By Bill Miller
A federal judge yesterday ordered the Defense Department to seize and examine the computer of a Pentagon official who has admitted releasing sensitive information contained on Linda R. Tripp's security clearance form.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth said he acted because the official, Clifford Bernath, deleted numerous documents from his computer in the weeks after his release of information to the New Yorker magazine. Although Bernath has said that none of the deleted documents concerned Tripp, the judge ordered the Defense Department's inspector general to check the computer's hard drive and servers in hopes of retrieving all deleted material.
"It is highly unusual and suspect for such an action to have been undertaken by Bernath when matters relating to Tripp are being investigated by the Office of the Independent Counsel," Lamberth declared in his ruling.
The judge's decision is the latest twist in the controversy surrounding the release of information about Tripp, a Pentagon employee and key witness in the Monica S. Lewinsky matter. Jane Mayer, a New Yorker writer, reported that Tripp was arrested as a teenager on a felony charge of grand larceny; Tripp later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of loitering. Mayer used information provided by Bernath and his boss, Kenneth H. Bacon, to report that Tripp did not disclose the arrest as required on her 1987 security clearance form.
The article generated complaints that the Pentagon had violated Tripp's rights under the Privacy Act. The Defense Department's inspector general launched an investigation, as did independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
The controversy made its way to Lamberth's courtroom through Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group led by Washington lawyer Larry Klayman, who raised the Privacy Act issues as part of a lawsuit stemming from allegations that the FBI improperly handed over to the Clinton White House hundreds of FBI files on former Bush and Reagan appointees.
Klayman argued the release of information about Tripp was relevant to his lawsuit because it shows the Clinton administration attempts to smear perceived enemies. Lamberth permitted him to take depositions of Bernath, Bacon and others to see if a pattern could be established.
The depositions revealed that Bernath, who was the Pentagon's deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, talked with Mayer at the behest of Bacon, the Pentagon's chief spokesman. Bernath and Bacon said they had no contact with anyone at the White House before cooperating with Mayer.
Bernath was transferred in April to the Armed Forces Information Service. He testified during his deposition that he deleted numerous documents from his computer but that none concerned Tripp or Lewinsky. He testified that he took the computer with him to his new job and deleted whatever he would not need.
In his ruling, Lamberth questioned the timing of the deletions and ordered the Defense Department to inform him if any relevant material turns up.
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