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White House Aides Describe Difficulty in Finding Videotapes

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 1997; Page A04

White House lawyer Michael X. Imbroscio said he first heard that there might be tapes of White House coffees when Senate investigator Donald T. Bucklin told him after an Aug. 7 meeting.

"He said he had a source, whose reliability is not known, who had told him there was taping in the Oval Office," Imbroscio recalled. "I looked at him, and I agreed I would look into it."

For the next two months, Imbroscio, a 29-year-old deputy to White House special counsel Lanny Breuer, was charged by the White House with finding the tapes as he waded through a morass of other document requests submitted by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

The White House's failure to deliver the tapes until last week has prompted a blistering attack from committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), who accused the White House of trying to "delay and obstruct" the investigation of Clinton campaign finance irregularities.

And administration sources said the Justice Department has subpoenaed Breuer to appear before a federal grand jury today to tell why he waited more than two full days before informing the department's investigators last Saturday about the existence of the tapes.

Moreover, White House officials are now checking audiotapes of Vice President Gore's appearances for any records of his fund-raising efforts or other meetings covered by congressional subpoenas and document requests.

In a long interview yesterday, Breuer and Imbroscio for the first time discussed the tapes and how the White House found and ultimately disseminated them. The pair described a small, understaffed office, overburdened with document requests concerning the congressional investigation into Democratic fund-raising and forced to sort through enormous quantities of records by hand.

"The White House has always had a small counsel's office, and this is the most resources that have ever been provided," Breuer said. "I have a third of the lawyers in the counsel's office working for me." His staff, he said, includes six lawyers, three paralegals and "whatever interns I can find."

It was simply too much to expect his office to produce all the committee's desired materials as fast as the committee would like, Breuer said he told committee lawyers in late July. Problems, he warned, "are inevitable, given the breadth of the requests and the resources available."

On July 31, the White House received a subpoena demanding 29 separate sets of documents, repeating months-old demands. At the same time, Imbroscio continued, he was working on an August committee request that the White House examine 40 boxes of phone logs – thousands of pieces of paper.

Breuer said the committee never told his office what witnesses were going to be called in open hearing, making it difficult to assess investigators' priorities. Since the tapes request was verbal, Imbroscio added, formal written requests and subpoenas took precedence.

On Aug. 19, Bucklin, senior counsel to the committee, made a formal request to Breuer for tapes: "We understand that . . . the White House Communications Agency . . . may have [this] information," Bucklin wrote. "Please advise me immediately whether any video or audio record exists."

The White House had first asked the agency (WHCA) for records on coffees in April, but it found nothing. After receiving the letter, Imbroscio promised Bucklin to "get on it." Bucklin said last night he told Imbroscio about the WHCA tapes on Aug. 7 and wrote the letter because the White House lawyers "hadn't responded" to phone calls.

Imbroscio said that at the same time he received the letter, the counsel's office was busy filling a number of requests – both old and new – for thousands of pages of phone logs, e-mails and documents.

In the last week of August, Imbroscio made the first of several visits to the WHCA representative, who told him there were tapes of "open events," like bill-signings and speeches, as well as some closed events, including fund-raisers. How about coffees? Imbroscio asked. "Those are not the types of meetings we do," Imbroscio quoted the WHCA representative as saying.

Imbroscio reported his inquiries to Bucklin in early September, but it was not until late in the month that he telephoned the agency and found out there was a searchable database that described what was on the tapes. Imbroscio took the following weekend off, leaving a status report on Bucklin's answering machine.

On Oct. 1, the WHCA representative took Imbroscio to a basement computer terminal where he could check either an "event" index or a "photo op" index. Imbroscio said he tried a couple of the coffee dates on the photo op index and got "hits." The tapes were there.

He told Breuer, who was leaving for the Jewish New Year religious holiday. "Find everything as soon as possible," Breuer told him.

By the end of Wednesday, Imbroscio had a master tape of his sample events. Early Thursday morning he went back to the computer and searched the index for "coffee." He got 49 hits.

Imbroscio said he notified Bucklin about the tapes and said, "I'm going to get them to you as soon as possible." By the end of Thursday he had prepared a complete list of the "coffee" hits and had gotten up to 150 others using search terms like "DNC" or "fund-raiser."

On Friday morning he started to review the coffees. By "4 to 5 p.m.," he said, he had a master tape. Duplicates weren't ready until late Friday and were delivered to both the committee and the Justice Department on Saturday.

Breuer, back in his office Friday, called William Corcoran, his regular contact at the Justice Department, but had to leave a message. Corcoran's return call missed Breuer.

"Frankly, my priority was getting the tapes to the committee," Breuer said. He met with Bucklin and minority counsel Alan Baron about 2:30 p.m. "to tell them the story," he added. "We knew we were going to be totally attacked."

Staff writer George Lardner Jr. contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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