On this special day I offer up a story I wrote in 2003 for the Washington Times magazine Insight. The magazine no longer exists but the story does. Enjoy.
For 30 years the federal government kept under wraps one of its most successful foilings of a terrorist plot. In 2003 President George W. Bush quietly released the long-secret 1974 White House “Weekly Situation Report on International Terrorism.”
Better known among insiders as the “Santa Claus Papers,” these classified documents originally were hand-delivered to then-president Gerald R. Ford. One might have expected that Time magazine, Newsweek or even the New York Times would have jumped on this story. But no, nothing was stirring. Not even a mouse. They simply missed it as it flew, like the down of a thistle, under the media radar screen into oblivion.
The once highly secretive Santa Claus Papers are buried in the National Security Archives at George Washington University. The document dated Dec. 17, 1974, comes with this official label – “Warning-Notice: Sensitive Intelligence Sources and Methods Involved.” It formally notes the report “is not for general distribution and may not be reproduced or included in other publications nor cited as a source of information.”
It was prepared for the Cabinet Committee to Combat Terrorism (CCCT) and its working group, composed of representatives from the departments of State, Defense, Justice, Transportation and Treasury, the Domestic Council staff, the FBI, the National Security Council, the Office of Management and Budget, the United States Mission to the United Nations … and the CIA. The Nixon administration had established the CCCT in the aftermath of the Black September attacks on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and an unrelated but alarming rise in Florida aircraft hijackings.
The eight-page document, stamped “Secret,” discusses terrorist threats and plans in the Western Hemisphere, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Far East. It contains references to British Airways hijackers and seven other terrorists apparently living in Libya, as well as relocation of terrorist leader Sabri al-Banna from Iraq to Libya. The documents also reveal details of a private plane hijacked from Florida to Cuba and a possible package bomb intercepted at the British Consulate in Buenos Aires.
This report initially was declassified in 1999, but the Clinton administration redacted the section concerning the Santa Claus Papers. President Bush reversed that Clinton decision last year, releasing the highly secretive intelligence in a crafty document dump that avoided public notice until we obtained the papers.
Here then is what the government knew all along. Nestled within these secret pages of worldwide terrorist plans and threats for 1974 was this Santa bombshell: “A new organization of uncertain makeup, using the name ‘Group of the Martyr Ebenezer Scrooge’ plans to sabotage the annual courier flight of the Government of the North Pole. Prime Minister and Chief Courier S. Claus has been notified and security precautions are being coordinated worldwide by the CCCT Working Group.”
Of course this was a jolly holiday joke – we think – but apparently the U.S. government didn’t want anyone to learn that, even at the height of the Cold War, intelligence agencies had a sense of humor. Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archives, sees the Santa Claus Papers as but one symptom of the epidemic problem of overclassification whereby the government keeps “dubious secrets” for no apparent reason. When Insight asks why the Santa Papers were kept secret for so long, CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield explains bluntly, “We blew it. It’s as simple as that.”
Encouraged to clarify why the first CIA reviewer redacted the Santa Papers and the second CIA reviewer released the secret, Mansfield paused briefly and then blurted, “The second person who reviewed it for declassification didn’t realize that S. Claus was a source of ours so he left it in. We are going to find out who reviewed the S. Claus declassification and put a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking.”
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) spokesman, Canadian army Maj. Douglas Martin, says he neither can confirm nor deny the foiling of the 1974 terrorist plot, but insists Santa is facing no known terrorist plots this year. “Besides,” he says of the magical old elf, “Santa doesn’t need our help.”
Meanwhile, as Christmas neared, we have learned that declassification of the Santa Papers is not the first time a government has wrestled with issues involving the red-suited saint and his reindeer. Since emergence into America in the late 17th century, Santa has been the target of grave robbers, lawsuits, scientific curiosity and trademark issues.
For starters, there is the insistence of some grown-ups that Santa is dead. The Turkish Santa Claus Foundation continues to demand that Italy return the bones of St. Nicholas, who reportedly died on Dec. 6, 345, and was buried in a small church at Myra, an ancient city along the Mediterranean coast of what is now the Republic of Turkey. Turkish officials insist the bones of the Christmas icon were stolen by pirates in the 11th century and taken to the Italian town of Bari.
While Turkish officials demand the holy artifacts of St. Nick be returned by the end of 2003, it is highly doubtful that it will happen because the church in Bari disputes Turkish claims to the saint’s bones. The Rev. Gerardo Cioffari of St. Nichols Basilica, a historian and curator, says the remains were brought to Bari on May 9, 1087, by sailors from that southern port city. The bones remain in Bari to this day and are secured against theft or souvenir hunters in blocks of reinforced concrete. Cioffari insists the bones could never be given back because of the thousands that pay respects to them every Dec. 6. “If the remains were moved there would be a revolution here,” he has told the Turkish press. “Even the Vatican couldn’t do anything about it.”
