Monday, July 30, 2012

politics then and now

I was interviewed last week about the Lavelle affair, and it made me realize how differently political controversies were handled then compared with now.

In early 1972, I was working for Senator Harold Hughes, Democrat of Iowa, who was determined to force a end to the Vietnam war. He also was working hard to prevent the reelection of President Richard Nixon. Our office received a letter from an Iowan serving in the Air Force and based in Thailand, Sgt. Lonnie Franks. The letter said that he was ordered to falsify after-action reports on air strikes inside North Vietnam, that his immediate supervisor said "the president probably doesn't even know about it," and he wondered whether it was "legal and proper" for falsify classified reports.

Did Senator Hughes rush to the cameras and denounce the unauthorized attacks on North Vietnam? Did he leak the letter to the New York Times so the news media could trumpet the story?  Isn't that what you'd expect today?

But no, Hughes discussed the issue with a trusted colleague, then sent the letter -- after concealing the name of the author and other identifying details -- to the Secretary of the Air Force, who promised to investigate.

The investigation revealed a pattern of violation of written orders setting the rules of engagement for attacks in North Vietnam. It also revealed that Lavelle had ordered his subordinates not to report that they had acted contrary to orders, and that as a result a system of falsifying classified reports was established.  Lonnie Franks later testified that the 200 people at his base often had to spend up to three hours a night "making the wrong right" -- that is, concocting false reports that had all the necessary details so that they looked legitimate.

The Air Force Chief of Staff recalled Lavelle and relieved him of command. Senator Hughes was told that the problem had been fixed.  The Nixon Administration, however, issued a false statement that Lavelle had retired for health reasons.

Some congressional conservatives who were critical of any restraints on U.S. bombing complained that Lavelle had been mistreated -- and the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing where Lavelle accepted responsibility for the false reports but said he didn't know about them.

Only then, when the issue was public and the facts were being distorted, did Senator Hughes make a public statement. Moreover, he secured a commitment from Chairman John Stennis to investigate the whole matter. Our five month investigation was followed by nine days of hearings, at which everyone above Lavelle in the chain of command said that he had violated orders. Republican Senator Barry Goldwater said that Lavelle "cannot be defended." In an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 12-2, the Committee denied Lavelle a promotion on the retired list.

Senators and the Armed Services Committee conducted themselves as statesmen, not politicians. They saw the issue as one of integrity and civilian control, not whether the war was good or bad.

I haven't seen much evidence of similar statesmanship in recent years.

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