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Bush, Bribery and Berlusconi

“The unexpected always happens.”

Common saying

It’s one of those months in which the pundit doesn’t know which way to turn. So much to observe, so little space in which to report. Consider the following events.

In Mid-July a beaming President Bush was pictured at his ranch with his arm affectionately placed on the shoulders of Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who had not been convicted of corruption charges for which he was being tried during the month before he headed off for the ranch. Described by the British news weekly, The Economist, as Europe’s “most extreme case of the abuse by a capitalist of the democracy within which he lives and operates,” Mr. Bush’s new found friend is Italy’s wealthiest man and there are those who say his acquisition of wealth can be traced to questionable business deals made before he became prime minister.

On June 17, he was in court in Milan defending himself against charges he had bribed Roman judges to influence a multimillion pound merger deal involving a state-controlled food company, SME, two decades earlier. Whether he did or not will not be known for several more years. The trial of Mr. Berlusconi came to an abrupt halt days before it would have ended in a verdict because of a new law pushed through the Italian parliament by Mr. Berlusconi’s supporters that gives him and four other top officials immunity from prosecution so long as they are in office.

Mr. Bush is not friends with Mr. Berlusconi because he’s rich although being rich never hurt anyone wanting to befriend the president. Mr. Bush is friends with Mr. Berlusconi because Mr. Berlusconi thought invading Iraq was the thing to do. There’s no reason for Mr. Bush to withhold his affection just because Mr. Berlusconi has an unsavory reputation back home. He is not much different from Admiral John Poindexter who was appointed to a high position in the Bush administration. Whereas Mr. Berlusconi is only accused of being a crook, Adm. Poindexter’s crook-credentials are firmly established. He was convicted in the 1980s of lying to Congress, destroying official documents and obstructing congressional inquiries into the Iran-Contra affair. His conviction was overturned because Congress promised him immunity if he testified before it about his criminal acts.

A criminal record not being a bar to employment in the Bush administration in 2002 Adm Poindexter was named Director of Information Awareness Office of the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency. In that capacity he came up with a number of great ideas, one of which was unveiled the last week in July. It was the creation of a futures market in Mideast terrorism.

The idea has been so widely reported as to need but brief comment here. It was a program designed to make people rich from acts of terrorism and was available to participant and observer alike. In the case of a person wanting to be both terrorist and rich, the person could bet on the date of the assassination of some prominent political figure, carry out the assassination on the selected day and collect his winnings thus killing, as it were, two birds with one stone. As great as that idea was, it cost Adm. Poindexter his job, he announcing his resignation shortly after announcing the plan.

At almost the same time that Adm. Poindexter’s resignation was announced another surprising announcement was made. Mr. Bush let it be known that having passed the buck around the administration for the better part of July, someone had explained to him that the buck stopped with him.

The buck in question was the allegation made in the State of the Union speech that Saddam Hussein had sought significant quantities of uranium from an African nation. That statement was the subject of endless comment and when it became apparent that it was inflicting damage on the administration, C.I.A. director George Tenet courageously fell on his sword on July 11 saying that “I am responsible for the approval process in my agency. . . . These 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president. . . .This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and C.I.A. should have ensured that it was removed.”

When the blood was wiped from Mr. Tenet’s sword and it was discovered that the controversy continued, another sword was produced for Deputy National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley. On July 22 he said he had forgotten about warnings he had received in October about the lack of reliability of the statement. “I should have recalled at the time of the State of the Union speech that there was controversy associated with the uranium issue” he said. He reported that he had apologized to the president for having permitted the words to remain in the speech. When those two confessions of error did not quiet the controversy, Mr. Bush himself stepped up to the plate.

In a press conference on July 30 Mr. Bush said, somewhat surprisingly: “I take personal responsibility for everything I say, absolutely.” That was the first time it had been suggested that Mr. Bush was responsible for any words uttered by him. Until that time, it was widely accepted that Mr. Bush was little more than a mouthpiece for assorted advisors such as Condoleeza Rice, Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Some may wonder why it took almost a month for him to acknowledge that he was responsible for the words he spoke. It is probably because no one had bothered to tell him.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a Boulder, Colorado lawyer. He can be reached at: brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu

 

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