July 23, 1998

Secret Service Privilege: The Bush File

By Robert Parry

The voluminous coverage of Kenneth Starr's court victory forcing Secret Service testimony about President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky has missed an important precedent from a chapter of America's recent "lost history."

TV pundits and federal judges have treated the Clinton administration's assertion of a "newly minted" Secret Service "special protection" privilege as little more than a tactic to delay Starr's investigation.

One Republican federal judge, Laurence Silberman, went so far as to ponder in his appeals court opinion rejecting the Secret Service privilege: "Can it be said that the president of the United States has declared war on the United States?"

Despite all the hours of commentary, however, it has gone virtually unmentioned that the Bush administration asserted a similar privilege in blocking full Secret Service cooperation in a criminal case and a congressional investigation relating to the so-called October Surprise controversy.

From 1989-92, the Bush administration restricted release of Secret Service records and limited testimony by Secret Service agents about allegations that George Bush had joined in a 1980 Republican scheme to undermine President Carter's negotiations to free 52 Americans then held captive in Iran. If true, the allegations could have opened Bush to charges of acting as an accessory to kidnapping and possibly even treason.

The Secret Service limitations were accepted first by federal prosecutors and later by a congressional investigation headed by Democrats. In both instances, the investigators bowed to the Bush administration's assertion that full disclosure might harm the Secret Service's ability to protect presidents, vice presidents, national candidates and visiting VIPs.

Unlike Starr, those investigators chose to negotiate modest levels of cooperation, rather than to challenge the Secret Service's judgment about what might cause undue danger both to Secret Service agents and to protectees.

A Perjury Trial

The Secret Service privilege was asserted in 1989 when federal prosecutors sought Secret Service cooperation in a perjury case against an Oregon businessman, Richard Brenneke. In testimony at an unrelated sentencing hearing for a friend in 1988, Brenneke had alleged that Bush and other Republicans went to Paris on Oct. 19, 1980, to meet secretly with Iranian government officials.

Brenneke claimed that he had heard about Bush's participation in the secret meetings and had seen Reagan's campaign manager William J. Casey and a CIA officer named Donald Gregg in Paris. To discredit those suspicions, federal prosecutors obtained an indictment against Brenneke for perjury.

At trial, the prosecutors hoped to rely on Secret Service records to prove that Bush -- then a vice presidential candidate under Secret Service protection -- was at home in Washington on Oct. 19, 1980, not in Paris.

But the Secret Service balked at full disclosure. The Secret Service released censored activity reports, which on the surface did place Bush at home but had so many deletions that the federal prosecutors did not even enter them as evidence at Brenneke's trial in Portland, Ore., in 1990.

Two Secret Service supervisors did agree to testify, but the prosecutors' questions were so constrained and the answers so vague about Bush's movements that the testimony failed to convince the jury that Brenneke was lying.

In part because of the porous Secret Service testimony, Brenneke was acquitted, although his personal financial records later showed that he was not in Paris on Oct. 19, 1980, and that his information about what happened there was only second-hand.

Brenneke's account of Paris meetings apparently derived from two associates -- Brenneke's friend, German-born pilot Heinrich Rupp, and Israeli intelligence official Ari Ben-Menashe. Both Rupp and Ben-Menashe asserted that they had seen a man whom they identified as Bush in Paris on Oct. 19, 1980.

Mysterious Trips

In 1992, a House task force reviewed the October Surprise controversy again -- and, once more, the Secret Service balked at supplying complete records or allowing sworn testimony from the agents who were on Bush's detail.

The Secret Service did divulge a few more lines of the activity reports which bolstered Bush's insistence that he had not snuck off to Paris. The reports indicated that Bush was at home in Washington during the time in question and that he had made two trips, one in the morning to the Chevy Chase Country Club and one to a private residence in the afternoon.

But key details that would have allowed the written record to be corroborated -- such as whom Bush saw and what exactly he was doing -- were deleted.

Task force investigators were allowed to interview about nine Bush-assigned agents informally, but none under oath and none could supply any credible details about Bush's activities. Most had no memory of the recorded trips.

Only one supervisor, Leonard Tanis, asserted that he recalled Bush attending a morning brunch at the Chevy Chase Country Club with Barbara Bush and Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and his wife.

Tanis's account collapsed, however, when Mrs. Bush's Secret Service records showed her jogging at the C&O Canal that morning. Mrs. Stewart, Justice Stewart's widow, also denied having brunch with the Bushes that day. Confronted with the contradictory information, Tanis acknowledged that he might have been thinking of another event.

