Dawn of the Vietnam Conflict: War Powers and Dien Bien Phu

April 19, 2014–President Dwight D. Eisenhower was not an expert golfer but he was a dedicated one. Eisenhower had an area at the White House to practice his putt, regularly took time off to golf at the Burning Tree course, and he even took golfing vacations. Sixty years ago today, at the height of the Dien Bien Phu crisis, Ike was on one of those trips. He’d gone to Georgia, to the National Golf Club in Augusta, site of the PGA tournament. The president’s cottage at Augusta was called the “Little White House.” There Ike would experience one of the key moments of the Vietnam crisis.

President Eisenhower could hardly escape the action. A couple of days earlier his vice-president, Richard M. Nixon, had told an audience of media moguls that U.S. troops might well have to go fight in Vietnam. Ike wanted to help France, whose army was trapped at Dien Bien Phu, with its best units steadily losing strength. The situation was so dismal that men considered it good news when the New York Times could headline, “INCREASED RAINS SEEN SLOWING THE FIGHTING.” Nixon’s remarks were being interpreted as a trial balloon for U.S. intervention. Press inquiries flooded the Little White House. Soon after breakfast on April 19, 1954, Eisenhower telephoned Nixon, who worried the president would be furious at him for letting the cat out of the bag–officials had been trying to avoid mentioning that U.S. troops figured in the plans. But Ike was relaxed and told Mr. Nixon not to worry.

Eisenhower’s schemes to intervene at Dien Bien Phu might indeed involve American soldiers. At a minimum they included sailors and airmen. For nearly a month Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had been trying to create the conditions necessary for that intervention to go ahead. So far they had failed–British allies were opposed to a Vietnam intervention, while the French, despite their desperation, were leery of permitting the United States to have a big role in their war.

But Secretary Dulles had a formula to evade all obstacles. The Justice Department had worked up an extensive paper on presidential war powers as part of a government-wide study of Indochina intervention. Foster took that paper with him to visit the president on April 19. The two men would lunch at Augusta and mull over the Dien Bien Phu crisis.

The paper–like George W. Bush era Justice Department legal opinions on torture–was one of those documents that cobbled together lawyer language suitable to permit officials to do whatever they wanted. In this case the Justice paper relied on the “commander-in-chief clause” in Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution to assert that the president could order U.S. troops into battle without a congressional declaration of war. At their lunch Secretary Dulles scoffed at the paper’s legalisms but took its argument–the heart of the matter, Foster told Ike, was that the U.S. government “must have the power of self-preservation . . . . If the danger was great and imminent and Congress unable to act quickly enough to avert the danger, the president would have to act alone.” Why anything about a crisis threatening a French army in Vietnam was a matter of self-preservation to the United States Dulles did not attempt to explain. He was a preacher-man and capable of sallies like this.

On April 19, 1954, it was Dwight D. Eisenhower who saved the nation from war. For months Ike had been telling Congress he would not go into Indochina without getting its approval. Not only did Eisenhower feel bound by those political promises, he had just survived a congressional test of his foreign policy powers by a handful of votes–and would have lost if the Democratic Party, his opponents, had not rallied to his side. On April 19 Ike patted John Foster Dulles’s hand and told the secretary of state that as president he needed to carry out “the will of the people.” If not, the president warned, he could be impeached. As far as U.S. intervention to save Dien Bien Phu was concerned, the two men were still in the position of having to build a public consensus for war in Vietnam.

So passed another moment when the international crisis surrounding Dien Bien Phu could have pulled the United States into active fighting in Indochina a whole decade before this actually occurred. But Eisenhower and Dulles were not stymied by these developments. A few days later President Eisenhower made a political trip, swinging through New York and Kentucky in an effort to drum up support for intervention. There is much more to the story of America’s Dien Bien Phu. Read all about it in Operation Vulture.

