The Consortium

The Clinton Coup d'Etat?

By Robert Parry

Hillary Clinton is not imagining things when she says President Clinton is the victim of a "vast right-wing conspiracy." The word "conspiracy" might not be exactly right, with its X-Files suggestion of a smoke-filled room filled with sinister men. But she has a point.

What we are seeing is something slightly different. The latest bid to oust Clinton looks more like the final stage of a political coup d'etat. It is a situation in which political forces have built up their strength over time, put their allies in strategic positions, spread around lots of money and now are seizing on a fortuitous opening to finish the job.

The similarities to a CIA covert operation are not coincidental. Many of the techniques developed by Gen. Edward Lansdale and other CIA psy-war pioneers have long ago entered the American political process.

Just as propaganda "themes" were once employed to de-stabilize Mossadegh in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala, Allende in Chile and Ortega in Nicaragua, now carefully orchestrated "opposition research" -- or "oppo" as it's called in Washington -- can turn elections with the plant of a negative story at a crucial moment or spark a "scandal" that forces a sitting politician from office.

Both Democrats and Republicans have used these tactics from time to time. Republicans were furious in 1991 when Anita Hill's sexual harassment testimony surprised Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. In 1989, Democrats saw the Republican ouster of House Speaker Jim Wright over a questionable book deal as "sacking the quarterback," to punish Wright for brokering a Central American peace accord when President Reagan wanted more weapons for the Nicaraguan contras. [For details, see Wright's Worth It All.]

Still, despite the bipartisanship of the mud-slinging, the Republicans -- and especially the Right -- have come to rely on the smear as a political weapon of choice. This tendency seems to trace back to Richard Nixon's resignation over Watergate. Since then, to prevent "another Watergate," the conservative movement has invested heavily and smartly in its own infrastructure of scandal, both for defensive and offensive purposes.

Today, this powerful machine can array a virtual army of professional operatives, media outlets, think tanks and political financiers. The machine is kept well-oiled with hundreds of millions of dollars, from sources ranging from right-wing foundations to foreign totalitarians, such as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Moon, a theocrat with long-standing organized crime connections, alone has funnelled billions of dollars of untracked foreign money into this Right-Wing Machine. [For details, see our series "The Dark Side of Rev. Moon."]

The Machine

With the latest Clinton "scandal" over an alleged affair with 24-year-old Monica Lewinsky, this mature Right-Wing Machine is now poised to demonstrate its power with a political coup against the president of the United States. Already, conservatives are celebrating the success of their five-year campaign to get Clinton. In recent days, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and Citizens United Floyd Brown, who spearheaded the early work on the "Clinton scandals," have declared vindication.

But the issue is bigger than Clinton. By destroying a president, the Right-Wing Machine is serving notice on every future politician, journalist or citizen who is tempted to cross the conservative power structure. If Clinton is driven from office for his personal foibles, the conservative overlords will have asserted a kind of veto power over the U.S. political process.

Of course, the political motives behind this post-modern putsch do not necessarily mean that Clinton is innocent in this case. It is certainly true that Clinton has a proclivity for disingenuous answers and a far-from-spotless record as a faithful husband. If he had an affair with Lewinsky and sought to conceal it, he should be held accountable. But personal sexual behavior between consenting adults has never before been criminalized and become possible grounds for impeachment.

Historians note that many presidents had extramarital affairs, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt who apparently died in the company of his mistress. John F. Kennedy apparently had relationships with a host of women.

Though the rules may have changed in recent years, journalists generally respected the personal privacy of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Reagan, who divorced his first wife and lived a libertine Hollywood life style prior to his second marriage, was never subjected to an excavation of his past romances. There were widespread rumors that Bush had an intimate relationship with his government secretary, but most reporters chose to look the other way.

What is different in this case -- and why Hillary Clinton has a legitimate point -- is that conservative activists created the circumstances that made Clinton's alleged affair a criminal matter. For sure, the growing tabloidism of the mainstream media also played a significant role in the scandal explosion. But without the Right-Wing Machine and its unrelenting pressure, there would be no "crisis in the White House." Clinton's primary "crime" appears to have been that he ended 12 years of Republican control of the White House and represents the Baby Boom generation's opposition to the Vietnam War.

By traditional measures, most of the Clinton "scandals" have been either minor (the Travel Office firings and the apparently accidental delivery of FBI files to the White House) or invented (the Vincent Foster "murder" suspicions and allegations that Clinton traded Arlington Cemetery plots for campaign cash, a right-wing charge just debunked by the congressional General Accounting Office). Yet, the mainstream media insists on treating the past "scandals" as part of a pattern of abuse by Clinton, much as the conservatives want.

No More Watergates

Many key events relevant to the present situation actually occurred long before Clinton's Presidency. The practices, the infrastructure and the motivation all date back at least to the Nixon administration and Nixon's concern that conservatives needed their own ideological apparatus to combat criticism of his Vietnam War policies.

According to his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, Nixon raised the topic repeatedly, including on Sept. 12, 1970, when Nixon was "pushing again on [his] project of building OUR establishment in [the] press, business, education, etc." [See The Haldeman Diaries.]

