Mike Isikoff has a

August 19, 2001 1:44 p.m.

Mike Isikoff has a story in Newsweek this week based on access to transcripts of several conversations Bill Clinton had with Ehud Barak about Marc Rich in the weeks just before Clinton issued the controversial pardon.

The article raises two questions.

First, how were these transcripts obtained? Isikoff writes:

The two leaders had no reason to believe their confidential chat would ever become public. Yet the Clinton-Barak telephone call that evening, like all conversations between U.S. presidents and foreign heads of state, was monitored by a team of note takers sitting at computers in the White House Situation Room. Last week congressional investigators probing the Rich pardon received access to National Security Council-prepared transcripts of three Clinton-Barak conversations that dealt with the Rich pardon. NEWSWEEK also has reviewed the contents of the transcripts …

This sounds a lot like the current White House has control over the National Security apparatus and turned over these documents, or leaked them to Burton’s committee. Needless to say, administrations are far less generous with transcripts of presidents’ conversations when it’s their own president — and for good reason. And they’re supposed to be equally solicitous of previous presidents, that is to say, of the office of the president. But it seems like here they weren’t .

This is speculation, of course. Perhaps the documents are already in the custody of the National Archives or some other record keeping body? I’m not sure. But this is worth looking into.

The second, more important, point is the contents of the transcripts themselves. Isikoff editorializes thus:

The transcripts offer no “smoking gun” showing that the former president was motivated by large donations to his presidential library or by generous campaign contributions. But the conversations do show that, in sharp contrast to the picture painted by some of his former aides, Clinton was keenly aware of details of the Rich case, and appeared determined to grant the highly questionable pardon even though, as he admitted to Barak, there was “almost no precedent in American history.”

No smoking gun? I’ll say. The transcripts don’t seem to contain anything even touching on this point.

Say whatever you will about the wisdom of the Marc Rich pardon, but the transcripts themselves seem to confirm a key component of Clinton’s story — that Ehud Barak, then Prime Minister of Israel, was lobbying heavily on Rich’s behalf because, as he says in the transcripts, the fugitive financier had “[made] a lot of philanthropic contributions to Israeli institutions and activities like education” and because “it could be important (gap) not just financially, but [because] he helped Mossad [the Israeli intelligence agency] on more than one case.”

In February Clinton wrote that in deciding to issue Rich’s pardon one of his key reasons was that:

Many present and former high-ranking Israeli officials of both major political parties and leaders of Jewish communities in America and Europe urged the pardon of Mr. Rich because of his contributions and services to Israeli charitable causes, to the Mossad’s efforts to rescue and evacuate Jews from hostile countries, and to the peace process through sponsorship of education and health programs in Gaza and the West Bank.

The one thing that’s clear from these documents — obtained under whatever means — is that this assertion was true. Perhaps more true than we knew.

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