AT THEIR BEST, POLITICAL APPOINTMENTS are a function of accomplishment, expertise, or judgment. At their worst, they are the consolation prize of cronyism. With Bill Richardson’s appointment as Secretary of Commerce, President-elect Obama veered sharply toward the latter. Although he has little experience in the private sector, Richardson will helm the department most responsible for U.S. business during the greatest economic downturn in seven decades.
Media coverage of Bill Richardson’s appointment as Secretary of Commerce this week, like their coverage of the presidential election, has focused on style over substance. Richardson wanted to be Secretary of State. Was he galled by being passed over? Would Hispanics recoil? One reporter even asked why Richardson shaved his beard. None of the coverage has delved into the substance of Richardson’s career. The new Commerce Secretary is a man whose judgment once led him to negotiate the ceasefire that catapulted the Taliban into power in Afghanistan and perhaps to perjure himself in the Monica Lewinsky case. His accomplishments include presiding over one of the most egregious thefts of American nuclear secrets in history, for which he was repeatedly called upon to resign his last cabinet appointment. Even leftist Democrat Robert Byrd refused to support him in any future confirmation hearing. Richardson currently supports adopting a strengthened Kyoto Treaty but opposes a secret ballot for union elections. He has apparently fibbed about being threatened by Osama bin Laden, hints at a government cover-up of contact with UFOs and extra-terrestrials, and he has compiled a record of self-pity that makes Charlie Brown look phlegmatic.
Whatever criteria led Obama to name Richardson Secretary of Commerce, it was not familiarity with the private sector. The Washington Post reported Wednesday, “Richardson, who was one of Obama’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, has spent almost his entire career in prominent government roles.” Like his political benefactors, the Clintons and Obama, Richardson has no experience in wealth creation. Worse, the 61-year-old New Mexican is an ally of two economy-crippling forces: labor and environmentalism.
A Man with a Plan
If leftists have little to cheer in Obama’s war cabinet, they are taking solace with Richardson. Already, The Huffington Post has featured the ominous-sounding headline, “Environmentalists Thrilled About Richardson as Commerce Secretary,” and Michelle Kraus of HuffPo has thanked Obama for his “shrewd insight” in the choice. They have reason to crow. Richardson has an 82 percent League of Conservation Voters (LCV) lifetime voting record, and the distaste for fossil fuels to match. The Washington Post reported that candidate Richardson called for the American people to “sacrifice to cut oil imports from 65 percent of fossil fuel use to 10 percent in 15 years.” Blocking new sources of energy, he told Chris Wallace, “I think the ANWR argument is ridiculous,” and he pledged before the LCV that he would oppose drilling in the continental shelf. (He also promised to lean on “fishing and transportation interests” to accept the Green agenda as “their own long-term interest.”) He vowed to “mandate” higher fuel efficiency standards and greater use of biofuels by automakers. Will he convince President Obama to make this his price for a Big Three bailout?
Damaging as it would be, it may be the least expensive of his proposals.
“A Stronger Kyoto Treaty”
In 2007, presidential hopeful Richardson told the Asia Society, “I would advocate, immediately upon becoming president, reconvening the Kyoto nations, scrapping the treaty and bringing forth a stronger one because we’ve lost six years.” The International Council for Capital Formation found that European nations would see their electric bills increase 26 percent, hundreds of thousands of lost jobs, and an overall economic contraction of 1-3 percent of GDP. Americans could expect to lose 1.1 million jobs and $338 billion annually for several years – and this for complying with the weaker Kyoto. A stronger version, in this economy, would likely trigger a second Great Depression.
As during the last Great Depression, Richardson may contract trade in the midst of an economic downturn. Although he supported NAFTA and has discussed broadening trade, he made disturbing proposals on the campaign trail. He told the AFL-CIO in 2007:
We should never have another trade agreement unless it enforces labor protection, environmental standards and job safety. What we need to do is say that from now on, America will adhere to all international labor standards in any trade agreement – no child labor, no slave labor, freedom of association, collective bargaining – that is critically important – making sure that no wage disparity exists.
