by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
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Clearly somebody was awake at night in the White House fretting that the Helen Dickey story was gaining dangerous momentum. And somebody was worried that a trio of handwriting experts had called the Foster "suicide note" a forgery. The Foster movement was becoming a threat to the Clintons, and the leader -- by unanimous acclamation -- was Christopher Ruddy, the roving correspondent of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He had to be destroyed.
* * *
The staff called Ruddy the Lone Ranger at the Adlai E. Stevenson High School in the South Bronx, where he taught social studies to black and Hispanic children. It was one of the toughest schools in the country, a sub-city of 5,000 pupils and 500 staff. By 1992 it was descending into pandemonium. Teachers were being beaten to a pulp in their own classrooms, and nothing was being done about it.
The principal was paralyzed by doubts, and no one would take the initiative to reform the school. So Ruddy ran for election as Chapter Chairman of the American Federation of Teachers on a reform ticket, and won. It was a powerful position. Under New York's "school-based management" system the union chief had a veto on all policy decisions. In effect, Ruddy became co-administrator of the school. Things did not improve. The principal, he realized, was beyond redemption. She had to go.
Ruddy organized his forces for strike action. It caused a minor sensation. TV cameras were all over the school. The strike was the lead story on the New York nightly news. It was years since anybody had challenged the New York school system and successfully toppled a principal. But this time the school bosses backed down. Adlai E. Stevenson High School was given a new principal. Order was restored. Ruddy was 27 years old.
"That's when I learned what it's like to take on the system, make enemies," he said.  "It's what has guided me through the morass of the Foster case."
It was never his intention to become a union activist. After finishing a master's degree at the London School of Economics, and briefly studying Middle Eastern policy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he had decided to do a stint of teaching in an inner-city school as a form of social service. He had no money. He was one of fourteen children, the son of an Irish-Catholic police lieutenant in Nassau County. He had the ascetic habits of a monk, at least compared to me. These things are relative, I suppose.
"While working as a teacher he wrote articles for The New York Guardian, which is what catapulted him into a job as chief investigative reporter for The New York Post, a boisterous center-right newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch. It is what is called a "midmarket tabloid" in Britain: no topless tarts, but less portentous than the Old Grey Lady -- The New York Times.
In late 1993 nobody was investigating the death of Vincent Foster. The American press had taken the official story on trust, even though the authorities had refused to release the Park Police report, the autopsy report, or a copy of the suicide note.
"A friend of a friend in Washington told me that the gun was found in the hand, which is something that almost never happens in a suicide," said Ruddy. "I thought 'that's interesting' and filed it away in the back of my mind. When I got back to New York I did a Nexus search and found that all the stories were different. Some had Foster draped over a cannon, others had him lying in a ditch. He was all over the place. There was no hard information at all on the crime scene. So I figured it was time to track down somebody who was actually there that night."
Ruddy is portly beyond his years, with an air of impending middle age. He dresses in a stolid coat and tie, like a bureaucrat. The clothes never quite fit; the colors often threaten to clash. Hip is the last word one would ever think of applying to him. But he commands a certain quiet authority, and he has an extraordinary gift of building trust with sources who can see through the usual smarmy deceptions of the press. On a freezing January morning in 1994 he made his first breakthrough with the Park Police.
"Rush Limbaugh's been saying all these bad things about us, but it wasn't our fault," an officer confided over coffee. "We tried to get the truth out but the newspapers covered it up."
A Fairfax County paramedic, George Gonzalez, told Ruddy that he had never seen a gunshot victim like Foster in thirteen years on the job. All so clean, a pristine shirt, no blood to speak of. Then paramedic Corey Ashford said he picked up the body -- which was lying straight, "ready for a coffin" -- and didn't see any blood.
Ruddy had a story. It was the first of a series that appeared in The New York Post in January and February of 1994. They caused a furor. The newly appointed Whitewater prosecutor, Robert Fiske, announced that he would expand his brief to include a review of the Foster case and indicated that this time it would be a genuine homicide investigation. Ruddy became a celebrity.
But there was something strange about the way the rest of the media was responding. Instead of cultivating crime scene witnesses of their own and building on Ruddy's work, they tried to shoot down the story. They wheeled out Major Robert Hines, the public affairs spokesman of the Park Police, accepting his pro forma comments as if they were the last word.
