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A Discussion of Tamraz’s Testimony

September 18, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now the perspectives of two committee members: Republican Senator Robert Bennett of Utah, Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey. Sen. Bennett, how would you assess the testimony of Roger Tamraz?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT, (R) Utah: He was certainly the most colorful character we’ve had before the committee in a long, long time, and kept everybody interested and riveted. I liked Sen. Levin’s phrase when he said, “You’ve been hustled and you were hustling.” I think he was hustling us a little bit today. He was playing a role. There’s no question in my mind that many of the things he has done have been inappropriate; that the decision made by the National Security people to keep him out of the White House and out of the presence of the Vice President and the President was the right decision. But as he said, he’s a very persistent person. And he found a way to go around that. And it was kind of fun to sit there and watch him. But this is not a man that I would lend any money to.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Torricelli, what about Sen. Levin’s point that Mr. Tamraz is part of a culture, to hustle the hustle, as Sen. Bennett was just saying. Is that correct, or is this an aberration, or is this an extraordinary thing that Mr. Tamraz was involved in at the White House?

SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI, (D) New Jersey: No. I think it’s an accurate reflection that, indeed, in our culture–and I don’t think it’s unique to our own time–is part of our political and capitalist system. People generally have the belief with enough effort and enough money you will get access and you can influence decisions. But in hearings that have generally been bad news about the American political system it should be remembered that at least in one small moment the system worked. The National Security Council denied access for a meeting, policy was not influenced, the country did not change its judgment. He may have gotten to a social function, but he did not get the change of policy that he wanted for any price.

JIM LEHRER: Do you share Sen. Bennett’s concern over the attempts to influence the National Security Council?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: I do. And I think that if these hearings serve a function, it will be that there is going to be a rising ethical standard, no matter how we might change the law. If the National Security Council was on guard in this instance because of his background, one can only imagine in this and in future administrations the kinds of background checks we’re going to go through to ensure that people who are, indeed, hustlers, and this man clearly was a hustler, a rakish character, are not going to get in the door.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Bennett, is there more involved here than a simple hustle? Was there something illegal involved here?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Well, what he was after, as he indicated, was not a change in policy. What he was after was government neutrality on the issue of the pipeline. If the government didn’t say we really hate this idea, then he was prepared to sell it to other people as saying the United States has no objection to my pipeline. And he said that in his testimony; all I want is no objection. He’s smart enough to know that a position of no objection is, in fact, a position and one that he can use.

I think he came to closer to getting that than maybe we’re giving him credit for because he’s certainly had a lot of solicitation for concern over how he felt. There’s a note that we saw that was written by the–signed by the chief of staff to the President, Mack McLarty, wanting to find out about this. Now, no, he never got the final statement that he wanted, but he came awfully close, and frankly, that scares me a little.

JIM LEHRER: Scares you in what way? Why does it scare you?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Because if we get to the point where campaign contributions can produce that kind of result and then say, well, we didn’t change policy, we just kind of looked the other way and let him go on his way. Then we are in serious danger of having the government up for sale. This man knew exactly what he wanted and came dangerously close to getting it. I think the instinct that our witness yesterday had, which was don’t let him in even to a social event, was the right instinct and should have been followed, and it was overridden by the pressure from the Democratic National Committee.

JIM LEHRER: That’s Ms. Heslin, who was an aide at the National Security Council. Senator Torricelli, what do you think? Are you scared, as scared as Sen. Bennett about this?

SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: Obviously. We were all troubled at the idea that the word is out that for sufficient money you can get unlimited access and change policy at the highest levels. But it is worth knowing that something else came into these hearings today that’s gotten very little attention, and that is the request to meet with the President was Mr. Tamraz’s sixth request for meeting in the federal government.