Some conservatives saw the lack of this defense mechanism as decisive in Nixon's forced resignation in the Watergate scandal. In the wake of that calamity and U.S. defeat in Vietnam, Nixon's Treasury Secretary William Simon stepped forward to rally conservative foundations to begin funding what some have called a "counter-establishment." Money from Simon's Olin Foundation, from Smith-Richardson, from the Coors family, from Richard Mellon Scaife and from other rich right-wingers began pouring into think tanks, media outlets and political attack groups.

With the expanding pool of money, conservative political entrepreneurs rushed to offer their wares. Typical of this breed was the legendary Terry Dolan of the National Conservative Political Action Committee, who developed the modern 30-second TV attack ad and brought "independent" money to bear on Senate races to defeat prominent liberal senators, such as George McGovern, Frank Church and Birch Bayh.

But by the early 1980s, the largest single conduit of right-wing money appears to have been Rev. Moon and his Unification Church. Despite a congressional investigation in 1978 that identified Moon as a South Korea espionage agent, Moon gained protection from important conservatives, including Dolan, and rewarded them with large donations from his seemingly bottomless pit of overseas money.

With Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, the conservative movement got another big boost. Reagan coordinated private right-wing organizations with government propagandists in a novel "public diplomacy" operation that targeted journalists and members of Congress who were considered critics of Reagan's foreign policy. To direct this domestic operation, Reagan appointed Walter Raymond Jr., a 30-year veteran of the CIA's propaganda-and-disinformation shop. Raymond sent regular progress reports to CIA director William J. Casey. [For details, see our book, Lost History.]

The Right-Wing Machine revved up to a new level in 1982, when Moon founded The Washington Times -- which he subsidized with an estimated $100 million a year so this daily vehicle could run over anyone who got in Reagan's path. Through the decade, more and more conservative magazines opened or expanded with the influx of conservative capital. Moon's Insight was one of the new entries, while The American Spectator and other older rightist publications jumped in circulation.

Other publications, such as The New Republic, moved dramatically rightward under a neo-conservative publisher. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page became another fount for Reagan's often fantastic factual visions, from the Soviet's non-existent "yellow rain" chemical warfare to the bogus KGB role in the attempted assassination of John Paul II. [For details, see Extra!, Sept.-Oct. 1995.]

Conservatives also came to dominate the principal pundit shows, such as "The McLaughlin Group" and "Agronsky & Co." as well as many of the nation's op-ed pages. Through the decade, the Religious Right expanded its televangelist TV outlets into full-scale cable networks, with such programs as Pat Robertson's "700 Club" and Jerry Falwell's "Old Time Gospel Hour." A national network of conservative radio talk show hosts also took shape.

Iran-contra Defense

The Right-Wing Machine proved its value in 1986-87 when Reagan's reckless foreign policy ran afoul of the Iran-contra scandal. Whereas Nixon struggled to contain newspaper disclosures during Watergate, Reagan had a loyal media that would rally to his defense and keep up a constant barrage against his critics.

As evidence continued to build of presidential guilt in illegal arms sales and a massive obstruction of justice, the machine took aim at Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh who was hounded through most of his six-year investigation. But Walsh's serious pursuit of the Iran-contra facts alerted conservatives to another vulnerability in their political battlements: the independent counsel machinery.

In 1986, a senior Republican judge, George MacKinnon, had led the three-judge panel which picked Walsh, also a lifelong Republican. But MacKinnon and Walsh were Eisenhower-type Republicans who believed in the constitutional system. They weren't ideologues.

So, in 1992, in a virtually unreported event of great historical significance, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist removed MacKinnon from the panel and replaced him with a younger Appeals Court judge, David Sentelle, a right-wing political operative and protege of ultra-conservative North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms. With almost no one noticing, the Right had seized control of the special prosecutor apparatus.

Silver Bullet

Also in 1992, the conservative media and the Bush administration were battling to defeat Clinton and keep the White House in GOP hands. But Clinton proved himself as skillful and resilient politician who pressed ahead with a policy agenda that struck many Americans as desirable. Through the summer, as Clinton built a solid lead in the polls, a frantic search was under way for a "silver bullet," some scandal so vile that it would destroy him.

One episode from the 1992 scramble is particularly instructive, given the current crisis: how the conservative press collaborated with Republican operatives to smear Clinton with a rumor that he had sought to renounce his citizenship during his years at Oxford.

Touching off this "oppo" on July 30, 1992, was a Freedom of Information Act request from a Washington Times reporter seeking FBI records on Clinton's anti-war activities. In early September 1992, the reporter approached David Tell, head of the Bush campaign's "opposition research," and asked for help expediting the search. Tell wrote a memo that reached senior Bush officials, including James Baker who was directing campaign strategy at the White House.

During that last half of September, Baker began pressing the inquiry with other officials, despite concerns that an expedited search would violate Clinton's privacy rights. Finally, on Sept. 30, State Department official Elizabeth Tamposi sent three subordinates to the federal records center in Suitland, Md., to "dig up dirt on Clinton," as Tamposi would later state.