There are countless stories about St. Nick and, while there is no indisputable proof, he is believed to have traveled to Palestine and Egypt and been imprisoned during the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian. Released by Emperor Constantine, he was made bishop of Myra. Nicholas reportedly saved that city from despair and starvation by seizing grain aboard a ship bound for Byzantium from Egypt. Oddly, the stolen cargo was not missed, so it became listed as one of many miracles attributed to Nicholas. This may be why he was deemed a patron saint of sailors.
Legend has it that he befriended children and gave anonymous donations of gold coins to persons in need. Some claim he tossed gold bags through open windows, but when windows were closed he threw them down chimneys. According to tradition, a poor family in Myra had three daughters who were courted for marriage but had no dowries, which meant the girls were doomed to a life of shame and prostitution. Along came Nicholas, who anonymously slipped bags of gold into their home to provide dowries and rescue these beauties from humiliation. When the benefactor was identified as Nicholas, his fame spread so rapidly that by the Middle Ages he became a patron saint of children. Other reportedly miraculous deeds soon prompted him to be regarded as a patron saint of Russia, Greece, prisoners, bakers, pawnbrokers, shopkeepers and wolves.
His fame spread from the East to the West after the great St. Nick bone heist. Historians say this crime helped transfer the oral tradition surrounding Nicholas that eventually turned a provincial bishop into the magical and world-renowned superstar of today. But not without controversy. For example, church reformers in 16th-century Germany banned celebration of the Feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6 to focus instead on the birth of Christ. To emphasize the Christ child, or Christkindlein, the Germans gave gifts to children on Christmas Eve, said to have been thrown down the chimney by “Kriss Kringle.”
Meanwhile, the Dutch tradition embellished the Nicholas story and claimed “Sinterklaas” sailed from Spain on Christmas Eve with a Moorish helper named Black Peter and filled the wooden shoes of Dutch children with goodies. Sinterklaas also had the magical ability to know which child has been good or bad.
While the Germans and the Dutch brought their traditions to the New World, it was the literary community that made Santa what he is today. Most notably, the image of the American Santa was shaped by Union Theological Seminary professor Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 children’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which of course begins with the legendary line, “‘Twas the night before Christmas … ” By the early 20th century, Santa began appearing in department stores that claimed to be his “official headquarters.” The U.S. mail was bombarded with letters to Santa from children who simply addressed them to “The North Pole.”
As Santa’s fame captivated America, the federal government took some unusual steps to keep his spirit alive. Sometime in the 1850s the Howard Banking Company issued a $5 bill featuring Santa Claus. It was indeed legal tender because, back then, private banks were allowed to issue currency notes of their own design. Of course, even then, some suggested the government take a closer look at this strange fellow. Woodstock performer Arlo Guthrie, son of communist activist folksinger Woody Guthrie, implied that the FBI might want to take note of Santa’s appearance in his song, “Pause for Mr. Claus,” which carries the refrain, “Santa wears a red suit. He must be a communist. And a beard and long hair. Must be a pacifist. What’s in that pipe that he’s smoking?”
Santa also has had his day in court a few times, and not just in the classic film Miracle on 34th Street, having annoyed serious folk from local school boards to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1969, St. Nicholas was booted from the Universal Calendar of Saints by Pope Paul VI, reportedly because of questions about some of his miracles. Even so, he still enjoys sainthood in the Orthodox Church.
Meanwhile local bureaucrats have been playing Mr. Grinch by targeting Santa. Here’s a sampling of efforts by the “Bah Humbuggers” to put political correctness above Christmas cheer:
In 2001 children in Vermont, where Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean was governor, weren’t allowed to say “Merry Christmas,” only “Happy Holidays,” while attending public schools.
In a California school district children are prohibited even from drawing pictures of Santa.
Santa, Nativity scenes, decorated trees and “Santa Claus-related items” were banned from Arizona public offices.
In Stillwater, Minn., teachers were forbidden in 2001 from wearing Christmas sweaters after they were declared “inappropriate.” In Rochester, Minn., two students were reprimanded for saying “Merry Christmas” in a holiday skit.
Nativity scenes were banned from public schools in New York City, but menorahs and the Muslim star and crescent are acceptable because they are deemed “secular” symbols by the chancellor of schools.
On and on it goes. Local jurisdictions often resort to such regulation out of fear of lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union, only to discover that town folks draw the line against government meddling when it comes to messing with Santa. For example, officials in King County, Wash., reversed their ban on employees wishing each other a “Merry Christmas” in 2001 after a barrage of criticism nationally. Similarly in Kensington, Md., which banned Santa Claus from the annual tree-lighting ceremony but quickly reinstated him when protesters planned a “million-Santa march.”
And then there are the Grinches – mean ones and usually led by an attorney – who demand that the government stop Christmas. That was the case in 1998 when 46-year-old Cincinnati solicitor Richard Ganulin sued as a private citizen to abolish that part of the United States Code (5 USC Sec. 6103) which establishes Dec. 25 as Christmas Day, a national legal public holiday, and closes down most government offices and services.
