March 21, 2008—Five presidential elections ago, when another George Bush was in the White House and when Bill Clinton was the Democratic nominee, State Department officials conducted an improper search of Clinton’s passport files, an echo of the current case in which Barack Obama’s passport files were penetrated three times this year.
In 1992, the evidence revealed that representatives of George H.W. Bush, then fighting for a second term, pulled strings at the State Department and at U.S. embassies in Europe to uncover and disseminate derogatory information about Bill Clinton’s loyalty and his student trips to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.
That assault on Clinton’s patriotism moved into high gear on the night of Sept. 30, 1992, when Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Tamposi – under pressure from the White House – ordered three aides to pore through Clinton’s passport files in search of a purported letter in which Clinton supposedly sought to renounce his citizenship.
Though no letter was found, Tamposi still injected the suspicions into the campaign by citing a small tear in the corner of Clinton’s passport application as evidence that someone might have tampered with the file, presumably to remove the supposed letter. She fashioned that speculation into a criminal referral to the FBI.
Within hours, someone from the Bush camp leaked word about the confidential FBI investigation to reporters at Newsweek magazine. The Newsweek story about the tampering investigation hit the newsstands on Oct. 4.
The article suggested that a Clinton backer might have removed incriminating material from Clinton’s passport file, precisely the spin that the Bush people wanted.
Immediately, President George H.W. Bush took the offensive, using the press frenzy over the criminal referral to attack Clinton’s patriotism on a variety of fronts, including his student trip to the Soviet Union in 1970. With his patriotism challenged, Clinton saw his once-formidable lead shrink. Panic spread through the Clinton campaign.
Bush allies put out another suspicion, that Clinton might have been a KGB “agent of influence.” Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times headlined that allegation on Oct. 5, 1992, a story that attracted President Bush’s personal interest.
“Now there are stories that Clinton … may have gone to Moscow as [a] guest of the KGB,” Bush wrote in his diary that day. [For the fullest account of the 1992 Passportgate case, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
The suspicions about Clinton’s patriotism might have doomed Clinton’s election, except that Spencer Oliver, then chief counsel on the Democratic-controlled House International Affairs Committee, suspected a dirty trick.
“I said you can’t go into someone’s passport file,” Oliver told me in a later interview. “That’s a violation of the law, only in pursuit of a criminal indictment or something. But without his permission, you can’t examine his passport file. It’s a violation of the Privacy Act.”
After consulting with House committee chairman Dante Fascell and a colleague on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Oliver dispatched a couple of investigators to the Archives warehouse in Suitland.
The brief congressional check discovered that State Department political appointees had gone to the Archives at night to search through Clinton’s records and those of his mother.
Oliver’s assistants also found that the administration’s tampering allegation rested on a very weak premise, the slight tear in the passport application. The circumstances of the late-night search soon found their way into an article in the Washington Post, causing embarrassment to the Bush campaign.
Yet still sensing that the loyalty theme could hurt Clinton, President Bush kept stoking the fire. On CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Oct. 7, 1992, Bush suggested anew that there was something sinister about a possible Clinton friend allegedly tampering with Clinton’s passport file.
“Why in the world would anybody want to tamper with his files, you know, to support the man?” Bush wondered before a national TV audience. “I mean, I don’t understand that. What would exonerate him – put it that way – in the files?
The next day, in his diary, Bush ruminated suspiciously about Clinton’s Moscow trip: “All kinds of rumors as to who his hosts were in Russia, something he can’t remember anything about.”
But the GOP attack on Clinton’s loyalty prompted some Democrats to liken Bush to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who built a political career in the early days of the Cold War challenging people’s loyalties without offering proof.
On Oct. 9, the FBI complicated Bush’s strategy by rejecting the criminal referral. The FBI concluded that there was no evidence that anyone had removed anything from Clinton’s passport file.
At that point, Bush began backpedaling: “If he’s told all there is to tell on Moscow, fine,” Bush said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “I’m not suggesting that there’s anything unpatriotic about that. A lot of people went to Moscow, and so that’s the end of that one.”
But documents about the investigation that I obtained years later at the Archives revealed that privately Bush was not so ready to surrender the disloyalty theme. The day before the first presidential debate on Oct. 11, Bush prepped himself with one-liners designed to spotlight doubts about Clinton’s loyalty if an opening presented itself.
“It’s hard to visit foreign countries with a torn-up passport,” read one of the scripted lines. Another zinger read: “Contrary to what the Governor’s been saying, most young men his age did not try to duck the draft. … A few did go to Canada. A couple went to England. Only one I know went to Russia.”
If Clinton had criticized Bush’s use of a Houston hotel room as a legal residence, Bush was ready to hit back with another Russian reference: “Where is your legal residence, Little Rock or Leningrad?”
But the Oct. 11 presidential debate – which also involved Reform Party candidate Ross Perot – did not go as Bush had hoped. Bush did raise the loyalty issue in response to an early question about character, but the incumbent’s message was lost in a cascade of inarticulate sentence fragments.
“I said something the other day where I was accused of being like Joe McCarthy because I question – I’ll put it this way, I think it’s wrong to demonstrate against your own country or organize demonstrations against your own country in foreign soil,” Bush said.