Farewell to Jonathan Schell

April 17, 2014–Back in the bad old days of Vietnam, when General William C. Westmoreland was running the war, he was intensely focused on what people were saying and writing about the conflict. If you looked at Westy’s personal papers–this was a general who every day was flitting all over South Vietnam and rarely got up and went to bed in the same place–you’d see so many press clippings that the only logical conclusion would be that the general had a platoon of privates clipping the newspapers and magazines for him at headquarters.

Some war correspondents irked Westmoreland tremendously. Jonathan Schell became one such burr under Westy’s saddle. Schell’s work, first in The New Yorker and then in books, proved quite influential. The reporter travelled Vietnam as did Westy, but he spent more time in the places he visited and stopped to smell the napalm. Quite literally. One of Schell’s pieces, expanded into the 1968 book The Military Half, discussed how the armed services, bloated with bureaucracy, wedded to formulas, and with narrow concepts of their methods, were mindlessly blowing up the land. A passage that sticks in mind is where Schell described riding in the back seat of a spotter plane while the pilot glibly called in air strikes on targets that, going at a few hundreds of miles an hour, he could hardly see. If memory serves right, General Westmoreland demanded to know who had let the journalist onto a forward observer plane, and set a posse of spin doctors to work countering Schell’s observations.

Schell’s first book–also an article originally–gave the lie to “population resettlement” as a pacification technique that aimed to win the hearts and minds of South Vietnamese. On an operation north of Saigon Schell described in graphic detail how a U.S. infantry battalion–one commanded by then-Lieutenant Colonel Alexander M. Haig, Jr.–had gone into the village, plowed everything up, destroyed the place, and carried off the villagers so quickly they hardly had time to pack belongings and gather their livestock. The Village of Ben Suc (1967) was powerful, strong enough that there were attempts to counter it too. The main objection was that Ben Suc lay in a National Liberation Front stronghold area, with the implication the villagers were all enemy anyway. The Colonel Tinyminds of Westy’s PR machine apparently did not stop to think through the issue. If pacification meant anything, it was that the counterinsurgency mavens ought to be making extra efforts to win the loyalties of peasants in the enemy zone, and the way to do that was hardly by destroying their homes. Schell had fingered a key weakness, since military methods hardly differed between this village in enemy territory and others in contested zones.

By the 1980s Jonathan Schell had moved on to grapple with the horror of impending nuclear war, and his book The Fate of the Earth (1982), nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, became a mainstay of the nuclear freeze movement. It served as a searing indictment of the insanity of the nuclear arms race. Schell’s contribution was probably responsible singlehandedly–with its treatment of the dangers of automaticity in nuclear attack plans and its invocation of the dangers of nuclear winter–for thousands of people changing their minds on this critical issue.

When George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, Jonathan Schell stood among those who opposed a war that turned out to be every bit as stupid as they feared. The blood and treasure squandered in Iraq are monumental, and opponents of that intervention deserve honor.

We lose good people every day. Jonathan Schell was a great one. We’re sorry to see him go.

Books in San Antonio

April 16, 2014–A quick comment on the San Antonio Book Festival, from which I’ve just returned. It was a great show, held at the central branch of the San Antonio Public Library. There seems to be a developing trend for these kinds of events for books–I know there’s a national one, ones in the northeast–and the one in San Antonio forms part of a larger Texas movement, with the major festival held in Austin annually. This was the second year for the San Antonio daughter event. By every account the festival marked a considerable advance over what had been judged a very successful event last year.

Anyway the San Antonio Book Festival was very well done, with event venues both inside and outside the library building, and everything from cooking to romance fiction to poetry and literary criticism. Ninety-two authors turned out for sixty-six events through a packed day. I spoke as part of a panel on domestic spying, “Spies Like Us: The NSA, Big Brother and Democracy.” It was chaired by Callie Enlow, editor of the San Antonio Current newspaper, and also featured Heidi Boghosian, director of the National Lawyers Guild. The audience was great and had some very good questions. C-Span 2 taped this panel session. The tape will air on the C-Span 2 show “Book News” at 4:15 PM on Saturday, April 19; and again at 3:15 AM on the Sunday morning.

