February 10, 1999

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Clinton ‘Oppo’ Wildfire

By Robert Parry

The political scorched-earth campaign against President Clinton may have started as a 1992 campaign "oppo," but it raged on for nearly seven years, in part, because wealthy Clinton-haters got caught up in the propaganda, according to new evidence.

Since 1992, Republican "opposition research" -- known as "oppo" in Washington jargon -- focused on Clinton's philandering. That dirt-digging eventually linked up to the Paula Jones case, Kenneth Starr’s investigation and the GOP-led impeachment trial.

But the endless “oppo” drew energy and determination from darker rumors tying Clinton to "mysterious deaths," drug trafficking and government corruption.

Some of these wilder stories popped up in major conservative outlets, such as The Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. But mostly, the rumors built a constituency by appearing in Christian Right videos -- such as "The Clinton Chronicles" -- and circulating through Internet "conspiracy" sites.

While lacking anything approaching evidence, the sinister allegations succeeded in coloring the attitudes of key Clinton enemies, including right-wing tycoon Richard Mellon Scaife and possibly House GOP leaders.

In a rare interview, Scaife pointed to the list of "mysterious deaths" as one of his justifications for pursuing the president. "God, there must be 60 people on there who have died mysteriously -- including eight of Clinton's former bodyguards. In helicopter crashes. I mean, there have been very mysterious deaths." [George, Jan. 1999]

The comment about the former bodyguards apparently was a reference to the "Clinton body count" published on the Web site of the far-right Free Republic.

The list counts four Army officers who supposedly protected Clinton and who died in a helicopter crash in Germany. Also on the list were four agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who guarded candidate Clinton in 1992 and died in the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993. [WP, Dec. 17, 1998]

In neither case does evidence exist explaining how Clinton might have engineered these deaths. But the persuasive effect of the death lists seems to come from the sheer number of cases, regardless of the weakness of each example.

As one of my conservative friends once explained, “if Clinton is guilty of just half of these, that would be something.”

For years, I have received "mysterious death" lists that included the name of Jon Parnell Walker, a Washington-based Resolution Trust Corp. official. In early 1992, Walker approved a field audit of Madison Guaranty, the failed savings-and-loan run by Clinton's Whitewater business partner, Jim McDougal.

On Aug. 15, 1993, more than a year later, Walker posed as a prospective renter, went up to the 22nd floor of a luxury apartment building in Arlington, Va., and jumped to his death. Police labeled the death a suicide.

In 1994, as conservatives started raising suspicions about Walker's death, I looked into the case. I interviewed Walker acquaintances who said he had confided that he was suffering from AIDS and was despondent about his health.

I also tracked down the rental agent who showed Walker the Arlington apartment. The young woman described how Walker had asked to see an apartment on a high floor and, after entering, walked to the balcony, climbed over the railing, asked if she thought "it will hurt," and jumped.

Though tragic, there was little "mysterious" about this death -- and nothing to implicate the president. But Walker's name was still on a Clinton death list faxed to me in 1998.

That list also contained the supposed "mugging" of New Republic reporter L.J. Davis, who, according to the Wall Street Journal editorial page, was knocked unconscious in a Little Rock hotel room while investigating Whitewater. When Davis awoke, he found that four pages of notes containing the names of his sources were missing, the Journal reported. [March 23, 1994]

The editorial conjured up the image of Clinton goon squads terrorizing backward Arkansas. So, in 1994, with the help of another journalist, Richard Fricker, I examined the Davis case, too.

It turned out that Davis was in the hotel bar downing some six martinis at the time of the supposed clubbing in his hotel room, according to timed bar tabs which were corroborated by eyewitnesses. Most likely, Davis had simply returned to his room, passed out and bumped his head.

As for the notebook pages, Davis told Fricker that no pages actually were missing. That was a Journal fabrication.

Other high-profile "mysterious deaths" have been debunked by official investigations. Multiple examinations of the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster, including one by Starr, reaffirmed the initial police finding that Foster had shot himself.

