Bush cut me off, saying, “Yes, I know your name,” and looked peeved, as if he’d stepped on a popsicle or a roach.
By Bob Dorn
In fall 1976, George H.W. Bush was in San Diego trying to clean up a mess that I and another Evening Tribune reporter had made for the agency he was then directing. I’d been tipped by a friend of mine, Newsweek’s stringer in San Diego, that the magazine was about to do a story on a Nazi criminal who was living somewhere in North County.
She had no more than that, and only a name, Edgars Laipenieks. Martin Gerchen and I worked our way through our thin list of federal sources and all the cross directories then available and got nowhere. So, we picked a Solana Beach neighborhood at random and started going door to door. It wasn’t long before we knocked on a door of a man who had a realtor’s directory of residents of the area.
At first we pooh-poohed his offer, but this little tool the man offered us ended up having the address and phone number we needed, and we raced over to Rancho Santa Fe in our Copley Press Chevy compact, which was promptly attacked by two snarling shepherds that slobbered up the windows.
Once we were inside, with the dogs in the backyard, Laipenieks sat us down in front of a coffee table bearing an 18-inch high stack of documents: brochures from the 1936 Olympics because he was Latvia’s entrant in the 10,000 meters run (remember John Carlos and Tommy Smith raising black-gloved fists in the power salute?) and pictures of him coaching San Dieguito high runners. He’d readied the documents for the next meeting with his lawyer. He was fighting deportation.
We got to the bloody reckoning somewhere near the top of the pile when he exposed three simple 8½ by 11 sheets that bore the letterhead of the Central Intelligence Agency. He tried to remove them from view but I’d already slapped my hand on top of the pile; Gerchen tried to copy them. Laipenieks wouldn’t allow it and said the meeting was over. We agreed to leave the pile alone.
Gerchen and I took off in the company car, back to San Diego. I drew the night shift to search for whatever I could find on the Baltic Nazis for background, and to call around looking for CIA numbers to contact in the morning, while Gerchen went back home to grab some sleep.
The first CIA number answered with a hello. When I started to identify myself as a reporter from San Diego, the voice at the other end said, “you have a wrong number,” and hung up. No one picked up on my second and third attempts. At another number a press spokesman asked me to read from a letter I said I had. Gerchen’s handwritten notes were nearly all illegible and the press person told me I obviously had no copy of a CIA letter.
I thought of a simple ruse and called Laipenieks back, telling him that the agency was denying his connection to it, and that the only chance he stood to avoid deportation was for me to force the agency to confirm it with the precise language contained in the letters. There was a pause while my heart was pounding, and I heard him say, reluctantly, to come up and I could copy the three letters.
One of them read:
…we have been corresponding with the Immigration and Naturalization… It is our understanding that INS has advised their San Diego office to cease any action against you… If such does not prove (to be) the case, please let us know immediately. Thank you once again for your past assistance to the agency.
The stories went worldwide. It was the first time the CIA had been shown to have recruited and employed Nazis.
Perhaps four or five weeks later Bush came to town to talk to the editorial board of Copley’s morning paper, then known, simply, as The Union. It was Copley’s flagship, and quite separate from the more blue-collar Trib. The Evening Tribune leadership was not invited to The Union’s chat group, much less Gerchen and I.
I went up to the fifth floor offices of the publisher, with the blessing of the Trib’s city editor, to try and crash the meeting. The publisher’s secretary wouldn’t unlock the door to the meeting room. I wouldn’t leave and waited in the anteroom for what seemed like hours.
When it opened Bush’s crew, unlike Reagan’s squad, had just three security guys with high ranks surrounding him; one of them I remember clearly was so muscled it showed through his suit. He was giving me a detective’s evil eye but allowed me to introduce myself to Bush. Bush cut me off, saying, “Yes, I know your name,” and looked peeved, as if he’d stepped on a popsicle or a roach.
He couldn’t answer any questions because he was in a rush to his plane. I begged to ride with him to the airport so I could do a quick interview, and he wouldn’t allow it. I begged him for just one question, and he said okay.
“How many other Nazi’s has the CIA knowingly hired?,” I asked.
“If it were in my knowledge [not a denial], I’m not sure I’d tell you” he said. That was it. A kind of little league “nah-nahee-nah-nah” from the CIA Director. Not at all as clever as I’d expected.
Of course, today I never would have gotten near to the story, or the Director. Laipenieks would never have received three letters on stationary reassuring him he was still a member of the agency’s family. I wouldn’t today be in the position to get the confirmations I did.
Maybe presidents and CIA directors needn’t be very quick or clever. Maybe they don’t even have to be smart. From what I’ve seen, I can’t believe Presidents can do all that much on their own about what happens in America.
The inmates at Guantanamo were waterboarded. Did the president know it? Last year the CIA was caught in an undisclosed surveillance operation on staffers of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The NSA has been spying on friendly governments. We know these things and more only because Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning leaked the documents. One of them is in prison and the other expatriated himself to Russia.
As to the former Nazi and the CIA? They won. Early in 1985, a federals appeals court blocked the INS from deporting Laipenieks, then 71, despite 12 witnesses who testified they saw him beat and kill some 200 Jews and gypsies and communists in Riga.
I may believe that the Republicans are primarily responsible for this arrogant indifference to the rules of the game, but it’s tough to get a Republican to agree with me. But it’s a fact that after Nixon came Reagan and after him came the Bushes. Watergate and Iran-Contra and Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. It’s tough to get a Republican to face all that.
They’ll argue they are against a strongly centralized federal government but they are primarily responsible for the development of our latter day adoration of the highest office.
Think of George W. Bush, such an average human being, maybe even below that, could go AWOL for a while somewhere in the South as a National Guard flyer during one of our wars, and yet felt impervious enough to run for president — a job which included his now-famous stride across a carrier deck in a flight suit, helmet under his arm, to announce “Mission Accomplished” just before the Second Iraq blew up in our, and his, faces.
He knew the drill the way Reagan did. Put on a cowboy hat and salute, put on a flight suit and salute. Look good, sound like the next guy and go back to the ranch.
Think also of the depth of the toxic hatred aimed at Obama by so many of the lunatic fringe of the GOP simply because they find him not presidential, nor even American. He may be able to sink a basketball from half court and walk off in a white shirt and tie, but there are plenty of fanatics out there who think he should be subjected to the equivalent of arrest for being president while being black.
He’s not as empty as the imagery carefully cultivated by the Republican party to reassure its vanishing number of members that they — not Wall Street, not lefty intellectuals or criminal immigrants — are the real Americans.
George Packer, writing in a review of a book about the politics of the 70s, refers to “‘the cult of official optimism…’ founded by Reagan (that) requires our leaders, including Barack Obama, to genuflect ritually before America the innocent.
“That rhetoric,” Packer continues in the review of Richard Perlstein’s book, The Invisible Bridge, “has grown extremely thin, however – not many Americans these days are optimistic. Reagan won, but the seventies never ended.”