A fine time was had by all. I salute San Antonio Public Library Foundation for its support of this very worthy event.

Boss Spook from The Nam

April 8, 2014–Tom Polgar is not a household name. He’s probably not as well known as his daughter Susan, an international Chess grandmaster whose involvement a few years back in maneuverings among the pooh bahs of the United States Chess Federation became somewhat controversial. But the father’s role was far more consequential. Polgar, a senior official of the CIA, passed away two weeks ago. To the extent people remember him at all, it will be because of Frank Snepp, a subordinate when Polgar served as the agency’s last station chief in Saigon, whose searing account of the collapse of South Vietnam and the U.S. withdrawal, Decent Interval, was not very kind to Mr. Polgar.

Born in southern Hungary, Tom Polgar’s family moved to the U.S. when he was sixteen. As Hungarian Jews they fled the anti-Semitism taking root there as well as in Germany. There were claims later that he had helped others fell as well. Polgar always retained his Hungarian accent. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, his languages (German, Spanish, Greek and some French) made him exceptional and Polgar was recruited into the OSS. Dropped behind German lines near the end of World War II, Polgar made his way to Berlin and ended up working in Germany for the OSS and its successors right through CIA, spending nearly a decade on this frontline of the Cold War. After that it was Vienna, another Cold War cockpit. Polgar’s detractors–Frank Snepp was never the only one–dubbed him “Rasputin.”

In the mid-60s he went into CIA’s Latin America Division, first at headquarters and then as station chief in Argentina. It was from there, in 1972, that Polgar was sent to Vietnam. He had no experience in Southeast Asia–but he was fluent in Hungarian and Hungary was among the member nations of the international commission that was supposed to supervise implementation of the Paris accords under which a ceasefire was instituted and the U.S. withdrew from South Vietnam. Polgar kept up his liaison with the Hungarians, and there are conflicting accounts of its impact once Saigon stood on the point of collapse in early 1975. Some maintain that myopic Hungarian optimism induced Polgar to delay the withdrawal of CIA agents and destruction of its files at Saigon station. Others argue Polgar was too close to Henry Kissinger at the White House. In any case the collapse of South Vietnam was a disaster for the agency.

Tom Polgar next went to Mexico City as station chief there, and eventually returned to CIA headquarters where he led the human resources office. He retired in 1981. When the Iran-Contra Affair began with the shootdown of a plane transporting supplies to Nicaraguan contra rebels on behalf of “private benefactors” working for the Reagan National Security Council (NSC), Tom Polgar came out of the shadows to comment in the Miami Herald, saying “I think the CIA is telling the truth that it was not involved in the flight.” Of course William J. Casey, the CIA director of that time, was involved–up to his ears–in what became the next great agency embarrassment, with some elements working directly to the Casey-NSC network, and others kept in the dark. Senator Warren Rudman of the joint committee of Congress that investigated Iran-Contra, believing they needed an insider to understand the agency, hired Tom Polgar as an investigator. Polgar was deeply troubled by the agency’s work in that affair, Rudman believed, and his work led directly to the discovery of irregularities and of a critical missing CIA cable.

The jury remains out on Tom Polgar’s exploits, but perhaps now we will hear more about them.

Senate Torture Report Update

April 5, 2014–Predictably the Senate intelligence committee has voted to release its report–or at least the executive summary thereof. But Congress is still doing the administration favors. Rather than simply put out the document, the legislators are referring it to the White House, where President Obama’s minions can delay the report even more and John Brennan’s CIA will have yet another shot at spiking it, making their case to the president that it should not see the light of day. The Senate should simply release the investigative report of its intelligence committee on its own authority.

I want to comment on the executive’s use of secrecy rules in connection with this scandal. In his March 21 message to CIA employees, Director John Brennan wrote, “I expect the Committee will submit at least some portion of the report to the CIA for classification review,” and adverted the agency would conduct that review “expeditiously.”