The New York Daily News -- the chief competitor of The New York Post -- embarked on a debunking campaign. Their Washington Bureau Chief, Karen Ball, a personal friend of President Clinton, was given access to the autopsy report. In a two-page spread on February 11 she wrote that the gunpowder burns in Foster's mouth were "consistent" with the powder traces found on his right thumb. It sounded good, but in fact it was meaningless. Gunpowder is not manufactured with taggants that allow police labs to establish such a match.
The Daily News then sent its star columnist Mike McAlary down to Washington to talk to the Park Police. He was shown the closely held Park Police report and some crime scene photos. It was a considerable journalistic coup, but at the same time there is something wrong when the police show their reports to one or two chosen allies in the press, while unjustifiably withholding it from anybody who actually knows the details of the case -- in fact, it is a form of police corruption. It nevertheless formed the basis for McAlary's frontpage blockbuster "Case Closed."
McAlary was tricked into writing that the Confidential Witness was a fiction created by a truant Park Service worker who had been drinking in Fort Marcy Park. Somebody had overplayed their hand. It was this article that caused the Confidential Witness to come forward with his allegation that there was no gun in the hand. McAlary was wildly wrong. But you are forgiven for being wrong about the Foster case if you toe the line.
Being right is much more hazardous to your career. The door closed on Chris Ruddy at the end of a fast, furious week in early March 1994. He was "nailed" on the photos. Ruddy had written a story on March 7 reporting that the "crucial" crime scene pictures were missing and that there were no "relationship photos."
Documents released a year later showed that this was essentially true. All of the 35 mm photos were underexposed and most of the Polaroids had disappeared. All that remained were a few close-up shots. But it was a subtle point, one that ABC News chose to obscure when the network was leaked the surviving Polaroids -- clearly with the purpose of discrediting Ruddy. ABC went on the air with the now famous photo of the gun in Foster's hand, leaving an impression in the mind of all but the most attentive viewers that Ruddy had claimed there were no crime scene photos at all.
Ruddy never wrote another story about Vincent Foster for The New York Post. "It didn't matter what I said after that, nobody wanted to listen. And in a way I don't really blame them," he said.
But the coup de grace was Ellen Joan Pollock's story in The Wall Street Journal on April 4 saying that Fiske had concluded that Foster's death was a suicide. Fiske had indeed come to this conclusion, but not for the right reasons. As we have seen, the record shows that he had not conducted the key witness interviews by then and the FBI crime labs had barely begun to examine the forensic evidence. But that was not known in the editorial offices of The New York Post or any other newspaper until much later.
"So that's it, case closed," said The Post's editor, Ken Chandler.
Ruddy limped on through the early summer, but his career at the newspaper was finished. Chandler was graceful about it afterward. "The truth is, Chris Ruddy trod where others fear to tread. When you do that, you get criticism and scorn heaped upon you," he said. "When you're writing about something you can't get answers to, you have to keep pushing, and he did."
Ruddy, of course, refused to give up. He launched one of the most remarkable guerrilla campaigns in the history of American journalism. This has led to a good deal of tut-tutting at the gatherings of the guild. But what was the man supposed to do? Drop the story, knowing that a grievous abuse of power had taken place?
Not Ruddy. He waged war on the airwaves, broadcasting night after night across the country on the radio talk circuit where he soon became a folk hero. He gave speeches, endlessly. He lobbied on Capitol Hill. He lobbied at the Christian Roundtable meetings in Tennessee. He lobbied wherever people would listen. He built alliances: with Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media in Washington; with Jim Davidson's Strategic Investment; with the Western Journalism Center in California; with Jeremiah Films (which made The Clinton Chronicles). He signed up with Richard Scaife, writing about the Foster case for The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. It was a modest little brigade. But it was enough for insurgent warfare.
One of his coups was to persuade Joseph Farah, the Executive Director of the Western Journalism Center, to commission a team of forensic experts to do a two-month review of the Foster case. Farah, the former editor of The Sacramento Union, started the Center in 1991 to restore the forgotten mission of American journalism: rooting out government corruption and exposing abuse of power.
The forensic team was led by Vincent J. Scalice, a former homicide detective for the New York City Police Department. Scalice had worked with the FBI on the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King. He had been a Consultant Member for the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
The so-called Scalice Report, released in April 1995, concluded that "a high probability exists that Foster's body was transported to Fort Marcy Park." It honed in on the fact that no traces of soil could be found on Foster's shoes, under a microscope, even though he had supposedly walked 700 feet through the overgrown park.  The investigation did two simulation walks to see what residue was left after walking to the crime scene. Both models had visible soil all over their shoes.
