Clouds Over George Bush
by Robert Parry
iF magazine, January / February 1999
The night of Sept. 21, 1978, was a grim one in Washington.
That morning, one of the worst terrorist incidents in the capital's
history had shaken the stately buildings along Embassy Row. A bomb had ripped
apart the car carrying Chile's former foreign minister Orlando Letelier
and two American co-workers.
Letelier and a woman, Ronni Moffitt, died from the blast. Moffitt's
husband was wounded.
That evening at a dinner at the Jordanian Embassy, Rep. James Abourezk
was distraught. Letelier had been a personal friend, and his violent death
in the heart of Washington was weighing heavily on Abourezk's mind
In the room, the congressman spotted the gangly, preppy figure of George
Bush, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Abourezk thought he might
enlist Bush's help in solving the murder.
Given Letelier's status as an ascerbic critic of Chile's military dictatorship,
there already were suspicions that agents of Gen. Augusto Pinochet had planted
Abourezk button-holed the CIA director and asked Bush to commit the
CIA to the search "to find the bastards who killed" Letelier.
Abourezk recalled that Bush looked concerned and responded, "I'll see
what I can do. We are not without assets in Chile."
The problem with Bush's promise, however, was that some of the ClA's
top "assets" in Chile were implicated in the murder.
According to U.S. intelligence sources, one of those CIA assets was
Gen. Manuel Contreras, the head of the intelligence agency, DINA, and the
architect of the Letelier assassination.
The other trouble with Bush's pledge was that the assassination had
been carried out almost literally under the ClA's nose -- and Bush had little
interest in exposing his own failings.
At best, Bush could be accused of gross negligence as a CIA director.
He had missed a clear warning and allowed a major terrorist operation to
unfold in the U.S. capital.
There was also the darker possibility that Bush's CIA had granted DINA
license to hunt down and neutralize a Chilean dissident on American soil.
This 22-year-old story of international intrigue and murder - like other
unsolved mysteries involving the 41st president -- has fresh relevance today
since Bush's oldest son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, is seen as the Republican
front-runner for the 2000 presidential campaign and an early favorite to
capture the White House.
George W.'s experience, however, is in state government and largely
limited to Texas. Sources close to the Bush entourage expect that the governor
will look to his father's network for national political skills and for
foreign policy expertise.
In other words, George W.'s foreign policy would likely be an extension
of his father's. So, the lingering suspicions about President Bush's involvement
in a variety of illegal acts are reasonable issues to weigh when considering
George W. Bush's candidacy for the Republican nomination.
These mysteries include:
* Bush's connection to the Letelier assassination and to other Latin
American human rights catastrophes, such as the launching of the Argentine
Dirty War in 1976, also on Bush's CIA watch.
* Bush's precise role in the now-corroborated accounts of Republican
secret contacts with Iranian radicals holding 52 U.S. hostages in 1980,
while President Carter was trying to negotiate their release.
* Bush's knowledge about his Cuban-American allies and their participation
in cocaine trafficking under the umbrella of President Reagan's Nicaraguan
contra war in the 1980s.
* Bush's participation in supplying secret military assistance to the
armies of Iraqi dictator Saddam Husseln in the 1980s, including supplies
and technology through Pinochet's Chile.
* Bush's close financial relationship with Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a major
conservative political funder but also a controversial religious-business
figure who favors the subjugation of the American people and who has close
ties to figures from Asian and South American organized crime.
None of these issues was settled during Bush's one-term presidency.
By the late 1980s, national news outlets were unwilling to take on these
types of tough investigations and accepted the guidance of Bush's well-connected
advisors that most of these stories were unfounded.
After leaving office in 1993, Bush also blocked closure about his responsibility
for the Iran-contra scandal. He stiffed Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence
Walsh, who believed he had Bush's assurances to undergo a final interview
in 1993 but was denied access to the ax-president.
Bush, therefore, was never questioned in detail and under oath about
any of these issues. He was able to escape with cursory denials, often made
in fleeting news conference comments.