Where I work that promise would be taken as a joke. The National Security Archive deals with the CIA on the release of secret documents on a regular basis–and we almost never get a decision on a document in less than two years. Most CIA declassification decisions take longer than that. The notorious Family Jewels, the document at the heart of the 1975 controversy that you’ve read a lot about in this space, was released after a seventeen year fight–and then agency PR flaks took credit for the opening as if it had been their idea and not the result of a Freedom of Information Act request.

Moreover, it’s also necessary to ask what the CIA has been doing with the Senate torture report all along. The intelligence committee handed over that report in December 2012, not just for the CIA’s comments but for its declassification review. The CIA’s comments–significantly delayed beyond the sixty days in which they were to be rendered–went to the Senate intelligence committee last June. There followed a process during which the investigators and the CIA reviewed the report and revisions were made, and that process should have proceeded in tandem with the declassification. Instead Mr. Brennan’s message puts that work in the future–“the entire CIA leadership team is committed to addressing any outstanding questions or requests from SSCI members so that the Committee can complete its work and finalize the report.” Thus for the best part of a year the CIA has done nothing about declassifying the Senate report, hiding behind the excuse that the investigators’ work is not yet “final.”

How to account for this immobilisme? In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on March 11 Director Brennan declared, “We also owe it to the women and men who basically did their duty in executing this program to try and make sure that any historical record of it is a balanced and accurate one.” In other words the CIA is holding hostage the Senate report until the investigators agree with the agency’s spin on the events.

The CIA is welcome to put out whatever study it wants on the black prisons and torture to accommodate its faithful officers. Or it can declassify–and release– its response document to the Senate report. But the Senate investigative report is not CIA paper and the investigators’ narrative and conclusions are not properly subject to CIA control.

As has been said in this space before, this is not about national security. Nowhere in the regulations that govern secrecy and declassification does it say that documents can be kept secret to ensure that an account is “balanced and accurate.” In fact, Section 1.7 of Executive Order 13562–the secrecy regulation that is in force today–explicitly provides that no information can be kept classified to “conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error,” or to “prevent embarrassment to any person, organization, or agency.”

That is precisely what we have here. I have said before, and I repeat here, that the Senate torture report–in its entirety– should be immediately declassified and made available to the public.

 

 

NSA: Clapper’s Solution to Lying

April 2, 2014–General James Clapper has had enough. He can’t take any more. The Director of National Intelligence, tired of being caught lying when confronted with questions from his congressional overseers, has finally contrived a solution: don’t answer.  Then, months later, reply quietly in a letter and hope that no one pays attention.

So it is with the latest evidence of intrusions by the National Security Agency’s eavesdroppers. Predictably, it was a question from Oregon democrat Ron Wyden at a January 29, 2014 hearing of the Senate intelligence committee that brought on this maneuver. Asked if the NSA had, in fact, conducted warrantless searches of Americans’ phone calls, Director Clapper replied, “There are very complex legal issues here,” and then clammed up.

Two months later, with the public’s attention diverted to the crisis in the Crimea and the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian talks, Clapper sent Senator Wyden a letter which affirmed the truth, albeit in spookspeak. His March 28 letter stated, “there have been queries, using U.S. person identifiers, of communications lawfully acquired to obtain foreign intelligence . . . . As you know, when Congress reauthorized [the relevant section of the FISA Amendments Act], the proposal to restrict such queries was specifically raised and ultimately not adopted.”

General Clapper could not do other than affirm the truth behind Senator’s Wyden’s question. Documents revealed by Edward Snowden last summer already show this to be the case. The DNI himself, under orders from President Obama, divulged FISA Court rulings that further confirmed this. So did an August 2013 compliance assessment from the NSA and Justice Department which found instances of these intrusions. Where are the “complex legal issues” that prevented Clapper from answering the question at an open hearing? My guess is that they were reporters and cameras.

Let’s deconstruct the substantive defense in the director’s March 28 letter. General Clapper relies on three elements: that the phonecall contents were legally obtained, that the actions occurred under FISA court judgments ruling them consistent with the law and the Fourth Amendment, and that Congress had considered and rejected a change in the law underlying the eavesdropping while renewing it.