Later death lists added Commerce Secretary Ron Brown who died in a plane crash in Croatia. That case also attracted Scaife's personal attention. In the interview with George editor John F. Kennedy Jr., Scaife gave an account of a supposed conversation between Clinton and Brown that preceded the crash:

"There is a story in which Brown went into the Oval Office and said, 'They're coming after me, and I'm not going to take this. And I'm going to take people down with me. So what am I going to do?' And Clinton got up and right out of 'The Godfather,' folded his arms and said, 'That's nice.' And a week later Brown was dead." Scaife offered no source for this account nor any other evidence.

Despite the nuttiness of these Clinton suspicions, many presidential enemies seem to have taken the "mysterious death" rumors to heart. The rumors even may have steeled the congressional Republicans in their drive to remove the president over the far-less-frightening Lewinsky scandal.

Dick Morris, a former Clinton adviser and now a harsh critic, has asked ominously on television, "Don't you know the list of the 25 people who have died in mysterious circumstances in connection with this investigation?" Morris claimed several House investigators are "physically afraid of retaliation." [WP, Feb. 3, 1999]

The faith that many conservatives place in these rumors helps explain the chasm between the Republican commitment to impeach Clinton and the general public's shoulder-shrugging. Many on the right see Clinton as a killer; the Lewinsky case is just the means to bring him down.

Two recent investigative articles have peeled back other layers of the long-running anti-Clinton "oppos." In The New York Times, Don van Natta Jr. and Jill Abramson tracked the work of a group of conservative lawyers who secretly advanced the Arkansas sex stories.

According to the article, lawyer Richard W. Porter had worked as an "oppo" specialist for the 1992 Bush-Quayle campaign. In 1993, Porter continued his anti-Clinton efforts after moving to the Chicago-based law firm of Kirkland & Ellis, where he became a partner along with Kenneth Starr.

In Chicago, another Porter associate was financier Peter W. Smith, a major GOP contributor who had spent more than $80,000 to fund anti-Clinton digging in Arkansas. In 1992, $5,000 of Smith’s money went to American Spectator reporter David Brock to check out a Clinton sex rumor.

Though that story proved false, Smith introduced Brock to Arkansas state troopers who were willing to tell other stories about Clinton's sex life. Smith also wanted to establish a fund to help support the troopers if they got into trouble.

Brock published the "Troopergate" story in the January 1994 issue of The American Spectator, but Brock fretted about Smith's plans to pay the troopers. To allay Brock's worries, Smith sent the reporter to speak with Porter. Despite the reporter's objections, the Smith-Porter team pressed ahead with the payment idea and Smith doled out $22,000 to the troopers' lawyers.

Meanwhile, Brock's "Troopergate" story had other consequences. The article mentioned a state employee identified only as "Paula." But the reference prompted Paula Jones to go public at a conservative conference in Washington in February 1994. She announced plans to sue Clinton for making a crude sexual overture back in 1991. She soon was getting high-level legal help and financial support.

Porter and three conservative lawyer friends -- Jerome Marcus, George Conway and Paul Rosenzweig -- jumped into the Jones case, the Times reported. Recently released billing records of Jones's on-the-record lawyers revealed that they were in close contact with the Porter group.

"Porter was a cheerleader," said Jones lawyer Joseph Cammarata. "He used to call up and say, 'maybe we can find you some money.'" Porter offered "legal strategy," too, and contributed a memo on "investigative leads" that could embarrass Clinton. Porter's anti-Clinton "oppo" was entering a new phase.

According to the Times, Marcus was another key player, secretly helping the Jones lawyers draft legal briefs. While concealing his hand in the Jones case, Marcus publicly demanded Clinton's destruction. "The cancer is deadly," Marcus wrote in The Washington Times. "It, and its cause, must be removed."

In November 1997, Rosenzweig -- another member of the Porter clique -- joined Starr's office of independent counsel. Despite that change, Rosenzweig continued to discuss the Jones case with his friend Marcus. By that time, too, Linda Tripp was cooperating with the Jones lawsuit and was taping her young friend, Monica Lewinsky.