“I just think it’s wrong. I – that – maybe – they say, ‘well, it was a youthful indiscretion.’ I was 19 or 20 flying off an aircraft carrier and that shaped me to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and – I’m sorry but demonstrating – it’s not a question of patriotism, it’s a question of character and judgment.”
Clinton countered by challenging Bush directly.
“You have questioned my patriotism,” the Democrat shot back. Clinton then unloaded his own zinger: “When Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people’s patriotism, he was wrong. He was wrong, and a senator from Connecticut stood up to him, named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism.”
Many observers rated Clinton’s negative comparison of Bush to his father as Bush’s worst moment in the debate. An unsettled Bush didn’t regain the initiative for the remainder of the evening.
The search of Clinton’s passport file had other repercussions. Eventually, the State Department’s inspector general sought a special prosecutor investigation for a scandal that became known as Passportgate.
In the end, however, George H.W. Bush escaped any legal consequences from the passport gambit in large part because a Republican attorney, Joseph diGenova, was named to serve as special prosecutor.
DiGenova’s investigation cleared Bush and his administration of any wrongdoing, saying the probe “found no evidence that President Bush was involved in this matter.”
FBI documents that I reviewed at the Archives, however, presented a more complicated picture. Speaking to diGenova and his investigators in fall 1993, former President George H.W. Bush said he had encouraged then-White House chief of staff James Baker and other aides to investigate Clinton and to make sure the information got out.
“Although he [Bush] did not recall tasking Baker to research any particular matter, he may have asked why the campaign did not know more about Clinton’s demonstrating,” said the FBI interview report, dated Oct. 23, 1993.
“The President [Bush] advised that … he probably would have said, ‘Hooray, somebody’s going to finally do something about this.’ If he had learned that the Washington Times was planning to publish an article, he would have said, ‘That’s good, it’s about time.’ …
“Based on his ‘depth of feeling’ on this issue, President Bush responded to a hypothetical question that he would have recommended getting the truth out if it were legal,” the FBI wrote in summarizing Bush’s statements. “The President added that he would not have been concerned over the legality of the issue but just the facts and what was in the files.”
Bush also said he understood how his impassioned comments about Clinton’s loyalty might have led some members of his staff to conclude that he had “a one-track mind” on the issue. He also expressed disappointment that the Clinton passport search uncovered so little.
“The President described himself as being indignant over the fact that the campaign did not find out what Clinton was doing” as a student studying abroad, the FBI report said.
Bush’s comments seem to suggest that he had pushed his subordinates into a violation of Clinton’s privacy rights. But diGenova, who had worked for the Reagan-Bush Justice Department, already had signaled to Bush that the probe was going no where.
At the start of the Oct. 23, 1993, interview, which took place at Bush’s office in Houston, diGenova assured Bush that the investigation’s staff lawyers were “all seasoned prof[essional] prosecutors who know what a real crime looks like,” according to FBI notes of the meeting. “[This is] not a gen[eral] probe of pol[itics] in Amer[ica] or dirty tricks, etc., or a general license to rummage in people’s personal lives.”
As the interview ended, two of diGenova’s assistants – Lisa Rich and Laura Laughlin – asked Bush for autographs, according to the FBI’s notes on the meeting.
In January 1994, the story about Clinton’s student trip to Czechoslovakia in 1970 took another turn.
The Czech news media reported that former Czech intelligence officials were saying that in 1992, the Czech secret police, the Federal Security and Information Service (FBIS), had collaborated with the Bush reelection campaign to dig up dirt on Clinton’s student trip to visit a friend in Prague.
The centrist newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes reported that during the 1992 campaign, FBIS gave the Republicans internal data about Clinton’s Moscow-Prague trips and supplied background material about Clinton’s “connections” inside Czechoslovakia.
Derogatory information also allegedly was funneled through officials at the U.S. Embassy and was leaked to cooperative journalists. On Oct. 24, 1992, three Czech newspapers ran similar stories about Clinton’s Czech hosts.
“Bill Was With Communists” was one particularly nasty headline in the Cesky Denik newspaper.
The Czech stories suggested that the first Bush administration would go so far as to collaborate with a foreign secret police agency to undermine a political opponent.
Though the Passportgate case is now only a footnote to the 1992 election – especially after DiGenova cleared Bush and his administration of any wrongdoing – the scandal was viewed as much more important inside George H.W. Bush’s White House.
After Bush’s election defeat in November 1992, chief of staff Baker grew depressed, blaming himself for the passport disaster and the reelection loss. On Nov. 20, 1992, at 10:30 a.m., a despondent Baker visited Bush.
“Jim Baker came in here … deeply disturbed and read to me a long letter of resignation all because of this stupid passport situation,” Bush wrote in his diary. Bush rejected Baker’s offer to resign. [For details, see Secrecy & Privilege.]
The disclosure that three State Department contractors accessed Obama’s passport files on Jan. 9, Feb. 21 and March 14 may not have the high-level political intrigue of the Clinton passport case, but the intrusion does have a troubling precedent.
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This story was published on March 21, 2008.