Echoes of 'Debategate'

Congressman Trey Gowdy, the former head of the House Oversight Committee, stunned the nation when he declared that, after viewing classified material on the investigation into President Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, he is “even more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got, and that it has nothing to do with Donald Trump.”

What the FBI did, of course, was launch a counter-intelligence investigation into suspected Russian meddling in the election and the suspicion that such meddling was coordinated with the Trump campaign.  It had been known for months that this investigation included wiretap surveillance of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump campaign foreign policy advisor Carter Page, but it was only recently learned that the FBI’s operation also included a confidential informant who ingratiated himself with both Page and his fellow foreign policy consultant George Papadopolous.

The informant, Cambridge University Senior Fellow Stefan Halper, was tasked with “collecting information about the Russian connections” of Page and Papadopolous and reporting his findings to the Bureau.

President Trump has referred to Halper as a “spy” in his campaign, but Gowdy—along with everyone else who has adopted his view that the “FBI did exactly what [their] fellow citizens would want them to do”—have rejected this notion.

They also seem forgotten about the last time Stefan Halper was involved in a presidential campaign.

On October 28th, 1980, President Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan met for their first and only debate before the 1980 presidential election.  It became notable initially for Reagan’s “There you go again” retort to Carter’s assertion that Reagan opposed Medicare, but over the next few years, it became notable for something far more sinister: a scandal that became known as “Debategate.”


In June of 1983, journalist Laurence Barrett published an in-depth look at the Reagan Administration’s first two years entitled Gambling with History: Reagan in the White House.  In it, he reported that on the afternoon of the 1980 debate, Reagan aide David Stockman had bragged to a Michigan Optimist Club lunch audience that he had access to what Stockman called a “pilfered” copy of Carter’s briefing book—a sort of bible for the then-President to use in his debate preparations.

Armed with this, the Reagan debate prep team, which included James Baker and David Gergen, was able to see in advance the key themes and points that Carter was planning to raise.  Obviously, this was a significant advantage.  Reagan denied knowing anything about the use of the book and ordered FBI and Congressional investigations, which led to both Baker and Stockman admitting under oath that they had in fact used the book.  Baker testified that he had received it from Reagan’s campaign manager, William Casey, who Reagan had named as CIA Director in 1981.

Was this appointment a reward for the clandestine political operation just a few months earlier?  Reagan had won the election in a landslide, in no small measure because of his debate performance just a week before voters went to the polls.

Reagan had been consistently leading in the polls, but it is likely that his debate sealed the deal for millions of voters.  As Mort Kondracke wrote in The New Republic:

The Carter briefing materials alone did not make Reagan a success in the debate. Reagan’s closing argument (written by Gergen) asking voters,” Are you better off than you were four years ago?” was a powerful way to frame the election decision. Yet it seems clear that the briefing documents did provide Reagan with precise advance warning of what lines of attack Carter was likely to take, rendering him more confident and at ease. The Carterites were praying that Reagan, under pressure, would make a major gaffe, but of course he didn’t. To the contrary, he had a retort for every Carter thrust. All polls indicate that voters saw Reagan as the debate winner, and the victory presumably made millions of voters secure about voting for Reagan.     

But how had Casey managed to get Carter’s debate book in the first place?  Multiple reports in the summer of 1983 laid the blame at the feet of an aide to Reagan running mate George H.W. Bush (himself a former CIA Director): A security expert and Nixon Administration veteran named Stefan Halper.

In a bombshell report in The New York Times, multiple current and former Reagan Administration officials alleged a massive “operation to collect inside information on Carter Administration foreign policy was run in Ronald Reagan's campaign headquarters in the 1980 Presidential campaign.”

“The sources identified Stefan A. Halper, a campaign aide involved in providing 24-hour news updates and policy ideas to the traveling Reagan party, as the person in charge,” The Times reported.  “The disclosure of the information-gathering operation added to the furor over revelations that Reagan campaign officials came into possession of Carter debate strategy papers before the candidates' televised debate. The matter is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a Congressional committee.”

Halper, The Times reported, used his contacts in the Carter Administration to gather intelligence about everything Carter was doing or thinking about doing and then passed that information on to high-ranking officials in the Reagan campaign.

Mr. Halper, the former campaign aide said to have headed the information-gathering operation, nominally worked for Robert Garrick, the director of campaign operations. Mr. Garrick said in a telephone interview recently that Mr. Halper was ''supposed to help with communications, but I kind of thought he had another agenda going -he was always on the phone with the door closed, and he never called me in and discussed it with me.''

Speaking of Mr. Halper, David Prosperi, a Reagan campaign aide, now with the Superior Oil Company, said, ''He provided us with wire stories and Carter speeches, but people talked about his having a network that was keeping track of things inside the Government, mostly in relation to the October surprise.''

That “October surprise,” the Reagan team feared, was the release of 52 Americans held hostage in Iran—a development that they believed would win Carter the election.

A source from the Reagan campaign who asked not to be named said, ''There was some C.I.A. stuff coming from Halper, and some agency guys were hired.'' He added that he was never aware that this information was particularly useful and that he and others had their own sources within the Administration who provided unsolicited information.

According to the sources, Mr. Halper worked closely with David R. Gergen on the staff of George Bush when Mr. Bush was seeking the Republican Presidential nomination. The sources said that Mr. Gergen, now director of White House communications, and James A. Baker 3d, another top Bush campaign aide now an assistant to Mr. Reagan, brought Mr. Halper onto the Reagan campaign staff after the Republican convention.

And both Baker and Gergen were on the debate prep team that obtained Carter’s prep materials and used them to great effect in winning the debate and all but ensuring Reagan’s election.

Yet it wasn’t just the Reagan campaign that this spy operation within the Carter Administration approached for help.

UPI noted in July of 1983:    

WDVM-TV reported Thursday night the Reagan campaign was not the only campaign to be offered information from inside the Carter White House.

The station quoted Ed Coyle, deputy director of John Anderson's independent presidential campaign, as saying a former Carter campaign worker with 'a vendetta' against Carter approached him during the campaign and offered to provide information about Carter's political strategy.

'He clearly implied that he had access to campaign strategy memos, personal, political memorandum from various people in the White House during the campaign,' Coyle said in the interview. 'He also suggested that his woman friend was in a position to know personal information about people with whom she worked and for whom she worked in the White House.

'He was never very specific. He struck me as being just obsessed with the idea of hurting Jimmy Carter's re-election.' Coyle said he believed the man, who was not identified, was upset because he was refused some kind of grant. He said he told the man to leave and informed Carter officials in the summer of 1980 about the incident.

It is unclear what, if anything, those Carter officials did with this information, but the timing of this offer is notable: Stefan Halper was brought into the Reagan campaign just after the Republican Convention in mid-July, 1980.

Was he brought in solely because of his contacts with this rogue Carter official who had just offered the Anderson campaign inside information?  Did he then, as the Times later alleged, run the Reagan campaign’s spy operation?

Neither the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service's nor the FBI’s investigation ever determined who was behind the theft of Carter’s debate book and “Debategate” is still officially unsolved.

Yet it is telling that 36 years later, Stefan Halper—the man at the center of one of the most significant political espionage cases in American history—was involved in another; providing information about members of the Trump campaign to an FBI controlled by the campaigns’ opposing party.

Was Halper running another political espionage operation?  His history would suggest that he very well could have been.  

Dan O'Donnell

Dan O'Donnell

Common Sense Central is edited by WISN's Dan O'Donnell. Dan provides unique conservative commentary and analysis of stories that the mainstream media often overlooks. Read more


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