While Scalice did not conclude outright that the death was a homicide, he certainly suggested it: "[T]he lack of extraviated blood on the front of the body is inconsistent with death by intra-oral gunshot, which raises the likelihood that Foster's heart had already cessated and that death would have been caused by other means."
It was picked up by Reuters, Cox News Service, and The Washington Times, among others, and created a huge stir in the Samizdat. At the Office of the Independent Counsel copies were put in the pigeonholes of the prosecutors and FBI agents associated with the Foster case.  It had been a triumph. So Ruddy prepared a second strike.
"I wanted to pull away the pillars of the cover-up one by one, so they couldn't use them again," he said.
In the fall of 1995 he commissioned three handwriting experts to study the authenticity of the "suicide note" found in Foster's briefcase. This time it was funded by James Dale Davidson, a tall, slender, elegant man of dry humor and considerable wealth. He owns a beautiful Queen Anne estate in rural Maryland dating from the 1690s, a chateau in France, and a huge apartment in Buenos Aires -- currently his favorite haunt.
Having been wined and dined by Davidson at many of the best restaurants in Washington (he considers them adequate, but below Argentine standards), I must confess a personal bias in his favor. Best known as President of the National Taxpayer's Union, he is also an accomplished author. He co-edits the Strategic Investment newsletter with William Rees-Mogg -- or the Baron of Hintonblewitt to use his correct title -- a member of the House of Lords and a former editor of The Times of London. Strategic Investment is tailored to those who want hard intelligence for investment purposes, long before it appears in the general press.
Davidson had the same tutor as Bill Clinton at Oxford, enjoyed Clinton's "charm and geniality," and contributed to his 1992 presidential campaign. "I knew he was a bounder, of course, but my hope was that he'd turn out to be the Carlos Menem of North America and slash entitlement spending," said Davidson. 
But questions of economic management were soon overtaken by the much greater issue of the rule of law. For Davidson the Foster cover-up is a marker of the declining integrity of the American democratic system. If the U.S. judicial system cannot summon the courage to deal with this case, if it behaves like the Mexican or the Indonesian or the Nigerian judiciaries, then there is no reason to pay a "rule of law" premium on U.S. stocks, bonds, and real assets.
He recommends investing in countries at a positive stage of the moral and cultural cycle, like Chile, where judges, prosecutors, and police cannot be bought so easily. A Chilean policeman in the 1990s, he asserts with contrarian mischief, is much more honest than a U.S. cabinet officer.
But at a deeper level Davidson is afraid that Foster's death, which he calls an "extra-judicial execution," is a sign of incipient fascism. He notes that the Clintons have mastered the art -- described by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism -- "of turning all questions of fact into questions of motive." The Clintons do not try to rebut allegations. They use surrogates to muddy the waters and smear opponents, just as the National Socialists used to do. That they should be able to employ this practice to obscure the violent death of a top White House aide throws into doubt the durability of the republic.
"A government that winks at murder will wink at anything," he says, sniffing the aroma of a Corton Charlemagne, Premier Cru. "What's left after that? Cannibalism?"
So Davidson agreed to finance the first serious analysis that has ever been conducted of the "suicide note." Lisa Foster, of course, had authenticated the note. But that is meaningless. Family members do not have the training to spot forgeries. As for the official efforts, they were a humiliating glimpse at the practices of American law enforcement.
The Park Police had asked Sgt. Larry Lockhart of the Capitol Police to look at the note. He had no certification in handwriting analysis. Using a single sample of Foster's handwriting he authenticated the note in less than an hour.  He later repudiated his own findings. 
A year later, Agent Henry Mathis of the FBI crime labs had a look. This time the FBI added 18 samples of Foster's check signatures. The result was inconclusive. "A qualified opinion is rendered in this case as the known writings of Foster are limited in quantity .... It is suggested additional... writings by Foster be obtained for comparison." 
Good suggestion. But it was never done. The FBI never obtained further samples of Foster's handwriting. In the end Agent Mathis authenticated the note using the same single sample used by the Park Police. In Canada, Germany, or Britain, it is usual to use ten to fifteen samples. To rely on one sample alone is considered malpractice. I would be surprised if the FBI habitually adheres to inferior standards.
