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Senators Stand in Line to Flog Dead Horse of Hiring Protocol

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 1997; Page A04

It began rather innocently – another one of the poisonous partisan spats between Sens. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) and John Glenn (D-Ohio) over the meaning of evidence. Was it important, or was it worthless?

At the end, about an hour later, the bureaucrat assigned to explain it had scored a twofer: Senators on the Governmental Affairs Committee not only did not know what the evidence meant; they no longer knew what the evidence was.

Committee Republicans investigating campaign finance abuses in the 1996 presidential campaign yesterday wanted to know how former Democratic fund-raiser John Huang, a key figure in their investigation, got an "interim clearance" as a prelude to his hiring for a sensitive Commerce Department job.

Ranking minority member Glenn is not fond of the conclusions that seep from this line of thought, whether they involve Huang's alleged involvement in a Chinese plot to infiltrate the U.S. political system or bureaucratic trivia about clearances at the Commerce Department.

"The testimony indicates . . . Mr. Huang was put in there supposedly for some nefarious purpose," Glenn said. "To make a big thing out of how he got to that position, to me, it seems, is unwarranted."

Committee Chairman Thompson is not fond of Glenn's conclusions about his evidence, and lets no slight go unpunished: It's not that "we're trying to prove some elaborate theory that someone else has concocted about spies," Thompson said. "It's certainly appropriate for us to look into the clearance procedure and why this gentleman was treated the way he was."

So the battle was joined. The policy by which Huang got his interim clearance appeared to be different from the interim clearance policy of previous administrations. How was it different, and what did it mean?

Witness Paul A. Buskirk, acting director of Commerce's Office of Security, was helpful to the end: "The interim clearance in an emergency situation still exists," Buskirk said. "But the uniform issuance of a clearance when a political appointee came on board has been discontinued, unless there is a need to know."

"I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you," Glenn said.

Buskirk tried again: "Senator, in January of 1993, every political appointee was subjected to a full field background investigation," he said. "And while we were waiting for that background investigation to be completed, based on the fact that we had done pre-appointment checks, an interim clearance, normally for 60 to 90 days, would exist."

Right, replied Glenn. But wasn't it true that agencies have been granting interim clearances for years? And wasn't this just a continuation of previous policy?

"That's correct, Senator," said Buskirk.

Thompson weighed in a bit later: "Of course, what changed was the policy of issuing an interim clearance, without a full background," he said.

"That's correct," said Buskirk.

Swamp waters began to engulf the committee. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) asked Buskirk to confirm that current Commerce Secretary William Daley changed the interim clearance rule back to what it had been during prior administrations, in part because Huang fell through the cracks.

That was right too, Buskirk said.

"Let me see if I can get it in language I can understand," majority counsel Michael J. Madigan said hopefully, taking Buskirk through a lawyerly but fruitless Q and A.

"Now I'm getting confused," Glenn said. "It's my impression that the interim clearances have been around forever." So how was Huang's clearance different?

Buskirk explained that in January 1993 every political appointee got a "full-field background check," not the practice in prior administrations.

"So this was a tighter control?" Glenn asked.

"It was tighter, yes," Buskirk said.

Back to Madigan, who did not want to "belabor this subject," but did so anyway, eliciting from Buskirk yet another explanation. Madigan seemed satisfied.

Not Glenn, who said he "hate[d] to keep beating this dead horse here," then flailed away, offering his competing explanation. That was right too. "I hope we've put that one to rest," Glenn said.

Wishful thinking. Madigan tried once more. Whatever the policy was, Daley changed it because of Huang, right?

"No question about that," Buskirk said.

"Thank you, gentlemen," Thompson interjected quickly, trying to excuse Buskirk.

But Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who "never missed a dead horse opportunity in my life," managed to arrange a convenient exit for all: call it what you will, change it as you wish, Levin said, "the point is, he got his final clearance."

"Yes, sir," Buskirk said.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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