Getting to the bottom of the bulge

Does the Bush-is-wired story make sense? A variety of experts weigh in.

Published October 15, 2004 6:54PM (EDT)

The first time Joseph Cannon watched the Sept. 30 presidential debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry, he was too "nervous" to notice anything strange about the president's mannerisms, let alone his clothing. It was only on a second viewing with his girlfriend that Cannon, a graphic designer and prolific, Bush-bashing blogger in Los Angeles, saw what the world has now come to call the Bush Bulge.

"Bush seemed to have a wire, or an odd protrusion of some sort, running down his back," Cannon wrote on Oct. 2. Naturally, he searched around the Web for clues as to what the bulge could be, and, as often happens online, the evidence he found seemed to converge upon a conspiratorial, yet not-implausible hypothesis -- in this case, an old suspicion that the president receives help during speaking engagements by using an in-ear prompting device, a direct wire to advisors concealed behind the Oz curtain.

Cannon is among the handful of bloggers you'll find at the bottom of the bulge affair, one of the originators and prime exponents of the story that Bush was wired in the Coral Gables, Fla., debate. He's not a typical conspiracy theorist (he says he's not "convinced" that Bush was being prompted during the debate, only "persuaded,") and says he'd change his mind if other facts came to light. It's hard to know whether that's really the case, but Cannon sounds reasonable enough. And, indeed, many of the other Web-based proponents of this theory seem reasonable, especially when you consider their evidence and take the obvious next step by consulting expert opinion -- security guys, in-ear prompter trainers, the people who actually make and use these devices.

What one finds from talking to these people is that the question of whether Bush wears a wire is a real question, one they're willing to seriously entertain. And while many in the media are quick to wrap it in the damning weave of "conspiracy theory," equating it with such golden hits of yesteryear as the "Hillary Killed Vince Foster" tale, it's in fact much simpler and more evidentiary than that. Will we ever really know if Bush was wearing a prompter in the 2004 presidential debates? Perhaps not. But we're certain never to know if we don't look at the evidence.

Consider, for instance, the testimony of James Atkinson, the president of the Granite Island Group, a countersurveillance firm in Gloucester, Mass. Atkinson is an expert at wiretap detection and bug sweeping, whose clients include both private companies and the U.S. government. "I've done a tremendous amount of work for presidential Cabinets," Atkinson says. "I've worked for Cabinet members, plus staff and advisors ... in the [George H.W.] Bush administration, and in both terms of the Clinton administration." Whenever he's on a job, he uses a spectrum analyzer, a device used to detect signals from all possible sources -- including those used by commercially available wireless prompting systems, the kind frequently used by television broadcasters and actors. When he goes to Washington, Atkinson says he often hears ear-prompting signals coming from the White House. "I have personally sat outside the White House with lab-grade testing equipment -- and have cataloged, monitored and confirmed that wireless monitors are being used," he says. "When you go into a place to check for bugs, every frequency in the spectrum is suspect until you can identify it -- and there are thousands of frequencies. I have found wireless mike signals transmitted during [White House] press briefings, with multiple subject advisors. You'll hear the speaker, and another voice will cut in, like 'It's 28 million' -- and the speaker will repeat, 'It's 28 million.' The speaker will institute certain delays or will ask the question again, and will receive a prompt."

On a Web log of bulge news he's been keeping at, Atkinson wrote: "When the president visited Boston back in March 2004 he stayed at the Park Plaza Hotel. The signal from the system he was using could clearly be heard 1500+ feet away, and one of his advisors could be heard doing voice checks and then feeding him data about the school he was about to visit." Asked by Salon who heard the signals, Atkinson said, "I heard it. In Boston I was working a project several blocks away from where the president was speaking. It's archived. You want to keep archival copies of things because of liability issues -- if you sweep for bugs and a bug is later found, you can show that it wasn't there when you did the sweep."

