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Dec. 29, 1998


Clouds Over George Bush

By Robert Parry

The night of Sept. 21, 1976, was a grim one in Washington.

That morning, one of the worst terrorist incidents in the capital's history had shaken the stately buildings along Embassy Row. A bomb had ripped apart the car carrying Chile's former foreign minister Orlando Letelier and two American co-workers.
Letelier and a woman, Ronni Moffitt, died from the blast. Moffitt's husband was wounded.

That evening at a dinner at the Jordanian Embassy, Rep. James Abourezk was distraught. Letelier had been a personal friend, and his violent death in the heart of Washington was weighing heavily on Abourezk's mind.

In the room, the congressman spotted the gangly, preppy figure of George Bush, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Abourezk thought he might enlist Bush's help in solving the murder.

Given Letelier's status as an ascerbic critic of Chile's military dictatorship, there already were suspicions that agents of Gen. Augusto Pinochet had planted the bomb.

Abourezk button-holed the CIA director and asked Bush to commit the CIA to the search "to find the bastards who killed" Letelier. Abourezk recalled that Bush looked concerned and responded, "I'll see what I can do. We are not without assets in Chile."

The problem with Bush's promise, however, was that some of the CIA's top "assets" in Chile were implicated in the murder.

According to U.S. intelligence sources, one of those CIA assets was Gen. Manuel Contreras, the head of the intelligence agency, DINA, and the architect of the Letelier assassination.

The other trouble with Bush's pledge was that the assassination had been carried out almost literally under the CIA's nose -- and Bush had little interest in exposing his own failings.

At best, Bush could be accused of gross negligence as a CIA director. He had missed a clear warning and allowed a major terrorist operation to unfold in the U.S. capital.
There was also the darker possibility that Bush's CIA had granted DINA license to hunt down and neutralize a Chilean dissident on American soil.

This 22-year-old story of international intrigue and murder -- like other unsolved mysteries involving the 41st president -- has fresh relevance today since Bush's oldest son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, is seen as the Republican frontrunner for the 2000 presidential campaign and an early favorite to capture the White House.

George W.'s experience, however, is in state government and largely limited to Texas. Sources close to the Bush entourage expect that the governor will look to his father's network for national political skills and for foreign policy expertise.

In other words, George W.'s foreign policy would likely be an extention of his father's. So, the lingering suspicions about President Bush's involvement in a variety of illegal acts are reasonable issues to weigh when considering George W. Bush's candidacy for the Republican nomination.

These mysteries include:

--Bush's connection to the Letelier assassination and to other Latin American human rights catastrophes, such as the launching of the Argentine Dirty War in 1976, also on Bush's CIA watch.

--Bush's precise role in the now-corroborated accounts of Republican secret contacts with Iranian radicals holding 52 U.S. hostages in 1980, while President Carter was trying to negotiate their release.

--Bush's knowledge about his Cuban-American allies and their participation in cocaine trafficking under the umbrella of President Reagan's Nicaraguan contra war in the 1980s.

--Bush's participation in supplying secret military assistance to the armies of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, including supplies and technology through Pinochet’s Chile.

--Bush's close financial relationship with Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a major conservative political funder but also a controversial religious-business figure who favors the subjugation of the American people and who has close ties to figures from Asian and South American organized crime.

None of these issues was settled during Bush's one-term presidency. By the late 1980s, national news outlets were unwilling to take on these types of tough investigations and accepted the guidance of Bush's well-connected advisors that most of these stories were unfounded.

After leaving office in 1993, Bush also blocked closure about his responsibility for the Iran-contra scandal. He stiffed Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who believed he had Bush's assurances to undergo a final interview in 1993 but was denied access to the ex-president.

Bush, therefore, was never questioned in detail and under oath about any of these issues. He was able to escape with cursory denials, often made in fleeting news conference comments.

Though there were questions about Bush's possible intelligence ties earlier in his political career, his CIA relationship became official in January 1976 when President Ford named him director of central intelligence.

