Rushing to Judgment: Conservatives Call for Investigating Democrats' Alleged Ties to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq
by Bill Berkowitz
April 10, 2004

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Since 9/11, “terrorist alert” has become the new “red alert” -- a term historically associated with reckless accusations and the abuse of power. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who led the witch hunt for communists and their sympathizers during the late 1940s and early 1950s, was eventually exposed as a demagogue. Later, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, “Red Alert” lost its anti-communist reference point.

The smearing of Army Capt. James Yee at the hands of the U.S. government, right wing partisans, and the insatiable cable news networks is an example of the Bush Administration’s “terrorist alert” run amuck.

In early September, Capt. Yee, a chaplain at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base detention center, was taken into custody. Capt. Yee, a Chinese-American who converted to Islam from Christianity in 1991 after he graduated from West Point, was charged with disobeying orders and stealing classified information on behalf of imprisoned al Qaeda and Taliban suspects.

The case received national headlines and sensational media coverage: The cable news networks jumped all over the story of a homegrown Muslim, in the employ of the U.S. military, “spying” for terrorists at the Guantanamo fortress.

In rather short order, America’s right wing watch dogs were itching to throw away the key to Capt. Yee’s jail cell: Columnist Mona Charon called him a spy; Ann Coulter wannabe Michelle Malkin complained it was terrible a “Muslim chaplain [could] preach freely among al Qaeda and Taliban enemy combatants”; John Leo figured the arrest proved that “Muslim terrorists or their sympathizers may have already figured out how to penetrate” the detention center; and Frank Gaffney, the founder and president of the Center for Security Policy, warned that Yee’s alleged actions could “give rise to a clandestine Fifth Column activities in this country and a whole new front in the War on Terror.”

After being held for months in solitary confinement, Capt. Yee was transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia, where the government added two additional charges; adultery and downloading pornography on a government-issued computer.

On the second day of an early December evidentiary hearing, Reuters reported that the proceedings suddenly “ground to a halt… amid accusations that the military was withholding evidence, hiding witnesses and jeopardizing the right to a fair trial.”

In late March, the military dropped all criminal charges and a week later Capt. Yee was reprimanded during an Article 15 proceeding; found guilty of the two minor add-ons.

The U.S. Southern Command claimed that “it did not want to proceed with a trial on the charge of mishandling classified data because to do so could expose sensitive evidence to public view.” The story, released as it was on a Friday night -- the first anniversary of President Bush’s invasion of Iraq -- received significantly less play than had the original arrest.

Against the backdrop of Bush’s permanent war on terrorism, the revelations of former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, the administration’s failure to fully cooperate with the independent commission investigating 9/11, and the early nastiness of Election 2004, it is not surprising conservatives are launching a series of attacks questioning the commitment of its political opponents to fighting terrorism.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, a key jumping-off point for the right wing hatchet jobs, ratcheted up the stakes by linking anti-war Democrats with Saddam Hussein. In a mid-March column, Journal senior editorial page writer Robert L. Pollock asked: “Were some of the most vehement and prominent American critics of the war [in Iraq]... bought and paid for?”

In the first graph, Pollock purposefully links Sen. John Kerry to the “antiwar camp,” and later he claims that Michigan Democrats, including former House Minority Whip David Bonior, may have benefited from money from “politically connected Detroit-area businessman [who are listed] on a recently published list of individuals receiving oil money from Saddam Hussein.”

Although Pollock admits that there’s “no hard evidence to support such a conclusion” he maintains that “it’s a possibility worthy of investigation.” The list of 270 “individuals, companies, churches and political parties that Iraqi Oil Ministry documents allege benefited from Saddam’s largesse” Pollock refers to was published by the al Mada newspaper in Baghdad in late-January.

Former Rep. Bonier and Rep. Jim McDermott were part of a September 2002 delegation to Iraq, escorted by Shakir al-Khafaji, a man Pollock describes as having “close ties to Iraqi Baathists.” Pollock also points to a televised interview from Baghdad when Rep. McDermott suggested President Bush “would mislead the American people” and added “I think you have to take the Iraqis at face value."

Did both Congressmen do something wrong by accepting campaign contributions from al-Khafaji? Is the so-called intelligence Pollock is receiving from the Iraq Governing Council and a man he’s calling “Omar,” “a newly unemployed officer of the Iraqi intelligence service (the Mukhabarat),” reliable, or is it part of a defend Bush under any circumstances strategy?

Pollock isn’t the first to call for hearings into opponents to Bush’s war on Iraq. Well over a year ago, at the height of massive nationwide anti-war demonstrations, Paul Weyrich, widely regarded as the “Godfather” of the modern conservative movement, called for investigations into the funding of the “neo-Communist” groups behind the U.S. anti-war movement. Weyrich called for a resurrection of congressional committees – similar to the long dead House Un-American Activities Committee – which would summon anti-war activists and rake them over the never-completely-extinguished McCarthyism coals.

Over the past year, David Horowitz’s FrontPage.com website made smarmy accusations against the peace movement part and parcel of daily online life. Recently Horowitz, who has become a regular on comedian Dennis Miller’s new CNBC daily talk show, has been firing away at liberal professors for indoctrinating students at campuses across the country.

In addition to ruining the careers of thousands, the “Red Alerts” of the mid-twentieth century succeeded in casting a huge question mark over the ability of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations to deal with national security issues. Weyrich and Horowitz’s hectoring for investigations served as the opening salvo for the Wall Street Journal’s Pollock. As anti-war demonstrators again take to the streets, and planning for demonstrations at the Republican Party’s September convention in New York City gets underway, Pollock has launched a preemptive attack linking Democratic Party presidential nominee John Kerry and several prominent Democrats to the anti-war movement, and therefore to Saddam Hussein. In the long run, it matters less whether these charges are true – because, as in the case of Capt. Yee, they tend to take on a life of their own.

After Capt. Yee’s final proceedings his attorney, Eugene Fidell, called him the victim of a "drive-by act of legal violence." Apparently the government has no intention of apologizing to Capt. Yee for destroying his reputation. I doubt he’s heard from Messrs. Charen, Malkin, Leo and/or Gaffney, all of whom callously rushed to judgment.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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