week. So tonight, we’re going to talk to someone with a long range perspective…remember Watergate?
WATERGATE HEARINGS: “What did the President know and when did he know it?”
BILL MOYERS: 1973: The Watergate hearings mesmerized the nation and brought down a President of the United States, Richard Nixon. The star witness was a thirty-three year old John W. Dean.
JOHN DEAN: I began by telling the president there was a cancer growing on the presidency, and if the cancer was not removed, the President himself would be killed by it.
BILL MOYERS: John Dean came to the White House in 1970 as Counsel to the President, joining a team that included the equally young Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
When burglars hired by the Nixon Campaign for Re-election were caught breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee, Dean’s role was to see that they got their “hush money” and kept their mouths shut. When the conspiracy began to unravel and it appeared he would be made the fall guy, Dean agreed to co-operate with the investigation Richard Nixon fired him in April 1973. Two months later, he made his dramatic appearance before the Senate committee investigating the scandal.
After five days of his testimony and cross-examination, there was no doubt that the cover-up started at the top, with the president himself.
To escape impeachment, Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974. John Dean pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and served four months in prison.
Returning to private life, he began a successful career as an investment banker, lecturer and author. His books include three on the Nixon administration – and now, this one, with the title: WORSE THAN WATERGATE: THE SECRET PRESIDENCY OF GEORGE W. BUSH.
BILL MOYERS: John Dean joins me now to talk about secrecy in the White House.
Welcome to NOW.
JOHN DEAN: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s start with the news of the day. This morning we learn that President Bush has kept thousands of pages of secret documents from the Clinton years from being turned over to the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks. What do you make of that?
JOHN DEAN: Well, I think it’s very typical. I think it’s very consistent with his pattern. It goes all the way back to when Cheney put together his Energy Task Force, for example, and put a shroud over that and has refused, adamantly, to release any information from that. This is just more of that pattern where this White House has decided they’re going to take total control of information.
And, they did it with the Joint Inquiry on Capitol Hill into 9/11. As John McCain said they were slow-walked and stonewalled on Capitol Hill by the administration. The families of 9/11 then urged that there be a commission created which we now have. And they’ve done the same thing. And brought it right into their own campaign.
BILL MOYERS: But these documents deal with al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, the Clinton team’s reaction to the terrorist attack. Why wouldn’t they want the Congress the investigating commission to have that kind of information if they’re trying to put the whole story together?
JOHN DEAN: Well, I’m not sure they want the whole story together. There’s always a situation that when you deal with an investigation you can either be aggressive or you can be passive. You can be offensive or defensive. They’ve decided to put them self in a defensive posture on this.
And I’m not sure that they haven’t been forced to do it because they have something that they really don’t want out about the way they’ve handled it. Mr. Clarke, his testimony indicates that they might have some things that they don’t really wanna reveal to the public.
BILL MOYERS: Their efforts to stonewall, as you say, the investigations have failed. This is out today about they’re holding back the documents from the Clinton years to the commission. But political pressure, public opinion have forced the testimony next week of Condoleezza Rice.
JOHN DEAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: So it’s not working, is it?
JOHN DEAN: Well, it doesn’t work.
They’ve obviously made a political decision that they cannot refuse to let Miss Rice testify. So he’s agreed to let her do so. But there’s still more information we don’t know.
And he’s also put, they put tight limits on her testimony. She’s gonna do 2 1/2 hours. That isn’t a lot of testimony. That’s really not a lot at all.
BILL MOYERS: If Condoleezza Rice asked you to help her prepare for that testimony, what advice would you give her?
JOHN DEAN: Well, I’d say give lots of opinions. Because opinions aren’t perjurious.
BILL MOYERS: They’re not?
JOHN DEAN: No. They’re not.
BILL MOYERS: Perjurious meaning?
JOHN DEAN: You’re convicted of perjury for a false statement.
BILL MOYERS: Give me an example.
JOHN DEAN: Well, I’ll give you an example with Clarke. Clarke has said that he can’t believe that Bush is running on his record of terrorism. That’s pure opinion. You can’t be convicted for perjury on offering an opinion like that.
