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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clinton Team Blunders on Croatia Affair

The guilty verdicts on Bill Clinton's partners in the Whitewater fraud trials in Little Rock have revived Republican hopes that they might be able to defeat this Democratic president after all. Clinton was not formally accused of any crime, but as the main witness for the defense, his credibility was certainly on trial.


For a Russian audience, however, an even more intriguing drama is being played out this week before the International Relations committee in Congress. Ostensibly about Bosnian policies, it is also about secrecy and international law, bureaucratic rivalries and Clinton's old friend and Russian expert Strobe Talbott, his deputy secretary of state.


In April 1994, on the flight back from the funeral of Richard Nixon, Clinton, Talbott and national security adviser Tony Lake reviewed an urgent request from Peter Galbraith, U.S. Ambassador in Croatia. The Croatian government was being asked to be a conduit for secret arms shipments from Iran to the Bosnians. Would the United States object?


Such shipments would breach the UN embargo, to which the United States, France, Britain and Russia were all signatories. Rather than say yes or no, Clinton and his advisers told Galbraith to reply that he had "no instructions" on the matter. The baffled Croats were eventually told this meant "no objections," and the arms shipments went ahead.


The gun-running soon became an open secret. But the U.S. role was kept so secret that the CIA station chief in the embassy in Croatia began sending back worried reports that his ambassador seemed to be getting involved in secret arms deals.


The CIA claims it was never informed of the decision taken on the plane home from Nixon's funeral. Talbott insists that he informed then-CIA Director Jim Woolsey and has said so, on oath, before the Senate Intelligence committee.


But Woolsey told the Intelligence committee, "I was never told that there had been any change in U.S. government policy on this matter." Knowing what the secret arms shipments in the Iran-Contra scandal had done to Ronald Reagan's presidency, Woolsey said he left that meeting not at all sure what Ambassador Galbraith was doing in Croatia. But he was convinced that "very definitely my station chief should not assist."


There is much hypocrisy in all this. The Republicans are probing the affair in order to embarrass the administration, but Republican leader Robert Dole all along urged that the United States lift the arms embargo and help the Bosnians. And the CIA is not entirely a virginal organization when it comes to covert operations or to gun-running.


Iran's diplomatic support and its readiness to ship arms and fighters to its fellow Moslems in Bosnia were never a secret. The Russians, as well as the British and French, who knew all about the secret night flights from Iran, strongly suspected that the United States both knew and did not much care to enforce the arms embargo by stopping them.


Hypocrisy or not, there are serious political problems here, for both Bill Clinton as well as Strobe Talbott. There is a legal requirement for congressional oversight of covert operations. There was a UN arms embargo. Allies, Congress, the United Nations and America's own CIA were all somehow misled. And by getting caught, the Clinton team has fallen into one of those messes that is worse than a crime -- it's a blunder.