Conjecture continues to swirl around the widely-expected indictment of former President Trump by New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg, an unprecedented legal undertaking made more dramatic by Trump’s broad and threatening denunciations of Bragg. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “District Attorneys: Where the Rubber Meets the Road,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman explored the history of the New York County DA, from the literal duels of the first office-holder, Richard Riker, to the long tenure of Robert Morgenthau. While Morgenthau certainly never came close to indicting a president, he engaged in a tense back-and-forth with President George H.W. Bush’s administration that highlighted similar schisms over policing and scandal.
The complicated political dynamic between Robert Morgenthau and George H.W. Bush began with a drug-related killing. Just over a month after Bush took office, on February 28th, 1989, Drug Enforcement Administration Officer Everett Hatcher was killed in Staten Island – the first DEA agent killed in any of New York’s five boroughs.
The 46-year-old Hatcher had been working undercover in Staten Island. He had met up with Gus Farace, a drug runner for the Bonanno and Colombo crime families, to ostensibly discuss buying cocaine. Hatcher was wearing a wire. Three cars of agents lost Hatcher as he followed Farace to a diner. Hatcher was discovered nearby an hour later, shot in the head at the wheel of his car. Evidently, Farace had discovered Hatcher’s true identity.
The killing came at a particularly dramatic moment for drug crime in New York. In January 1989, the NYPD arrested 1,540 drug dealers in Manhattan alone, a 73% increase from the year prior. In addition to Hatcher’s killing, six NYPD officers had been killed by drug dealers over the course of 1988.
Ten days after Hatcher’s killing, on March 9th, 1989, President Bush spoke to 300 DEA agents at the Administration’s headquarters on West 57th Street in Manhattan. Bush decried Hatcher’s killing and the larger spate of violence against city police: “It used to be unthinkable to shoot a cop. No longer. Today, narcotics agents are sometimes the first one shot.”
Bush acknowledged that the War on Drugs had become more brutal. “The explosive, expensive lesson of the past year in New York is that the rules of the game have dramatically changed.” He argued, however, that new violence from dealers would be matched by more vigorous federal enforcement: “Well, we’ve got to deliver some news to the bad guys. The hunting season is over. The rules on our side have changed, too.”
The same day that Bush appeared at the DEA, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau issued a scathing op-ed in the New York Times, entitled “Bush’s Lip Service on Drugs.” Morgenthau was a pragmatic liberal from a dynastic political family who had dabbled in Democratic politics before settling into his four-decade tenure as a prosecutor, first as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1969 and then as Manhattan District Attorney in 1975.
Morgenthau, however, was arguing for a more robust law-and-order approach than conservative President Bush, who Morgenthau alleged was blowing smoke. Morgenthau cited the administration’s significant drawback of the resources they were allocating to local and state drug enforcement.
Morgenthau also criticized a Bush spokesman’s explanation that the drug enforcement funding was not a “uniquely Federal” responsibility. “I, for one, had thought that ridding our communities of drug dealers – ensuring domestic tranquility – was such a responsibility,” Morgenthau countered.
Morgenthau ended with a question: “How many more law enforcement officers must die before our nation’s leaders share their commitment?”
Following Morgenthau’s criticism, the Bush administration requested $350 million in additional state and local drug enforcement funds for the 1990 budget. In September, however, Morgenthau’s criticism reemerged in another New York Times op-ed, “A Drug War, with Little Ammunition.”
Morgenthau highlighted that the budget spike was only an authorization to spend, and that only $39 million in actual additional money had gone into the program. Morgenthau also stressed the need for rehabilitative treatment centers and AIDS clinics, arguing that the investment of $500 million – which he noted was the cost of one Stealth bomber – could help to “regain control of our neighborhoods.”
“If we try to fight the war on drugs on the cheap, we are bound to lose – and, in the future, we will be condemned to pay far more in dollars and human misery,” Morgenthau summated.
The local drug standoff, however, only presaged a broader confrontation with the Bush administration in which Morgenthau investigated the banks that helped launder drug money, and in the process discovered a wide-reaching political scandal. In 1988, Morgenthau had started to investigate the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), a private institution with $20 billion in deposits that a Pakistani financier named Agha Hasan Abedi had founded in 1972. Morgenthau, in concert with congressional investigators, uncovered that BCCI had been taking cash from an astounding cast of odious characters, from famed terrorists to the Medellin drug cartel.
Morgenthau indicted BCCI founder Abedi in July 1991, shortly after public revelations over both the bank’s unsavory depositors and wide-scale fraud caused the bank to collapse.