Atkinson has agreed to review the recordings in his archive and verify a match with an official video of the event. (Details pending ...) "I've got a rep for being a straight shooter, whether or not it's embarrassing to someone. In my profession, integrity is the most important thing -- integrity and confidentiality. But this is cheating. It's one thing if an official has prompting when giving a speech, it's another if he went to Harvard, say, and had someone else write a paper for him."

Atkinson also says that it's not just Bush who's been coached -- Bill Clinton, too, received ear-prompting. John Ashcroft is "quite notorious for using wireless headsets," and Janet Reno used a system during the siege at Waco, Texas. Atkinson has documented the dozens of radio frequencies that the White House uses for its communications, and has pointed to the make and model of the prompter devices popular in the government. One of these devices is the RC-216 Receive-A-Cue system, manufactured and sold by Comtek Communications in Salt Lake City.

Jon Belgique, sales and marketing director of the firm, would not say whether Comtek sold systems to the government, but said that the devices are common and popular for all sorts of applications. TV people use them so that anchors can get breaking news feeds from producers, and correspondents out in the field can recite polished stories without the aid of a teleprompter. Actors use them to remember their lines, and to listen to "sidetone" -- the processed, amplified sound of their own voices. Businesspeople use prompting devices to give great speeches, and politicians and even members of the clergy have been known to do so as well, say several trainers in the use of these things. One ear-prompter trainer told Salon that he'd even coached politicians, but he declined to say who.

Comtek's prompting system consists of two main pieces -- a tiny earpiece and an iPod-size "induction receiver." The earpieces are tiny, roughly 1.5 centimeters in length, and a centimeter in diameter. Belgique says that Comtek's earpiece would be visible to those looking directly at the ear of a person wearing the device, but other experts say that newer devices are all but invisible in the ear. "They make them so small these days," says Rick Plastina, a Chicago-based actor and ear-prompter trainer who is called the "Ear Guru" by friends. "If you get right behind the person and look directly into the ear canal you'd be able to see it -- but otherwise you wouldn't know." The induction receiver is a small gadget that receives radio signals (coming from the person doing the prompting) and then sends the signals to an induction wire that you, the person who's being prompted, would wear around your neck. Some people claim to have seen this wire in this video. The neck loop sends audio signals to the earpiece through magnetic induction; no visible wire connects the earpiece to the receiver. (Incidentally, people who suffer from cardiac conditions, such as Dick Cheney, can't use the magnetic induction systems, according to Atkinson.)

It's this receiver that folks suspect is the bulge beneath the president's back. But according to Belgique, the upper back -- which is where, in various shapes and sizes, the bulge has appeared in all three debates -- is the wrong place to put the receiver. "That makes no sense," he says. "That makes no sense at all. Usually it's worn on the side, in the pocket, the small of the back. There's nothing that would go on the back up there." Others who've used ear-prompting systems concur -- you'd never put a receiver on your upper back. It would be awkward there; you'd need to strap it on somehow, and, even if you managed that, it'd be far more visible than, say, in your coat pocket. Why would the president have worn it back there? (Atkinson's theory is that the president was also wearing body armor, and the upper back was the only place to put the system. The White House told the New York Times that the president was not wearing a bulletproof vest. But this could just be a standard denial, part of keeping the president secure. Calls to Secret Service offices in Miami and Washington resulted in no reply (in the latter case), and in an angry Secret Service man (in the former) saying, "Well, I'm not going to answer ANYTHING.")

But let's adjust our tinfoil hats and plunge deeper. Location is not the only reason to doubt the Bush-was-wired story. Indeed, the best reason to be skeptical of the theory is Bush's performance -- abysmal. If Bush was being prompted, why was he so bad? Why the long, awkward pauses with nothing to say? Why did he characterize Iraqi insurgents as fighting vociferously? Why did he repeat himself so much -- working hard, hard work, working hard? Who was coaching him, Porky Pig?

Proponents of the Bush-wired meme say that the president may not have been used to using the system in an occasion such as a live debate. And this, it turns out, is a possibility. Using an ear prompter is something of a trick, because you've got to master talking and listening at exactly the same time. If you're new to it, "What's hard to get rid of is the deer-in-the-headlights look," says Don Cosgrove, an actor and ear-prompting trainer in St. Paul, Minn. "I am looking at you but concentrating on what's in my ear. You get a dead look in the eyes." Others say that another sign to watch for in ear-prompter novices is excessive blinking. Sound familiar?