Implementing such criteria would effectively bar any free trade agreement with any nation poorer than the United States. Richardson has proven his fidelity to the union party line before. He boasted:
One of my first actions as Governor was to reinstate collective bargaining for public employees, including Fair Share. We also secured the first public works labor agreement in New Mexico history. And we made our prevailing wage a union wage.”
He also supports the Employee Free Choice Act, which would deny workers the right to cast secret ballots when deciding whether to form a union. The EFCA’s “card check” system opens the door to worker disenfranchisement and union intimidation such that George McGovern opposes the bill.
Yet Richardson has a history of delivering for labor; his AFL-CIO lifetime voting record is 88 percent. His bilingual acceptance speech this week may signal yet another change to our nation’s workforce.
If his plans for the future are distasteful, so are reassurances based on his judgment or experience. In his public career, Richardson won a trifecta of fecklessness, limping between scandals on the international, domestic, and bureaucratic fronts.
The Taliban’s Savior
For all the damage new environmental or economic restrictions could do, Bill Richardson’s most damaging legacy has been his contribution to 9/11. Had he not intervened, the Taliban may have been wiped out three years earlier.
As David Horowitz and I noted in our book, Party of Defeat, “In 1998, [Bill Clinton] dispatched UN ambassador Bill Richardson to Afghanistan to impose an arms embargo on the friendly forces of the Northern Alliance, the effect of which was to help the Taliban” (p. 45). In April 1998, Richardson convinced the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, then locked in a civil war, not only to lay down arms and impose an arms embargo. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher set the scene: “I cannot stress this more forcefully: it was a pivotal moment. The Taliban could easily have been defeated…UN Ambassador Bill Richardson arrived on the scene to convince the anti-Taliban forces to stand back, and we thus saved this fanatical, anti-Western regime from being destroyed and being defeated.” Both sides agreed, and Richardson congratulated himself on “a good day’s work” – a bit prematurely. He wrote in utter shock that he “quickly learned that the Taliban had no intention of making peace with the Northern Alliance” (Richardson, p. 231). The ceasefire held approximately one month, long enough for Pakistan to violate the arms embargo the Northern Alliance had observed, replenishing the Taliban’s arsenal. The rest is terror history.
The Death Threat That Wasn’t
Richardson claims part of his trip to Afghanistan was to convince the Taliban to extradite or expel Osama bin Laden. “Later, on the national evening news, Andrea Mitchell of NBC reported that bin Laden, apparently made aware of what I asked of the Taliban, had threatened to kill me.” His wife, Barbara, instantly objected: “All this isn’t worth your getting killed, she said to me when I got home” (Richardson, p. 229). Trying to flush out a man who had declared war on America, who would eventually kill thousands of Americans and may yet kill thousands more: not worth the life of one Richardson.
However, it appears the death threat never occurred. In an August 1998 story entitled “Richardson Wasn’t Threatened,” The Albequerque Journal reported:
A spokesman for the agency charged with protecting U.S. ambassadors disputed a television news report that Osama bin Laden personally threatened the life of former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson.
“Not true at all,” said Andy Laine, a spokesman for the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service.
Yet Richardson repeats the claim in his 2005 autobiography.
Fool Me Once….
If he learned anything from being conned by the Taliban, he did not betray it during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. As president, he vowed to place human rights ahead of our national security. When asked during debate about our policy in Pakistan, Richardson told Wolf Blitzer:
We forgot our principles, our principles that we said to [then-Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf: You know, Musharraf, security is more important than human rights. If I’m president, it’s the other way around – democracy and human rights (come first).
Wolf Blitzer asked him if he were arguing “human rights, at times, are more important than American national security?”
“Yes,” Richardson retorted, “because I believe we need to find ways to say to the world that, you know, it’s not just about what Halliburton wants in Iraq.” (Ironically, Richardson had labored for big business himself. “Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson went to Nigeria to help arrange for a joint energy development project that resulted in $882 millions’ worth of power contracts for Enron.”)
His policy toward Iraq was worse. Richardson advocated a total U.S. withdrawal from Iraq within six months, putting him within breathing space of Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel.
