Tapes Put Attention on Pentagon UnitBy George Lardner Jr.
Tuesday, October 7, 1997; Page A04 Washington Post Staff Writer
Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) said yesterday he intends to investigate the White House’s belated delivery of videotapes of President Clinton’s coffees with campaign contributors and said it smacked of an "effort to delay and obstruct" the Senate’s inquiry into campaign abuses.
Thompson said the committee would begin by taking depositions of White House staff members involved in the delay. An aide said officials of the White House Communications Agency, a Pentagon unit that made the tapes, would also be questioned, perhaps this week.
A special counsel for the committee, Donald Bucklin, said White House lawyers told him as recently as the first week in September that such tapes did not exist. Thompson told reporters that "the defense of incompetence is wearing thin."
Asked at a brief news conference how his staff could not have known about the recordings, Clinton said "probably they’d never discussed it with anybody in the White House Communications Agency."
"I don’t believe for a moment that any of the career military people in the WHCA would in any way deliberately" not say anything, Clinton said. "I think it was just an accident."
Thompson was skeptical. He accused the administration of "playing a waiting game" because it knows that the committee’s investigative mandate runs out at year’s end.
A copy compiling WHCA tapes of the opening minutes of 44 of Clinton’s controversial coffee meetings in 1995 and 1996 was turned over to Thompson’s committee Saturday, months after they were called for by Senate requests and finally a July 31 subpoena. White House officials said yesterday that the agency’s database was checked at first only by names of individuals named in the Senate requests and only recently by the subject "coffees."
White House special counsel Lanny J. Davis acknowledged at a briefing that an internal directive asking WHCA and other White House units to check their files for relevant records mentioned Clinton’s "coffees." But he said he was not about to blame WHCA for the lapse.
"We’re not pointing fingers here," Davis said. "These oversights are clearly aberrations. We have nothing to apologize for."
Asked why the president didn’t volunteer the tapes himself, Davis said Clinton undoubtedly knew he was being taped at the coffees, but "I don’t think the president of the United States has been reading his subpoenas in detail."
Davis also said there was an innocent explanation for the absence of audio on some copies of one tape, a June 18, 1996, coffee at which controversial Democratic fund-raiser John Huang, according to one witness, asked for money to help reelect the president.
Davis said that for technical reasons involving monaural and stereo versions, some copies of the June 18 tape had sound on them and some did not. The copy delivered to the Republican staff on Thompson’s committee Saturday and the copy played for reporters at the White House Sunday did not. But a copy played for the news media yesterday did.
It showed Clinton shaking hands with Huang and saying, "Hi, John." If Huang made a pitch for contributions, as the witness said he did, it had to have happened after the WHCA audiovisual crew left the room. Typically the crews stay only for the first few minutes of closed events, such as the coffees.
Davis said "a few" more videotapes involving "DNC fund-raising" events have been found and the White House is searching for more. He said checks also would be made under headings such as Clinton’s "radio addresses," one of which controversial fund-raiser Johnny Chung attended in March 1996.
Discovery of the videotaped coffees stored at the National Archives until recalled by the White House recently focused attention on the little-known WHCA, a secretive military unit whose job, as a 1995 Defense Department audit put it, is to "provide [telecommunications] and other related support to the President and Vice President, the President’s staff, the First Family, and others as directed."
From its inception in 1942, it has grown into a $122 million-a-year operation that follows the president around the world and includes a 111-member audiovisual unit that had its beginnings under President Ronald Reagan in 1982.
According to a 1989 White House memo, the unit’s assignment is to cover "all open and a majority of closed events. . . . Other coverage may include: President working with staff, dignitaries; of personal working time; interacting with family and friends; and First Lady events."
"Normally, this footage winds up in a presidential library and is forgotten," said historian William Doyle, who unearthed hundreds of hours of such film at the Reagan library. He said when he asked for the logs of footage from Clinton’s second term, he was turned down. "The Clinton White House has taken a very arbitrary position on this material," he said.
Thompson said his committee had not only been asking for "such recordings" for months, but on Aug. 19 sent a letter to White House special counsel Lanny Breuer naming the White House Communications Agency as the likely source of the tapes.
"We led them by the hand right into the middle of this evidence, and they still didn’t see it," Thompson complained.
Officials at the Justice Department and at the parallel House investigation headed by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) were also miffed. The Justice Department notified of the coffee tapes Saturday, a day after Attorney General Janet Reno wrote the House Judiciary Committee to reject its calls that she seek appointment of an independent counsel.
Davis said the tardy notice was purely "circumstantial," in part the result of last week’s Jewish holiday and a phone call to Justice that "didn’t get through."
Burton wrote Clinton to complain that his panel did not get a copy of the tapes until Sunday, at the same time it was provided to the press. He said that by the close of business today he wanted logs identifying which White House events have been videotaped or audiotaped and by Friday "all relevant and unedited tapes."
Staff writers Guy Gugliotta and John F. Harris contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company