Is it possible, then, that Bush's bad performance was caused by a lack of familiarity with an earpiece? It's plausible. But also it's not. That's because, trainers say, it doesn't take very long to learn to use one, and almost everyone is able to do it and look natural. Most people master ear-prompting in just one two- or three-hour course, trainers say. "The only person I've ever seen who's had trouble was a very, very intelligent woman who was trying to beat the system," says Cosgrove. "She was trying to speak with the words as she was hearing them," when what you're supposed to do is speak a split-second after you hear each word. It's virtually impossible to spot an actor who's using an ear prompter, experts say. The day Salon spoke to him, Rick Plastina, the Ear Guru, had used a prompter on a video shoot -- even the director had no idea he was being prompted (from a tape recording of the script he'd set up earlier), he says. "Marlon Brando used it on every movie he made from 1980 until he died," Plastina says. Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, and many other stars have been known to use them.

Bush is no DeNiro, of course, nor even a Nicholson. But if he's been using prompting systems for a while, as Atkinson and others online have argued, then why hasn't he learned to use them well? And if he's so bad with them, why would his advisors have let him use them in a debate?

One imagines that this could all be easily cleared up with a word from the White House. Clearly, there is something weird under the president's coat. If it's not part of an ear-prompting system, what is it? Is it a back brace? Does the president have a medical condition? If so, shouldn't we know about it? Is it a security device -- if so, why is nobody in the administration suggesting that? Instead of clear answers, Bush officials only issue bizarre dismissals. "The president is an alien," Bush-Cheney campaign chair Ken Mehlman told reporters in the Spin Room at Wednesday's debate. "You heard it here first. The president is an alien. That's your quote of the day. He has been getting information from Mars. The shock of the debate will be the president's alien past will be exposed, which is why that box is there."

Are we supposed to think the White House is hiding nothing when it issues statements like that? "You have the Internet people doing their thing, and the Internet people are letting whatever the rumor of the day is go ahead," says Chris Shaw, who runs the Bush Wired blog. "But the White House is putting out their stupid rumors themselves, too."

And the story is hurting Bush. In the last week, Salon has run three pieces on the bulge, and we've been absolutely deluged by Web traffic. The story is now a regular feature on late-night comedy shows, and it's come up in the post-debate spin room several times. Just about the only site on the Web where you can't find talk of the bulge is Matt Drudge's -- but Drudge's refusal to link to the story is itself an indication of just how powerful this thing is. Drudge instead pushed a strange, competing story about Sen. Kerry allegedly removing an object from his pocket during the debate -- an object that later turned out to be a pen. Nobody knows better than Drudge (who didn't respond to requests for this story) the value of a good, believable political rumor. The idea that Bush was prompted in the debate -- like the claim that Al Gore took credit for inventing the Internet, or George H.W. Bush wasn't familiar with supermarket scanners -- resonates with people.

In politics these days, given what's happened over the past few years, "there is an anxiety that what we are seeing in public is simply being staged for the purpose of deceiving us, that the whole facade of the political process is simply a paid political message," says John Pike, a security analyst at who does not believe that Bush was wired, but sees how others might believe it. "There's this hope that it is not so comprehensively fake that it is beyond our power to detect the fakery -- Toto will detect the little man behind the curtain. Here you've got Dubya coming out there acting like Oz, the great and terrible. And people like to think they have seen through this huge deception." Mark Crispin Miller, author of "Cruel and Unusual: Bush and Cheney's New World Order," half-concurs, saying that while he believes the president was probably wired, whether or not the bulge theory is true "doesn't alter the fact that what [Bush] says is carefully scripted and dishonest." "In cyberspace," Miller says, "the Bush regime stands accused of many things they may not have done. What's interesting is that so many reasonable people in the country are so agnostic on such provocative questions."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

MORE FROM Farhad Manjoo

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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