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Ben-Veniste, Richard

BEN-VENISTE, RICHARD

BEN-VENISTE, RICHARD (1943– ), U.S. lawyer. A native New Yorker, Ben-Veniste is from a Sephardi family on his father's side, with its roots in northern Spain and Greece, and has a German and Russian background on his mother's side. He earned his undergraduate degree magna cum laude from Muhlenberg College and returned to New York to get his law degree from Columbia University, where he was the Harlan Fisk Stone Scholar. He joined the United States Attorney's office in New York straight from Northwestern University's law school, where he received his master of law degree in 1968. He stayed on, assigned first to the Special Prosecutions Section and then as chief of the Official Corruption Section (where he prosecuted several celebrated cases), from June 1972, until, at the age of 30, joining the main Watergate task force, investigating the activities of President Richard M. Nixon, and questioning witnesses in connection with the White House tape recordings.

It was Ben-Veniste, an assistant special prosecutor, who presented the opening statement on behalf of the seven-member prosecution team in the Watergate cover-up trial, portraying Nixon as one of the central conspirators. In a four-hour presentation, Ben-Veniste told the jury that Nixon held a "multitude of meetings" in April 1973 with John D. Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, then his chief aides and two of the five defendants in the trial. He also laid out details of the case against the other defendants, including Attorney General John N. Mitchell. Ben-Veniste thus had one of the key roles in the unraveling of the Nixon presidency and Nixon's resignation before he could be impeached.

Ben-Veniste practiced law in Washington, specializing in litigation involving high-profile white-collar clients, including, in the 1990s, the investigation of President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hilary, concerning the failed land deal known as Whitewater. That investigation found no evidence of criminal activity on the part of the Clintons.

In 2004, Ben-Veniste was a Democratic member of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, engineered by Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, on the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon. As such he harshly questioned Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush's national security advisor, on her and the president's assessment of a briefing on Aug. 6, 2001, that carried the title "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States." Rice described it as "historical information based on old reporting – there was no new threat information," a contention Ben-Veniste disputed. Ben-Veniste played a major role in shaping the commission's final report, in which it asserted that the Clinton and Bush administrations failed to grasp the gravity of the threat from Al Qaeda.

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]

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