Bushes Play the 'Traitor' Card
By Robert Parry
October 18, 2004
assaults on Sen. John Kerry’s patriotism – first from the
Swift boat ads and now from an attack-video to be aired
nationally before the Nov. 2 election – look to be part of a
Bush family pattern, which also was on display in 1992 when
the elder George H.W. Bush instigated a smear campaign
against Bill Clinton for alleged disloyalty.
In 1992, the Bush reelection plan was
to disqualify Clinton with the voters by publicizing bogus
allegations that Clinton had tried to renounce his U.S.
citizenship during the Vietnam War. The first President Bush
and his allies also pushed rumors that Clinton had
treasonous contacts with Soviet-bloc communists during a
student trip to Eastern Europe in the 1970s.
Today, Bush supporters are hurling
similar disloyalty allegations at Kerry – that he lied about
his combat experience in Vietnam and that he betrayed his
country in his anti-war activism upon his return. George W.
Bush’s campaign insists that it’s not behind these charges.
But there were similar denials in 1992 and the now-available
documentary record shows that George H.W. Bush was at least
the sparkplug behind the attacks on Clinton’s loyalty.
It’s also important to remember that
the 1992 scheme might well have succeeded in destroying
Clinton, except it was countered by a few alert Democrats on
Capitol Hill. [More below]
In both 1992 and 2004, there also were
elements of the Republican operations that remain a mystery.
In 1992, there were calls from Bush campaign officials to
Czechoslovakia in what appears to have been an effort to dig
up dirt on Clinton or to plant damaging news articles there
that would blow back to the United States.
This year, there is the strange story
about an anti-Kerry Swift boat veteran showing up at a
remote Vietnamese village where Kerry earned his Silver Star
in a 1969 firefight. That disclosure was part of an ABC’s
Nightline report on Oct. 14, 2004, based on interviews with
Vietnamese in the villages of Tran Thoi and Nha Vi on the
Bay Hap River.
The main point of the
Nightline report was that the villagers confirmed the
wartime accounts from Kerry, his crew and the official U.S.
records – that there had been heavy firing in the clash
between Kerry’s Swift boats and Vietcong cadre on Feb. 28,
1969. The villagers also debunked a central claim by
anti-Kerry Swift boat veteran John O’Neill that the only
Vietcong fighter was a youngster in a loin cloth who was
wounded and fleeing when Kerry shot him in the back.
Contradicting O’Neill’s best-selling
book Unfit for Command, the villagers identified the
dead Vietcong as Ba Thanh, a man in his mid-20s who was
dressed in the Vietcong’s characteristic black pajamas. He
had been sent to the village by headquarters with a B-40
rocket launcher as part of a special 12-man unit targeting
Swift boats, the villagers said.
But a curious part of the Nightline
report was a statement by one villager, Nguyen Van Khoai,
who said two men – an American calling himself a Swift boat
veteran and a cameraman – had interviewed him about the
incident about six months earlier.
Nguyen remembered that the two visitors
had mentioned that another Swift boat veteran was running
for U.S. President and they said he “didn’t do anything to
deserve the medal” won for his actions during the 1969
battle. Nguyen said he declined to discuss whether Kerry had
deserved his medal, and the two men went back down river.
Nightline said it couldn’t identify the
two men, but their appearance at a remote Vietnamese village
– when Nightline had to overcome government resistance to
travel there – suggests that allies of the Bush campaign may
be going to extraordinary lengths to discredit Kerry. It
also begs the question of whether the U.S. Embassy in
Vietnam has played any role.
Those questions might seem overly
suspicious, except that George W. Bush has refused to
specifically condemn the anti-Kerry charges. (Bush has only
urged an end to all independent political ads, including
those that have reported accurately about his dubious Texas
Air National Guard record.) There’s also the history of the
Bush family’s ruthless political style. [For details on how
the Bushes do politics, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
In 1992, for instance, George H.W.
Bush’s White House pulled strings at the State Department
and at U.S. embassies in Europe to uncover and to
disseminate derogatory information about Bill Clinton in the
final weeks of the campaign.
assault on Clinton’s patriotism moved into high gear on the
night of Sept. 30, 1992, when assistant secretary of state
Elizabeth Tamposi – under pressure from the White House –
ordered three aides to pore through Clinton’s passport files
in search of a purported letter in which Clinton supposedly
sought to renounce his citizenship.
letter was found, Tamposi still injected the suspicions into
the campaign by citing a small tear in the corner of
Clinton’s passport application as evidence that someone
might have tampered with the file, presumably to remove the
supposed letter. She fashioned that speculation into a
criminal referral to the FBI.
Within hours, someone from
the Bush camp leaked word about the confidential FBI
investigation to reporters at Newsweek magazine. The
Newsweek story about the tampering investigation hit the
newsstands on Oct. 4. The article suggested that a Clinton
backer might have removed incriminating material from
Clinton’s passport file, precisely the spin that the Bush
Immediately, President George H.W. Bush took the
offensive, using the press 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. Panic spread through the Clinton campaign.
The Bush camp put out another suspicion, that Clinton
might have been a KGB “agent of influence.” Rev. Sun Myung
Moon’s Washington Times headlined that allegation on Oct. 5,
1992, a story that attracted President Bush’s personal
interest. “Now there are stories that Clinton … may have
gone to Moscow as [a] guest of the KGB,” Bush wrote in his
diary that day.
The suspicions about Clinton’s patriotism might have
doomed Clinton’s election, except that Spencer Oliver, then
chief counsel on the Democratic-controlled House
International Affairs Committee, suspected a dirty trick.
“I said you can’t go into
someone’s passport file,” Oliver told me in an interview.
“That’s a violation of the law, only in pursuit of a
criminal indictment or something. But without his
permission, you can’t examine his passport file. It’s a
violation of the Privacy Act.”
After consulting with House
committee chairman Dante Fascell and a colleague on the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Oliver dispatched a
couple of investigators to the National Archives warehouse
in Suitland. The brief congressional check discovered that
State Department political appointees had gone out to
Suitland at night to search through Clinton’s records and
those of his mother.
Oliver’s assistants also
found that the administration’s tampering allegation rested
on a very weak premise, the slight tear in the passport
application. The circumstances of the late-night search soon
found their way into an article in the Washington Post,
causing embarrassment to the Bush campaign.
Not Letting Go
Yet still sensing that the loyalty theme could hurt
Clinton, President Bush kept stoking the fire. On CNN’s
“Larry King Live” on Oct. 7, 1992, Bush suggested anew that
there was something sinister about a possible Clinton friend
allegedly tampering with Clinton’s passport file.
“Why in the world would anybody want to tamper with his
files, you know, to support the man?” Bush wondered before a
national TV audience. “I mean, I don’t understand that. What
would exonerate him – put it that way – in the files?”
The next day, in his diary, Bush ruminated suspiciously
about Clinton’s Moscow trip: “All kinds of rumors as to who
his hosts were in Russia, something he can’t remember
But the GOP attack on Clinton’s loyalty prompted some
Democrats to liken Bush to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who built a
political career in the early days of the Cold War
challenging people’s loyalties without offering proof. On
Oct. 9, the FBI complicated Bush’s strategy further by
rejecting the criminal referral. The FBI concluded that
there was no evidence that anyone had removed anything from
Clinton’s passport file.
At that point, Bush began backpedaling: “If he’s told all
there is to tell on Moscow, fine,” Bush said on ABC’s “Good
Morning America.” “I’m not suggesting that there’s anything
unpatriotic about that. A lot of people went to Moscow, and
so that’s the end of that one.”
But the documents I obtained years later at the National
Archives revealed that privately Bush was not so ready to
surrender the disloyalty theme. The day before the first
presidential debate on Oct. 11, Bush prepped himself with
one-liners designed to spotlight doubts about Clinton’s
loyalty if the right opening presented itself.
“It’s hard to visit foreign countries with a torn-up
passport,” read one of the scripted lines. Another zinger
read: “Contrary to what the Governor’s been saying, most
young men his age did not try to duck the draft. … A few did
go to Canada. A couple went to England. Only one I know went
to Russia.” If Clinton had criticized Bush’s use of a
Houston hotel room as a legal residence, Bush was ready to
hit back with another Russian reference: “Where is your
legal residence, Little Rock or Leningrad?”
But the Oct. 11 presidential debate – which also involved
Reform Party candidate Ross Perot – did not go as Bush had
hoped. Bush did raise the loyalty issue in response to an
early question about character, but the incumbent’s message
was lost in a cascade of inarticulate sentence fragments.
“I said something the other day where I was accused of
being like Joe McCarthy because I question – I’ll put it
this way, I think it’s wrong to demonstrate against your own
country or organize demonstrations against your own country
in foreign soil,” Bush said. “I just think it’s wrong. I –
that – maybe – they say, ‘well, it was a youthful
indiscretion.’ I was 19 or 20 flying off an aircraft carrier
and that shaped me to be commander-in-chief of the armed
forces, and – I’m sorry but demonstrating – it’s not a
question of patriotism, it’s a question of character and
Clinton countered by challenging Bush directly. “You
have questioned my patriotism,” the Democrat shot back.
Clinton then unloaded his own zinger: “When Joe McCarthy
went around this country attacking people’s patriotism, he
was wrong. He was wrong, and a senator from Connecticut
stood up to him, named Prescott Bush. Your father was right
to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my
Many observers rated Clinton’s negative comparison of
Bush to his father as Bush’s worst moment in the debate. An
unsettled Bush didn’t regain the initiative for the
remainder of the evening.
The search of Clinton’s passport file had other
repercussions. Eventually, the State Department’s inspector
general sought a special prosecutor investigation for a
scandal that became known as Passportgate.
In the end, however, Bush escaped any legal consequences
from the passport gambit in large part because a Republican
attorney, Joseph diGenova, was named to serve as special
prosecutor. DiGenova’s investigation cleared Bush and his
administration of any wrongdoing. DiGenova said he “found no
evidence that President Bush was involved in this matter.”
FBI documents that I found in the National Archives,
however, presented a more complicated picture. Speaking to
diGenova and his investigators in fall 1993, George H.W.
Bush said he had encouraged White House chief of staff James
Baker and other aides to investigate Clinton and to make
sure the information got out.
“Although he [Bush] did not recall tasking Baker to
research any particular matter, he may have asked why the
campaign did not know more about Clinton’s demonstrating,”
said the FBI interview report, dated Oct. 23, 1993. “The
President advised that … he probably would have said,
‘Hooray, somebody’s going to finally do something about
this.’ If he had learned that the Washington Times was
planning to publish an article, he would have said, ‘That’s
good, it’s about time.’ …
“Based on his ‘depth of feeling’ on this issue, President
Bush responded to a hypothetical question that he would have
recommended getting the truth out if it were legal,” the FBI
wrote in summarizing Bush’s statements. “The President added
that he would not have been concerned over the legality of
the issue but just the facts and what was in the files.”
Bush also said he understood how his impassioned comments
about Clinton’s loyalty might have led some members of his
staff to conclude that he had “a one-track mind” on the
issue. He also expressed disappointment that the Clinton
passport search uncovered so little.
“The President described himself as being indignant over
the fact that the campaign did not find out what Clinton was
doing” while a student studying abroad, the FBI report said.
Bush’s comments seem to suggest that the President had
pushed his subordinates into a violation of Clinton’s
privacy rights. But diGenova, who had worked for the
Reagan-Bush Justice Department, already had signaled to the
former President that the probe was going no where.
At the start of the Oct. 23 interview, which took place
at Bush’s office in Houston, diGenova assured Bush that the
investigation’s staff lawyers were “all seasoned
prof[essional] prosecutors who know what a real crime looks
like,” according to FBI notes of the meeting. “[This is] not
a gen[eral] probe of pol[itics] in Amer[ica] or dirty
tricks, etc., or a general license to rummage in people’s
As the interview ended, two
of diGenova’s assistants – Lisa Rich and Laura Laughlin –
asked Bush for autographs, according to the FBI’s notes on
Czech-ing on Bill
In January 1994, the curious
Czech trip stories took another turn. The Czech news media
reported that former Czech intelligence officials were
saying that in 1992, the Czech secret police, the Federal
Security and Information Service (FBIS), had collaborated
with the Bush reelection campaign to dig up dirt on Clinton.
The centrist newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes reported
that during the 1992 campaign, the FBIS gave the Republicans
internal data about Clinton’s Moscow-Prague trips and
supplied background material about Clinton’s “connections”
inside Czechoslovakia. Derogatory information also allegedly
was funneled through officials at the U.S. Embassy and was
leaked to cooperative journalists.
The Czech stories suggested that
the first Bush administration would go so far as to
collaborate with a foreign secret police agency to undermine
a political opponent. So this year’s attacks on
Kerry’s patriotism do not stand alone.
the accusations from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and
the anti-Kerry video “Stolen Honor” to be aired by the
pro-Bush Sinclair Broadcasting Group seem to fit a pattern
of how the Bushes deconstruct those who challenge the
family’s hold on government power.
Award-winning investigative reporter Robert Parry's
latest book is Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq. It can be purchased at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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