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One should have thought that the vast social and economic changes of the last 30 years most plausibly explain the storming of Capitol Hill, the near-fatal heart attack of US democracy on January 6 2021.
Untamed globalisation has shrunk the bedrock middle class of America, relegating the lower half to relative or absolute pauperisation. Blue-collar manufacturing workers have fallen out of Galbraith’s Affluent Society, condemned to compete with Chinese factory workers in a cut-throat world of labour arbitrage.
Digital technology has done much the same to their white-collar siblings, the most replaceable ones at least, leaving an hourglass social structure of winners and losers. Those at home in this global ‘knowledge-economy’ have prospered marvellously. So have the owners of capital, enriched further over the last decade by the asset price inflation of quantitative easing. The trickle-down came by drops.
One might have sought the origins of this insurrection in the rise of all-powerful social media companies worth trillions and trillions. Are they not tossing lit matches into this mass of crackling-dry brushwood every day? Are they not balkanising society systematically with manipulative algorithms that split us into separate silos, nurturing a conspiracy universe among the ‘basket of deplorables’ on the one side, while nurturing the pathological grievances of identity politics on the other?
But no, apparently the violent convulsions of the world’s paramount economic and strategic superpower can be traced to a British journalist in the early 1990s. I loaded the gun a quarter century ago and laid it on the table, or so the BBC would have it, just waiting for the horned shirtless QAnon shaman to snatch it at the right moment, and lead the Trumpian mobs into Nancy Pelosi’s office.
It is perversely flattering, in a sense, to be the opening star of the BBC’s radio series The Coming Storm, which supposedly traces the deep roots of QAnon, the umbrella term for the sprawling set of conspiracy theories that falsely allege the world is run by a cabal of satanic paedophiles, led by Hillary Clinton.
The first episode aired on Radio 4 on Tuesday with a commentary on the burning of witches in the early modern era, preparing the stage for what is presented as the first great conspiracy theory of the internet age – with me playing the role of Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
But at the risk of spoiling a good story, I have to declare my interest. I rooted quietly for Hillary Clinton in 2016 on the grounds that she was by then no longer the same political animal that she once was in the swamps of Arkansas – America’s Sicily – or in those first hubristic days in Washington.
I had by then concluded that Donald Trump was a proto-fascist with the reflexes of Mussolini. I thought he would try to overturn the election by any means possible, and watched with foreboding as the expected Putsch unfolded. So if the shaman took the gun from me, I apologise.
But seriously, could the BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse not find better material for his opening gambit on America’s political civil war than the ramblings of a superannuated Brit, who sheepishly agreed to give him an hour and a half on the request that he wanted to “mine my memory” for characters to talk to for his series?
I told him I’d be happy to chat about the origins of the US militia movement, an anthropological interest of mine from that era. A spat between journalists is of no interest. But this episode invites a response, in part because it sheds light on the mental universe of the BBC, a taxpayer-funded institution accused by many of chronic ideological bias in breach of its charter. But it also needs a rebuttal because Gatehouse has the matter backwards.
It was the failure of the co-opted White House press corps and those on the FBI beat – or in some cases their editors – to investigate and report serial misconduct in the early 1990s that fed mistrust of establishment media, leaving the field open for talk radio and the emerging anarchy of the web.
Gatehouse weaves his American tale around the alleged “murder” of Vincent Foster, the deputy White House counsel and Hillary Clinton’s former law partner, found dead in a Virginia park in 1993 in what was quickly ruled a suicide.
Now, there certainly were crazed conspiracy theories about Foster’s death over the years, but I was not promoting them. It was the White House Clinton machine that prepared the dossier on the ‘vast Right-wing conspiracy’, playing up the most absurd allegations to muddy the waters, and inviting chosen reporters from their camp to do hatchet jobs on critics.
Only two journalists ever investigated the Foster death in any depth, by which I mean tracking down and speaking to the crime scene witnesses, and obtaining the FBI case documents (with great difficulty, heavily redacted) under the US Freedom of Information Act: myself and Chris Ruddy, now chief executive of Newsmax. Neither of us has ever written that Foster was murdered. What we both alleged was a systematic cover-up.
Gatehouse did not reveal – though I told him – that my chief source was Associate Independent Counsel Miquel Rodriguez, the US federal prosecutor in charge of the Foster case under Kenneth Starr, the Grand Inquisitor pursuing the impeachment of President Clinton.
Had he revealed that critical fact, BBC listeners would have known at once that this was legitimate journalism. They were instead left with the strong insinuation that it was the rantings of my imagination.
Rodriguez carried out the only genuine investigation of Foster’s death, empanelling a federal grand jury and taking testimony under oath for the first time.
He quickly discovered what I had discovered talking to crime scene witnesses: that their FBI statements did not reflect what they had actually said, and in many cases flatly contradicted what they had said; that nothing added up; that evidence was all being pushed in one direction only; and that the official version of events was, as he later said, “a complete sham job”.
He wanted to conduct an open death investigation that included the possibility of homicide. The Washington office of the FBI – then run by a Clinton loyalist from Arkansas – cut him off at the knees before he could finish the task.