The previous five were all arranged by present or former employees of the Central Intelligence Agency. And it, I think, startled many of us, what is a Central Intelligence Agency doing arranging appointments for this individual in five different agencies of government and, indeed, ultimately, this orchestrated campaign to get in to see the President and to use Mr. Fowler to do so also came from an employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, who called apparently without identifying himself, asking Mr. Fowler to get involved. It was a peculiar new twist on what is obviously an unsettling affair.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Fowler, was then their head of the Democratic National Committee. Well, Sen. Torricelli, do you think that the CIA improperly got involved in a political matter? Is that what you’re suggesting?

SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: Well, I don’t think first of all that the Central Intelligence Agency should be acting as an extension of anyone’s private business setting up businesses, setting up appointments throughout Washington that involved changes of policy. That’s one problem. Second, the idea that an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency, who’s clearly operating undercover would be calling the Democratic National Committee, seeking to use the chairman of the committee to change the National Security Council policy of not allowing access to the White House is another matter. I noticed in the hearing room today a representative of the Inspector General of the CIA was in the room. I assume that’s an indication that they have an internal investigation underway, but it is worth noting here that somebody was duped. Not only was there an attempt to dupe the National Security Council into allowing Mr. Tamraz into the White House, Mr. Fowler, himself, was a victim. He was used, fortunately not successfully, to gain access to the President.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Bennett, how do you read the CIA involvement in this?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: Well, I’m not sure how many of the people who set up these first meetings were former officials of the CIA, who had left the agency and had gone to work for Mr. Tamraz and, therefore, were his employees and how many were still connected with the CIA. That wasn’t made clear to me. And if they were, indeed, separated from the CIA in that first series of meetings, it’s perfectly appropriate for them to go to work for him and for him to use his employees.

The thing that was interesting to me was that he had a very comprehensive series of meetings and hearings on his proposal. He tried to portray it before us–his proposal was turned down by a single woman in the Vice President’s office with NSC background, and that on 20 minutes she turned down a really worthwhile proposal. The chairman made that very clear. He had every opportunity as a citizen, without using any political influence, to get his proposal–get his position before the government. And when that didn’t work–because his proposal, frankly, wasn’t any good–that’s when he turned to his friend in the CIA to put the pressure on Mr. Fowler and yes, that is a disturbing thing that I think we ought to look into.

JIM LEHRER: Look into it, is it against the law, should somebody go to jail for this?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT: I’m not going to press that question until we get a little more information about it, but I would think it could very well be illegal for somebody on the government payroll to advance the interests of a private party in this fashion. I remember when I was on the government payroll in the executive branch I had a friend who asked me to make some introductions for him so he could go ahead with his business. I said, I can’t do that. I am a federal employee. I can’t pursue your interests in this fashion; it’s just not proper.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Torricelli, many people are suggesting today that these two days, these last two days of hearings, are the most serious matters thus far brought up. Do you agree?

SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: Well, I think we’ve seen the most serious indication where someone so blatantly with an extraordinary amount of money was entirely unapologetic, just set out for personal interest to buy his way into the White House and influence policy. This is one where there were no shades of gray, so in that case, and perhaps because of the personality involved, it was the most revealing and the most disappointing in witnessing government.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Bennett is saying that Tamraz actually got something for his money. You’re saying the opposite, right, that he didn’t really get anything?

SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: I don’t believe that he got anything, and remember before he ever contributed a dollar in political money–it should be remembered–he did have five different opportunities to present his case as an American citizen. Only in the sixth instance, because he was failing to influence policy, did he attempt to make a contribution. And even then I think the proof is in the final result; he gave the money. He didn’t get his meeting. He gave the money. He didn’t get his pipeline, and he didn’t influence American policy. So what otherwise is a very disappointing account of a current American political culture, if you were to weigh the entire episode by the final net result, he didn’t get a pipeline but he did get in front a congressional committee where he has to answer for his behavior. So the system may be bad but the situation isn’t hopeless.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, gentlemen, thank you. And speaking of the pipeline, we’re now going to take a look at that. But Senators, thank you both very much for being with us.