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When Debate "Zingers" Backfired

By       Message Robert Parry     Permalink
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The so-called Passportgate controversy began in mid-September 1992, with Clinton leading in the polls and Bush's brain trust pondering ways to exploit the Clinton "character" issue.

White House chief of staff James Baker heard about press inquiries seeking government records on Clinton's anti-Vietnam War activities. Reporters from several news organizations, including the right-wing Washington Times, had filed Freedom of Information Act requests.

At the same time, rumors were floating around conservative circles that Clinton might have written a letter renouncing his citizenship during the war. Recognizing the damage these rumors could cause Clinton, Baker asked other administration officials about the status of the FOIA requests. Eventually, the high-level White House interest was communicated to State Department official Elizabeth Tamposi.

Tamposi, a Bush political appointee, saw the White House interest as a green light to speed up the search and override concerns that expedited action could violate Clinton's privacy rights.

On the night of Sept. 30, 1992, Tamposi dispatched three aides to the federal records center in Suitland, Maryland. They searched Clinton's passport file as well as his mother's, presumably because they thought it might contain some references to Clinton.

The State Department team did not find the rumored renunciation letter. But Bush aides did not give up the hunt. Tamposi contacted the U.S. embassies in London and Oslo and ordered searches of consular files in those countries. Only the London embassy complied and found nothing.

With little to show for their efforts, Bush officials next constructed a suspicion that a Clinton sympathizer might have tampered with the passport file and removed the supposed renunciation letter. They cited staple holes and a slight tear in the corner of Clinton's passport application to justify a criminal referral to the FBI.

The existence of the referral was then leaked to Newsweek, which published a story on Oct. 4, 1992, with precisely the disloyalty spin that the Bush campaign had wanted. The Bush campaign then seized on the Newsweek story as an opportunity to raise more suspicions about what Clinton was up to when he made a student trip to Moscow over New Year's Day 1970.

A KGB Smear

With these negative themes on the table, Clinton's loyalty became a hot campaign issue and Clinton's advisers nervously watched their poll numbers soften. The Bush camp upped the ante more, putting out new suspicions that Clinton might have been a KGB "agent of influence." The Washington Times headlined that allegation on Oct. 5, a story that attracted President Bush's personal interest.

"Now there are stories that Clinton ... may have gone to Moscow as [a] guest of the KGB, but who knows how that will play," Bush wrote in his diary on Oct. 5, 1992. The entry was typical of Bush's frequent complaint that the news media sympathized with Clinton's anti-war history and didn't hold the Democrat to account for his actions.

Yet sensing that the loyalty theme was undermining Clinton with the American people, Bush added his own fuel to the fire on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Oct. 7. Bush suggested anew that there was something sinister about a possible Clinton friend tampering with Clinton's passport file.

"Why in the world would anybody want to tamper with his files, you know, to support the man?" Bush wondered before a national TV audience. "I mean, I don't understand that. What would exonerate him -- put it that way -- in the files?"

The next day, in his diary, Bush ruminated suspiciously about Clinton's Moscow trip: "All kinds of rumors as to who his hosts were in Russia, something he can't remember anything about."

But the GOP attack on Clinton's loyalty prompted some Democrats to liken Bush to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who built a political career on challenging people's loyalties without offering proof.

On Oct. 9, the FBI complicated Bush's strategy further by rejecting the criminal referral. The FBI concluded that there was no evidence that anyone had removed anything from Clinton's passport file.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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