Bush took over the spy agency at a crucial juncture. The CIA had struggled through a series of congressional and other investigations that pried loose some of the CIA's most embarrassing secrets, from assassination plots to drug experiments on unsuspecting subjects. The proud CIA had become a national laughingstock.

Bush moved quickly to reassure the badly shaken agency that its mission was still appreciated. He gave pep talks at Langley and trooped up to Capitol Hill where he vigorously defended the CIA and its personnel.

Bush got high marks cooperating with congressional leaders to set up the first permanent oversight committees.

"For that period, Bush did a remarkable job," senior clandestine services official Theodore Shackley told me. "He was very warm, very human, very interested. You could get in to see him without difficulty."

But Bush's year at CIA was not all handholding and back-slappnig. It was a violent time when CIA-trained Cuban exiles launched another bloody round of terrorism that included attacks on Cuban diplomats and the fatal bombing of a civilian Cubana airliner.

Bush's CIA also failed to stop DINA's efforts to extend its Operation Condor assassination program to the United States. That failure occurred even though clues were in the hands of top CIA officials, apparently including Bush, two months before the bombing.

The first clue that a terrorist operation was under way came from Paraguay. There, two Chilean DINA agents went to the U.S. embassy to obtain U.S. visas to attach to phony Paraguayan passports.

A senior Paraguayan official told U.S. Ambassador George Landau that the two agents were on a mission to the United States to investigate front companies being used by Chilean dissidents. The agents were supposed to rendezvous with Bush's deputy, Gen. Vernon Walters.

Landau smelled something fishy. Normally, he knew, operations of this sort were coordinated through the CIA station in the host country and were cleared with CIA headquarters in Langley.

To check on the curious visa request, Landau fired off an urgent cable to Walters. Landau also copied the fake passports and sent the photostats to Langley.

The urgent return cable came from CIA director Bush and informed Landau that Walters was in the process of retiring and was out of town. When Walters returned, he reported that he had "nothing to do with this" mission. Landau immediately canceled the visas.

The next step should have been for Bush's CIA to query DINA about what was afoot. Normal procedure -- as well as common sense -- would mandate a call from Langley to Santiago asking whether some mistake had been made, a message missed.

To this day, Bush has never responded to this question and the CIA has not released the communications between Langley and Santiago over the Paraguay mission.

The obvious question was whether the CIA had sanctioned the attack, which originally was conceived as a discreet poisoning of Letelier, not his death by car bomb.

According to intelligence sources, the CIA did contact DINA after the bombing. Santiago station chief Wiley Gilstrap questioned Contreras.

Gilstrap reportedly cabled Langley with Contreras's assurance that the Pinochet government was not involved. Contreras pointed the finger at communists supposedly trying to turn Letelier into a martyr.

Bush's CIA promptly adopted Contreras's false denial as its own analysis and leaked it. Typical was Newsweek's report that "the Chilean secret police were not involved. .... The [Central Intelligence] agency reached its decision because the bomb was too crude to be the work of experts and because the murder, coming while Chile's rulers were wooing U.S. support, could only damage the Santiago regime." [Newsweek, Oct. 11, 1976]

Rather than fulfilling his pledge to Abourezk, Bush did little during his remaining months at CIA to shed light on the murder. "Nothing the agency gave us helped us break this case," said federal prosecutor Eugene Propper.

The CIA never volunteered Landau's cable about DINA's suspicious mission or copies of the fake passports that included a photo of the chief assassin, Michael Townley.

Nor did Bush's CIA divulge its knowledge of the existence of Operation Condor, the cross-border assassination program run by South American military dictatorships hunting down dissidents abroad.

FBI agents in Washington and Latin America broke the Letelier case two years later. They discovered Operation Condor and tracked the assassination to Townley and his accomplices in the United States, right-wing Cubans.

The CIA's analysis clearing the Chilean government had sent investigators in the wrong direction. But it was unclear if Bush had authorized the leaking of the false assessment.

Bush's career as CIA director ended in January 1977 with the inauguration of Jimmy Carter.