Next, according to the Times, Tripp's book agent, Lucianne Goldberg, contacted Smith and Porter -- the anti-Clinton activists in Chicago -- for advice on getting Tripp's story to Starr. In January 1998, Goldberg talked with Porter and Marcus. They, in turn, helped Tripp locate a new lawyer, another conservative named James Moody.

On Jan. 8, 1998, Marcus, now familiar with the Lewinsky sex stories, tipped off Rosenzweig, in Starr's office. Over the next week, Tripp officially made contact with Starr's office and delivered the secret tapes.

The special prosecutor quickly expanded his investigation into the Lewinsky issue, a move that eventually would lead to Clinton's impeachment in the House and trial in the Senate. [NYT, Jan. 24, 1999]

While the Porter legal team was chugging along the Clinton-sex track, a parallel "scandal" locomotive was rolling through the scarier terrain of deepest-darkest Arkansas. This investigative engine was fueled by $1.7 million from anti-Clinton tycoon Scaife who gave the money to The American Spectator for what was called the Arkansas Project.

Scaife's money wound its way to a variety of anti-Clinton operatives in Arkansas. But an article in Salon by investigative reporter Murray Waas has added an important new piece to the mosaic. Waas reported that more than $14,000 was paid to a key "scandal" witness, former Arkansas trooper L.D. Brown.

Waas cited confidential accounting records of the American Spectator Educational Foundation which showed payments to Brown of $6,200 in February 1994; $4,200 in March 1994; $737 in August 1994; and $3,500 in 1997. The American Spectator said the money was to compensate Brown for "investigative services" and to reimburse him for the cost of a chartered private jet.

Yet, during those years, Brown was leveling some of the most sensational charges against the president. For one, Brown provided partial corroboration for the claim by convicted con man David Hale that he met with Gov. Clinton to discuss a fraudulent loan to Whitewater partner Susan McDougal.

L.D. Brown also accused Clinton of collaborating with a cocaine-smuggling ring in Mena, Ark. Brown was the mainstay in several anti-Clinton books, including Roger Morris's Partners in Power. American Spectator editor R. Emmett Tyrrell also published a series of articles about Mena based on Brown's assertions.

According to Brown's testimony, he was recruited for a CIA-connected drug-smuggling operation in Mena with Clinton's blessings in 1984. Brown claimed that he then accompanied notorious drug smuggler Barry Seal on an arms-for-drugs flight from Mena to Central America.

After this alleged Mena drug flight, Brown claimed that Clinton asked, "You having any fun yet?" Brown concluded that meant Clinton knew all about the drug operation. "He knew before I said anything," Brown stated. "He knew."

Though the anti-Clinton authors embraced Brown's assertions as fact, federal investigators doubted Brown's word about both Whitewater and Mena, according to Waas's article.

"There was money that was being passed around and there were apparently other financial incentives to be had as well," one federal law-enforcement official told Waas. "And the better your story, the more attention you're going to attract and publicity that you are going to draw. That's the kind of thing that would prove irresistible to someone like an L.D. Brown."

Waas cited another contradiction of Brown's Mena story: Brown’s date of the Seal drug flight as Oct. 23, 1984. Waas interviewed CNN correspondent John Camp who said he was with Seal that day, filming a documentary, and that Seal "was nowhere near Central America." [Salon, www.salonmagazine.com, Jan. 12, 1999]

The Republican-controlled House Banking Committee also investigated the Mena allegations, drawing, in part, on the evidence compiled by Morris for his book. Although the committee has yet to release its final report, the panel announced that no evidence was found linking then-Gov. Clinton to the Mena operation.

Despite the contrary evidence, these "Clinton scandals" continue to gain adherents -- and justify the spending of more money on investigations.

For the year-long Lewinsky morality play, the stories of "mysterious deaths" and other crimes have become a sort of spooky background music that will continue even after the curtain comes down on the impeachment melodrama.

Already, conservatives are promising that more Clinton scandals are ahead.

"It will end," anti-Clinton pundit William Bennett grumbled about the impeachment trial, "but it won't be over." [CNN's “Larry King Live,” Feb. 1, 1999]

[For more information on the history of anti-Clinton "oppos," see iF Magazine, March-April 1998.]

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