Though there were questions about Bush's possible intelligence ties
earlier in his political career, his CIA relationship became official in
January 1976 when President Ford named him director of central intelligence.
Bush took over the spy agency at a crucial juncture. The CIA had struggled
through a series of congressional and other investigations that pried loose
some of the CIA's most embarrassing secrets, from assassination plots to
drug experiments on unsuspecting subjects. The proud CIA had become a national
Bush moved quickly to reassure the badly shaken agency that its mission
was still appreciated He gave pep talks at Langley and trooped up to Capitol
Hill where he vigorously defended the CIA and its personnel.
Bush got high marks cooperating with congressional leaders to set up
the first permanent oversight committees.
"For that period Bush did a remarkable job," senior clandestine
services official Theodore Shackley told me. "He was very warm, very
human, very interested You could get in to see him without difficulty."
But Bush's year at CIA was not all hand-holding and back-slapping. It
was a violent time when ClA-trained Cuban exiles launched another bloody
round of terrorism that included attacks on Cuban diplomats and the fatal
bombing of a civilian Cubana airliner.
Bush's CIA also failed to stop DINA's efforts to extend its Operation
Condor assassination program to the United States. That failure occurred
even though clues were in the hands of top CIA officials, apparently including
Bush, two months before the bombing.
The first time that a terrorist operation was under way came from Paraguay.
There, two Chilean DINA agents went to the U.S. embassy to obtain U.S. visas
to attach to phony Paraguayan passports.
A senior Paraguayan official told U.S. Ambassador George Landau that
the two agents were on a mission to the United States to investigate front
companies being used by Chilean dissidents. The agents were supposed to
rendezvous with Bush's deputy, Gen. Vernon Walters.
Landau smelled something fishy. Normally, he knew, operations of this
sort were coordinated through the CIA station in the host country and were
cleared with CIA headquarters in Langley.
To check on the curious visa request, Landau fired off an urgent cable
to Walters. Landau also copied the fake passports and sent the photostats
The urgent return cable came from CIA director Bush and informed Landau
that Walters was in the process of retiring and was out of town. When Walters
returned he reported that he had "nothing to do with this" mission.
Landau immediately canceled the visas.
The next step should have been for Bush's CIA to query DINA about what
was afoot. Normal procedure -- as well as common sense -- would mandate
a call from Langley to Santiago asking whether some mistake had been made,
a message missed.
To this day, Bush has never responded to this question and the CIA has
not released the communications between Langley and Santiago over the Paraguay
The obvious question was whether the CIA had sanctioned the attack,
which originally was conceived as a discreet poisoning of Letelier, not
his death by car bomb.
According to intelligence sources, the CIA did contact DINA after the
bombing. Santiago station chief Wiley Gilstrap questioned Contreras.
Gilstrap reportedly cabled Langley with Contreras's assurance that the
Pinochet government was not involved. Contreras pointed the finger at communists
supposedly trying to turn Letelier into a martyr.
Bush's CIA promptly adopted Contreras's false denial as its own analysis
and leaked it. Typical was Newsweek's report that "the Chilean secret
police were not involved The [Central Intelligence] agency reached its decision
because the bomb was too crude to be the work of experts and because the
murder, coming while Chile's rulers were wooing U.S. support, could only
damage the Santiago regime." [Newsweek Oct. 11,1976]
Rather than fulfilling his pledge to Abourezk, Bush did little during
his remaining months at CIA to shed fight on the murder. "Nothing the
agency gave us helped us break this case," said federal prosecutor
The CIA never volunteered Landau's cable about DINA's suspicious mission
or copies of the fake passports that included a photo of the chief assassin,
Nor did Bush's CIA divulge its knowledge of the existence of Operation
Condor, the cross-border assassination program run by South American military
dictatorships hunting down dissidents abroad.
FBI agents in Washington and Latin America broke the Letelier case two
years later. They discovered Operation Condor and tracked the assassination
to Townley and his accomplices in the United States, right-wing Cubans.
The CIA's analysis clearing the Chilean government had sent investigators
in the wrong direction. But it was unclear if Bush had authorized the leaking
of the false assessment.
