By Robert Parry
- Bill Clinton's 'Rope-a-Dope'
WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton finally staggered to a brief
counter-attack this month, after former FBI agent Gary Aldrich
unloaded a particularly nasty haymaker at the presidential chin.
For months, Republicans had pummelled Clinton freely over
Whitewater, the Travel Office, Paula Jones and then the FBI
files, while Clinton clumsily covered up and took a beating.
Then, Aldrich's new book, Unlimited Access, appeared. Its
wild charge of Clinton's nocturnal trysts at a Marriott hotel
near the White House offered the president an opening -- and a
necessity -- to fight back. He did so, with a flurry of
complaints from his top spokesmen, George Stephanopoulos and
Michael McCurry. The White House scored some points when
Aldrich's Marriott exclusive was traced to a rumor from The
American Spectator's Clinton-basher David Brock.
But the middle rounds of this presidential election year
continue to follow a pattern that both sides set after the 1992
election. Determined to reclaim the White House after the
briefest interregnum, the Republicans have contested the
legitimacy of Clinton's Presidency at every turn. Even now, Bob
Dole calls Clinton a "pretender."
While the GOP bashed Clinton, the Democrats ignored the
Reagan-Bush abuses of power in the preceding 12 years.
Clinton's Fleetwood Mac campaign theme song advised that
"yesterday's gone" and that was exactly the attitude the
Democrats struck toward past Republican scandals.
From Iran-contra to Iraqgate, from the cover-up of the El Mozote
massacre to obstruction of justice over contra drug-trafficking,
from manipulating the Iran hostage crisis in 1980 to tampering
with Clinton's passport files in 1992, the Democrats shrank from
going toe-to-toe with the GOP.
For the first three-plus years of the Clinton administration,
the Democrats followed a political strategy modeled after
Muhammad Ali's "rope-a-dope" tactics used to win the 1974
heavyweight title bout in Zaire. When Ali got winded in the
middle rounds, he retreated to the ring's loose ropes, covered
his face with his gloves and let George Foreman flail away.
Democrats in Clinton's bloody corner say their "rope-a-dope"
strategy foresees the Republicans exhausting themselves, by
battering the First Family over "scandals," while Clinton keeps
his cool and the American people grow bored. Then Clinton will
step forward in the end and strap on the championship belt once
more in November.
But the Democrats may be misinterpreting the sports analogy.
Ali did use "rope-a-dope" to regain his stamina. Yet, he won by
counter-attacking in the later rounds, by punishing Foreman with
blows to the head and knocking him out.
Clinton, it seems, has no strategy for ever taking the offensive
against his tormentors. He appears content to counter
occasionally with a few jabs, hoping that Bob Dole lacks a
knock-out punch and trusting that the American people will be
But beyond politics, Clinton's greatest failure as President
might be his unwillingness to correct the historical record of
the Reagan-Bush years. At times, under Clinton's command, the
Democrats even have joined in the cover-ups.
In January 1993, when the departing Bush team ripped the hard
drives out of their computers and tried to erase sensitive
computer files, Clinton's lawyers supported those actions in
court. The Democrats stood by, too, when faced with new
evidence that the Republicans might be destroying historical
In a 1995 federal court affidavit, former national security aide
Howard Teicher pointed the way to documents that he said would
prove secret Reagan-Bush arms shipments to Saddam Hussein's
Iraq. But when Justice Department lawyers could not find
Teicher's file at Ronald Reagan's presidential library, they
assumed that Teicher must be lying, even though a more likely
conclusion would be that the incriminating files had fallen
victim to another Reagan-Bush shredding party.
Ironically, too, the Bush administration's purging of its files
contributed to the current furor over the White House's
retrieval of FBI files, including those for hundreds of
Republicans. Clinton's "dumb-and-dumber" security officials,
Craig Livingstone and Anthony Marceca, obtained the FBI files
supposedly to fill a void in records needed to update clearances
for White House passes.
Despite suspicions about that story, there has been no evidence
that any derogatory information from the files was used to
discredit any Republican. Still, the GOP has walloped the
president over this new "Clinton scandal" -- and the Democrats
have demurred from noting that the FBI files caper was kid's
stuff compared to Reagan-Bush abuse of federal police powers.
