WASHINGTON - The Bush administration's appointment of Henry A. Kissinger to head the commission to probe the intelligence and security flaws that allowed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is a cynical and dangerous maneuver.
The administration's explanation that "you need someone like a Kissinger because of his security clearance" is a puerile rationalization for an investigative position that calls for character and integrity.
Mr. Kissinger's government career was marked by significant lapses of judgment and calculated efforts to circumvent bureaucratic and even constitutional limits on the use of force and power. He was secretary of state to presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford and was Mr. Nixon's national security adviser.
The secret bombing of Cambodia avoided constitutional checks and balances in order to expand the war in Southeast Asia, using a clandestine dual reporting system that was hidden from Congress, the public and most of the Pentagon for nearly five years. The secret bombing nearly became an issue in Mr. Nixon's impeachment inquiry in 1974, when the Senate Armed Services Committee conceded that it still had not learned how the dual bookkeeping system originated.
The same week that the government of Prince Sihanouk was overthrown in Cambodia, a direct result of the secret bombing, Mr. Kissinger approved a covert action to undermine the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. He told the secret committee that approved all covert actions: "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people."
Several years later, Mr. Allende was overthrown and killed in a bloody coup. His successor, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, then sanctioned the assassination of Chilean dissidents, including a former Chilean foreign and defense minister on Embassy Row in Washington. Mr. Kissinger was familiar with Operation Condor, which sponsored such criminal violence, but he has consistently defended his record and that of General Pinochet in Chile.
At the time of Mr. Allende's ouster, Mr. Kissinger was being confirmed as secretary of state before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he denied any U.S. involvement in the upheaval. CIA Director William E. Colby officially corrected the record several months later, after his predecessor, Richard M. Helms, also lied to the committee and faced perjury charges as a result.
Finally, Mr. Kissinger called the shots in 1975 in a Marine rescue of a U.S. merchant ship, the Mayaguez, with a crew of 40 men. More Marines and airmen were killed in the rescue attempt - 41 - than there were merchant marines on the ship. Moreover, a foreign government had informed the White House that the Cambodians were about to release the Mayaguez more than 12 hours before the Marine invasion began.
The heel-dragging of the Bush administration, which has been opposed to an independent investigation of 9/11 for more than a year, suggests that the White House may have had sufficient warning to pursue preventive measures against a terrorist attack. The administration delayed the start of the congressional investigation even though the Senate and House intelligence committees have not exactly been junkyard dogs in monitoring the activities of the intelligence community, particularly the CIA.
And the last time Mr. Kissinger chaired a bipartisan committee, he produced the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America (1983-84), which provided cover for the Reagan administration's secret war in Nicaragua.
More recently, as we gain access to declassified transcripts of Mr. Kissinger's conversations with world leaders, we learn about the many deceits and obfuscations that abound in his multi-volume memoirs as national security adviser and secretary of state. These memoirs were produced during a period when Mr. Kissinger prevented scholarly access to his papers from the 1960s and 1970s in order to thwart any challenge to his official record.
And those who serve on the Kissinger commission should not expect trustworthiness or even collegiality. Mr. Kissinger is known for wiretapping his closest colleagues on the National Security Council and for referring to Mr. Nixon as "our drunken friend" and the "meatball mind."
It's no surprise that Mr. Kissinger was a fan of Austria's Prince Metternich, who was said to confuse policy with intrigue. The same can be said for Mr. Kissinger. His hostility toward the checks and balances of the American system and his consistent endorsement of secret government and secret war make him profoundly unsuited to head a commission on 9/11 at such a sensitive juncture in American history.
Melvin A. Goodman, an author and a former senior analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy.