Hillary Clinton's Unspoken Vulnerability
An unspoken political vulnerability of Sen. Hillary Clinton is that she is the first presidential candidate to have both her and her spouse subject to regular, long-term surveillance by an Executive Branch under the control of an opposing political party.
Since they left the White House in 2001, Bill and Hillary Clinton – as the former President and First Lady – have been under the protection of the Secret Service, formerly a branch of the Treasury Department and now part of the Homeland Security Department. Records are maintained showing where they go and, to an extent, whom they meet.
Ordinarily, those records are kept as closely held secrets, but theoretically at least, President George W. Bush – with his expansive view of his powers as “unitary executive” – could gain access to them, either formally or informally.
His father did much the same when his subordinates scoured the passport files of then-Arkansas Gov. Clinton in 1992, looking for a “silver bullet” that would kill off the Democratic nominee’s presidential hopes.
President George H.W. Bush later acknowledged to FBI investigators that he was “nagging” his aides to push for more information about Bill Clinton’s student travels to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia and about right-wing rumors that Clinton had sought to renounce his U.S. citizenship.
“Hypothetically speaking, President Bush advised that he would not have directed anyone to investigate the possibility that Clinton had renounced his citizenship because he would have relied on others to make this decision,” according to an FBI report on its interview with the elder Bush. “He [Bush] would have said something like, ‘Let’s get it out’ or ‘Hope the truth gets out.’” [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
With such high-level urging, White House chief of staff James Baker instructed his aide, Janet Mullins, to ask Steven Berry, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, about progress on right-wing press requests for information about Clinton’s student travel.
Eventually, the White House interest was communicated to State Department official Elizabeth Tamposi, a Bush political appointee who saw it as a green light to move ahead with the legally questionable search.
On the night of Sept. 30, 1992, Tamposi dispatched three aides to the federal records center in Suitland, Maryland, where they searched Clinton’s passport file as well as his mother’s, presumably because they thought it might contain some references to Clinton.
In a later press interview, Tamposi asserted that she ordered the search after Berry had pressured her to “dig up dirt on Clinton” for the Bush White House.
Though finding no letter renouncing citizenship, the State Department officials still made use of Clinton’s passport application, which had staple holes and a slight tear in the corner.
The tear was easily explained by the routine practice of stapling a photo or money order to the application, but 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 speculation into a criminal referral which was forwarded to the Justice Department. Thin as the case was, George H.W. Bush’s reelection campaign had its official action so the renunciation rumor could be turned 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 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, 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.
Clinton’s campaign ultimately was saved by quick-thinking Democrats on Capitol Hill who exposed the passport leak as a political dirty trick. That forced the elder Bush into a quasi-apology for the scandal, which became known as “Passport-gate.”
After Clinton’s election victory, however, the criminality of the dirty trick was swept under the rug by Republican special prosecutor Joseph DiGenova, who was appointed to investigate by a federal judicial panel run by right-wing appellate judge David Sentelle.
(Showing what a small world political Washington can be, DiGenova is married to Republican lawyer Victoria Toensing, a key figure in the public attacks on former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, CIA officer Valerie Plame, over Wilson’s criticism of the WMD intelligence that George W. Bush used to justify invading Iraq.)
While “Passport-gate” is now a little-remembered chapter of Campaign 1992, it shows how a sitting President can get subordinates to stretch – or even break – the law to unearth information that can serve a political purpose.
In George W. Bush’s case, the temptation will be strong to use whatever means he has at his disposal to ensure that his successor continues his “war on terror” policies and doesn’t authorize serious investigations into controversies such as torture and wiretapping.
The Republicans also have the advantage of a powerful and ideologically committed news media, from popular talk-radio hosts and Internet bloggers to Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.
If Sen. Clinton wins the Democratic nomination and is seen as a threat to Republican control of the Executive Branch, any information, especially some tidbit that suggests sexual improprieties, could spread like wildfire through the media landscape.
Already, new rumors about the Clintons’ marriage have begun to circulate on the Internet. But a scandal would prove especially devastating if backed by real information, like what might be available in Secret Service records.
One of the reasons that civil libertarians have been especially alarmed about George W. Bush’s assertion of virtually unlimited executive authority over such tactics as wiretapping, data-mining and domestic spy satellites is that it has coincided with a Republican goal for near-permanent political control of the U.S. government.
Those dreams were dealt a blow in Election 2006 and appear even more precarious amid Bush’s slumping popularity. However, now Republicans are worried about their political eclipse if the Democrats win the White House and manage to expand their majorities in the House and Senate.
Republicans – and presumably Bush – see that nightmare scenario as both a threat to their vision of “national security” and a dreaded opening for liberal domestic policies, from universal health care to appointment of judges who won’t outlaw abortion.
So, Republicans may find that exploiting their endangered control of the Executive Branch bureaucracy to find a “silver bullet” that can take down another Clinton candidacy in 2008 is more than a temptation. They might view it as a moral imperative.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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