The Secret Service was even more unhelpful about the afternoon trip. Those records showed both Mr. and Mrs. Bush traveling to a private residence, but the Secret Service would not divulge the address or the identity of the person visited. Some Democrats suspected that the trip might have involved only Barbara Bush and that the logs had been falsified to give Bush an alibi.

No Alibi Interview

In spring 1992, however, President Bush demanded publicly at two news conferences that he be cleared of any suspicion about a secret trip to Paris. With Bush running for re-election, Republicans on the task force threatened to obstruct further funding if Bush's demands were not met.

Finally, the task force, headed by Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who values his bipartisan image, agreed to accept a Secret Service compromise in which the task force was given the name of the person visited in the afternoon but prohibited from ever interviewing the witness or divulging the person's identity.

After accepting the strange compromise and never questioning the alibi witness, Hamilton's task force agreed to clear Bush in an interim report issued on July 1, 1992.

In large part, the acceptance of the Bush alibi determined the remaining course of the October Surprise investigation. Ben-Menashe, a prominent witness, was judged unreliable because he had claimed to see Bush in Paris.

Even when additional evidence surfaced corroborating the existence of Republican-Iranian meetings in Paris, the task force had little choice but to reject that information.

The later witnesses included the biographer for French intelligence chief Alexandre deMarenches who recounted deMarenches's admission that he had helped Casey set up the Paris meetings. The task force acknowledged that two other French intelligence officials had corroborated that account. But the alleged Paris meetings still were judged a fiction.

In the final days of the investigation, even Russia's Supreme Soviet weighed in with a confidential report buttressing the Paris charges. The Russian report claimed that Soviet intelligence was aware of Republican meetings with Iranians in both Madrid and Paris in 1980. The Russian report stated that Bush had attended the Paris meeting in October 1980.

The task force's response to the Russian report, which Hamilton had requested, was simply to hide it from public view. It was stuck in a box of investigative records that I dug through in late 1994. [For more details about the Russian report, see Robert Parry's The October Surprise X-Files: The Hidden Origins of the Reagan-Bush Era.]

A Curious Conversation

Another piece of evidence that justified a more thorough examination of the Secret Service records was a discussion that occurred between a State Department official and a journalist in mid-October 1980.

After the October Surprise issue achieved some national attention in 1991, a former foreign service officer named David Henderson recalled that more than a decade earlier, Chicago Tribune reporter John Maclean had stated that Bush was on his way to Paris to talk with Iranians about the American hostages. Henderson dated his talk with Maclean as Oct. 18, 1980.

Questioned about Henderson's memory, Maclean confirmed that a well-placed Republican had told him about the Bush trip to Paris in mid-October 1980. But Maclean would not divulge his source's identity.

Though the source's name remained a secret, I was able to corroborate that Maclean had high-level contacts in the 1980 Reagan campaign. From the task force boxes, I found a handwritten calendar belonging to Ronald Reagan's foreign policy adviser Richard Allen. The calendar showed that Allen met with Maclean the week before the alleged Paris meetings.

(Allen had another bit part in the October Surprise story. He has acknowledged joining Laurence Silberman and then-Senate aide Robert McFarlane for a meeting with a purported Iranian emissary at Washington's L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in either late September or early October 1980.

(None of the Republican participants -- Allen, Silberman or McFarlane -- could recall the identity of the emissary and all gave conflicting accounts about the circumstances surrounding the mysterious meeting. Silberman now sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington and, ironically, wrote the opinion suggesting that Clinton had "declared war on the United States.")

The combined weight of evidence supporting a secret Bush trip to Paris -- the eyewitness Bush sightings, the Russian report and the curious Maclean-Henderson conversation -- normally might have left investigators with doubts about Bush's activities on Oct. 19, 1980.

Fuller disclosure of the Secret Service records, especially the identification of the personal friend from the afternoon trip, might have settled the question once and for all. But the Bush administration asserted the need for Secret Service discretion in its protective functions.

It was never entirely clear why the name of a friend supposedly visited by George and Barbara Bush a decade earlier would require such secrecy. But the ploy worked. Bush then relied on the partisan defensiveness of House Republicans and the bipartisan timidity of House Democrats to make sure the October Surprise allegations were discredited by the task force investigation.

Now, with the Secret Service "protection privilege" obliterated by a Republican prosecutor and rejected by Republican judges, it might be time for the release of the Secret Service information which could verify that George Bush indeed did spend Oct. 19, 1980, in Washington, rather than jetting off to Paris to meet with Iranian radicals holding 52 Americans hostage.

Whatever the likelihood of those documents ever being released, Bush apparently felt enough gratitude to the Secret Service for protecting his secrets that he was the only ex-president who voiced support for the right of the Secret Service to keep silent, too, about what the agents saw and heard in President Clinton's White House.

Copyright (c) 1998

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