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Suzan Mazur: The President's Man

The President's Man

By Suzan Mazur
First Published Financial Times June 23/June 24, 2001

A recent auction of the effects of Washington lawyer Clark M. Clifford may supply valuable clues into some of the mysteries of the age, suggests Suzan Mazur

Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) memorabilia is back in vogue following a recent House of Lords decision that makes it possible for liquidators to seek damages from the Bank of England for its failure to rein in the rogue bank with links to international intelligence. Whether the US Senate will also rethink the matter has yet to be seen.

Mysteries abound on either side of the Atlantic about what was one of the biggest financial crashes of the 1980s. The Central Intelligence Agency and MI5 remain mum about key details and principal players in the scandal who are now dead, in detention or too old to remember. However, a recent auction and gifts from the estate of Clark M. Clifford, the charismatic Washington lawyer who helped create the CIA and National Security Council, but who ended his career infamously as one of BCCI's central figures, may offer some clues as to motives in this and other recent political intrigues.

A set of Cliffford's books on espionage bear rusting paper clips, and passages underlined in red ink and pencil -- possibly Clifford's own comments on his innocence, his place in history and his pride as a creator of the American spy apparatus.

The text Clifford repeatedly marks is a loophole in the National Security Act of 1947 that gave the CIA a secret charter. In The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, Clifford underscores the following:

"Of the greatest and most far-reaching consequence was the provision in the 1947 law that permitted the CIA to 'perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence . . . as the National Security Council may from time to time direct'."

He marks loophole Clause (5) in the NSC Act again in The Espionage Establishment, and in the same book underlines in red the words: "Although it was commonly assumed when the CIA was created that it was restricted to foreign operations, the Agency's home-front activity had become so extensive by 1964 that a special section, the Domestic Operations Division, was secretly created to handle it."

The books are part of a 55-volume collection purchased from O'Neill's auction house by a retired army officer and historian, Brigadier General James A. Adkins. Among the other books were two first additions of William J. Fulbright's The Arrogance of Power. Adkins said he passed up a Clifford photo of Lynda Carter (of Wonder Woman fame) for one of Bob and Dolores Hope and their five dogs for sentimental reasons, since he has four dogs of his own.

Clifford died in 1998 at the age of 92, never admitting wrongdoing. However, the record states that Clifford and his First American Bank partner, Robert Altman -- husband to Lynda Carter -- did accept a $4.5m payment from BCCI, although charges against Clifford were dropped because of his fragile health. In the end, Clifford's fortune was spent on legal fees, and his rural, Georgian- style "Locust Hill" residence in Bethesda, Maryland fell into disrepair and recently sold for $1.3m, sagging gutters and all.

The most captivating piece in the auction was Jackie Kennedy's ink drawing of Clifford which she adorned with lace, calling it "The Legal Profession -- Establishing a Relationship"; it went for $3,300 to Richard Wilson, a Chevy Chase celebrity collector. Jackie presented the drawing to Clifford as a thank-you note for securing a lease on a weekend house for the first family. She sketched a tall fashion icon in formal attire with walking stick and spiffy pointed shoes. In one hand Clifford carries a bottle of champagne, and in the other, a theatrically monogrammed briefcase with several ominous documents tucked inside, entitled: "Places of Exile, Tortures and List of Jails".

While Clifford never served in an official capacity in the Kennedy administration, unofficially he offered invaluable counsel. A Clifford memo dated September 27, 1960, to Senator John F. Kennedy on the Kennedy-Nixon debates, now part of the National Archives, advises Kennedy to retain "technical brilliance" but "add greater warmth" to his delivery, and warns that Nixon would try to project the impression that the two men shared the same philosophies. "This is false," he told Kennedy, urging him to: "Take advantage of every opportunity to appear with Nixon. You are better than he is."

Jackie Kennedy also turned to Clifford to raise funds to refurbish the White House after her husband won the election. In a seven- page handwritten letter dated January 5, 1962, now in the Library of Congress, Jackie writes to Clark: "please please -- you always come to the rescue whether it is Profiles In Courage [Clifford had persuaded ABC television to apologise for a claim on The Mike Wallace Interview show that Ted Sorensen had written the book, despite Wallace's objection] or the Blowfeld case -- so I would be eternally grateful if you would keep me out of debtors' prison and make this work."

Later in the letter, Jackie has a premonition of trouble ahead in Texas which she confides to Clifford: "For instance, Stanley Marcus [of Neiman-Marcus] wrote 50 letters to businessmen in Texas & most of them said 'why should we do anything that would bring credit to the Kennedys?' -- we must think of some way to show it is non-political . . . It could be politically used against us -- 'palace of the Caesars' etc."

But Marcus, now age 96, recently responded to an e-mail inquiry about this incident to the effect that he never knew Clifford and had "no recollection of having sent the letters".

Following the assassination of President Kennedy, in a letter of December 21, 1963, now also at the Library of Congress, Clifford comforts Jackie: "It is important to me for you to know that as long as I live, I am available to help you in any way possible. I send my affectionate regards, together with the prayer that some measure of peace and tranquility will be yours in time. Faithfully yours."

"Mrs. [Lady Bird] Johnson loved Clark Clifford," her personal secretary said in a telephone interview, and added that although she feels she is "past the time" to comment in such interviews, she wanted to convey that "one of the mental pictures she has of Clark Clifford is of him striding erectly down the aisle with fingers together giving the perfect eulogy".

Thirty-six boxes of Clifford's papers plus recordings were given to the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, since Clifford served as LBJ's defence secretary. Lyndon Johnson found Clifford shrewd and indispensable, and history credits him for LBJ's withdrawal from Vietnam. Indeed, the Johnsons were so close to Clifford that they spent the last day of the presidency at his home having lunch, after which LBJ awarded him the Medal of Freedom.

Clifford notes in his own memoirs that on that last day there was just one Republican face in the crowd when LBJ finally lifted off from Andrews Air Force Base -- that of Texas Congressman George H.W. Bush.



SUZAN MAZUR is a New York-based journalist. Her reports have appeared in The Economist, The Financial Times, Forbes, Philadelphia Inquirer and Newsday, among other publications, as well on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox television news programs.

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