Properly speaking, it was not a suicide note at all. Lisa Foster told the FBI that it was written in his bedroom on or about July 11, nine days before his death, as the opening argument of his defense should he be called to testify before Congress about Travelgate.
"I made mistakes from ignorance, inexperience and overwork," it begins in a tone of mawkish self-pity, before ending plaintively: "I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here ruining people is considered sport."
It presses all the right buttons -- Travelgate, hostile editorials in The Wall Street Journal -- the things that we can safely dwell on without causing a moment's lost sleep in the White House.
The note was found in Foster's leather briefcase by Associate White House Counsel Stephen Neuwirth six days after Foster's death. It was torn into 27 pieces -- the 28th piece was missing.  The FBI's Louis Hupp used state of the art equipment to check for fingerprints -- an argon ion laser florescence test, and a diazofluorine chemical test -- but all he could find of any use was a single palm print. It did not belong to Foster. When asked in closed-door testimony if it was Bernie Nussbaum's print, he was instructed not to answer by a lawyer for the Starr investigation. 
The briefcase had been searched four days earlier by Bernie Nussbaum in the presence of a team from the Justice Department. He had removed some files, peered into the briefcase from about two feet, and declared it empty. Twice.
"It would have been impossible for him to miss that many torn scraps of yellow paper," said Sgt. Pete Markland, who was there representing the Park Police. By this stage Markland was convinced that Nussbaum was engaged in some sort of mischief. "It was absurd. I sat there shaking my head the whole time. I was disgusted." 
When Neuwirth picked up the briefcase the next week on Monday, July 26, the pieces of yellow legal paper that had been invisible before suddenly materialized. Neuwirth's behavior that afternoon was very odd. At one point he asked to have Vince Foster's typewriter uprooted and taken into Nussbaum's office.  One of the secretaries told him there were plenty of other typewriters. But no, Neuwirth wanted Foster's typewriter. Then he changed his mind.
When he found the note he came charging out of Foster's office, satchel in hand. He went into Bernie's office, banged the door, came charging back out again saying, "Where's Bernie? Get Bernie!" Then he charged back in again and slammed the door.  A "slapstick comedy" wrote the secretaries to one another in surreptitious e-mail exchanges.  Then the First Lady came over from her office next door to look at the note. "I can't deal with this thing, Bernie," she said. "You deal with it."
But did Neuwirth really find the note? Documents now lodged with the National Archives refer to a handwritten note by White House aide Bill Burton dated July 26, 1993. "Far happier if discovered [by] someone other than Bernie," it says. Burton was describing a meeting shortly after the discovery of the note that was attended by Neuwirth, Nussbaum, Burton himself, and Hillary Clinton. It is natural to infer that the Neuwirth story was concocted. If so, Neuwirth perjured himself in congressional testimony, and Hillary Clinton was party to the deception.
The Clinton circle was determined that no outsiders should get to see a copy of the original note. Webb Hubbell lobbied Phillip Heyman, the Deputy Attorney General, requesting that no photocopies of the note should be allowed to get out. Lisa Foster was "adamant" about this, he explained.  Since Hubbell was chief of the civil side of the Justice Department at the time -- and widely viewed as the "real" Attorney General -- Heyman was unlikely to rebuff him. The request was formalized by Lisa Foster's handler, White House "surrogate" James Hamilton, who asked "that a photo of the note not be released under FOIA." 
In a hand-delivered letter to the Attorney General dated August 25, 1993, Hamilton asked that the "original torn pieces of Vince's note be returned" and added in a faintly menacing tone: "Please do not underestimate the depth of Mrs. Foster's feelings about this matter." 
The text of the note was made available in printed form, of course. No problem with that. But a photo of the original? Absolutely not. The Wall Street Journal fought a FOIA lawsuit to shake it loose. Still no luck. The note could be reviewed with an appointment at the offices of Carl Stern, the Justice Department spokesman, but no photographs could be taken. Finally, in July 1995, a copy of the note was leaked to The Wall Street Journal.
Chris Ruddy pounced. He contacted the most distinguished handwriting experts in the world. One of them was Dr. Reginald Alton, emeritus fellow of St. Edmund Hall at Oxford University and former Chair of the English faculty, who had authenticated the C.S. Lewis diaries. A brave man -- he was awarded the Military Cross for outstanding courage on the battlefield in the fight against fascism -- he agreed to look at the note, although he did not want anything as squalid as payment for his services.