Phonecall contents were obtained legally only in the sense that some FISA document referred to the activity in some fashion. As we should know by now, the intent of the 1978 law was to ensure that all wiretaps were covered by specific court orders. That’s different from this eavesdropping. Clapper’s top lawyer Robert S. Litt told the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board on March 19 (reported here in “Spy Scandals Update,” March 20, 2014) that it would be an inconvenience for the FISA court to have to rule on every request for a wiretap. Litt actually implied there are a substantial number of these kinds of intrusions when he said the number was much greater than 288–the figure for queries against “metadata” found in blue ribbon panel reviews of the NSA traffic analysis intrusions. Interesting that.

Clapper’s second point is demonstrably false. There was no FISA court opinion which considered the application of the Fourth Amendment to this spying until very recently. When an August 2013 review found transgressions that opinion was not on the books. The validity of that opinion can still be disputed but the point is that it did not exist at the time of the violations. As for the argument that Congress rejected changing the law, the question there is whether the NSA and DNI were truthful at the time in what they told the legislators about the real threat, their alternative means, and the bottom line requirements. Judging from the intelligence community’s track record, the likelihood they were honest with Congress is very low.

These are exceedingly thin reeds. Thus are Family Jewels shielded, by desperate defenses. As Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall put it in a joint press release yesterday, “This . . . poses a real threat to the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans. If a government agency thinks that a particular American is engaged in terrorism or espionage, the Fourth Amendment requires that the government secure an authorization before monitoring his or her communications. This fact should be beyond dispute.” General Clapper’s credibility as a spokesman for U.S. intelligence remains near zero. He should go. President Obama needs to make that part of his NSA reforms.

 

April Fools at Dien Bien Phu

April 1, 2014–Sixty years on one can look back at the Dien Bien Phu crisis and see that that April Fools’ Day was destined to become one of the most significant of the entire siege. April 1, 1954 became the day that many strands of the events came together. It was a day when the French decline accelerated and its chances in the struggle darkened perceptibly.

Let’s start with the battlefield. In the high mountain valley that is Dien Bien Phu, General Vo Nguyen Giap had launched what the Viet Minh would call the second stage of their offensive. This was where the Viets, who had already captured the outlying French positions, attacked the central strongpoints right in the valley. Giap hurled his battalions at the low hills which shielded the interior of the French entrenched camp, part of strongpoints “Dominique” and “Eliane.” The fight for Eliane-2 was particularly fierce. This phase of the siege has come to be known as the “Battle of the Five Hills.” The Viet Minh captured several important positions including, for a time, the peak of Eliane-2 itself. Just the previous day desperate counterattacks had ejected the Viet Minh from the center of that position and pinned them down at its edge. The redoubtable Major Marcel Bigeard was in the thick of it. Battle raged at Dien Bien Phu and the fight for the hills would go on for days longer, but on April Fools’ Day the combat was at its fiercest.

The parachute supply drops upon which the French camp relied were being curtailed by monsoon rain, worse every day. The French command calculated on April Fools’ Day that deliveries had reached a “catastrophic” level–averaging only 60 tons over the past four days, only a fraction of the amount necessary for a robust defense.

The French Expeditionary Corps, led by General Henri Navarre, conducted the campaign through its theater command for Tonkin–northern Vietnam–under General Rene Cogny and located at Hanoi. As the siege intensified Navarre and Cogny became increasingly adversarial, each blaming the other for the predicament they were in. The Expeditionary Corps had a forward command post at Hanoi, where Navarre had arrived the previous day, only for Cogny to refuse to meet him. The commander-in-chief summoned Cogny later and the two had a furious shouting match at headquarters. On April Fools’ Day General Cogny received a letter Navarre had written before leaving Saigon. The C-in-C could easily have brought the directive with him, but chose to send it by routine courier instead. The explosion between the two generals soured their relations, which never recovered, to the detriment of desperate French soldiers at the entrenched camp.

