The Consortium

By Robert Parry

Now even the White House, it seems, believes in conspiracy theories.

An internal White House staff review of the Clinton scandals has concluded that many of the embarrassing stories that have bedeviled the first four years of the Clinton Presidency were hypes and hoaxes perpetrated by a well-financed right-wing media.

The existence of this two-and-a-half-page memo, backed by several hundred pages of news clips and analysis, became a cause celebre itself in early January. The memo's contents were trumpeted, not surprisingly, by Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, two of the most important right-wing media outlets.

"This is paranoia at the highest level of government," added Fred Barnes, an editor at Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, another important conservative publication.

The White House report quickly became the object of ridicule in more mainstream press outlets, too. In its sassy Style section, The Washington Post published a mock memo about why the Post was often the last to know about big stories these days. "We're supposed to be the last to know," explained Style staff writer Richard Leiby. "It's all part of the Conspiracy."

The New York Times joshed that "it does not take the C.I.A. or the F.B.I. to know that the White House does not like everything that is written about it. But is there a 'Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce?'"

Historically, the Post and the Times -- the twin pillars of the Establishment media -- have led attacks on so-called "conspiracy theories." Last fall, for instance, the two newspapers criticized the African-American community for blaming the CIA for the flood of cocaine that poured into the United States in the early 1980s and fueled the "crack" epidemic. (But the two papers did acknowledge that there was substantial evidence that CIA-backed Nicaraguan contra rebels were involved in the cocaine trade.)

The twist here was that the White House -- not Oliver Stone or Dick Gregory -- was alleging that political conspiracies do happen. President Clinton seemed possessed by the suspicion that the conservative press, aided and abetted by partisan Republicans, were out to get him.

The White House report was written in 1995 by an obscure staff aide named Christopher Lehane. Press spokesman Michael McCurry said iIts intent was to explain to mainstream reporters how the conservative media had created an echo chamber in Washington and elsewhere to amplify negative stories about Bill and Hillary Clinton.

The scandal-mongering, the report felt, was part of a strategy to weaken public support for the Clintons by generating constant suspicions. Unable to differentiate fabrications from legitimate allegations, the public would simply conclude that where there is so much smoke there must be some fire.

Though Clinton and his aides might have a point -- politics could even be defined as a system of competing conspiracies seeking power -- Washington's pundits condemned the White House for the "conspiracy theory." The furor over the "conspiracy" report got so hot that Clinton felt compelled to repudiate the notion that conservatives and their media allies might be interested in destroying him.

'Fringe Stories'

Without doubt, there was a sophomoric and overheated tone to the White House report. The report's "overview" described the "communication stream of conspiracy commerce" as "the mode of communication employed by the right wing to convey their fringe stories into legitimate subjects of coverage by the mainstream media." The paper then summarized how this stream of conspiracy theory supposedly worked.

"First, well-funded right-wing think tanks and individuals underwrite conservative newsletters and newspapers, such as the Western Journalism Center, the American Spectator and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review," the White House paper explained. "Next, the stories are reprinted on the Internet where they are bounced all over the world.

"From the Internet, the stories are bounced into mainstream media through one of two ways: 1) The story will be picked up by the British tabloids and covered as a major story, from which the American right-of-center mainstream media (i.e. The Wall Street Journal, Washington Times and New York Post ) will then pick the story up; or 2) The story will be bounced directly from the Internet to the right-of-center mainstream American media.

"After the mainstream right-of-center American media covers the story, congressional committees will look into the story. After Congress looks into the story, the story now has the legitimacy to be covered by the remainder of the American mainstream press as a 'real ' story."

As examples, the "overview" cited the two cases of apparently bogus conservative allegations surrounding the July 1993 suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster. One was the allegation from Arkansas state trooper Roger Perry that White House staffer Helen Dickey had notified him of Foster's death hours before the White House was informed by the Park Police. That would have supported the well-traveled suspicions that Foster was murdered or that his body was moved after he killed himself.

First published by right-wing reporter Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the London Sunday Telegraph, the story was recycled by the Western Journalism Center and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, two entities financed by conservative scion Richard Mellon Scaife.

From there, the story moved to the Internet and then to The Washington Times and The New York Post, the White House report noted. Perry's claim was then investigated by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato as part of the Whitewater inquiry.

To repudiate the trooper's assertion, Dickey gave sworn testimony insisting that she had called the Governors Mansion in Arkansas hours after Perry claim -- after the Park Police had informed the White House of Foster's suicide. The available documentary evidence supported Dickey's timetable. D'Amato's investigators could not substantiate Perry's claim.

Foster Forgery?

The White House report also cited an allegation promoted by the conservative National Taxpayers Union that Foster's suicide note was a forgery. The NTU sponsored a press conference at which a purported handwriting expert, named Ronald Rice, declared that Foster had not written the note.

The claims received respected treatment in the mainstream media and continue to be the basis for suspicions that Foster was murdered, despite repeated investigations and forensics examinations concluding that Foster did commit suicide where his body was found, at Fort Marcy Park in Virginia.

"In fact," the White House report stated, "Rice is not a handwriting expert with the Massachusetts Attorney Generals Office but, in fact, the head of a hypnotist training school in Boston. ...The Independent Counsel's report, based on the FBI's findings, had concluded that the Foster note was the real thing."

Whatever the merits of the White House arguments, Clinton's team had committed a PR blunder. In debunking one set of conspiracy theories, the White House had unwittingly embraced another -- that the conspiracy theories were themselves part of a larger conspiracy.

Or perhaps Clinton was just getting in tune with the American people, who seem to find conspiracy theories an increasingly appealing way to explain events in Washington.

(c) Copyright 1997 -- Please Do Not Re-Post

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