Among his many accomplishments in life, the late George H. W. Bush was a secret intelligence professional. The statesman, who will lie in state in the Capitol through Wednesday, was a covert operator par excellence. As the first and only CIA director to ever occupy the White House, Bush could be called America’s most successful spy.
The late president is now memorialized as a “genial” and “prudent” statesman, and he certainly displayed all of those qualities at times. His temperament and intellect compare favorably to President Trump’s. But the record shows Bush was also ruthless and deceptive. In the long view of history, a few continuities of Bush and Trump may become more apparent than they are now.
Like Trump, Bush was a politician who knew how to play the race card. In his first campaign for U.S. Senate, Bush opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He gained an undeserved reputation as a moderate on civil rights issues. In 1988, he won the presidency on the strength of a TV ad about a black rapist. Bush pioneered the exploitation of racist currents in the American electorate. Trump perfected it.
Unlike Trump, he was a capable commander in chief. Two of Bush’s wisest decisions as president concerned policies he chose not to pursue. He did not gloat over the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire 1989-91. That was prudent, as was his decision in January 1991, after U.S. armed forces drove Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait, not to invade and occupy Iraq. Twelve years later, his son arrogantly reversed father’s caution, and the results were catastrophic. When Bush spoke in public about George W.’s Iraq fiasco, he wept, which showed he had a heart.
Bush’s connection to the Central Intelligence Agency is perhaps the most distinctive and overlooked feature of his political career. His work in the intelligence milieu at the height of the Cold War proved formative, in the same way that Vladimir Putin’s was shaped by his time as a KGB intelligence officer. Like Putin, Bush’s rise to power was propelled by his knack for secret operations.
As young Texas businessman in the 1950 and 1960s, Bush put his oil drilling company at the disposal of the CIA, where it was known by the code name WU-SALINE.
As CIA director in 1975-76, Bush sought to deflect congressional investigators looking into allegations of CIA malfeasance, while not disclosing his own role as a CIA asset.
During his tenure, the agency shielded its agent, Luis Posada Carriles, code name AMCLEVE-15, and other agents who bombed a Cuban airliner and killed 73 people. Bush only served as director for a year but the agency would name its headquarter building after him, a measure of his institutional standing.
As Vice President in the 1980s,, Bush played a leading role in the Iran-Contra scandal. Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh found that Bush had conspired with CIA and Pentagon officials to bypass a Congressional ban on aid to Central American counterrevolutionaries.
The resulting machinations, involving illegal arms sales to Iran and secret funding of human rights abusers in Nicaragua, was a maelstrom of malfeasance. More than 50 people were indicted for illegal activities. In the past 50 years of Washington scandals, the Iran-Contra affair is rivaled only by Watergate and the Trump-Russia investigation. Bush was at the heart of it.
Before Walsh could complete his investigation and prosecutions, President Bush pardoned the four top CIA officials involved (Dewey Clarridge, Alan Fiers, and Joseph Fernandez). In effect, these four helped the Reagan White House run a covert operation against the U.S. Congress–a violation of the agency’s charter.
Bush said he acted out of “mercy.” Walsh said “President Bush cannot escape the appearance that he wished to avoid the public airing of facts about Iran/Contra that would have come out at trial.” If Trump pardons his entourage now facing criminal charges for colluding with the Russians, he can credibly cite the precedent of Bush’s leniency to the CIA.
At a time when the abuse of presidential power and the specter of a “deep state” are central issues in American politics, George H.W. Bush’s legacy is worth recalling without tears. His mantle as a statesman does not entirely hide the cloak of a spook.
First of Six Part Series.
- Prudent Statesman as Ruthless Spy
- Zapata Off-Shore: A CIA Front
- Bush’s JFK Connection
- Bush as CIA Director
- The October Surprise
- The Iran-Contra Conspiracy