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When Going Gets Tough, the Tough Shred

January 15, 2002|DANIEL SCHORR | Daniel Schorr, senior news analyst for National Public Radio, won three Emmy awards for his coverage of Watergate.

It was Watergate in the 1970s and Irangate in the '80s. Will Enrongate become the national scandal of the new century?

"Gate" has become a metaphor for the corrupt use of power. It remains to be seen whether the Bush administration, consorting with a giant corporation, contributed the regulatory laxity that made possible the victimization of employees, investors and the nation.

Now, as in the past, investigators will have to cope with the cover-up impulse, which is not limited to government officials. For months, the Bush White House has resisted providing the General Accounting Office--the investigative arm of Congress--with data about the workings of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, which produced anti-regulatory policy recommendations much to Enron's liking. The GAO has filed an unprecedented lawsuit against the White House, trying to pry loose the information.

Yet much of the information is buried in the files of the bankrupt corporation and its accountants in the Andersen company. With a free-enterprise whiff of Watergate, Andersen has now acknowledged that "individuals" disposed of "a significant but undetermined number of electronic and paper documents" related to Enron. The destruction apparently continued after a subpoena had been received from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

This "Quick-Henry-the-shredder" reflex took me back three decades to June 1972. On the morning after five burglars had been caught in Democratic headquarters in the Watergate office building, G. Gordon Liddy, chief of the enterprise, drove to the office of the Committee to Reelect the President on Pennsylvania Avenue and started shredding files. He shredded everything connected with the project--including hotel soap wrappers and even $100 bills from illegal campaign funds.

A week later, L. Patrick Gray, acting director of the FBI, was called to the White House and told by Nixon aide John Erlichman to "deep-six" the contents of the safe of H. Howard Hunt, Watergate operative, in the Executive Office Building. "Deep-six" meant that Gray was to drop the contents off the Potomac bridge. Gray chose to keep the material in his home and burn it six months later.

The prize Watergate suppression was, of course, the erasure of 18 minutes of a discussion between President Nixon and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman on a tape subpoenaed by the Watergate special prosecutor. From the context it appears that Nixon and Haldeman were discussing who ordered the break-in and why. Nixon denied making the erasure. His new chief of staff, Alexander Haig, testified to some possible "sinister force."

Fast-forward to 1985 and the explosive revelation that the Reagan administration had been dealing with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Iranian government to trade antitank missiles for Tehran's help in recovering Americans held hostage in Lebanon. A further development was that proceeds of the missile sales were diverted to support the anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua.

Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese ordered an investigation, and immediately Oliver North, the National Security Council staffer managing the enterprise, started shredding. Into the machine he fed paper copies of electronic messages, telephone logs--everything.

At one point the pile next to the shredder stood 1 1/2 feet high. When the shredder jammed, North went around the building looking for another secure shredder. North's secretary, Fawn Hall, spirited some particularly sensitive papers out of the White House hidden in her clothes.

Adm. John Poindexter, head of the NSC, tore up the "intelligence finding" bearing President Reagan's signature that authorized the arms shipments.

During the Clinton administration there was some shredding, tampering and temporary removal of documents related to the investigation that started with the failed investment in the Whitewater Development Co. in Arkansas. White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum was criticized for transferring Whitewater files from the office of lawyer Vincent W. Foster Jr. after Foster's suicide.

But, unlike Watergate and Irangate, Whitewater was not a scandal that threatened the rights and livelihoods of Americans. Enrongate could be such a scandal, and so it's time to take notice when you hear the shredder at work.

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