By Robert Parry
September 1992 was a grim time for the Republican Party. George Bush's re-election, which only a year earlier seemed assured by his Persian Gulf victory, was in grave danger. Over the summer, Bill Clinton and his bus tours had built a double-digit lead. President Bush was struggling to explain why he wanted a second term.
As the election clock ticked down, Bush's operatives saw little hope unless they could find a "silver bullet," a Clinton scandal so vile that it would take out the Comeback Kid once and for all. In mid-September, that possibility arose with rumors of a nearly treasonous act by Clinton, that as a young anti-Vietnam War activist and Rhodes scholar, the Democratic nominee had tried to renounce his American citizenship. Senior Republicans seemed untroubled by the fact that there was no evidence to support this ugly smear.
This "renunciation" story began to take shape on July 30, 1992, when Michael Hedges, a reporter for the right-wing 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. The FOIA fit with the vague rumors that had circulated for months that Clinton had tried to gain citizenship from another country to avoid the draft.
In early September 1992, Hedges approached his friend, David Tell, to request help from the Bush administration for an expedited search of Clinton's files. Tell, a young Republican activist, was director of Opposition Research at the Bush re-election campaign. In that position, Tell headed the division that dug up dirt on opponents, a dark art known in political circles as "oppo." Already, Tell had investigated a number of rumors about Clinton and even probed 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 re-election 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 re-election strategy.
The political potential of the renunciation rumor didn't escape James Baker, then-White House chief of staff. Baker, a smooth-talking Texas lawyer and a Bush confidante, knew the story would revive doubts about Clinton's fitness for office.
Though highly regarded in Washington for his political acumen, Baker had left
footprints through some of the nastier electoral games of the era. He was a chief suspect
in the theft of President Carter's debate briefing book in 1980. Baker had run the
mean-spirited Bush campaign in 1988, when false rumors were spread about Michael Dukakis's
mental health and the Willie Horton race card was played. Baker personified the
winning-is-everything school of politics.
So, after the "core group" meeting on Sept. 16, 1992, Baker discussed the Washington Times's FOIA request with his top aides, Janet Mullins and Margaret Tutwiler. Baker then personally took the issue to White House legal counsel C. Boyden Gray, another Bush loyalist. Gray recalled that 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 this possible "silver bullet" was energizing others, too, in the senior echelon of the Bush administration. Gray contacted Timothy Flanigan, assistant attorney general for the 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 then mused that perhaps someone could examine Clinton's passport files on national security grounds. That would be hard, Flanigan explained, because Clinton already had national security clearances.
On Sept. 25, 1992, little more than a month before the Nov. 3 election, 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." For his part, Gray said he recalled using a word other than "cow."
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 talked to Berry before Sept. 30, according to their recollections.
Then, on Sept. 30, amid the frenzied search for the "silver bullet," Elizabeth Tamposi, another assistant secretary of state, sent three of her subordinates to the federal records center in Suitland, Maryland, to search Clinton's passport files. In a later press interview, Tamposi would assert that she ordered the search after Berry had pressured her to "dig up dirt on Clinton" for the Bush White House.
The search, however, 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,
money order or routing slip to the application, the Bush administration sleuths were not
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 bizarre possibility into a criminal referral which was forwarded to the Justice Department. Thin as the case might be, the Bush re-election effort now had its official action that meant they could elevate the renunciation rumor 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 reporters involved, especially Margaret Warner, had very close ties to Baker's inner circle, dating back to Baker's years as secretary of state.
The Newsweek story about the tampering investigation hit the newsstands on Oct. 4, 1992. 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, Bush took the offensive, using the frenzy over the tampering story to attack Clinton's patriotism on a variety of fronts, including his student trip to Moscow in 1970.
With his patriotism challenged, Clinton saw his once-formidable lead shrink. Quickly, a panicked Clinton campaign sought help from a seasoned political hand, R. Spencer Oliver, who was then chief counsel on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. (Oliver was a veteran of GOP electoral shenanigans. In 1972, his phone at Democratic national headquarters was one of those bugged by Richard Nixon's Watergate burglars.)
Oliver dispatched his own team to the State Department to examine what was behind the mysterious passport criminal referral. When Oliver learned that the evidence consisted only of staple holes, he blew the whistle on what looked like another GOP dirty trick. Within days, the FBI, too, rejected the tampering suspicion. The passport gambit backfired on the Bush campaign.
Though little noted by political reporters who covered the 1992 campaign, the outcome of the passport case was a key factor in ending the 12-year Reagan-Bush reign. The fiasco hobbled Bush during his planned sprint to the election finish line and blocked the Bush campaign's hopes to exploit another conveniently timed criminal referral -- over Clinton's Whitewater real estate investment. Clinton hung on to win the election.
After Bush's defeat, Baker grew depressed, blaming himself for the passport disaster and the re-election 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. But Bush rejected Baker's offer to resign.
At the urging of the State Department's inspector general, the passport case also prompted the appointment of a special prosecutor. But the conservative-dominated three-judge panel that picks special prosecutors named a trusted Republican, Joseph diGenova, to head the probe.
Also luckily for the Bush legacy, diGenova was hiring staff in early 1993 just as the House October Surprise task force was disbanding. Despite strong evidence to the contrary, that task force had cleared William Casey, George Bush and other Republicans of long-standing allegations that they had interfered with President Carter's negotiations to free 52 American hostages in Iran.
As reported in the first eight issues of The Consortium, the task force reached its conclusion by constructing bogus alibis for Casey, applying irrational arguments and hiding evidence pointing to Republican guilt. DiGenova snapped up six veterans of the October Surprise staff, including deputy independent counsel Michael Zeldin, who had served in the Reagan-Bush Justice Department, and associate independent counsel David Laufman, who had worked for the CIA.
DiGenova's team went to work explaining away the obviously criminal acts involved in the passport case. Though Clinton's privacy rights had been violated and the leaking of a confidential criminal referral was a felony, diGenova said he could not figure out who had committed the misdeeds. So he constructed elaborate rationales to clear all the Republicans of any wrongdoing.
Indeed, the government official who came under diGenova's sharpest criticism was the State Department's Inspector General Sherman Funk -- for demanding the investigation in the first place. The diGenova team castigated Funk for "a woefully inadequate understanding of the facts and a blithely naive view of the job responsibilities at the State Department."
Later, one senior Clinton administration official reviewed the whitewashing of the October Surprise issue and similar handling of the passport case. The official shook his head in disgust. "They're the cleaners," he said about the investigative team, a reference to ruthless intelligence experts who are brought onto the scene of a botched operation to clean up the incriminating evidence.
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