Laurence Silberman, a retired judge nominated by the Bush administration as the co-chairman of the commission investigating pre-war intelligence on Iraq, was involved in a major cover-up during the Reagan era, his critics alleged yesterday.
Mr Silberman sat on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, which approved the expanded surveillance powers for the justice department under the controversial Patriot Act.
President Bush named him as the senior Republican on a nine-member bipartisan commission examining how and why US intelligence had been so wrong about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction. It will report next spring - well after the November elections.
Democrats are skeptical about Judge Silberman's presence. Nan Aron, head of the Alliance for Justice, a liberal pressure group, said: "This is not a statesman of the sort the president should be seeking to preside over this crucial and sensitive investigation."
Judge Silberman is most notorious in American liberal circles for his 1990 judgment overturning the conviction of Colonel Oliver North, who admitted his central role in the Iran-Contra affair, in which proceeds from secret arms sales to Iran were diverted illegally to the Contra anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua.
Col North, who coordinated the payments from the White House, denied President Reagan knew what was going on. He became a martyr for the American far right and the dismissal of his conviction caused uproar.
Judge Silberman cast one of the two votes in the appeals court that set him free. He is now a media commentator. The Republican-appointed special prosecutor in the case, Lawrence Walsh, later wrote that Mr Silberman should have been disqualified for his bias and his sympathy for Col North's cause.
As a former Reagan advisor, Mr Silberman took part in a meeting between top Republicans and Iranian government representatives during the 1980 election campaign, when the Carter administration was trying to negotiate the release of American hostages in Tehran. Those negotiations failed but the hostages were freed five minutes after President Reagan's inauguration, provoking Democrat claims of a secret deal to delay the release in return for military aid.
Judge Silberman and two aides who took part in the meeting later claimed they had rejected the Iranian offer of a deal and did not even remember the name of the Iranian representative. But the meeting was never reported to the state department, at a time of high tension in the US-Iranian relations. Gary Sick, a former Iran expert on the national security council who wrote a book about the affair, said Judge Silberman should have withdrawn from the panel that considered Col North's appeal, and questioned whether he was suitable to be co-chairman on the Iraq intelligence commission.
"He always played politics. The fact that he was nominated to this position does not give me any confidence that this will be a purely bipartisan and objective," Prof Sick said. "I thought it was a strange choice to head this commission. If you are looking for credibility this is not the way you get it."
Viet Dinh, a former clerk in Judge Silberman's chambers, and former justice department official, came to his defense, telling the Chicago Tribune: "I think Judge Silberman is one of the most, if not the most, knowledgeable person on the federal bench about the intersection of law and national security."
The leading Democrat on the Iraq commission, Charles Robb, a former senator and governor, is a moderate who critics doubt will match Judge Silberman's fierce partisanship. Instead, they are placing their trust in Senator John McCain, a maverick Republican who broke ranks to call for a public inquiry, and Patricia Wald, a former judge at The Hague war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia.
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