Trailing in the polls with the election barely two weeks away, John McCain has dug deep into the Lee Atwater/Karl Rove playbook, now portraying Barack Obama as a combination of class-warfare socialist, terrorist fellow-traveler and crooked pol.
McCain also has sought to tie Obama to ACORN, a controversial grassroots organization that has been registering voters. At the third presidential debate, McCain alleged that ACORN “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."
That allegation got a big boost last week when the Associated Press reported that the FBI is investigating whether “ACORN helped foster voter registration fraud around the nation before the presidential election.”
The AP account – attributed to “a senior law enforcement official” speaking anonymously – raced across the right-wing news media and into the political world, giving fresh impetus to suspicions that ACORN was guilty of serious wrongdoing because some registration forms used fictitious names, like “Mickey Mouse.”
The FBI’s investigative interest also seemed to validate McCain’s allegations. After all, if there was nothing to this, why would the FBI be investigating?
However, the citation of an FBI investigation as a way of instilling doubt and spreading suspicions has been used before. Indeed, it’s becoming a well-worn page in the Republican playbook.
Nearly identical rumors about federal investigations of ACORN were spread in 2004 and 2006, later becoming a factor in the scandal surrounding President George W. Bush’s firings of nine U.S. Attorneys because some refused to bring politically timed indictments of ACORN officials. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “GOP Exploits ACORN Probe.”]
But the AP’s “FBI-is-investigating” leak has another historical precedent, during President George H.W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 1992, as Republican panicked over another young Democrat – in that case Bill Clinton – heading toward victory.
As that election clock ticked down, George H.W. Bush’s operatives saw little hope for the President’s comeback if they couldn’t find some “silver bullet,” a Clinton scandal so vile that it would take the challenger out once and for all.
By summer 1992, rumors were circulating that Clinton may have done things during his year as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford in England that would disqualify him as a presidential candidate.
One rumor was that Clinton may have tried to renounce his citizenship because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. There seemed to be no basis for the suspicion, but some Bush operatives thought that it wouldn’t be too hard to inject fresh doubts about Clinton’s behavior, given the fact that he was not well known to American voters.
The “renunciation” story began to take shape on July 30, 1992, when Michael Hedges, a reporter for Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI.
The FOIA sought FBI records on Clinton’s anti-war activities in the 1960s and 1970s. It fit with the vague rumor that Clinton had tried to gain citizenship from another country to avoid the draft.
The rumor even attracted the interest of former President Richard Nixon, the godfather of modern-day Republican dirty tricks. On Aug. 28, 1992, Nixon brought up the “renunciation” rumor in a conversation with his biographer, Monica Crowley.
“The only way we can win now is if Clinton collapses, and I think he is too smart to do that,” Nixon said. “The only things that would be self-destructive would be bombshells, like a letter showing that he asked to renounce his American citizenship during Vietnam, an illegitimate child, things like that.” [See Crowley’s Nixon Off the Record.]
Whether Nixon had simply heard the rumor or was advocating a dirty trick, the “renunciation” story was making the rounds. In early September, Hedges approached his friend, Republican activist David Tell, to request help from the Bush administration for an expedited search of Clinton’s files.
Tell was director of opposition research – or “oppo” – for the Bush reelection campaign. Already, Tell had investigated a number of rumors about Clinton, even probing the work record of Clinton’s mother when she was a nurse in Louisiana.
On Sept. 16, 1992, Tell typed a memo about Hedges’s FOIA request and took it to Bush’s campaign manager Fred Malek. With Malek’s blessing, Tell sent the memo to Robert Teeter, chairman of the Bush reelection campaign.
Teeter, in turn, passed on the gist of Tell’s memo to the so-called “core group” of top White House officials and campaign insiders who jointly were coordinating President Bush’s reelection strategy.
The political potential of the renunciation rumor didn’t escape James Baker, then-White House chief of staff who had run Bush’s nasty 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis. Baker knew the renunciation story could shatter Clinton’s career.
After the “core group” meeting on Sept. 16, Baker discussed The Washington Times’ FOIA request with top aides Janet Mullins and Margaret Tutwiler. Baker then personally took the issue to White House legal counsel C. Boyden Gray, who later said Baker wanted to know if the White House could speed up the FBI response to the FOIA on “this alleged renunciation or proposed renunciation of citizenship.”
The excitement over the possible “silver bullet” was energizing others, too, in the senior echelon of the Bush administration. Gray contacted Timothy Flanigan, assistant attorney general for the powerful Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department.
The two officials hashed over the possibilities. Flanigan advised Gray that the FBI likely would rebuff any pressure to speed up the FOIA request – and that release of such personal material would violate the Privacy Act.
Gray mused that perhaps someone could examine Clinton’s passport files on national security grounds. But Flanigan explained that claiming the search was needed to justify granting Clinton a national security clearance would be a hard sell since Clinton already had a national security clearance.
Worried about his declining reelection prospects, President Bush himself was caught up in the excitement about damaging Clinton with disclosures about his student trips.
In a later interview with FBI agents and federal investigators who examined the incident, Bush acknowledged that he was “nagging” his aides to press the investigation into Clinton’s student travels to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Bush also expressed strong interest in rumors that Clinton had sought to renounce his U.S. citizenship.
Bush described himself as “indignant” that his aides failed to discover more about Clinton’s student activities.