Bush's career as CIA director ended in January 1977 with the inauguration
of Jimmy Carter.
The Democratic president appointed Navy Adm. Stansfield Turner, who
pushed through unpopular reforms at the CIA, including downsizing the agency's
powerful operations directorate. CIA "old boys" fumed.
By 1980, with Bush running for president, senior CIA officers were openly
pining for the election of their former boss.
"The seventh floor of Langley was plastered with 'Bush for President'
signs,'" recalled George Carver, a senior CIA analyst. A host of former
CIA officers signed up for the campaign.
Bush failed to win the GOP nomination in 1980, but he was picked as
Ronald Reagan's running mate. That choice swept the ex-CIA officers into
the Reagan-Bush campaign.
Many of the former spies manned a 24-hours-a-day Operations Center at
Reagan-Bush headquarters in Arlington, Va. A chief concern of those intelligence
agents was President Carter's delicate negotiations aimed at bringing 52
American hostages out of Iran before the November election, the so-called
According to a suppressed chapter of a later congressional review of
the October Surprise case, "many of the [Operations Center's] staff
members were former CIA employees who had previously worked on the Bush
campaign or were otherwise loyal to George Bush. n
The center was run by Stefan Halper, son-in-law of former CIA official
Ray Cline, the "secret" chapter read. "Halper often wrote
memoranda on the hostage issue addressed to senior campaign officials urging
them to attack Carter more aggressively on his handing of the crisis,"
stated the chapter, which I uncovered in 1994 while digging through unpublished
material from the congressional inquiry.
One question raised by the advice from Halper and others was why Republicans
felt confident enough to highlight the hostage issue. Such a strategy could
have backfired if Carter did secure the hostages' freedom in late October.
One possible answer was the existence of back-channel contacts between
the Reagan-Bush campaign and the Iranian government that offered assurances
that a release would not come until after the election.
Over the years, more than a scare of witnesses -- including senior Iranian
officials, top French intelligence officers, Israeli intelligence operatives
and even PLO chief Yasir Arafat -- have confirmed the GOP-Iranian contacts.
Two witnesses connected to the October Surprise activities have stated
that Bush had a personal role in the secret Iranian contacts. Israeli intelligence
official Ari Ben Menashe and pilot Heinrich Rupp placed Bush in Paris for
meetings with Iranians on Oct. 19, 1980.
To make that trip, however, Bush would have had to slip away from official
Secret Service protection, and Secret Service logs indicated Bush was at
his Washington home that day. Bush also denied at two news conferences in
1992 that he sneaked off to Paris.
The suspicions persisted, however, because the Bush administration blocked
access to potential alibi witnesses whose names were blacked out on the
Secret Service logs.
The only Secret Service officer who claimed to recall Bush's side trips
that day supplied details that proved to be bogus. The officer, Leonard
Tanis, then recanted his recollections.
Bush himself has never spelled out what he was doing during the time
that would have been necessary for a flight to and from Paris.
While the Paris meeting remains one of the most controversial parts
of the October Surprise allegations, other documentary evidence proves that
Bush did have a direct role in the October Surprise monitoring.
Among the records I pulled from the congressional files were confidential
notes taken by Reagan's national security aide, Richard Allen.
According to Allen's notes, Bush called Allen at 2:12 p.m., Oct. 27,
1980, with a worried message from former Texas Gov. John Connally. A one-time-Democrat-turned-Republican,
Connally was hearing some disturbing news from his Middle Eastern contacts:
the possibility that Carter might yet pull off a pre-election hostage deal.
Bush ordered Allen to check out Connally's tip. When Allen knew more,
he was to relay the information to "Shackley [sic] via Jennifer."
The Jennifer was Bush's long-time assistant Jennifer Fitzgerald. "Shackley"
was Theodore Shackley, the legendary CIA covert ops specialist known as
the blond ghost.
Though Connally's warning proved to be a false alarm, the notation indicated
that Shackley was representing Bush on the sensitive October Surprise issue.
