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The Big Smoke-out

In Africa, I am told, a marvelously simple device was used to trap monkeys: a wooden box with a banana inside. A monkey would stick his hand through a small hole, grab the banana, and be trapped by his own greedy fist. It was easy for the monkey to escape the trap -- if he dropped the banana, he could withdraw his open hand and be free. But the monkeys usually refused to drop the banana.

I offer this little parable to explain the surprising resignations of George Mitchell, then of Henry Kissinger, from the commission created last month by Congress to investigate 911. Kissinger and Mitchell didn‘t want to drop the banana.

Here’s what happened: After the White House insisted that Dr. K was exempt from disclosing his client list as chair of the commission, Democratic legislators asked the Congressional Research Service to examine the question. The research service regurgitated a report early last week which said that ethics law required all members of the commission to make public a list of any clients who‘d paid them over $5,000 within the last two years.

Now, the Democrats hoped to use the report to attack Kissinger. After all, the old retread war criminal has made several fortunes from the multinational corporations and foreign governments who hire the services of Kissinger Associates -- but Kissinger has always adamantly refused to disclose the list of his clients. That the secretive Kissinger, whose obsession with leaks during his tenure in the Nixon administration led him to order wiretaps on his own staff, was an ambulant conflict of interest as commission chair had not escaped the notice of the association of families of the 911 victims. It was they, not the Democratic congressional leadership, who first raised the issue of Kissinger’s clients.

But the Democrats shot themselves in the foot -- because the man they‘d named as their pick for commission vice chair, former Democratic Senate leader Mitchell, had become one of K Street’s top lawyer-lobbyist-fixers in the years since leaving public office, and has been as closed-mouthed as Kissinger when it comes to questions about the lucrative clients he represents. After Mitchell joined the ailing D.C. law firm of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, he brought in clients who in just two short years turned it into the most potent lobby shop on Capitol Hill.a

It was Mitchell who snared the tobacco industry as a client for the firm, raking in at least $10 million for helping broker a settlement of the many lawsuits by states against Big Tobacco, a windfall that helped make Mitchell the firm‘s chairman. Mitchell also brought into the firm recycled Democratic pols like former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and former Texas Governor Anne Richards -- as well as scoring the coup of coups by persuading former Senate Republican leader (and GOP presidential candidate) Bob Dole to join the gaggle of pricey counselors. Together, the former “opponents” Mitchell and Dole have serviced a client mix hardly less potent than Kissinger’s, from the government of Taiwan to Ameritech, and including the military-industrial complex giants Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin. Mitchell personally handled General Electric‘s attempts to get around the costly toxic-waste cleanup provisions of the Superfund -- which would have required GE to fork over some $450 million for eliminating the PCBs it had dumped into the Hudson River for years. (That’s the same Superfund for which, as senator, Mitchell had been a leading advocate.)

Mitchell‘s greed has known few bounds. He jumped into bed with flamboyant oil entrepreneur Viktor Kozeny -- baptized “the bouncing Czech” by the financial press -- who sought control of Azerbaijan’s state-run oil industry. But, as the Boston Globe reported, “The scheme collapsed in early 2000; the Azerbaijan oil company was not privatized; and several major investors have sued Kozeny, claiming he defrauded them of more than $180 million.

Columbia University was on the list of those allegedly ”bilked“ -- all investors attracted by Mitchell‘s prestigious sponsorship of the dubious scheme.

Kissinger is a notorious cover-up artist as well as a sanguineous war criminal (you can find chapter and verse in Christopher Hitchens’ eye-opening monograph The Trial of Henry Kissinger, which came out last year), and his appointment as chair of the 911 commission was meant to ensure that no embarrassing finger-pointing by it would disrupt George Bush‘s re-election drive. But the sellout Mitchell was no less likely than Dr. K to be loath to unduly trouble either the PentagonCIA intelligence behemoth or the notorious ”oiligarchy“ of an incumbent president from Texas and his petro cronies, for fear of losing access and influence on behalf of clients. Mitchell and his firm, of course, raise a lot of money for the Democrats.

The aging replacements for Kissinger (ex--New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, an independently wealthy refugee from politics who’s been enjoying a cushy semiretirement as a college president) and Mitchell (ex-Congressman Lee Hamilton, plucked from his post-retirement sinecure at the Woodrow Wilson Center) are unlikely to have either the energy or the inclination to put teeth into the commission‘s investigations.

With the departure of Kissinger and Mitchell, we’ll never know all the names on their bananas -- revelations that might have taught us more about how Washington really works than the commission ever will.

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