“Hypothetically speaking, President Bush advised that he would not have directed anyone to investigate the possibility that Clinton had renounced his citizenship because he would have relied on others to make this decision,” according to an FBI interview report. “He [Bush] would have said something like, ‘Let’s get it out’ or ‘Hope the truth gets out.’”
On Sept. 25, 1992, Baker was back on the phone to one of Gray’s deputies, John Schmitz. Baker was pressing for an answer on the FOIA question. At 6:08 that evening, according to Baker’s notes, Gray called Baker back. Gray passed on the bad news that expedited handling of the FOIA wouldn’t fly.
Baker then gave Gray more details about the suspicion that Clinton had written a letter while at Oxford asking how he could renounce his country and become a British citizen.
“Holy Cow, maybe I’d better take another look at it,” Gray responded, according to Baker’s memo to the file. In the same memo, Baker wrote to himself that he was asking Gray to do nothing that was not “completely legal.”
While Gray re-examined the prospects of pushing the FBI, Baker turned his attention to similar FOIAs submitted by journalists at the State Department. Baker instructed his aide, Janet Mullins, to ask Steven Berry, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, about progress on those inquiries. Mullins then talked to Berry.
Eventually, the high-level White House interest was communicated to State Department official Elizabeth Tamposi, a Bush political appointee who saw the White House interest as a green light to move ahead with a search of Clinton’s passport file.
On the night of Sept. 30, Tamposi dispatched three aides to the federal records center in Suitland, Maryland. They searched Clinton’s passport file as well as his mother’s, presumably because they thought it might contain some references to Clinton.
In a later press interview, Tamposi asserted that she ordered the search after Berry had pressured her to “dig up dirt on Clinton” for the Bush White House.
But the search found no letter renouncing citizenship. All the State Department officials discovered was a passport application with staple holes and a slight tear in the corner.
Though the tear was easily explained by the routine practice of stapling a photo or money order to the application, Tamposi seized on the ripped page to justify a new suspicion, that a Clinton ally at the State Department had removed the renunciation letter.
Tamposi shaped that speculation into a criminal referral which was forwarded to the Justice Department and the FBI. Thin as the case was, the Bush reelection effort now had its official action so the renunciation rumor could be turned into a public issue.
Within hours of the criminal referral, someone from the Bush camp leaked word about the confidential FBI investigation to reporters at Newsweek magazine. The Newsweek story, which hit the newsstands on Oct. 4, 1992, 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 Bush took the offensive, using the press frenzy over the tampering story to attack Clinton’s patriotism on a variety of fronts, including a student trip to Moscow in 1970. With his patriotism challenged, Clinton saw his once-formidable lead shrink. Panic spread through the Clinton campaign.
The Bush camp upped the ante more, putting out new suspicions that Clinton might have been a KGB “agent of influence.” Rev. Moon’s Washington Times headlined that allegation on Oct. 5, 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, but who knows how that will play,” Bush wrote in his diary on Oct. 5, 1992.
The story created an opportunity for both the right-wing and mainstream media to reprise other questions about Clinton’s draft avoidance and other “character” issues.
Indeed, the passport story and the related suspicions about Clinton’s patriotism might have doomed Clinton’s election, except that Spencer Oliver, chief counsel of the House International Affairs Committee, smelled a rat.
“In Newsweek, there was this little story – two paragraphs – that there were rumors about damaging information in Clinton’s passport file,” Oliver said in an interview about the Bush administration’s search.
“I said you can’t go into someone’s passport file. 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 National Archives warehouse in Suitland, Maryland.
Oliver’s assistants “came back and said there were these guys out there, and they left their cards,” Oliver said. The brief congressional check had discovered that State Department political appointees had gone out to Suitland at night to search through Clinton’s records.
Oliver’s assistants also found that the administration’s suspicion rested on a very weak premise, the staple holes. The discovery of the bizarre late-night search soon found its way into an article in The Washington Post.
Yet still sensing that the loyalty theme had the capacity to undermine Clinton’s standing with the American people, President Bush continued to stoke the fire. On CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Oct. 7, Bush suggested anew that there was something sinister about a possible Clinton friend 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?”
Bush’s suggestion was that whatever was removed would have done the opposite from exonerating Clinton. 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 further 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 that I obtained later from the National Archives revealed that privately Bush was not so ready to surrender the loyalty theme. His speechwriters were preparing a string of “zingers” that could be used to stun Clinton during the first presidential debate on Oct. 11.
The day before the debate, Bush prepped himself with one-liners designed to spotlight doubts about Clinton’s loyalty if the right 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. [For more on the passport case and other October Surprises, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
So, the so-called “Passportgate” affair had a relatively benign ending, in part because the FBI refused to be used in a political ploy. However, with Republicans having dominated the executive branch for 20 of the last 28 years – and having made headway in politicizing the Justice Department under George W. Bush – it’s less clear what the FBI will do now.
Though Justice Department guidelines strongly discourage opening up election fraud cases right before an election – because the investigation itself could influence the election outcome – that appears to be what has happened.
Plus, the right-wing news media is far more developed today than it was in 1992.
Then, Republicans had ideological allies at some key newspapers, like The Washington Times, and right-wing talk radio was becoming a force. But there was no Fox News and no right-wing blogosphere to keep these stories going and push them into the mainstream.
And, with only a couple of weeks before Nov. 4, it’s unclear that the FBI can assess – and possibly reject – the ACORN investigation before voters go the polls.
If that’s the case, then McCain may have succeeded in raising suspicions about ACORN – and in linking the group to Obama – at least in the minds of millions of voters.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on October 19, 2008.