Shackley also had close ties to active-duty CIA personnel inside the
Carter White House. As Saigon station chief during the Vietnam War, Shackley
was the boss of Donald Gregg who was then the CIA representative on Carter's
National Security Council.
According to Ben-Menashe, Gregg and another key CIA officer, Robert
Gates, assisted in the Paris contacts with the Iranians. Gregg and Gates
both have denied the allegation.
But like Bush, Gregg has had trouble establishing an alibi. Then, when
Iran-contra investigators put Gregg on a polygraph and asked whether he
took part in the October Surprise operation, Gregg's denial was judged deceptive.
As the former head of the ClA's JMWAVE covert operations against Fidel
Castro, Shackley had strong contacts, too, inside the right-wing Cuban community.
One of those associates was former CIA officer Felix Rodriguez, who also
knew Gregg and Bush.
After Carter's humiliating defeat, Vice President Bush emerged as an
important foreign policy advisor to President Reagan. Many of Bush's former
CIA associates filtered into key roles as well.
Gregg became the vice president's national security advisor. Gates advanced
quickly as one of CIA director William Casey's golden boys, rising quickly
to deputy director.
This close-knit team around Bush had a hand in nearly every important
foreign policy initiative of the Reagan administration. Their fingerprints
also were found on virtually every national security scandal.
According to a 1995 deposition by Reagan national security aide Howard
Teicher, Gates joined in a secret operation in the 1980s to funnel sophisticated
military equipment to Iraq via Carlos Cardoen, an arms dealer in Chile with
close ties to Gen. Pinochet.
Teicher stated, too, that to help Iraq in its war with Iran, Bush conveyed
secret tactical recommendations to Saddam through Egyptian President Hosni
Gates and Bush have denied a secret program to enlist third-country
support for arming Iraq in the 1980s, although Reagan-Bush officials acknowledge
passing along sensitive battlefield intelligence to help Saddam in his eight-year-long
war against Iran.
But Teicher's affidavit depicted a much more active role in which U.S.
officials assured Saddam that he would get the military hardware he needed
"Under CIA director Casey and deputy director Gates, the CIA authorized
approved and assisted Cardoen in the manufacture and sale of cluster bombs
and other munitions to Iraq," Teicher wrote in the affidavit submitted
as part of an arms-smuggling case in federal court in Florida
Meanwhile, in private business, Shackley kept busy in the Middle East
power game. The former CIA official made some of the initial contacts that
led to secret U.S. arms shipments to Iran - and eventually to the arms-for-hostage
scandal known as the Iran-contra affair.
On the contra front, Felix Rodriguez stepped in when the Reagan administration
needed help in funneling secret support to the Nicaraguan contra rebels.
Placed in the region by Gregg, Rodriguez reported directly to Gregg
and Bush about developments in El Salvador, where the contra resupply operation
The Rodriguez connection proved controversial when Bush insisted, implausibly,
that he was "out of the loop" on Iran-contra Rodriguez, Gregg
and Bush all denied that Rodriguez had ever mentioned the contra supply
operation although one memo for a three-way meeting cited "re-supply
of the contras" as a topic.
Rodriguez's work in Central American was cast into an even less flattering
light with the disclosures in October by CIA inspector general Frederlck
Hitz, who acknowledged that the CIA had covered up evidence of contra-connected
cocaine trafficking in the 1980s.
The Hitz report and a companion Justice Department report noted that
the Drug Enforcement Administration received repeated tips that cocaine
shipments were going through Hangars Four and Five at El Salvador's Ilopango
airport, the location for CIA and contra supply operations.
Other drug evidence implicated Cuban Americans who worked closely with
Rodriguez as he assisted the contra re-supply operations.
Hitz's discovery of connections between the Cuban-American contingent
and leading Latin American drug lords also added corroboration to assertions
of Medellin cartel money launderer Ramon Mifian-Rodriguez.
Milian-Rodrlguez had identified a Costa Rican-based shrimp exporter,
Frigorificos de Puntarenas, as one of the money-laundry centers.