The Suitland search turned up no letter renouncing citizenship. All the State Department officials discovered was Clinton's passport application with staple holes and a slight tear in the corner. Though the tear was easily explained by the routine practice of stapling a photo, money order or routing slip to the form, Tamposi saw the tear as potential evidence that a Clinton had removed the imaginary citizenship renunciation.

With the electoral clock ticking down, Tamposi shaped her staple-hole mystery into a criminal referral to the Justice Department. That official action -- the referral -- was then leaked to Newsweek magazine which published the story on Oct. 4, 1992. Just as the Bush campaign had wanted, the article suggested that Clinton had tampered with his passport file. The story's appearance in Newsweek also gave it a veneer of mainstream non-partisanship. A full-fledged campaign scandal was born.

The story created an opportunity for the conservative media to reprise a host of questions about Clinton's patriotism -- and Clinton's poll numbers started to sink. Indeed, the passport story might have doomed Clinton's election, except for the fast work of a congressional Democratic staffer, R. Spencer Oliver, who dispatched his own team to the State Department. Oliver's investigators discovered the ludicrous weakness of the staple-hole case and blew the whistle. The "oppo" boomeranged on the Bush campaign.

Though little appreciated by political reporters, the fiasco was recognized in the Bush camp as a turning point. Baker even blamed the failed maneuver for Bush's defeat. After the election, on Nov. 20, 1992, a disconsolate Baker visited Bush and offered to resign "all because of this stupid passport situation," Bush wrote in his White House diary.

But Sentelle was already proving his worth. His three-judge panel appointed a Republican stalwart, Joseph diGenova, to investigate the Republican passport dirty trick. Although the evidence of a crime was clear, diGenova chose to reject any prosecutions and even scolded the State Department's inspector general for having suggested that a criminal investigation was needed.


Though Clinton had escaped the passport "scandal," it was only a taste of what was ahead. From the very start of his presidency, every modest mistake -- such as a White House overreaction to evidence that money was disappearing from the Travel Office -- became scandal fodder for Wall Street Journal editorialists, Limbaugh and a host of other conservatives who had switched quickly from playing Reagan-Bush defense to anti-Clinton offense.

The conservative drumbeat on "Travelgate" apparently contributed to the deep depression that afflicted deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster. After complaining bitterly about the personal attacks against himself, Foster committed suicide on July 20, 1993.

But the conservative media never stopped to say "sorry." Right-wing journalists simply seized on the "mystery" of Foster's death and the clumsy handling of papers from Foster's office to start a whole new round of "scandal." Conservative officials at the Resolution Trust Corp. added fuel to the fire with new criminal referrals about the Clintons' Whitewater real estate investments, an issue that had more substance than other Clinton "scandals."

By December 1993, The American Spectator made its contribution with a salacious -- and wildly exaggerated -- account of the sexual adventures of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Much of the story was based on the allegations of several state troopers who have been caught in lies both before and after they became conservative celebrities financed discreetly by Clinton's political enemies.

The Spectator article, in turn, introduced Paula Jones to the world. She promptly turned up at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 1994, announcing her plans to sue President Clinton, an action she took two months later, again with the financial assistance of conservative operatives.

On the Religious Right front, Jerry Falwell began hawking a wild-eyed video called The Clinton Chronicles, which accused the Clintons of a full menu of crimes, from drug trafficking to murder, with dark suspicions about Foster taking center stage. The Right-Wing Machine was raising the stakes.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Janet Reno had appointed Republican Robert Fiske as an independent counsel to examine the Whitewater controversy. The Fiske appointment had come during a lapse in the independent counsel law, and Fiske soon annoyed conservatives with his conclusion that Foster indeed had committed suicide.

So when the independent counsel statute was renewed, Sentelle promptly engineered Fiske's removal in August 1994. Sentelle replaced Fiske with an activist conservative, Kenneth Starr, who was in the midst of writing a friend-of-the-court on behalf of Paula Jones.

Starr Struck

For the next 3 1/2 years, Starr's Whitewater investigation careened along, with side trips into the Travel Office affair, the delivery of FBI files to the White House and a revisit to the Foster suicide, which even Starr was forced to conclude was really a suicide. Though Starr secured some peripheral convictions, none of his cases led to convincing evidence of wrongdoing by Bill or Hillary Clinton.

By 1997, in the wake of Clinton's re-election, Starr's investigation seemed to be winding down. Starr briefly entertained plans to quit, so he could become a dean at Pepperdine University and run a public policy group partly funded by Scaife. After a public outcry, he reversed himself. But his long probe appeared to be ending with no criminal charges against his primary targets, the Clintons.

But on a separate track, conservatives continued to press the Paula Jones lawsuit. Advised by conservative operative Susan Carpenter-McMillan, Jones rejected a proposal from her legal team to settle the case last summer. Her old lawyers quit and were replaced by a new team financed by a conservative organization, the Rutherford Institute.

Little known to the Clintons, the revamped Jones's strategy -- and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of other Clinton enemies -- already was setting the stage for a whole new round of "scandal." ~

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The Lewinsky Affair.

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