France had sent the chief of its armed services staff, General Paul Ely, on a mission to Washington to appeal for more help for Dien Bien Phu. While Ely was in Washington his American counterpart, Admiral Arthur Radford had suggested that a U.S. air strike by B-29 heavy bombers, soon to be dubbed Operation Vulture, could break up Giap’s siege force and destroy his supplies. Ely needed to consult with Navarre about an outside intervention of such proportions. He sent aide Colonel Raymond Brohon to speak to Navarre personally. On April Fools’ Day Brohon arrived at Saigon only to discover Navarre was not there. The consultations were delayed while Brohon traveled onwards to Hanoi.

Back in Washington, Admiral Radford had made his offer without any of the other chiefs of the U.S. armed services knowing of it. Redford summoned them, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to a meeting to present his proposal. That, too, had taken place the previous day. Some of the Chiefs opposed him. Their negative views, expressed in writing, began to land on his desk on April Fools’ Day too.

The admiral had not acted in isolation. In fact the Operation Vulture project was backed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his secretary of state John Foster Dulles. A couple of days before Mr. Dulles had given a speech at the Overseas Press Club linking Indochina with an American threat of “massive retaliation.” At lunch on April Fools’ Day President Eisenhower entertained some top correspondents and told them he might soon have to make a decision to send planes from American aircraft carriers off the Indochina coast to bomb the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu. Soon afterwards Secretary Dulles phoned the president to report he was setting up a meeting with the congressional Gang of Eight to inform them of the Operation Vulture project. Meanwhile the Navy’s top officer, Admiral Robert B. Carney, cancelled a long-planned visit to his forces scattered across the Pacific–and he ordered the fleet in the Gulf of Tonkin to extend its cruise there.

Dulles and Radford were going to meet with the congressional leaders, who were certainly going to have questions. Among their principal concerns would be what allies the United States would  have for its intervention in Indochina. Washington’s most important ally in this regard was Great Britain. A few hours before his Overseas Press Club speech, Dulles and Eisenhower had met with the British ambassador to ask for London’s support. On April Fools’ Day the British foreign minister replied that “we fell it would be unrealistic not to face the possibility that the conditions for a favorable solution in Indochina may no longer exist.” Thus London, too, had been involved in this April Fools’ circus.

Dien Bien Phu would fight on for weeks longer. And the proponents of a U.S. intervention would play more cards before the game was up. Read the whole story in Operation Vulture.

Intelligence Scandals: The Politics of Oversight

March 29, 2014–Today’s news is that Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who currently serves as the chairman of the House oversight committee, is going to retire to become a radio talk show host. Rogers cites his frustrations at accomplishing anything in Congress, and believes he can contribute more as a media pundit. Interesting. On a number of levels.

Just to recapitulate: Mike Rogers has driven the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) exactly where he wants it to go. And where he has gone is into the pocket of the intelligence mavens. Rogers, an FBI special agent before he became a congressman, seems never to have met an intelligence project he did not like. Whether it was CIA drones, NSA dragnet eavesdropping, or whatever, Mike Rogers was for it all. He acquiesced in the intelligence community’s purposeful evasion of oversight, its hookwinking of Congress right down to refusal to discuss even the legal basis for drone strikes that target American citizens. Instead he needled intelligence officials to increase their use of drones. At the height of the Snowden revelations Rogers appeared on TV with former NSA/CIA spy chief Michael Hayden to gush about how he would like to throttle the whistleblower. Where, over in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein has finally rebelled under the weight of the spies’ excesses (see “Senator Feinstein Comes out of the Closet,” March 11, 2014), at HPSCI Mike Rogers made sure his committee made no investigation at all of the CIA’s hostile interrogation techniques.

Moreover Rogers has operated in a permissive environment. With an ironclad majority in the House, HPSCI-sponsored legislation was assured of passage. Only a less-permissive Senate stood in the way of Rogers’s pet projects becoming law. Until Snowden that is. In the Republican-dominated House last summer, congressmen outraged at the NSA dragnet came within a handful of votes of defunding the National Security Agency. James Sensenbrenner, the man who wrote the provision the NSA has used to justify its dragnet, has disavowed his legislation and wants to repeal it.