He similarly wished to open diplomatic relations with North Korea. “North Korea,” he assured one audience “sees themselves eventually as an ally of the United States; in other words, as an ally against China.”
With such an outlook, one can understand why he declared at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that Jimmy Carter had given us “a strong America.”
The Other Lewinsky Perjurer?
As a footnote to his time at the UN, Bill Richardson came to prominence by playing a minor role in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. When Monica indicated she wanted to live in New York City in the fall of 1997, President Humidor got on the phone to Bill Richardson, who promptly offered Monica Lewinsky a job in public relations at the UN. The job paid an attractive salary and happened to be located in the Big Apple. When examined, Richardson may have lied about his role to a grand jury. Richardson claimed he offered an “existing” job, but it appears he went out of his way to assist her, contacting her and transferring another employee to make the job available. In his memoir, Between Worlds, Richardson protests his entire involvement came about “innocently enough.” He does not mention his late evening phone calls offering her the job, but relates Monica “mulled it over for a couple of months but eventually turned us down” (Richardson, pp. 234-5). Do most government employers allow one to dally a couple of months?
Six months after he scratched Bill’s back, Clinton offered him a promotion to Secretary of Energy.
DOE and Chinese Dough
President Clinton campaign in 1992 as a hawk who would get tough with China for its human rights violations. He proceeded to treat China as a “strategic partner,” approving one special waiver after another to transfer dual-use technology to companies run or partially run by the Chinese military via the Commerce Department. The-Commerce Secretary Ron Brown summed up the administration’s attitude well when he said, “Once divided by ideology, we are now drawn together by shared economic interests.” Former Commerce Department official Jeffrey Garten described the agency as “a wild bazaar” (Lowry, Legacy, pp. 226-7); secrets were auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Some have argued Clinton was committed to “multipolarity”; others that he viewed economic matters as more pressing than security. Perhaps he merely coveted the enormous campaign donations Red Chinese provided. (In all, the Democratic National Committee returned $2.8 millions in illegal campaign funds from China from the 1996 campaign alone. The American companies that benefited from these deals turned the cash into the Democratic Party. Bernard Schwartz, chairman of Loral Space and Communications, gave more money to the Democrats 1998 midterm efforts than any other donor.) Whatever the case, he granted Red China nearly unfettered access to American nuclear technology – and Bill Richardson’s Department of Energy was in the heat of it all.
In October 1998, Richardson’s DOE sold the EHI Group a $9 million supercomputer from Sandia National Laboratories for $30,000. The buyer, a Chinese national, had stated he wanted to use it for spare parts, but DOE learned he intended to ship it to Beijing. Nearly a year later, the Department had to pay $88,000 to get it back, by which time the sensitive information on its disc may have been recovered and turned over. Rep. Curt Weldon summed the situation up well in a letter he penned to Richardson, demanding his resignation: “Ironically, at the very time the Cox committee was investigating the transfer of sensitive technology to China, your employees were selling some of our most sophisticated systems to them at bargain-basement prices.” From 1997-8, the Clinton administration allowed 191 supercomputers to be exported to Red China, checking exactly one to see if it was being used for weapons production.
What the Chinese couldn’t buy, they would steal – often under the dozing eye of Bill Richardson.
The agency was not devoid of people sounding the alarm. Notra Trulock, once the director of intelligence for the Dept. of Energy, was demoted in May 1998 in favor of a Richardson choice. Trulock had consistently warned of ongoing Chinese espionage at the DOE’s nuclear laboratories. A year earlier, he had briefed Richardson’s predecessor, Frederico Peña, about espionage at Los Alamos. He requested a meeting in February 1997 and finally received one in June; he then twice briefed Sandy Berger. As with all security concerns in the Clinton years, action was slow in coming. In September 1998, with the agency under Richardson’s control and reforms still moving at a snail’s pace, Trulock turned to Chris Cox’s bipartisan House Select Committee. Cox and his team were studying the issue of China’s infiltration of the bureaucracy and their theft of nuclear secrets. Trulock noted the computer technology Clinton authorized for sale would greatly benefit China, especially with the information stolen from Los Alamos. He again testified that November. Staffers remembered ranking Democrat Norm Dicks as “apoplectic,” screaming, “This is incredible! I can’t believe it!” Dicks himself stated, “Everybody in town knows how screwed up DOE is, but nobody knew it was this bad.”