There is a particular detail worth recounting, given the way that the BBC framed its broadcast. Rodriguez was puzzled by attempts to suppress witness statements that talked of a wound in Foster’s neck, which contradicted the official version that Foster shot himself in the mouth. The key crime scene photos had vanished. The FBI labs said others were over-exposed and useless.
Rodriguez took the discarded Polaroids to the Smithsonian Institution and had them enhanced. One showed a black stippled ring like a gunshot wound in the side of Foster’s neck. I have seen this photograph. So has Brett Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court Justice but then working on the investigation. His handwritten notes read: “startling discovery”; “blew up portions of photo – trauma to the neck on rt side”, “appears to be bullet hole”, “how can person kill himself twice?”.
I knew that the first Fairfax County rescue worker to reach the death scene had spoken of exactly such a wound. I hunted him down – he had never spoken to the press – and when I asked him what he found, he grabbed my shoulder. “Listen to me, Foster was shot right here,” he said, jabbing his finger hard into my neck. He said the FBI had badgered him persistently into changing his story.
Gatehouse read out this exchange from a chapter in my book, The Secret Life of Bill Clinton, but without explaining that this witness had been the first to handle the body, and without any context of why it mattered. Listeners were left with the impression that he was a random conspiracy junkie.
I must admit that the book’s title was beyond ghastly. I had chosen The Secret History of the Clinton Presidency, a play on the Secret History, an 6th century expose of Justinian and Theodora by the Byzantine historian Procopius. It was changed by my publishers in Washington without my knowledge.
Gatehouse seemingly had his prior agenda. He wanted to tell a story about runaway conspiracies, and use me as a theatre prop. He was not going to let large facts stand in his way. For the final indictment he solicits the veteran Arkansas journalist Gene Lyons, arch-loyalist of the Clintons and author of The Hunting of the President, a source trotted out so many times over the years that his home is almost a pilgrimage for those on the anti-conspiracy tour.
But he does not identify Lyons as a Clintonista with an axe to grind. It is the BBC method: legerdemain, masked by political piety.
Lyons cuts to the heart of the problem. Extraordinary things happened under the nose of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, his journalistic alma mater. The state was a central conduit of cocaine trafficking into the US by the Medellin Cartel in the 1980s via the Mena airstrip, when Bill Clinton was governor and controlled the state police.
But the story goes further. Mena was the hub for the Reagan administration’s secret operation to supply Contra rebels in Nicaragua, which interested me because I had spent four years covering the Sandinista Revolution and the guerrilla insurgencies of Central America, that last front of the Cold War.
The weapons-smuggling was conducted off-books because the Democrats in Congress had tried to kill off the venture, prohibiting the use of US funds and personnel. It led to a constitutional crisis. We learnt later during the Iran-Contra hearings that Ronald Reagan secretly raised the money to buy weapons from the Saudis, and Colonel Ollie North took care of the details. This is not disputed.
What is disputed, and remains a mystery, is whether Governor Clinton was involved. His own friend and bodyguard, Arkansas State Trooper LD Brown – whose wife was Chelsea Clinton’s nanny – wrote a book called Crossfire, alleging that Clinton actively recruited him into the illegal weapons operation on Arkansas soil. Furthermore, he reported back to the governor that the flights had become commingled with cocaine trafficking on the homeward leg, with worse to follow. Others have confirmed large parts of the story.
Clinton was once asked about Mena at a White House press conference – did he know that an illegal foreign policy and weapons operation had happened on Arkansas soil, under his watch? He replied that the saga had been a federal matter outside his purview. “No, they didn’t tell me anything about it. The state really had next to nothing to do with it,” he said.
Arkansas congressman Bill Alexander tried to get to the bottom of it, but successive Congressional enquiries ran into the ground. He eventually called me to his home and handed over the entire treasure trove of documents accumulated over the years, telling me that I might as well have them because the American press was never going to touch the matter. Mena was radioactive.
Whatever happened, the story never saw the light of day. The Washington Post, the New York Times, and the big TV networks shied away from it, much to the dismay of a handful of reporters from the grand press who thought it a scintillating scoop.
So the mystery was left to fester. Mena was a case of the deep state at work, a network that seemed to cross party lines and constitute a power structure pulling strings behind the facade of institutional democracy. People heard about it on talk radio. They were exposed to it on the web. But nobody could discern what was true and what was untrue, because there was no rigorous reporting to sift the material.
So people assumed the worst in militia land, as they did over the firebombing of women and children in Waco by the FBI (the Wounded Knee of the militia), and the half-baked official version of the Oklahoma Bombing. If the press does not probe, it leaves a vacuum. Or to borrow from GK Chesterton, people don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.
Perhaps Gatehouse will turn to this in his next episode, but I suspect that he will only feign to do so, too enraptured by his elegant idea: collective madness and the metaphorical burning of witches.
So who really loaded the gun and placed it on the table? Those who tried to tell the story during those years when the first rot was eating into the timber struts of the Great Republic, or those who chose not to tell the story? The answer is far from simple.
By and large, the BBC ought to be on the side of those at least trying to ferret out the truth, one should have thought.