Is Hillary or Obama More Vulnerable to Right-Wing Attacks?
Even as Hillary Clinton's operatives were dropping hints that Republicans would exploit Barack Obama's youthful drug use, some Clinton insiders privately worried about her own vulnerability because the Bush administration possesses detailed knowledge of her movements -- and her husband's -- over the past seven years.
Because of Sen. Clinton's unique status as the first former First Lady to run for President - and because her husband was succeeded by a Republican -- she is the first candidate to have both her and her spouse be subject to regular, long-term surveillance by an Executive Branch agency controlled by the opposing political party.
Since they left the White House in 2001, Bill and Hillary Clinton 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 whom they meet.
Homeland Security is under the control of Michael Chertoff, a longtime Clinton nemesis dating back to his work as a Republican lawyer on the Senate's Whitewater investigation in the 1990s. In 2003, Sen. Clinton cast the sole dissenting vote against Chertoff's nomination as a federal judge in protest against his abrasive conduct during the Whitewater inquiry.
Though Secret Service records are supposed to be closely held secrets, a source close to the Clintons told me that it is believed that senior Republicans have received regular briefings about movements of the Clintons that might prove embarrassing if released during the general election campaign.
Given this possibility, Clinton operatives were walking a tightrope when they began raising questions about what bare-knuckled Republican operatives might do with Sen. Obama's public acknowledgement that he experimented with drugs, including cocaine, as a young man.
As part of the Clinton campaign's broader effort to raise doubts about Obama's electability, Clinton's New Hampshire co-chairman Bill Shaheen told the Washington Post that "one of the things [the Republicans are] certainly going to jump on is his drug use. ...
"It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?' ... There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome."
Though an uproar over the remarks soon forced Shaheen's resignation, Clinton's chief strategist Mark Penn managed to slip the word "cocaine" into a denial that the Clinton campaign was playing its own dirty trick.
"The issue related to cocaine use is not something the campaign is in any way raising," Penn said on MSNBC's "Hardball."
The Clinton campaign's gamesmanship prompted more protests from the Obama camp and a satire by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd who recounted a mock Iowa debate in which Hillary Clinton inserted drug references at every possible opportunity. [NYT, Dec. 16, 2007]
But there is a history to the Clinton and Bush families possessing damaging secrets about the other, a kind of balance of terror in which the Bushes usually have the upper hand and the Clintons have chosen mostly to make concessions and seek favors from the more powerful family.
On Dec. 17 in South Carolina, Bill Clinton demonstrated that tendency, saying Hillary Clinton's first act as President would be to send Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush on an around-the-world mission to repair America's image.
"The first thing she intends to do is to send me and former President Bush and a number of other people around the world to tell them that America is open for business and cooperation again," said Bill Clinton, who is proud that he has accompanied the senior Bush on many international humanitarian missions.
Clinton's comment could be viewed as both a slap at George W. Bush and a kiss-up to his father. But the elder Bush responded icily through a spokesman, saying he supports his son's foreign policy and "never discussed an 'around-the-world mission' with either former President Bill Clinton or Sen. Clinton."
It was not the first time that the senior Bush, the patriarch of America's most prominent political family, had put down the upstart Clinton.
In 1992 when Clinton - as Arkansas governor - sought the White House, then-President Bush encouraged his subordinates to find a "silver bullet" that would kill off Clinton's presidential hopes.
The senior 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 won the election, 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.)
As President, Clinton not only turned the other cheek in regard to "Passport-gate" but made sure that federal investigators averted their eyes from other scandals implicating former President Bush. Clinton presumably thought that his magnanimity could gain some reciprocity from Republicans when it came to his own scandals.
As Clinton was taking office in 1993, three important investigations were underway, all of which Clinton could have helped by ordering key documents declassified or giving other backing to the investigators.
Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh was still battling the cover-up that had surrounded the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s; Democratic congressmen were digging into the "Iraqgate" scandal, the covert supplying of dangerous weapons to Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the 1980s; and a House task force was suddenly inundated with evidence pointing to Republican guilt in the "October Surprise" case, alleged interference by the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980 to undermine President Jimmy Carter's efforts to free 52 American hostages then held in Iran.
Combined, those three investigations could have rewritten the history of the 1980s, exposing serious wrongdoing by Republicans who had held the White House for a dozen years. The full story also would likely have terminated the presidential ambitions of the powerful Bush family, since George H.W. Bush was implicated in all three scandals.
However, Clinton and the leaders of the Democratic majorities in Congress didn't care enough about the truth to fight for it. Instead, they saw the truth as a bargaining chip that could be cheaply traded away.
Clinton agreed to let George H.W. Bush retreat gracefully into retirement despite Bush's brazen attempt to destroy Walsh's criminal investigation by issuing six pardons to Iran-Contra defendants on Christmas Eve 1992.
In his 2004 memoir, My Life, Clinton wrote that he "disagreed with the pardons and could have made more of them but didn't." Clinton cited several reasons for giving his predecessor a pass.