Trulock did not ingratiate himself by later identifying Bill Richardson as the one who leaked Wen Ho Lee’s name to the New York Times’ James Risen. After leaving the department, Trulock penned a book criticizing his superiors – only to see his house raided by FBI agents on the pretense that the manuscript draft contained classified information. He later identified himself as bankrupt. The administration could mobilize when it perceived a truly dangerous enemy, one who might embarrass it in the process of saving the country.
The Extent of DOE Theft
Richardson inherited a dysfunctional agency, and records prove it remained so after he left. A document entitled “Foreign Collection Against the Department of Energy,” produced after Richardson took over the agency, painted a stark picture. It recounted that a dozen nations posed “significant” threats and still others were “targeting the unique and valuable scientific and technological information held by DOE.” The report warned, “The US Department of Energy (DOE) is under attack by foreign collectors – intelligence officers, as well as scientists, academics, engineers, and businessmen – who are aggressively targeting DOE nuclear, sensitive and proprietary, and unclassified information. The losses are extensive and include highly classified nuclear weapon design information to the Chinese.” Despite such warning, between late 1998 and early 1999, on Richardson’s watch, Chinese government researchers based in Beijing downloaded a “three-foot-high stack” of sensitive nuclear information from Los Alamos’ FTP site (Gertz, The China Threat, pp. 132-3).
Richardson, with Sandy Berger, publicly defended the president’s “quick response” to espionage, citing Presidential Decision Directive 61 – which took a mere two-and-a-half years to produce.
The Cox Report ultimately found China had acquired many of the nation’s most advanced weapons systems. Congress appointed a new committee to oversee DOE security. The GAO notes, “In response to security and management weaknesses, in 1999 the [Republican-controlled] Congress created the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a separately organized agency within the Department of Energy (DOE).” Richardson opposed its creation (Richardson, p. 254).
The Wen Ho Lee Debacle
Nothing quite encapsulates the failures of the DOE like the case of Wen Ho Lee, an employee at Los Alamos laboratory. Under watch since 1982, when he contacted a Chinese spy in another case, Lee enjoyed free access to America’s nuclear secrets – and freely contacted Chinese officials. In 1997, FBI Director Louis Freeh argued at a minimum Lee should be removed from the X Division, the most vital part of the laboratory with access to the government’s “legacy codes.” Richardson wrote the result: “Nothing was done” (Richardson, p. 250). When fresh charges were raised, Richardson publicly demanded Lee’s firing – but Lee’s access to this information was not denied until December 1998, after he failed a polygraph test. Even after that, Lee found ways to access the X Division’s computers, deleting files from its server. In time, the Justice Department case against him fell apart, in part because Wen Ho Lee used “graymail” against the feds: federal prosecutors realized pursuing the case would mean exposing vital national secrets and agreed to a plea bargain in exchange for time served. Nonetheless, Freeh told the Senate Judiciary and Select Intelligence committees in 2000, “The Department of Justice and the FBI stand by each and every one of the 59 counts in the indictment of Dr. Lee…Each of those counts could be proven in December 1999, and each of them could be proven today.”
Richardson had managed to come down hard publicly on Lee – without denying him access to nuclear secrets. He demanded jail time for Lee, but only strenuously enough to cripple the government’s case against him. Ironically, a group of Chinese-Americans in Silicon Valley currently oppose Richardson’s appointment as Commerce Secretary – on the grounds that he was too harsh with Wen Ho Lee.
Not the End of the Line
The Wen Ho Lee case was but one of the embarrassments of Richardson’s DOE tenure. In July 2000, Los Alamos announced it had lost two computer disks containing nuclear secrets. Los Alamos had reportedly waited three weeks before declaring them missing to DOE. The disks were later found behind a copier in the X Division, perhaps returned to cover the crime.