Dirtying Up Dissenters
In 1981, for instance, when President Reagan faced a challenge
to his policy of supporting a right-wing junta in El Salvador,
the FBI launched a nationwide criminal investigation of Reagan's
critics. Over the next four years, the FBI tasked 52 of its
field offices to probe the activities of a peace group, called
Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES)
and 138 related organizations, including church groups.
The CISPES investigation spewed out thousands of pages of
reports, as FBI agents crisscrossed the country interviewing the
employers and the neighbors of CISPES activists. Some FBI
agents clearly understood that their job was to discredit
A memo from the FBI's New Orleans office, dated Nov. 10, 1983,
declared that "it is imperative at this time to formulate some
plan of attack against CISPES and specifically, against
individuals who defiantly display their contempt for the U.S.
government by making speeches and propagandizing their cause."
On March 6, 1984, the Philadelphia FBI office huffed about 12
organizations "actively involved in demonstrations ... regarding
U.S. intervention in Central America." On Dec. 14, 1984, the
FBI reported from Cincinnati, Ohio, that subjects were "involved
in activities contrary to the foreign policy of the United
States in Central America."
After a five-year investigation, the FBI found no criminality
and dropped the case.
A similar abuse occurred in 1986, when evidence began leaking
out about Oliver North's secret supply line to Nicaraguan contra
rebels. Reagan's White House tried to destroy witnesses who
knew about those illegal operations.
North sicced former CIA officer Glenn Robinette on one
whistleblower, named Jack Terrell, who had trained contra units
in Honduras and returned with accounts of contra atrocities and
cocaine trafficking. Robinette ran a mini-plumbers unit, which
cranked down on leaks that were endangering North's secrecy.
When Terrell came to Washington in 1986 to tell his story to
Congress, Robinette contacted Terrell. According to Robinette's
July 17, 1986, memo to North, the goal was to "sting" Terrell by
luring him into phony business deals. When that failed,
Robinette fed derogatory information to the FBI, which put
Terrell under investigation for a purported threat against
President Reagan's life.
Meanwhile, at the White House, North reported to his boss,
national security adviser John Poindexter, that a high-powered
inter-agency task force called the Terrorist Incident Working
Group had turned over "all information" on Terrell to the FBI.
In a July 17, 1986, memo, North said the TIWG's "operations
sub-group" would review an FBI "counter-intelligence,
counter-terrorism operations plan" to neutralize Terrell.
"It is interesting to note that Terrell has been part of what
appears to be a much larger operation being conducted against
our support for the Nicaraguan resistance," North declared.
On July 28, 1986, North typed another memo entitled "Terrorist
Threat: Terrell," suggesting that Terrell real crime was his
public criticism of the contras and North's operation. The memo
cited Terrell's "anti-contra and anti-U.S. activities" and
accused him of becoming "an active participant in the
disinformation/active measures campaign against the Nicaraguan
"Terrell has appeared on various television 'documentaries'
alleging corruption, human rights abuses, drug running, arms
smuggling and assassination attempts by the resistance and their
supporters," North wrote. "Terrell is also believed to be
involved with various congressional staffs in preparing for
hearings and inquiries regarding the role of U.S. government
officials in illegally supporting the Nicaraguan resistance."
Reagan personally initialed that memo.
In late July and early August 1986, FBI and Secret Service
agents kept Terrell under surveillance. Though finding no
evidence to support North's dark suspicions, agents still
subjected him to two days of polygraph examinations.
Finally, the bogus investigation was dropped, but Terrell's
reputation had been damaged in Washington. He also shied away
from telling his stories again. "It burned me up," Terrell said
in an interview. "The pressure was always there."
Even after North's operations were exposed in fall 1986, when
one of his contra supply planes was shot down, the Democrats and
the Washington news media did little to highlight the Reagan
administration's abuse of its police powers -- or to explore
other cases of similar violations.
In contrast, the Republicans are not skipping their chance to
wail away at Clinton on the FBI files as he again sags against
the ropes. The GOP seems to have no fear that the punch-drunk
Democrat will go for a knock-out in the late rounds.
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