BILL MOYERS: You finished this book when? Back in January?
JOHN DEAN: I finished it in late January.
BILL MOYERS: So, you actually finished the book before the last month of intense activities and disclosures, right?
JOHN DEAN: I did. But the pattern has been so consistent. And I wrote the book because no one’s talking about these things. Now more with this issue has come up. But I, at times, felt sort of like a CIA analyst where I would take this fact, that fact, taking my inside knowledge as you could do as a former insider. And piecing it together and seeing patterns and understanding what they’re really doing. And that’s what this book lays out.
BILL MOYERS: You write that the administration has tried to block, frustrate or control any investigation into 9/11 using, quote, “well-proven tactics not unlike those used by the Nixon White House during Watergate.” What tactics?
JOHN DEAN: Stall. Stall. Stall.
We knew that at the Nixon White House. Some of these are time-tested tactics. When the Congress put together its joint inquiry, a joint inquiry itself was self-defeating because it’s much more difficult for a joint inquiry with its size, the lack of attention its staff can give to a group that large. It gets diffuse.
BILL MOYERS: So when you testified in Congress in the 70’s there was a Senate Investigating Committee and a House Judiciary Committee, right?
JOHN DEAN: Right. Separate committees. Exactly. And they can get much more focused. So it was very effective. And Cheney and Bush were very involved. They didn’t want any of the standing committees to do it. They put them together. And that was one of the first signs I saw that they’re just playing it by— I think they found an old playbook down in the basement that belonged to Richard Nixon. And they said, “Well, this stuff looks like it works.”
BILL MOYERS: Be specific with me. What is worse than Watergate?
JOHN DEAN: If there’s anything that really is the bottom line, it’s taking the nation to war in a time when they might not have had to go to war and people dying. That is worse than Watergate. No one died for Nixon’s so-called Watergate abuses.
BILL MOYERS: Let me go right to page 155 of your book. You write, quote, “The evidence is overwhelming that George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney have engaged in deceit and deception over going to war in Iraq. This is an impeachable offense.”
JOHN DEAN: Absolutely is. The founders in the debates in the states. I cite one. I cite one that I found, I tracked down after reading the Nixon impeachment proceedings when Congressman Castenmeyer had gone back to look to see what the founders said about misrepresentations and lying to the the Congress. Clearly, it is an impeachable offense. And I think the case is overwhelming that these people presented false information to the Congress and to the American people.
BILL MOYERS: John, I was, as you know, in the Johnson White House at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin when LBJ escalated the war in Vietnam on the basis of misleading information. He said there was an attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. It subsequently turns out there wasn’t an attack.
Many people said then and have said that LBJ deceived the country and concealed the escalation of the war. You even say in the book that he hoodwinked Congress. Are you saying that that was not an impeachable offense but what is happening now is?
JOHN DEAN: No. I’m saying that was an impeachable offense. In fact, it comes up in the Nixon debates over whether the secret bombing would be an impeachable offense. That became a non-high crime or offense because Nixon had, in fact, told privately some members of the Congress. Johnson didn’t tell anybody he was – the game he was playing to my knowledge.
And these are probably the most serious offenses that you can make when you take a country to war, blood and treasure, no higher decision can a President of the United States make as the Commander-in-Chief. To do it on bogus information, to use this kind of secrecy to do it is intolerable.
BILL MOYERS: After Congress delegated the authority to the President to go to war, it said, “Only, however, if you meet these two conditions. As you prove to us, you come back to us and determine that Iraq was involved with terrorism with al-Qaeda. And that there are weapons of mass destruction.” And you say that Bush did not satisfy those two requirements?
JOHN DEAN: He did not. He explained. Had he merely sent his very general letter saying, “This is what I’ve determined.” Keeping it very broad, not how he determined it or why he determined it, he might have been all right. But he accompanied that with an explanation of how he had done so. And it’s a bogus explanation.