Now Mike Rogers is frustrated because he can’t accomplish anything. Kind of like the kid at the schoolyard who, failing to win his dispute over interference with the last shot, picks up his marbles and heads home.

This would be amusing except that it is calculated. As it happens, the provision Jim Sensenbrenner authored, whether or not it is repealed, is scheduled to expire next year unless it is renewed. A whole lot of politics is going to revolve around that fight. Senate passage will be dicey. The House is no longer a done deal. The high tech corporations, stung by the effect of the NSA dragnet on their bottom lines and international sales, are quite likely to lobby against the program with which they have been working for years. Public pressure will be important. My guess is that Mike Rogers calculates he can help mobilize the public to demand the extension of the intrusive eavesdropping. Mike Rogers can “save” the NSA dragnet. Now that would be an accomplishment!

 

Poles of a Magnet: Jim Schlesinger and Lawrence Walsh

March 27, 2014–Sometimes events pile atop one another, almost too quickly to respond. That’s the case this week, where almost simultaneously we see news of two important passages, the deaths of Lawrence E. Walsh and James R. Schlesinger. Once I got a moment I’d intended to write something about Lawrence Walsh because of his role in the Iran-Contra Affair, but before I could put finger to keyboard, this afternoon’s news brings word that Mr. Schlesinger, too, has passed away. The two men, both staunch Republicans, are linked in an unusual way, not due to their political affiliations but each figured in one of the central upheavals of America’s late 20th Century.

Lawrence E. Walsh was a lawyer, active from the mid-30s on. He served as an assistant district attorney and in other legal posts in New York City, as a counselor to New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, at the time the latter ran for president against Harry Truman in 1948 (losing in a breathtaking upset), as a federal district judge, and as deputy attorney general during the last part of the Eisenhower administration. For a long time Walsh worked as a lawyer in private practice, emerging briefly during the Nixon administration as deputy chief negotiator in the Vietnam peace talks in Paris. But his most important service by far was as special prosecutor in the investigation of the Iran-Contra Affair from 1986 to 1992.

Walsh had great respect for the law as well as for the political dimensions of legal matters. Whether he learned that as a DA, with Thomas Dewey, or in the Eisenhower Justice Department, which was obliged to enforce civil rights rules after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, I don’t know. But when it came to Iran-Contra, where his political inclination was to help protect President Ronald Reagan, Lawrence Walsh worked steadfastly to get to the bottom of the morass of one of the most extensive cover-ups of the age. The special prosecutor would be stymied at every turn–his evidence tainted by Congress’s insistence on immunizing witnesses at its Iran-Contra hearings, by lack of cooperation from Edwin Meese’s Justice Department, by the mass amnesia of National Security Council staff aides and CIA officers who professed not to remember activities with which they had been intimately associated over a period of years.

Despite every obstacle Walsh and his investigators succeeded in building cases against fourteen U.S. government officials and obtained convictions in eleven of those cases, including those of national security adviser John M. Poindexter and conspirator Oliver L. North. Most of the convictions were set aside by higher courts on the strength of the congressional immunities previously extended to the defendants. The remaining culprits were pardoned by the first President Bush when he was headed out the door at the end of his presidency and Walsh was on the point of prosecuting the former secretary of defense, Caspar W. Weinberger.

Walsh’s investigation concluded that both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush–at that time the vice-president–bore significant responsibility, that CIA director William J. Casey had been a major player, abetted by Secretary Weinberger and others, and that the highest levels of the government had conspired to evade U.S. law in selling weapons to Iran, with subordinates smuggling some of the resulting money to Nicaraguan contra rebels run by the CIA. Walsh found Reagan and Bush not in criminal jeopardy, but certainly guilty of poor management and potentially vulnerable if their foreknowledge of the affair was other than had been represented.