The Democratic president appointed Navy Adm. Stansfield Turner, who pushed through unpopular reforms at the CIA, including downsizing the agency's powerful operations directorate. CIA “old boys” fumed.

By 1980, with Bush running for president, senior CIA officers were openly pining for the election of their former boss.

"The seventh floor of Langley was plastered with 'Bush for President' signs,'" recalled George Carver, a senior CIA analyst. A host of former CIA officers signed up for the campaign.

Bush failed to win the GOP nomination in 1980, but he was picked as Ronald Reagan's running mate. That choice swept the ex-CIA officers into the Reagan-Bush campaign.

Many of the former spies manned a 24-hours-a-day Operations Center at Reagan-Bush headquarters in Arlington, Va. A chief concern of those intelligence agents was President Carter's delicate negotiations aimed at bringing 52 American hostages out of Iran before the November election, the so-called "October Surprise."

According to a suppressed chapter of a later congressional review of the October Surprise case, "many of the [Operations Center's] staff members were former CIA employees who had previously worked on the Bush campaign or were otherwise loyal to George Bush."

The center was run by Stefan Halper, son-in-law of former CIA official Ray Cline, the "secret" chapter read. "Halper often wrote memoranda on the hostage issue addressed to senior campaign officials urging them to attack Carter more aggressively on his handling of the crisis," stated the chapter, which I uncovered in 1994 while digging through unpublished material from the congressional inquiry. [For details, see Robert Parry's The October Surprise X-Files.]

One question raised by the advice from Halper and others was why Republicans felt confident enough to highlight the hostage issue. Such a strategy could have backfired if Carter did secure the hostages’ freedom in late October.

One possible answer was the existence of back-channel contacts between the Reagan-Bush campaign and the Iranian government that offered assurances that a release would not come until after the election.

Over the years, more than a score of witnesses -- including senior Iranian officials, top French intelligence officers, Israeli intelligence operatives and even PLO chief Yasir Arafat -- have confirmed the GOP-Iranian contacts. [See Robert Parry's Trick or Treason and iF Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1997.]

Two witnesses connected to the October Surprise activities have stated that Bush had a personal role in the secret Iranian contacts. Israeli intelligence official Ari Ben-Menashe and pilot Heinrich Rupp placed Bush in Paris for meetings with Iranians on Oct. 19, 1980.

To make that trip, however, Bush would have had to slip away from official Secret Service protection, and Secret Service logs indicated Bush was at his Washington home that day. Bush also denied at two news conferences in 1992 that he sneaked off to Paris.

The suspicions persisted, however, because the Bush administration blocked access to potential alibi witnesses whose names were blacked out on the Secret Service logs.
The only Secret Service officer who claimed to recall Bush’s side trips that day supplied details that proved to be bogus. The officer, Leonard Tanis, then recanted his recollections.

Bush himself has never spelled out what he was doing during the time that would have been necessary for a flight to and from Paris. [For details on the Bush Secret Service story, see iF Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 1998.]

While the Paris meeting remains one of the most controversial parts of the October Surprise allegations, other documentary evidence proves that Bush did have a direct role in the October Surprise monitoring.

Among the records I pulled from the congressional files were confidential notes taken by Reagan's national security aide, Richard Allen.

According to Allen's notes, Bush called Allen at 2:12 p.m., Oct. 27, 1980, with a worried message from former Texas Gov. John Connally. A onetime-Democrat-turned-Republican, Connally was hearing some disturbing news from his Middle Eastern contacts: the possibility that Carter might yet pull off a pre-election hostage deal.

Bush ordered Allen to check out Connally's tip. When Allen knew more, he was to relay the information to "Shacklee [sic] via Jennifer." The Jennifer was Bush's long-time assistant Jennifer Fitzgerald. "Shacklee" was Theodore Shackley, the legendary CIA covert ops specialist known as the "blond ghost."

Though Connally's warning proved to be a false alarm, the notation indicated that Shackley was representing Bush on the sensitive October Surprise issue.

Shackley also had close ties to active-duty CIA personnel inside the Carter White House. As Saigon station chief during the Vietnam War, Shackley was the boss of Donald Gregg who was then the CIA representative on Carter's National Security Council.