BILL MOYERS: Secrecy always accompanies war. Presidents can’t do their job, frankly, in war, without secrecy. Citizens come to take their government’s word that secrecy is essential.
JOHN DEAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Is the war on terrorism going to confirm people in the tolerance of secrecy?
JOHN DEAN: The Bush-Cheney secrecy started long before 9-11. Started long before there was war. There has been only an acceleration and a use, and to me, an abuse, of secrecy using 9-11 as an excuse to make things secret that have no business being secret. This is what presidents do.
BILL MOYERS: You’re especially agitated in here by what you call the dirtiest of dirty tricks, the role of the government in revealing that Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plane Wilson, was a covert CIA agent.
JOHN DEAN: As dirty a trick as I’ve ever seen, bar none.
BILL MOYERS: Dirtier than Nixon’s?
JOHN DEAN: Dirtier. Nixon put no hits out on anybody that I nor did he pick on his enemies’ wives. And this clearly was a dangerous leak. This woman, they knew she was at the CIA. They may or may not have known how much, how deeply involved she was. But there was always that risk when you reveal the identity of a CIA agent, particularly who’s an operative.
BILL MOYERS: And you’re satisfied this came from within the administration?
JOHN DEAN: There’s no doubt in my mind. Where else could it have come from? Who else has privy to that kind of information? Who else tried to fan the fires once it got out there? They were after Wilson for telling the truth about whether or not Saddam Hussein had uranium from Africa. And it was not a true statement that the President was relying on in this effort to go to war.
We don’t have all the details. There’s a grand jury that’s now investigating that. Which, incidentally, Bill if that grand jury doesn’t go beyond just the staff, and talk to and somehow get statements from both the President and the Vice President as to what they knew and when they knew it because this has been kept buried. And it has all the scent, but not quite the smell yet, of cover-up going on in there.
BILL MOYERS: In fact, you claim that this potentially involves a criminal conspiracy. Help me to understand that.
JOHN DEAN: Well, if it takes very little to create a criminal conspiracy. If you and I agree here this morning that we’re gonna rob a bank, and you say, “Well, that sounds good to me,” and I don’t really tell you I go out and do it, you’re just as guilty as I am. And it doesn’t — and oh, you can join a conspiracy as it goes along.
Obstruction of justice is probably one of the broadest, most ill-defined federal offenses I know of. I learned about it the painful way. I never had thought I wasn’t trained as a criminal lawyer. I learned my criminal law the hard way. In fact, that was my one mistake. You needed, in that particular presidency, to be a very good criminal lawyer.
But, the point I’m making is that, you know, they have walked into a potential situation by not trying to flush it out right away. And Bush, for example, saying, “I don’t think they’ll ever catch the leaker.” That’s sending signals. Keep it you know, keep your head down.
BILL MOYERS: It’s potentially a criminal conspiracy, isn’t it, because two or more officials are involved?
JOHN DEAN: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: And the WASHINGTON POST has said, without identifying anybody, that there were at least two officials involved in this leak.
JOHN DEAN: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: You and I both worked for Presidents who were obsessed with secrecy. I mean, Lyndon Johnson could be paranoid about leaks. And you write in your book that of all the Cold War Presidents, none was more secretive than Nixon who, himself, admitted he became almost, quote, “a basket case with regard to secrecy.” But you go on to write that when it comes to secrecy, quote, “never before have we had a pair of rulers like Bush and Cheney.” What do you mean by that?
JOHN DEAN: The Nixon approach as opposed to this White House is much more open government. Nixon wanted to, he wanted to share. It’s really during Watergate when he finds himself in very bad straights that he really becomes so secretive. But as I say, and I record in this book chapter by chapter and fact by fact, we’ve never seen secrecy like this.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think the press has not been talking about it?
JOHN DEAN: I don’t know. I find as I discuss in the book, that the media decided to give the Bush Administration a pass. One of the immediate after-effects of Watergate and having watched Presidencies before and after. After Watergate, a President was presumed to be doing the wrong thing. Now, he wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt. Before, he was.