That allegation is now supported by other witnesses and by new CIA evidence
that two of the firm's Cuban-American principals, Mioses Nunez and Felipe
Vidal. had drug connections.
The corroboration of Milian Rodriguez is significant because he also
has testified that the Medellin cartel funneled up to S10 million to Felix
Rodriguez, a charge that Felix Rodriguez has denied
With new support for Milian Rodriguez's other claims, however, the allegation
against Felix Rodriguez would seem to deserve more attention than it received
in the 1980s.
The drug charge against Felix Rodriguez was a particular threat to Bush
whose office had placed the CIA veteran in Central America
Bush's unsavory links to South American underworld figures extends through
Rev. Moon's business-political-religious operation as well.
From the 1960s and '70s, Moon's Unification Church developed close ties
to organized crime figures in Asia and South America.
In 1980, Moon's organization collaborated with a right-wing military
putsch in Bolivia that turned that country into the region's first narco-state.
The operation, supported by ex-Nazis and neo-fascists, was ceded the Cocaine
Over the past two decades, Moon also poured billions of dollars into
conservative media and political organizations. Moon's Washington Times
newspaper became a flagship of the conservative movement, with the paper's
editors and reporters appearing regularly on CNN and C-SPAN.
Yet, according to Moon's close associates and court records, Moon has
financed his operations, in part, with vast sums of cash smuggled into the
United States as well as through a suspected money-laundering base in Uruguay.
In recent years, as his religious mission in the United States shrank,
Moon grew bitterly anti-American. In speeches, he denounced the United States
as "Satan's harvest" and vowed that once his movement triumphed
Americans who insisted on maintaining their individuality will be "digested."
Still, Bush maintained close ties to Moon and The Washington Times In
1991, when Wesley Pruden was named the new editor, Bush invited Pruden to
a private White House lunch "just to tell you how valuable the Times
has become in Washington, where we read it every day."
Once out of office, Bush went to work for Moon as a paid speaker in
Asia the United States and South America. Bush's office has refused to divulge
how much Moon's organization paid Bush, but a source close to Moon put the
total as high as S10 million.
Bush proved especially valuable when Moon launched a newspaper in South
America. The theocrat confronted a skeptical reception because of his past
support for the region's brutal military dictatorships and evidence linking
Moon associates to the drug trade.
On Nov. 22, 1996, Bush came to rescue. He flew to Buenos Aires and paved
the way for Moon with Argentine president Carlos Menem
Bush also was the keynote speaker at a gala reception for the new paper,
Tiempos del Mundo. With Moon sitting just a few feet away, Bush lavished
praise on the theocrat.
"I want to salute Reverend Moon, who is the founder of The Washington
Times and also of Tiempos del Mundo," Bush declared
"A lot of my friends in South America don't know about The Washington
Times, but it is an independent voice. The editors of The Washington Times
tell me that never once has the man with the vision interfered with the
running of the paper, a paper that in my view brings sanity to Washington."
Bush's gushing praise thrilled Moon's supporters. "Once again,
heaven turned a disappointment into a victory," proclaimed the Unification
News, the church's internal newsletter.
But Bush's claim of journalistic independence at The Washington Times
Since the paper's inception in 1982, editors and reporters have resigned
in protest of editorial interference by Moon's lieutenants. The first editor,
James Whelan, resigned in 1984 confessing to "blood on my hands"
for giving Moon legitimacy.
Former President Bush, however, seemed to have no such qualms. One source
close to the Bush camp said the ax-president saw the value in building an
alliance with the powerful Moon organization, as an asset for his son's
The elder Bush's long history of the associations with questionable
and even sinister characters from the intelligence world justify some troubling
questions about the political rise of his oldest son.
As Gov. George W. Bush registers double-digit leads in early polls pitting
him against Vice President Al Gore, those questions include:
Is the personable Texas governor, in part, a front man for the restoration
of his father's unsavory cronies who relied on national security secrecy
to avoid accountability for serious mistakes and even criminal acts?
Will the sins of this father -many of them still only hazily understood
years after the fact - be played out again in a presidential administration
of his son?
iF magazine is an investigative newsmagazine
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