Soon, evidence also began to surface about the outsized role of Clark Clifford – the vaunted former Secretary of Defense to Lyndon Johnson and legal advisor to Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Carter – in BCCI’s machinations. The bank, which was not allowed to operate in the United States, had allegedly bribed Clifford beginning in the late 1970s to help conceal BCCI’s control of another bank: First American Bankshares Inc.
Speculation grew that Morgenthau might indict Clifford and tarnish the reputations of the impressive Board of Directors that Clifford had assembled at the BCCI-linked institution.
The Wall Street Journal’s usually-conservative editorial board argued that Bush’s best chance of cleaning up the BCCI stink would be to bring in Morgenthau in an advisory capacity. “Mr. Bush could invite him for a private dinner, sans White House aides, to talk about BCCI,” the Journal editorial suggested. “He could ask if Mr. Morgenthau is getting complete cooperation from everyone in the Bush administration, and pledge any resources he might need to finish the job.”
“President Bush has to show he’s committed to uncovering BCCI’s wrongdoing, completely no matter where it all leads,” the Journal continued. “It is the best way to remove all suspicion from his Administration, and to protect both himself and his office. Calling Bob Morgenthau would be the quickest way to send that signal.”
In July 1992, Morgenthau indicted Clifford on fraud charges. The high-profile indictment made Morgenthau the symbol of the legal fight against BCCI’s excesses. Clifford, 84 years old, appeared dour and elderly at his arraignment – a famed establishment operator laid bare. The fraud charges were eventually dropped, and Clifford agreed to a $5 million settlement in civil proceedings with the Federal Reserve in 1998.
Around the same time, a connected scandal blew up. Reports surfaced on ABC’s Nightline that the Italian Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL), a bank that had received large loans from BCCI, had sent $5 billion from the West to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
The money transfers came during the Iran-Iraq War, from 1985 to 1989, when the U.S. was Iraq’s quasi-ally against the hated (and potentially oil-destabilizing) Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini. The secret support looked particularly bad in light of Iraq’s chemical weapons-heavy invasion of neighboring Kuwait in August 1990 and the subsequent U.S. intervention against Iraq in Operation Desert Storm.
The BNL additions to the already-hot BCCI scandal brought yet more attention to Morgenthau. In a New York Times column called “Call in the D.A.” on October 23rd, 1992, A.M. Rosenthal, who had earlier served as the paper’s Executive Editor, argued that presidential candidate Bill Clinton should appoint Morgenthau United States Attorney General if he took the White House in order to cleanse the seediness of the Bush years.
“If Governor Clinton is elected, the appointment of Mr. Morgenthau as Attorney General would mean immediate change – a cleansing break with the tradition of appointing a pliable subordinate or crony to the most important law enforcement jobs in the country,” Rosenthal wrote.
Morgenthau offered a final act of rebellion against President Bush, protecting an author who was looking into the BNL revelations. Alan Friedman, a Financial Times reporter who did much of the legwork that led to the Nightline report on BNL, received a dozen phone calls while working on a book about his findings in New York. Unknown adversaries also broke into his flat twice.
In April 1993, Friedman reached out to Morgenthau for protection. The District Attorney obliged, setting up Friedman in a safe house outside of New York. Morgenthau also provided around-the-clock armed guards carrying AR-15s. Morgenthau admitted to the press that he was protecting Friedman, saying, “There is no doubt that they were being harassed. There appeared to be a serious threat.”
In November 1993, Friedman published The Spider’s Web, which formally alleged that Bush had direct knowledge of BNL’s loans to Iraq and had worked to cover up the money transfers.
Friedman singled out Morgenthau in the book’s acknowledgments: “Special appreciation is due Robert Morgenthau, the Manhattan District Attorney, who provided friendship and counsel. His integrity and commitment to the cause of justice has long made him a model of public service.” As with BCCI, the BNL revelations ultimately petered out once Clinton was in office, without formal charges against Bush administration figures.
The precise functioning of the relationships between banks, the drug trade, and Iraq remain unsettled to this day. So, too, do the policing strategies for which Morgenthau pushed. What is clear, however, is that Morgenthau was more than willing to push back against a president, even if he stopped short of ever indicting one.
Read Alan Friedman’s The Spider’s Web: The Secret History of How the White House Illegally Armed Iraq for a fascinating look at “Iraqgate.” And check out Andrew Meier’s 2022 Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty for much more on Robert Morgenthau and his powerful family.
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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Catch up on some recent Time Machine deep dives into history:
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- ‘Getting on the Staff’: Frona Eunice Wait’s Journalistic Odyssey
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