BILL MOYERS: Vietnam has to be an event —
JOHN DEAN: Vietnam —
BILL MOYERS: Vietnam and Watergate. Those were the two —
JOHN DEAN: No question that they are Watergate and Vietnam are very related in many ways. But so after Watergate, you have this very questioning media. You have a lot of investigative journalism. And this really runs right through the Clinton Years. And somehow, almost like a switch was hit. When the Bush Administration came into office somebody hit that switch. And no longer is there that doubt. No longer is that questioning.
BILL MOYERS: You say secrecy is out of hand.
JOHN DEAN: No question. It’s out of hand because it’s never been as severe. When these people moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they closed the doors, they pulled the shades, and they put, in essence, a gag order out.
BILL MOYERS: John, what do you think about the fact that the commission, the 9-11 Commission, has agreed to allow the President and the Vice President to appear together before them, with only one staff member present to take notes? What’s behind that?
JOHN DEAN: I just think that is so evident of the lack of George Bush’s knowledge as to what’s going on.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
JOHN DEAN: Well, he needs Cheney there to be the man who can get into depth. He’s as good as his script.
BILL MOYERS: But of course it would also mean that they can keep their story straight.
JOHN DEAN: It can do that.
BILL MOYERS: You know, there is no way that we’re not gonna be accused of Bush-bashing. Part of the temper of the times is that journalistically it’s inevitable, I think, in this polarized country today. But what’s beyond that? What is at stake here?
JOHN DEAN: Well, I’m not interested in Bush bashing. I’m really only interested in the truth getting out, people understand a very complex and sensitive issue. And that is secrecy.
In fact, I rely, if you notice in the book on every chapter I start with somebody who is of Mr. Bush’s party, talking and complaining about his excessive secrecy. This isn’t a partisan issue for me.
This isn’t an issue of Republicans versus Democrats. This is an issue of good government versus bad government. This is an informed electorate and an uninformed electorate.
And I don’t think there are any options here. And it’s not to me, if the truth is bashing, I’ll take the charge. If when I see people making wild and baseless charges, I find that to be bashing.
BILL MOYERS: Are there any sour grapes here? I mean could it be said that your White House career ended in disgrace, while the young Cheney and Rumsfeld went on from one success to another, not only in business, but in government? Is there something about– of an old blood feud here?
JOHN DEAN: Not for me, anyway. Not in the slightest. Bill, this is a book I could have never planned on writing. I had written a number of columns. And it just kept getting worse and worse and worse.
And I said, “Nobody’s speaking to these issues.” I have no grudge against any of these people at all. I’m just I’m deeply disappointed in them. Deeply disappointed. And a bit frightened by them.
BILL MOYERS: You — how so?
JOHN DEAN: That they absolutely won’t, you know, what the world opinion is, is irrelevant to them. What the Americans’ opinion, other than their base, is irrelevant.
They’re on their own wavelength, and not listening. And they’re men of zeal, while I think in their hearts they believe they’re doing the right thing. This is the most dangerous kinda situation.
When you move in secrecy and you’re not taking outside advice, when you get that bunker mentality, which I’m sure you saw in the Johnson administration, we saw in the Nixon White House. This is when you make bad decisions.
BILL MOYERS: I haven’t seen you for many, many years. But I have noted that both of us are somewhat zealots ourselves about secrecy. And I know mine comes out of realizing too late what the price – that democracy really does die behind closed doors.
JOHN DEAN: Absolutely. Well, you know, Bill, I don’t come at this as a partisan. I mean I really left those days long behind me. I’m a registered Independent. I vote for both Republicans, I vote for Democrats. I vote for the issues.
And you know, I didn’t wanna get in the mix of a partisan thing. But I do think these are issues that must be on the table.
BILL MOYERS: You say in here that even more so than Nixon, they come after their enemies list, the people on their enemies list. I mean we see what’s happening to Clarke. What’s gonna happen to you again?
JOHN DEAN: You know, they can’t hurt me at this point. I’m damaged material already.
