The Strange Tales of Mr. Barnes

Among the hucksters, mercenaries and information peddlers who people the shadowy world of Vietnam POW investigations, Scott Barnes may be the biggest tale spinner of them all. Discharged from the U.S. Army in 1974, the Arizona dress-shop owner and conspiracy theorist has spent the last 18 years peddling espionage stories and derring-do accounts of rescue missions to forgotten corners of Indochina. Many government officials and reporters have dismissed him as a crank, but Barnes has his following. Now he's bagged his biggest prize yet: Ross Perot, a man with a predilection for conspiracy theories himself. In a recent "60 Minutes" interview, Perot said that he dropped out of the race this summer not solely because he didn't want to be a spoiler but also to foil GOP dirty tricksters. His sources, said Perot, were two unnamed, high-placed Republicans-and one Scott Barnes.

It isn't Watergate, but the eleventh-hour election scandal brings back unpleasant memories. Perot charged that the Bush campaign intended to sabotage his daughter's August wedding by releasing a fake photo of her-reportedly in a lesbian situation-and by wiretapping his phones. "I had reports that there was a plan to embarrass my family," Perot said at a press conference last week. "This came after a meeting in which they [the Republicans] were saying, 'We've hit him with everything we've got. He keeps coming up in the polls. Isn't there anything Perot is sensitive to?' One person in the meeting allegedly said, 'Yes, he adores his family'." Last week the White House abandoned the studiously measured response it has adopted to avoid offending Perot supporters and scoffed at the charge. Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called the Texan "a paranoid person who has delusions" and who "seems to have latched onto this theory, much like other people latch onto UFO theories."

The story bears all the hallmarks of a genuine Barnes, and nobody disputes he played some role in the affair. But which one? In an interview with NEWSWEEK in Arizona last week, Barnes claims he got several calls last winter from Jim Oberwetter, the Texas chairman of the Bush/Quayle campaign. Oberwetter, says Barnes, began asking leading questions about Perot. In the spring, Barnes told NEWSWEEK, another campaign official hired him to wiretap Perot's office and fax machine, and revealed the doctored photo scheme. Barnes says he took on the assignment, but only to help out Perot-he claims he kept the candidate informed about the GOP's purported plans. Over the summer, Perot security consultant Jim Siano went to the Dallas police and the FBI to cry foul play about the alleged wiretaps.

Oberwetter tells a different version. According to the Texas oilman, it was Barnes who initiated contact: he rang up last spring, claiming that he had damaging information about Perot stemming from his involvement with the POW cause. Oberwetter says he hung up on Barnes, whom he didn't know, but Barnes called back one more time. Finally, in early August, a man introducing himself as Howard Parsons showed up at Oberwetter's office and demanded to speak with him outdoors. Once outside, Barnes-alias Parsons-tried to tantalize Oberwetter with wiretapped material about Perot's political plans and his upcoming testimony before the Senate POW committee. Oberwetter says he told him, "I don't want this information."

By this time, the FBI had gotten involved: agents were videotaping the Barnes-Oberwetter meeting as part of an investigation into Perot's wiretapping charges against Bush. The Feds would make an attempt to sting the Texas Republican with a tape-peddling agent Oberwetter dubbed "Cowboy Bob" before they concluded that Barnes was a "liar" and that there was "no basis" to Perot's charges. Why did they take it so far? "The allegations, if proven to be true, would have been a serious federal criminal violation," FBI Director William Sessions said last week.

Perot has called Barnes the "mystery box." And Barnes apparently was full of disguises. According to a 1987 research paper by the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, Barnes has variously "portrayed himself as a military intelligence agent, a former Green Beret, a drug-enforcement agent and a CIA agent." He was none of these; recently he has denied ever claiming he was. Even Soldier of Fortune, a magazine dedicated to conspiracy stories, in 1983 called Barnes its "favorite flake."

Yet Barnes clearly knows enough about clandestine operations to pass himself off as an expert; government investigators say he mixes fact and fiction in a way that makes it virtually impossible to separate the two. "The guy is a compulsive liar," says Walt Newport, a Kern County, Calif., investigator who has handled cases involving Barnes. "His stories sound true when he tells them, but they always unravel." Barnes stands by all his claims. If anybody disputes them, he says, "I would recommend the government charge me with perjury."

Barnes's most dramatic tale was tailor-made to grab Perot's attention. In his book "BOHICA" (an acronym for "Bend Over, Here It Comes Again"), Barnes says he was a member of a government-sanctioned team that conducted a secret mission into Laos in 1981 to look for POWs. According to Barnes, he found two Americans in one camp, but received CIA orders to "liquidate the merchandise." Barnes says the team refused to kill the men; he eventually made his way back to the States, where he spread his tale of a vast government conspiracy. Chris Gugas, a polygraph expert formerly with the CIA, claims that Barnes's performance on a lie-detector test supports his account. But Bo Gritz, a former Green Beret turned mercenary who organized the POW-hunting expedition, says that although Barnes was in Thailand, the team never infiltrated a Laotian camp.

Barnes's rescue saga wasn't his first skirmish with controversy-nor his last. In the late '70s, he was dropped by two California police departments for allegedly falsifying official reports. He denies that he was released from those two jobs because of poor performance and says he received commendations. In each instance, he turned around and accused his superiors of corruption. In 1984, ABC News reported a story that Barnes accused the CIA of hiring him to assassinate Hawaii businessman Ronald Rewald. Rewald, who eventually stood trial for fraud, claimed his investment firm, Bishop Baldwin, Rewald, Dillingham & Wong, was really a CIA front. He was convicted-and ABC retracted its story, reporting that Barnes refused to take a polygraph. The litigious Barnes, who told NEWSWEEK he did take and pass a lie-detector test, filed a $145 million libel suit against the network. He didn't collect.

Nevertheless, Perot has apparently found Barnes credible enough to follow up on his tips. Although the two men say they have never met, they have spoken on the phone since the mid-1980s about their mutual obsession-American POWS and MIAs from Vietnam. By that time, Perot had become convinced that Washington had abandoned American POWs in the service of some grand conspiracy involving the CIA, senior government officials and the drug trade. Perot told the Prescott, Ariz., Courier that "Barnes is credible and knows what he's talking about." He certainly knew how to stir up Perot when he told him of the alleged plot involving his daughter. "Barnes has an uncanny ability to touch people at their most vulnerable point," says a former associate, who hypothesizes that Barnes may have invented the story about a doctored photo in order to be a "player" in the election. If so, incredibly it worked: Barnes will remain a bizarre footnote to a bizarre bid for the presidency.

Does Perot rely too much on stories that are not backed up by hard evidence? All voters 48% Yes 35% No Perot Voters 17% Yes 71% No NEWSWEEK Poll, Oct. 28-29, 1992