Congress established Christmas, New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving as national holidays way back in 1870, but Ganulin’s federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court argued that “Christmas is a religious holiday, and the Congress of the United States is not constitutionally permitted to endorse or aid any religion, purposefully or otherwise, or entanglement between our government and religious beliefs.”
But U.S. District Court Judge Susan Diott ruled against Ganulin in December 1999. The case caught the attention of the national media and talk-show circuits when Diott peppered her ruling with nine stanzas of anti-Grinch poetry, making fun of Ganulin and his claim. Her ruling fell in line with those in other cases where courts repeatedly have recognized Christmas, including Christmas trees, snowmen, jingling bells and presents. Ganulin immediately filed an appeal.
In 2000, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his appeal. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a private organization that represented three federal employees in opposing Ganulin’s argument, said in a statement that the court had ruled “just in the ‘Nick’ of time.” Harrumphing, Ganulin immediately vowed to take his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2001 the high court denied his appeal and Becket Fund President Kevin Hasson breathed a sigh of relief. Hasson declared joyfully that this was indeed “the end of the line for the Grinch.”
But it was not the end of the line for the government monitoring of Santa Claus. Beatle Ringo Starr will be drumming up reports on Santa Claus this year as NORAD has signed on “the funny one” to be its honorary Santa tracker. Starr will offer live commentary on Santa’s flight, which can be heard and viewed on Christmas Eve at www.noradsanta.com. NORAD has been tracking Santa for 49 years at zero expense to the taxpayer, says its spokesman, Maj. Martin. NORAD began employing the tracker 49 years ago when it was besieged by telephone calls on the “Red Phone” from children asking to speak to Santa Claus. Sears Roebuck had placed an ad in a local Colorado newspaper telling children to call that number, apparently unaware that it mistakenly had provided one of the world’s most secret telephone numbers. Martin says he would love to find and talk to any of those who called the Red Phone in 1955.
Meanwhile, NORAD says the Santa tracker had some difficulties recently when three “Santa cams” went down and the Website was not accessible. “One cam went down near Reindeer Lake,” Martin said. “We believe it was tampered with by wildlife. Our analysts are hoping all we have to do is replace it. The second one went down in the Himalayas. We have a crew about 20 miles from the site, but they are being slowed because of severe weather conditions. We’ve got our fingers crossed. The third one we took off-line in England to train Ringo. We think we are okay with that one.”
By the way, Martin adds, “Santa doesn’t need infrared technology for us to track him. We track Santa with the same technology that our satellites use to see rocket launches. Rudolph’s nose will show up on infrared sensors, and that helps us pinpoint him. As long as Rudolph is eating his vegetables his nose will be bright. We did have some trouble in 2001 when we noticed the dimming of Rudolph’s nose because he wasn’t eating his carrots.”
Martin vows the Santa cams will be operating at full strength shortly in anticipation of again receiving the most hits ever to be recorded on an Internet site in one day. Last year on Christmas Eve NORAD received 294.5 million hits from families determined to follow Santa’s flight. This year they also will hear Ringo’s Christmas music. And Martin notes that both President Bush and first lady Laura Bush will be plugging the site. “The Bushes are big advocates of child literacy – and this is an incredible opportunity for the family to sit down together, read together and enjoy the ride,” he says.
While Martin’s crack team of Santa specialists is diligently repairing the Santa cams, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been busy issuing patents and trademarks for Santa-related activities. In fact, a British firm called santa.claus.com applied and received such a trademark in 2000 and now owns the rights to Santa Claus for their online department store. That’s not unusual. In fact, there are some 25 other companies that own part or all of Santa’s various names, says trademark administrator Sharon Marsh.
Here’s the rub. Under the law a company can’t own a person’s name without their consent unless they are dead. When asked if she required that companies obtain Santa’s consent for use of his name, Marsh seemed a little unsure. “I don’t think so. I mean, no they didn’t have to,” she explains a moment later. “The trademark is being used to sell specific items at a department store. You can’t purchase a trademark for something generic such as the word ‘telephone,'” she says.
And since none of these companies were required officially to obtain his consent, it must mean one thing: The government wants you to think Santa is dead. Asked if that’s the case, Marsh replied coyly, “You mean the jolly old elf?”
“Yes, the fat guy with the beard.”
The perplexed Marsh responded with dead silence. It was a response to make an inquirer wonder if author Tom Clancy was right when he wrote in The Sum of All Fears, “After you stop believing in Santa Claus, the whole world just goes downhill.”
But hold that thought. A review of additional evidence indicates that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a patent and trademark in 1996 for a Santa Claus detector, which reportedly is a “children’s Christmas stocking device useful for visually signaling the arrival of Santa Claus by illuminating an externally visible light source.”
When Marsh was asked why the government would grant a patent for a Santa detector if Santa didn’t exist, she sheepishly admitted, “I don’t know. But I can’t seem to find the documentation. I am not saying it’s not here, but I can’t find it right now.”
Of course not. But we found it under U.S. Patent 5523741. Chalk it up as another dubious secret that the government doesn’t want you to know. Then again, maybe Santa doesn’t either.