According to Ben-Menashe, Gregg and another key CIA officer, Robert Gates, assisted in the Paris contacts with the Iranians. Gregg and Gates both have denied the allegation.

But like Bush, Gregg has had trouble establishing an alibi. Then, when Iran-contra investigators put Gregg on a polygraph and asked whether he took part in the October Surprise operation, Gregg's denial was judged deceptive.

As the former head of the CIA’s JMWAVE covert operations against Fidel Castro, Shackley had strong contacts, too, inside the right-wing Cuban community. One of those associates was former CIA officer Felix Rodriguez, who also knew Gregg and Bush.

After Carter’s humiliating defeat, Vice President Bush emerged as an important foreign policy advisor to President Reagan. Many of Bush’s former CIA associates filtered into key roles as well.

Gregg became the vice president's national security advisor. Gates advanced quickly as one of CIA director William Casey's golden boys, rising quickly to deputy director.

This close-knit team around Bush had a hand in nearly every important foreign policy initiative of the Reagan administration. Their fingerprints also were found on virtually every national security scandal.

According to a 1995 deposition by Reagan national security aide Howard Teicher, Gates joined in a secret operation in the 1980s to funnel sophisticated military equipment to Iraq via Carlos Cardoen, an arms dealer in Chile with close ties to Gen. Pinochet.

Teicher stated, too, that to help Iraq in its war with Iran, Bush conveyed secret tactical recommendations to Saddam through Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Gates and Bush have denied a secret program to enlist third-country support for arming Iraq in the 1980s, although Reagan-Bush officials acknowledge passing along sensitive battlefield intelligence to help Saddam in his eight-year-long war against Iran.

But Teicher’s affidavit depicted a much more active role in which U.S. officials assured Saddam that he would get the military hardware he needed.

"Under CIA director Casey and deputy director Gates, the CIA authorized, approved and assisted Cardoen in the manufacture and sale of cluster bombs and other munitions to Iraq," Teicher wrote in the affidavit submitted as part of an arms-smuggling case in federal court in Florida.

Meanwhile, in private business, Shackley kept busy in the Middle East power game. The former CIA official made some of the initial contacts that led to secret U.S. arms shipments to Iran -- and eventually to the arms-for-hostage scandal known as the Iran-contra affair.

On the contra front, Felix Rodriguez stepped in when the Reagan administration needed help in funneling secret support to the Nicaraguan contra rebels.

Placed in the region by Gregg, Rodriguez reported directly to Gregg and Bush about developments in El Salvador, where the contra resupply operation was based.

The Rodriguez connection proved controversial when Bush insisted, implausibly, that he was “out of the loop” on Iran-contra. Rodriguez, Gregg and Bush all denied that Rodriguez had ever mentioned the contra supply operation although one memo for a three-way meeting cited “resupply of the contras” as a topic.

Rodriguez’s work in Central American was cast into an even less flattering light with the disclosures in October by CIA inspector general Frederick Hitz, who acknowledged that the CIA had covered up evidence of contra-connected cocaine trafficking in the 1980s.

The Hitz report and a companion Justice Department report noted that the Drug Enforcement Administration received repeated tips that cocaine shipments were going through Hangars Four and Five at El Salvador's Ilopango airport, the location for CIA and contra supply operations.

Other drug evidence implicated Cuban Americans who worked closely with Rodriguez as he assisted the contra resupply operations.

Hitz's discovery of connections between the Cuban-American contingent and leading Latin American drug lords also added corroboration to assertions of Medellin cartel money launderer Ramon Milian-Rodriguez.

Milian-Rodriguez had identified a Costa Rican-based shrimp exporter, Frigorificos de Puntarenas, as one of the money-laundry centers.

That allegation is now supported by other witnesses and by new CIA evidence that two of the firm's Cuban-American principals, Moises Nunez and Felipe Vidal, had drug connections. [See iF Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 1998.]

The corroboration of Milian-Rodriguez is significant because he also has testified that the Medellin cartel funneled up to $10 million to Felix Rodriguez, a charge that Felix Rodriguez has denied.

