The Consortium

By Robert Parry

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 sympathetic judges.

Historical Failure

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 records.

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 political dissidents.

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.

Ollie's Plumbers

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 Democratic Resistance."

"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.

(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post

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