BILL MOYERS: The book is WORSE THAN WATERGATE: THE SECRET PRESIDENCY OF GEORGE W. BUSH, by John W. Dean. Thank you for joining us on NOW.
JOHN DEAN: Thank you, Bill.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: That talk about Watergate got me thinking about a guest we had on here a couple of weeks ago. Actor Hal Holbrook spoke of his years of playing Mark Twain. But Holbrook was also in the big Watergate movie, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, playing the mysterious ‘Deep Throat’ source. Barely visible in a shadowy underground parking lot, he gave this famous advice to the young reporter:
DEEP THROAT: Just follow the money.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Follow the money. It’s that yellow brick money trail that’s supposed to lead to the truth.
But watching the news this week, I’ve come to the conclusion that following the money only gets you so far.
I say follow the oil. You’ve heard of the “Unified Field Theory” to explain all things. Here’s my “Unified Oil Field Theory.
Starting with presidential politics. When the president and his Democratic challenger tried to drive their messages home to voters this week, what did they talk about? The price of peanut butter? (Uh, uh.)
JOHN KERRY: If the gas prices keep rising at the rate they are going now, Dick Cheney and George Bush are going to have to car pool to work.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: Senator Kerry’s on this thing about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Why is the government topping up its emergency storage tanks, when gasoline prices have reached an all-time high. Won’t that just help keep the price high? And how does filling the reserves help the person who’s really suffering, the consumer?
He’s like a parched guy crawling through the desert searching for a drop to drink. He meets a fellow with a garden hose who says “I can’t help you, I gotta fill up this bathtub, just in case somebody needs water.”
Now the government isn’t buying much oil for its storage tanks in the grand scheme of things. It’s just that the timing seems off. Like the oil producer’s cartel, OPEC this week, opting to cut the amount of oil they pump by four percent based on the idea that there’s too much oil in the world? Where do they get that?
The Democrats want the Bush administration to at least yell at OPEC. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham says the us is “engaged in discussions” with OPEC but quote “we’re not going to beg for oil.” Anyway, yelling isn’t in the cards. The most powerful country in OPEC, the one with the biggest oil reserves, is Saudi Arabia—a crucial U.S. ally in the War on Terror.
But the Bush team is not about to let the price per gallon at every gas station in America turn into a ‘Vote for John Kerry’ billboard. What is the weapon of choice for returning Kerry’s fire? You guessed it, oil.
BUSH CAMPAIGN AD: Some people have wacky ideas. Like taxing gasoline more so people drive less. That’s John Kerry.
DAVID BRANCACCIO: This prompted a WASHINGTON POST editorial that used somewhat oily logic to argue that had the 50 cent a gallon gas tax made it into law ten years ago–it never did–then maybe gas prices would have-paradoxically–been lower by now. Why? Because the higher gas tax might have prompted us to buy thriftier new cars— perhaps something less S-U-V-ish and more Prius-y.
S-U-V-ish and Prius-y are my personal contributions to the lexicon by the way, not the WASHINGTON POST’s.
You can follow the oil in both personal and high finance. The personal is easy. The prospect of three bucks a gallon causes money to ooze from the household budget. The macro is a little harder to imagine. But here’s the deal—
The gap between what the government is paying for and what the Treasury brings in this year is a whopper, more than a half trillion dollars. A deficit this big tells foreign investors that America doesn’t have its economic house in order and they’re more inclined to invest elsewhere. The value of the U.S. dollar falls. So what?
The thing is, barrels of oil aren’t sold in pesos or Venezuelan bolivars. They’re sold in dollars. That means when the dollar falls, big oil producers like Mexico or Venezuela can’t convert their oil sales into as much of their own local currency. This makes oil producing countries push for higher oil prices through those cuts in production we were talking about. Which can add up to a lousy equation: deficit = higher oil prices.
Instead of giving us that tax cut that fed the deficit, maybe they should have sent the money directly to the gasoline companies and saved us the trouble. Follow the oil, indeed.
That’s it for NOW.
Bill Moyers and I will be back next week.
I’m David Brancaccio. Good night.
This transcript was entered on August 19, 2015.