"I wanted the country to be more united, not more divided, even if that split would be to my political advantage," Clinton wrote. "Finally, President Bush had given decades of service to our country, and I thought we should allow him to retire in peace, leaving the matter between him and his conscience."
By his choice of words, Clinton revealed how he saw information - not something that belonged to the American people and that had intrinsic value to the democratic process - but as a potential weapon that could be put to "political advantage."
Joining the Cover-ups
On the Iran-Contra pardons, Clinton saw himself as generously passing up a club that he could have wielded to bludgeon an adversary. He chose instead to join in a cover-up in the name of national unity.
Similarly, the Democratic congressional leadership ignored the flood of incriminating evidence pouring into the "October Surprise" task force in December 1992.
Chief counsel Lawrence Barcella told me later that he urged task force chairman Lee Hamilton to extend the investigation several months to examine this new evidence of Republican guilt, but Hamilton ordered Barcella simply to wrap up the probe with a finding that the Reagan-Bush campaign had done nothing wrong.
Some of the new incriminating evidence - including an unprecedented report from the Russian government about its knowledge of illicit Republican contacts with Iran - was simply hidden away in boxes that I discovered two years later and dubbed "The October Surprise X-Files."
The "Iraqgate" investigation met a similar fate under Clinton's Justice Department, which chose to ignore or dismiss evidence of covert shipments of dangerous war materiel to Saddam Hussein during the 1980s.
When former Reagan national security official Howard Teicher came forward with an affidavit describing secret U.S.-backed arms shipments to Iraq, Clinton's Justice Department went on the offensive - against Teicher, bullying him into silence.
Even as Republicans pounded Clinton over his Whitewater real estate deal and other alleged misdeeds, his administration continued to see no evil when it came to criminal acts implicating Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush.
True to form, the Clinton administration did nothing when Reagan's 1984 campaign chief Ed Rollins wrote in his 1996 memoir Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms that a top Filipino politician had admitted delivering an illegal $10 million cash payment to Reagan from Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
"I was the guy who gave the ten million from Marcos to your campaign," the Filipino told Rollins in 1991, according to the memoir. "I was the guy who made the arrangements and delivered the cash personally. ...It was a personal gift from Marcos to Reagan."
However, Rollins has refused since to divulge the name of either the Filipino politician or the Republican lobbyist who allegedly handled the pay-off. The stunning anecdote did attract some press coverage in 1996 but the story died because the Clinton administration made no effort to follow it up.
(Rollins is now chairman of Republican Mike Huckabee's presidential campaign.) [For details on Marcos-Reagan case, see Consortiumnews.com's "Huckabee's Chairman Hid Payoff Secret."]
Off the Radar
During Clinton's presidency, I approached then-deputy White House chief of staff John Podesta and other senior officials to ask whether they had any plans to pursue important investigations that had been left undone in 1993. I was told those issues simply weren't "on the radar scopes."
However, if Clinton thought that his collaboration in keeping the Reagan-Bush secrets from the American people would earn him some bipartisan help from the Republicans, he was mistaken.
Clinton saw his prized domestic agenda, including Hillary Clinton's health care reform, defeated; his party lose control of Congress in 1994; the House vote to impeach him in 1998 for lying about an extramarital sexual relationship; and George H.W. Bush's oldest son steal the 2000 election from Clinton's Vice President, Al Gore.
Now, as Campaign 2008 begins to unfold, a similar dynamic is in place.
George W. Bush has engaged in a variety of acts that appear to be illegal, extra-legal or unconstitutional, while the Clintons are again signaling that they have no intention of holding the Bush family accountable.
If Bill Clinton is right - that his wife's first act as President would be to ask him and George H.W. Bush to go on an around-the-world goodwill mission - Hillary Clinton is making it clear that she has no intention of holding George W. Bush accountable for any wrongdoing.
There is no way that George H.W. Bush would help the Clintons on the diplomatic front if they were taking action against his eldest son.
So, the stage seems set for another Bush-Clinton revolving door where the Bushes get a free pass as they leave in exchange for the Clintons hoping against hope that the powerful family will show them a little respect and maybe a touch of mercy.
Or, as the Clinton friend suggested to me last week, maybe their real hope is that the Bushes won't reveal what they've learned from the Secret Service records detailing where the Clintons have gone and with whom.
While "Passport-gate" is now only a little-remembered chapter of Campaign 1992, it does show how easily 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 illegal wiretapping.
The Clintons also have to be nervous because the Republicans have the advantage of an 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, any information, especially some tidbit that suggests sexual improprieties, could be leaked to any number of right-wing media outlets and quickly jump into the mainstream press.
A scandal would prove especially devastating if backed by real information, like what might be available in Secret Service records.
One reason that civil libertarians have been alarmed about Bush's assertion of nearly 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.
While the Clinton campaign is surely right that the Republicans will exploit whatever they can to discredit Sen. Obama, it appears to be equally true that they will use whatever they have to gain an advantage with the Clintons, too.