Byline: Richard Wolffe (With T. Trent Gegax, Holly Bailey and Mark Hosenball)
It's one of John Kerry's biggest achievements in the Senate: a groundbreaking investigation into money laundering, drug dealers, terrorists and secret nukes. Yet voters have rarely heard of the senator's dogged inquiries into the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). Why? Because some of Kerry's leading campaign strategists believed it was too difficult for voters to digest. "You can't talk about that because people think you're talking about the BBC," Bob Shrum, Kerry's top adviser, told one senior staffer. "Why were you investigating British TV?"
From corrupt banks to Vietnam POWs, Kerry's Senate record is a mixture of the high-profile and the obscure, of showboat politics and detailed debate, not unlike the man himself. George W. Bush accused Kerry last week of having "no record of leadership." In fact, as the BCCI inquiry shows, Kerry has a serious record that translates poorly into the language of a presidential campaign. That's not unusual for senators, who have struggled unsuccessfully to reach the White House since the days of JFK. But Kerry has been no traditional senator. From the moment he entered the Senate as an ambitious 41-year-old, Kerry eschewed the clubby corridors of the lawmakers, where colleagues like Ted Kennedy, the senior senator from Massachusetts, cast a long shadow. Instead, the younger Kerry preferred the crime-busting culture of his previous life as a prosecutor and the investigative spirit of the Vietnam and Watergate era. He delved deep into the lives of narco traffickers, gun runners and rogue spies. And along the way, he also nurtured his intellectual love of foreign policy--where senators pass few laws and bring home no bacon. To Kerry's aides in 2003, his record looked too senatorial at a time when the country wanted a commander in chief. The result: a largely blank page in the campaign book, which the Bush team has been only too eager to fill.
Kerry campaigned for the Senate in 1984 on grand themes of war and peace, pledging to cut Reagan-era military defense costs. Once in the chamber, he headed straight for a battle-torn hot spot: Nicaragua, where he undertook the lofty mission of boosting peace talks with the pro-communist Sandinistas. That doomed diplomacy was the start of a trail that would ultimately lead the young senator to the door of a corrupt Pakistani bank. Kerry started digging around dark tales of drug dealing and CIA skulduggery in Nicaragua, in what proved to be a foretaste of the Iran-contra affair. But when the full scandal broke, Kerry was pushed aside by more senior senators. His reward was the chair of a terrorism subcommittee, and a platform for more ambitious investigations. Kerry began by probing the life of Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator, whose regime was smuggling narcotics and arms. Noriega's bank was BCCI and, with the help of staff in his small personal office, Kerry began to unravel an extraordinary story. The well-connected bank, with ties to powerful Democrats like former Defense secretary Clark Clifford, was a network of international crime. Kerry's staff concluded that BCCI bribed government officials the world over, handled cash for Palestinian terrorists and Saddam Hussein, probably funded Pakistan's secret nukes and laundered money for the CIA. Three years after he launched his inquiries, BCCI collapsed.
Even as the bank inquiries rumbled on, Kerry took on another improbable investigation--one that continues to haunt him politically today: American prisoners of war in Vietnam. Kerry's work as head of the POW/MIA committee was bitterly divisive, pitting true believers against hardened skeptics like Republican John McCain. "People now think it was easy to do," says Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator. "But I heard people say to John McCain and John Kerry: 'You are traitors. There are people dead because of …