U.S. District Judge Richard Leon is winning kudos across the political spectrum for a ruling that rejects the constitutionality of the National Security Agency vacuuming up the metadata on virtually every phone call made in America. Leon clearly possesses a libertarian streak, but he earned his place on the bench by running a partisan cover-up of a historic crime.
Leon was appointed to his lifetime judicial post by George W. Bush in 2002 after Leon won the gratitude of the Bush Family by protecting its interests as an aggressive and reliable Republican legal apparatchik on Capitol Hill. There, the heavy-set Leon gained a reputation as a partisan bully who made sure politically charged investigations reached a desired outcome, whatever the facts.
But Leon's most important work for the Bushes may have come in the 1980s and early 1990s when he helped construct legal justifications for Republican law-breaking and sought to intimidate Iran-Contra-related witnesses who came forward to expose GOP wrongdoing.
In 1987, when Rep. Dick Cheney, R-Wyoming, was leading the Republican counteroffensive against the Iran-Contra investigation into evidence that President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush had engaged in a wide-ranging conspiracy involving illegal weapons shipments and money transfers, Leon stepped forward as deputy chief counsel on the Republican side.
Leon worked with Cheney not only in fending off accusations of wrongdoing, but in coming up with a counter-argument that accused Congress of intruding on foreign policy prerogatives of the President.
"Congressional actions to limit the President in this area ... should be reviewed with a considerable degree of skepticism," the Republican minority report said. "If they interfere with the core presidential foreign policy functions, they should be struck down."
In 2005 as vice president, Cheney harkened back to that Iran-Contra minority report in defending George W. Bush's assertion of unlimited presidential powers during wartime.
"If you want reference to an obscure text, go look at the minority views that were filed with the Iran-Contra committee," Cheney told a reporter. Cheney said those old arguments "are very good in laying out a robust view of the president's prerogatives with respect to the conduct of especially foreign policy and national security matters."
So, one could say that Richard Leon was there at the birth of what became George W. Bush's imperial presidency, which gave birth to the NSA's massive spying operation which Leon declared unconstitutional on Monday (although Leon stayed his ruling to give the government time to appeal).
Cover-up of Crimes
But Leon's crucial work in the Capitol Hill trenches of partisan warfare went beyond erecting the legal barricades behind which Republican presidents could hide their illegal acts. More significantly, he launched frontal assaults against GOP "enemies," i.e., whistleblowers who threatened to expose the crimes.
In 1992, when a House task force was examining evidence that Reagan and Bush began their secret contacts with Iran in 1980 while trying to unseat President Jimmy Carter, Leon was the Republican point man to make sure nothing too damaging came out that could threaten President George H.W. Bush's reelection campaign. Leon served as chief minority counsel to the House task force investigating the so-called October Surprise allegations.
At the time, evidence was mounting that Reagan and the senior Bush had interfered with President Carter's efforts to gain the release of 52 U.S. hostages held by Islamic radicals in Iran, a crisis that helped doom Carter's reelection in 1980.
From the start of the congressional inquiry, however, the goal seemed more to debunk the allegations of Republican wrongdoing than to seriously assess the evidence. At one point, I went to the task force's office and questioned chief majority counsel Lawrence Barcella and his assistant, Michael Zeldin, about this peculiar style of investigating.
Barcella and Zeldin pointed to Leon's insistence that interviews with witnesses be conducted only with him or another Republican present. This stricture had sharply limited the task force's ability to follow leads and develop new witnesses.
Indeed, some key October Surprise witnesses described to me how Leon sought to intimidate them into retracting their allegations about Republican wrongdoing. When these witnesses refused to alter their sworn testimony, they became the targets of the task force, more so than Reagan and Bush.