Called before Congress to testify on the matter, Richardson waited a week before appearing before the Senate to testify about Los Alamos, supposedly because he wanted to have “all the facts.” The senators saw this as more administrative stonewalling – and excoriated him. Sen. Jim Warner told Richardson, “These incidents happened on your watch. Like the captain of a ship, you must bear full accountability.” Sen. Richard Shelby called on him to resign.
Sen. Robert Byrd Promised Never to Support Richardson Again
The harshest criticism came from Sen. Robert Byrd, D-WV, who said, “You’ve waited and shown contempt of Congress that borders on supreme arrogance. You had a bright and brilliant career, but you will never again receive the support of the U.S. Senate for any office you seek. You have squandered your treasure.” We will be watching Sen. Byrd to see how he votes – and urges his colleagues to vote – in Richardson’s upcoming confirmation hearings.
Bill Richardson, D-Roswell
The hearings humiliated Richardson, and taken with the other failures on his watch, they seemed to doom him. Al Gore, who had considered the Latino for his vice presidential short list, went instead with Joe Lieberman. Richardson went on to be elected governor of New Mexico and campaign on behalf of John Kerry in 2004. After being handily re-elected governor two years ago, he entered the Democratic presidential fray as a longshot.
And he complicated his longshot chances by flubbing an easy interview with Hardball’s Chris Matthews. Matthews, who has a soft spot for Richardson, joked after a Democratic presidential debate at Dennis Kucinich’s insistence he had seen a UFO. Matthews made a throwaway joke, asking Richardson if he believed earth had been visited by alien life forms. To his surprise, Richardson proceeded to charge that the government had “not come clean” about a possible UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico. In fact, he had a several-year-long track record of similar statements.
Perhaps under his watch, the nation can lift itself out of recession by selling tinfoil hats.
Bill Richardson: Pity Whore
Democrats are known as the party of compassion, and Richardson’s autobiography reveals a man who has the greatest of sympathy – for himself. In whitewashing his many failures, he seems always to wallow in a well of self-pity. Although he appears to have acted in a shifty manner in order to offer a job to his boss’s mistress, he whines, Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles was brisk with him. “Oh great, the chief of staff to the president was above it all, unwilling to participate with a seedy bastard like me.” Although he released a public statement that may have been at odds with the truth, he complains, “I was done with Monica Lewinsky, but she remained an uninvited party in my life through 1998” (Richardson, pp. 236, 240). Turning to his failures at DOE, he admits he was premature in assuring the American people “their nuclear secrets are now safe at the labs.”
“We weren’t there yet,” he wrote, “and that quote would come back to bite me.” (pp. 253-4).
During the second Los Alamos scandal, the one over missing disks, he grouses, “I became the butt of jokes from Dom Imus and other talk radio types” (p. 255). Again, during the hearings, Richardson felt sorry for himself, reporting “the senators – Republicans and Democrats alike – were taking turns bashing me like a piñata…The summer of 2000 was a low point in my public life” (Richardson, p. 256). Richardson would later sniff, “The Los Alamos incident, the hard drives, cost me being in serious consideration for the ticket.”
Oh, and the United States’ strongest long-term competitor had burgled reams of our nuclear secrets that might allow them to vaporize millions of innocent Americans, too.
Bill Richardson now has some measure of public esteem. He will have a hand in crafting economic policy, perhaps more. It would be an overstatement to say he is an economic radical by the Democratic Party’s standards. He voted for NAFTA and claims he supports expanding it, though such a policy is hard to square with his statements to the AFL-CIO. His tax cuts as governor of New Mexico are not completely offset by his fee increases, though he accelerated state spending. Though his overall voting record for Americans for Democratic Action often fluctuated in the 70-80 percent range, he is well to the Right of Robert Reich. If Obama decides to govern as a centrist, as some on the Right as claiming, he may rein in the more extreme tax increases and environmental regulations those on his Left clamor for.
But realizing the economic good of the nation and the world rests of the market savvy of Messers. Richardson and Obama is cold comfort, indeed.
Gertz, Bill. The China Threat: How the People’s Republic Targets America. (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2002).
Lowry, Rich. Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years. (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2003).
Richardson, Bill. Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life. (NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2005).
This article originally appeared as the weekend lead on Friday, December 5, 2008, on FrontPage Magazine.