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The smearing of Morton Halperin

Now that he's back from his vacation, Bill Clinton can expect confirmation trouble once again. This lime the fuss is over Morton Halperin, nominated to fill the new position of assistant secretary of defense for democracy and peacekeeping. Conservatives, sensing Borkability, are gearing up for a light they hope will damage the president, regardless of the outcome. But unlike Lani Guinier, against whom there was a substantive case, or Sheldon Hackney, against whom there was at least a plausible one, Halperin bears no resemblance to the portrait of a dangerous subversive his enemies have constructed.

In Washington all it takes sometimes is a single fax machine. And the accusations against Halperin have emanated entirely from the very busy fax machine of Frank Gaffney. Gaffney has characterized Halperin's views on national security as "bizarre," "extreme" and "associated with the radical left's agendas." This is wildly erroneous and, coming from one whose own views are somewhat bizarre and certainly extreme, a little amusing. Halperin is a distinguished defense intellectual who worked during the Vietnam War in Robert McNamara's Pentagon and Henry Kissinger's National Security Council. A civil libertarian, he headed the Washington office of the ACLU for eight years. He has written much on strategic subjects, on the conflict between government secrecy and individual freedom and on how to strike a balance between the two. (Some of his writings have appeared in TNR.) Halperin also supported the use of American force against Iraq (though as a director of the ACLU he did not take a public stand), and has argued--to the chagrin of the left--that covert aid to the contras in Nicaragua and the mujaheddin in Afghanistan was constitutional once it was approved by Congress.

In The Washington Times, Gaffney writes that Halperin "has not held government office since he left government in the early 1970s after playing a role in the unauthorized publication of classified documents that became known as the Pentagon Papers." This is a multiple dishonesty. As a Defense Department official, Halperin supervised the government's internal production of the Pentagon papers. It was Halperin's copy, on deposit at the RAND Corporation, where he was a consultant, that was leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, an employee with top-secret clearance. But it was Henry Rowen, RAND's president, who granted Ellsberg access to the document, not Halperin. Gaffney adds innuendo to false statement by implying that Halperin's hiatus from the government was somehow related to all this. In a subsequent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Gaffney notes that "Henry Kissinger suspected Mr. Halperin of leaking sensitive information to the press and even had his phone tapped." What Gaffney doesn't mention is that Kissinger later testified that nothing from the wiretap cast doubt on Halperin's loyalty (or that of Anthony Lake, whom Kissinger also bugged), and that the former secretary of state has publicly apologized to Halperin.

In another preposterous charge, Gaffney asserts that Halperin has "went so far as to aid and abet Philip Agee and others in their efforts to reveal publicly the identities of American covert operatives." This is nonsense. While Halperin has argued that it violates the First Amendment to prohibit private citizens from disclosing the identities of secret agents, he has always said that doing so is wrong; and, more to Gaffney's point, he has said in the same breath that former government officials like Agee have no such right to do so. Indeed, he has angered many on the old left by stating that the government can punish officials who reveal secrets, and by helping to negotiate the legislation that made such disclosures a crime. Gaffney even goes so far as to claim Halperin wants "to end all government security classification." Halperin contends the government classifies too much (so does Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan), but he believes that the government has the right (and the need) to classify, and that some information is even "presumptively classified."

Gaffney has more to say, but it's all at this level. He quotes selectively and tendentiously--when he's not actually misquoting--to impute dovish notions that are not Halperin's. He holds Halperin responsible for the views of people defended by the ACLU, but never mentions that under Halperin the organization defended the rights of Oliver North, John Poindexter and Lyn Nofziger too. Nor does he mention that Halperin has been a force of good judgment within the ACLU, arguing that it had no business endorsing the nuclear freeze, for example, even though he personally supported it. Halperin has played a similar role within other liberal groups, he resigned from the board of American Friends of Peace Now when it sided with George Bush on linking loan guarantees for Russian immigrants to ending Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

Gaffney's propaganda has been disseminated by National Review and Commentary, among other publications. It has also been picked up by Republican senators on the Armed Services Committee, including Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond. This committee, which will hold hearings on the Halperin nomination in the fall, is the last one a Clinton nominee would care to face. Its Republicans are legendarily right-wing. And its nominal 12-10 Democratic majority is offset by the presence of Sam Nunn and Richard Shelby, two members of the president's party who enjoy nothing so much as seeing him humiliated. These senators have every right to dislike Bill Clinton, but in this instance they have no good reason to fault his choice of a nominee.

Jacob Weisberg is editor-in-chief of The Slate Group.

By Jacob Weisberg