With new support for Milian-Rodriguez's other claims, however, the allegation against Felix Rodriguez would seem to deserve more attention than it received in the 1980s.

The drug charge against Felix Rodriguez was a particular threat to Bush whose office had placed the CIA veteran in Central America.

Bush's unsavory links to South American underworld figures extends through Rev. Moon's business-political-religious operation as well.

From the 1960s and ‘70s, Moon's Unification Church developed close ties to organized crime figures in Asia and South America.

In 1980, Moon's organization collaborated with a right-wing military putsch in Bolivia that turned that country into the region's first narco-state. The operation, supported by ex-Nazis and neo-fascists, was called the Cocaine Coup. [See related story on page 7 or iF Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 1997 & Nov.-Dec. 1997.]

Over the past two decades, Moon also poured billions of dollars into conservative media and political organizations. Moon's Washington Times newspaper became a flagship of the conservative movement, with the paper’s editors and reporters appearing regularly on CNN and C-SPAN.

Yet, according to Moon's close associates and court records, Moon has financed his operations, in part, with vast sums of cash smuggled into the United States as well as through a suspected money-laundering base in Uruguay. [See Nansook Hong’s In the Shadow of the Moons and iF Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 1998 & Nov.-Dec. 1998.]

In recent years, as his religious mission in the United States shrank, Moon grew bitterly anti-American. In speeches, he denounced the United States as "Satan's harvest" and vowed that once his movement triumphed Americans who insisted on maintaining their individuality will be "digested." [See iF Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 1997.]

Still, Bush maintained close ties to Moon and The Washington Times. In 1991, when Wesley Pruden was named the new editor, Bush invited Pruden to a private White House lunch "just to tell you how valuable the Times has become in Washington, where we read it every day." [WT, May 17, 1992]

Once out of office, Bush went to work for Moon as a paid speaker in Asia, the United States and South America. Bush’s office has refused to divulge how much Moon’s organization paid Bush, but a source close to Moon put the total as high as $10 million.

Bush proved especially valuable when Moon launched a newspaper in South America. The theocrat confronted a skeptical reception because of his past support for the region’s brutal military dictatorships and evidence linking Moon associates to the drug trade.

On Nov. 22, 1996, Bush came to rescue. He flew to Buenos Aires and paved the way for Moon with Argentine president Carlos Menem.

Bush also was the keynote speaker at a gala reception for the new paper, Tiempos del Mundo. With Moon sitting just a few feet away, Bush lavished praise on the theocrat.

"I want to salute Reverend Moon, who is the founder of The Washington Times and also of Tiempos del Mundo," Bush declared.

"A lot of my friends in South America don't know about The Washington Times, but it is an independent voice. The editors of The Washington Times tell me that never once has the man with the vision interfered with the running of the paper, a paper that in my view brings sanity to Washington."

Bush's gushing praise thrilled Moon's supporters. "Once again, heaven turned a disappointment into a victory," proclaimed the Unification News, the church's internal newsletter. [Dec. 1996]

But Bush's claim of journalistic independence at The Washington Times was false.
Since the paper’s inception in 1982, editors and reporters have resigned in protest of editorial interference by Moon's lieutenants. The first editor, James Whelan, resigned in 1984 confessing to "blood on my hands" for giving Moon legitimacy.

Former President Bush, however, seemed to have no such qualms. One source close to the Bush camp said the ex-president saw the value in building an alliance with the powerful Moon organization, as an asset for his son's presidential run.

The elder Bush's long history of the associations with questionable and even sinister characters from the intelligence world justify some troubling questions about the political rise of his oldest son.

As Gov. George W. Bush registers double-digit leads in early polls pitting him against Vice President Al Gore, those questions include:

Is the personable Texas governor, in part, a front man for the restoration of his father's unsavory cronies who relied on national security secrecy to avoid accountability for serious mistakes and even criminal acts?

Will the sins of this father -- many of them still only hazily understood years after the fact -- be played out again in a presidential administration of his son?

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