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Hatchet Man

Richard Ben-Veniste's work on the 9/11 Commission will be remembered for a long time to come.

9:15 AM, Apr 15, 2004 • By HUGH HEWITT
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RICHARD BEN-VENISTE threw a knife at John Ashcroft and hit Jamie Gorelick between the shoulders. Thus did the most irresponsible member of an increasingly irresponsible commission finally draw some blood, even though his victim was unintended.

Ben-Veniste's conduct has grown wilder as the Nielsen ratings attached to the proceedings have increased. Democrats thought they were getting a skilled prosecutor with Watergate and other fine show trial credentials, but the sun is setting on BV's career, and that does funny things to a man in D.C. The same syndrome of packaged outrage and bad hair cuts has affected Bob Kerrey as well. But in Ben-Veniste the histrionics-cum-political vendetta have been most obvious.

A week ago, Ben-Veniste tried to rattle Condoleezza Rice and failed. "I thought ben Veniste was terrible," said the New Republic's Peter Beinart on my show after Rice's testimony. "Ben-Veniste is the most partisan Democrat on the commission, and I wish he wasn't on the commission."

When reliable pundits of the center-left are throwing bricks at Ben-Veniste, then it's clear he's not fooling anyone. But it's too late to stop him from sabotaging the commission. The most obvious bit of his handiwork concerns the new case against Jamie Gorelick.

ON TUESDAY Attorney General John Ashcroft arrived at the 9/11 Commission hearings carrying a 1995 Department of Justice memo, initialed by then Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, which cemented in place the mythical "wall" between counterintelligence and criminal investigations, a wall that at least constricted, and often cut off, the intra- and interdepartmental flow of information about terrorists. Yesterday House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner called on Gorelick to resign, stating that "[s]crutiny of this [wall] policy lies at the heart of the commission's work. Ms. Gorelick has an inherent conflict of interest as the author of this memo and as a government official at the center of the events in question."

An observer might be tempted to dismiss Sensenbrenner's demand as partisan, except for ben Veniste's argument from the Ashcroft questioning. Just before he raised the paranoid theory that John Ashcroft had stopped flying commercial airplanes prior to September 11--and just before John Ashcroft blew away the slander with a detailed account of how often he and his wife did in fact fly commercial aircraft before September 11--Ben-Veniste offered up an excuse for raising such desperate conspiracy theories.

Ben-Veniste cited the Warren Commission, and its failure to publicly raise and discredit every possible theory about the assassination of President Kennedy, leading, Ben-Veniste implied, to decades of conspiracy theories about the tragedy and to suspicion of the Warren Commission's work product. "[W]e are mindful," Ben-Veniste lectured, "that part of the problem with the Warren Commission's work on the Kennedy assassination was the failure to address certain theories that were extant and much of the work was done behind closed doors." And then he launched the nutty "why didn't you fly" question at Ashcroft.

One of two things must thus be true: Either Ben-Veniste was trying to bleed Ashcroft and didn't really believe this Caesar's-wife theory requiring commissions to be transparent and thorough in order to be free of conspiracy mongers down the road. Or Gorelick has got to go. After all, what greater conspiracy can there be than for one of the potentially responsible parties to September 11 to be sitting in judgment on the root causes of the attack? Ben-Veniste has not yet called for Gorelick to resign, but given the frequency with which he turns up on television talk shows, the opportunity should arise soon enough to ask him for his views on the matter.

OF COURSE Ben-Veniste will probably not enforce his own code on Gorelick, a fellow Democrat. From the moment that Ben-Veniste launched into an unscripted fit over the release of the Predator drone's video of bin Laden from the fall of 2000, his mission has been clear--to protect the Clinton administration from accountability. The video was proof that the United States had bin Laden in our sights well before September 11, 2001 and had refused to pull the trigger, so Ben-Veniste attacked the evidence, not its inescapable implication. And so he has also attacked every Bush administration figure with a partisan fury that stuns the people of goodwill on the left.

Fifty years from now, the conspiracy theorists will be wondering what Ben-Veniste set out to hide and whether he accomplished his mission. Too late to change that now, but speculation about Ben-Veniste's cover-ups will come to rival the cottage industry surrounding Dallas. A great fate for one of prosecutors of Watergate.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.