The note, he said, was a fake. It was the work of a "moderate forger, not necessarily a professional, somebody who could forge a cheque or a pass in a prison camp."
At a press conference in Washington he was self-effacing and begged Americans not to "mistake me for another interfering Brit." He went through the letters one by one on a screen, showing how Foster would write the letter "b," for instance, in a single "fluid, cursive motion" while the forger would need three or four strokes to replicate the general shape.
It was a big story in the British press, and it electrified the Samizdat in the United States. Otherwise, it was ignored. Even the Senate Whitewater Committee chose to overlook Dr. Alton and the congruent findings of his two American colleagues.
"I thought it would be explosive," said Joe Farah from the Western Journalism Center. "Here were people with technical expertise, looking at this coldly and coming to stunning conclusions. I thought it was just the thing to elevate it to the front pages, but it didn't get on the radar screen .... I have to wonder now: What will it take to make the press look at this thing? If somebody confessed to the crime, would that do it?" 
"Probably not," I replied.
The White House, however, was exhibiting the reflex twitches of panic. A good part of the "Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce" report targeted Chris Ruddy and the forged note. Section VI is entitled "The Foster Forgery Note Example: How The Media Food Chain Transforms Fiction into Fact."
The report included the transcripts of CBS's 60 Minutes special on Chris Ruddy, which historians may regard one day as a prime exhibit of state-sponsored propaganda. There is a world of difference between inaccurate reporting and the dissemination of deliberate lies. This particular effort, broadcast on October 8, 1995, included a generous mix of both.
Playing down the presence of unexplained white, tan, grey, blue, red, and green carpet fibers found all over Foster's clothes, correspondent Mike Wallace stated: "The FBI and the Park Police say the fibers are not significant. Anyone who walks on a carpet picks up fibers. And since all of Foster's clothes were put into one bag, all of his clothes would probably have fibers on them."
In fact, the case documents show that the Park Police did not put the clothes in one bag. Foster's suit jacket and his blue silk tie with swans were recovered from his Honda on the night of his death.  His shirt, shorts, trousers, belt, socks, and shoes were removed from the body the next day at the morgue and bagged separately.  Both sets were covered with the same multicolored fibers.
Let us give Wallace the benefit of the doubt on that one. Let us call it poor staff work. It happens all the time in journalism.
But then Wallace crossed the line.
"You know and I know that there was blood all over the back of [Foster's] shirt," he said to Chris Ruddy on camera.
"Dr. Haut, in his FBI report and his interview with me, said there was not a lot of blood behind the body," said Ruddy.
Cut to Dr. Donald Haut, the Fairfax County Medical Examiner who examined Foster's body at Fort Marcy Park.
"Was there a suspicious lack of blood at the scene?"
"Did you tell a reporter by the name of Christopher Ruddy that there was an 'unusual lack of blood'?"
"Dr. Haut says that Ruddy simply got it wrong," narrated Wallace. "Here's another mistake .... " And so it went on.
But Dr. Haut had changed his story. His statement to the FBI on April 14, 1994, confirmed everything that Ruddy had said. "Haut did not recall seeing blood on the decedent's shirt or face and no blood was recalled on the vegetation around the body .... Although the volume of blood was small, Haut did recall that the blood was matted and clotted under the head." Haut also expressed surprise that a .38 caliber revolver could have caused such little damage. 
This FBI statement was in the public record. Ruddy offered to provide 60 Minutes with a copy of the document, as well as a taped interview in which Dr. Haut told Ruddy that "there was not a hell of a lot of blood on the ground" -- which, by the way, is very similar to what he told me in an interview in 1994. After the filming, Ruddy sent Wallace a detailed memo that included Dr. Haut's FBI statement. He offered 60 Minutes a copy of the tape, but they did not request it until after the segment had aired.
So instead of holding the public official to account, demanding to know why he was equivocating on national television, Mike Wallace decided to crush the beleaguered reporter who was telling the truth.
The broadcast caused a storm of protest. The phone lines to 60 Minutes were flooded with calls from the Samizdat pointing out the errors in the piece, and a week later the network felt compelled to issue a partial correction. By this stage, Wallace must have known that he had committed a journalistic atrocity. So it is all the more astounding that 60 Minutes should have decided to broadcast the original program a second time, with heavy promotion, in July 1996.
"It had a devastating effect. It chilled any further interest in the story," said Ruddy.
The worst sin a journalist can commit is serving as the instrument of coercive power, and too many in the American media seem content to do just that.