I have written before in this space of certain secrecy rules enacted by the second President Bush–George H. W.’s son–when he came to office, which gave former presidents a say in the declassification of records pertaining to them. In my view these rules were almost certainly instituted to protect the first Bush from the consequences of his role in Iran-Contra. These rules have made a mockery of declassification regulations as they pertain to the Reagan-Bush era.

Like the pole of a magnet Lawrence Walsh attracted the opprobrium and criticism of many from his own political party.

I never met Lawrence Walsh, but I did meet James R. Schlesinger, first in his early guise as a nuclear weapons expert and analyst at the RAND Corporation. Schlesinger was a Harvard-trained economist who came to defense analysis, which I studied at the time, as a proponent of what was called “operations research.” Richard Nixon brought Schlesinger into his administration to lead the Office of Management and Budget. In that capacity, in 1971 Schlesinger conducted an efficiency study of the U.S. intelligence community on Nixon’s behalf, at a time when the president sought an excuse to pare the CIA’s budget. Mr. Nixon later appointed Schlesinger the CIA director. It was Mr. Schlesinger who commissioned the notorious CIA report called The Family Jewels. It was that document that lay directly behind the CIA and NSA abuse scandals of 1975, the “Year of Intelligence,” about which much has appeared on this website of late. Needless to say, CIA and NSA officers were outraged that U.S. government authorities presumed to investigate their activities. Schlesinger soon left to head the Pentagon, where his fights with Henry Kissinger became the talk of Washington.

I saw Mr. Schlesinger on a number of occasions in later years, often at CIA-hosted events, where he was always honored. His role as Mr. Nixon’s gunslinger had apparently been forgotten. I’d not be surprised to see Kissinger show up as a speaker at Schlesinger’s memorial service. Perhaps Mr. Schlesinger’s was an opposite magnetic pole–opposites attract while like poles repel. How else to account for the very different treatment accorded these two Republicans? We’ll see.

House Rules Rule

March 27, 2014– News that Hasbro, the game company, has asked players of its classic Monopoly to write in with their favorite “House Rules” in hopes some of them may be formally included in new editions of the boardgame opens up a vein for discussion. (Personally, my favorites are “Free Parking” gets $500 plus all the fee and fine money; and the one where, if you land directly on “Go,” you double your income.) Media attention has centered on the supposition that Hasbro is updating the game, as they did last year by pulling the Shoe token, holding a poll, and then substituting a Cat. But I think there’s a more interesting question regarding House Rules.

People acquire all kinds of products–including games– which they adapt to their personal preferences. Zero in on boardgames specifically and you’ll find that one of the most frequent adaptations is the adoption of House Rules. For those who’ve never delved into this juicy subject, House Rules are changes you make in the specific rules of a game when you play it at your place (your friend may have different ones at his). Like when you play Poker (five-card draw) and declare that Aces, Deuces, and One-Eyed Jacks will be wild cards, or when a National League team plays at an American League ballpark (and vice versa).

The recent coverage of Monopoly has included some discussion of specific House Rules that seem to be common, like the ones mentioned earlier. What struck me is that so many of the House Rules I saw cited are ones I’m familiar with, either having used myself or played with someone else who utilized them. Coincidence? I think not.

Game rules are littered with ambiguities and questions that may require interpretation. The popular “family”-style games, which skimp on rules to the maximum extent possible in order to bring in the players, are especially prone to this. The more complex games and simulations, as the wargames strive to be, also have ambiguities, plus more perplexing contradictions where the designer or developer changed one aspect of the game without accounting for all the ways that rule interacts with some other. The bottom line is that ambiguities and contradictions can be minimized but never completely eliminated.

My advice has always been to go for it. The game won’t be perfect but it can be what you want it to be. If a House Rule makes the boardgame work better, play faster, or make better sense, by all means use it.

Meanwhile the Monopoly example shows something else very interesting about House Rules–that different players, from a wide variety of backgrounds, in different places, have all come up with the same or similar solutions to game issues. There were only one or two of the House Rules mentioned for that game which I’d not heard of. That was amazing. And amusing. Great minds and all that. So go for it–and keep on gaming!