White House Obtained FBI Data on Fired Travel Chief
By Susan Schmidt and Ann Devroy
White House officials obtained FBI background material on Billy Dale seven months after he was ousted as head of the White House travel office, incorrectly asserting they were considering giving him access to the building.
The Clinton administration said it mistakenly sought the information in renewing White House passes. But Rep. William F. Clinger Jr. (R-Pa.), chairman of a House oversight panel that is looking into the travel office affair, suggested the White House was looking for negative information about Dale that might justify its controversial decision to fire him in May 1993.
FBI Director Louis J. Freeh asked the bureau's general counsel yesterday to conduct a "thorough inquiry" into the White House request for Dale's background files. Freeh said the results will be furnished to Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who is examining whether White House officials tried to block or mislead investigators looking into dismissal of Dale and six other travel office employees.
Clinger questioned whether the White House violated Dale's rights as a private citizen and lied to the FBI about why it wanted information on him. "We can't conjure up any legitimate reason why they would be requesting this information, except to find some material they could leak or float to build their sense that they did the right thing in firing Billy Dale," he said.
"I must assume that they wanted the FBI background checks to see if there was anything in Billy Dale's past that could be exploited for political advantage."
White House officials said the form was sent to the FBI as a routine matter when they had fallen behind in processing applications and renewals for passes into the White House complex. The information was never sought or seen by political aides, they said. According to spokesman Mark Fabiani, the material was given to the White House security office and eventually ended up in White House archives.
The White House form, sent to the FBI on Dec. 20, 1993, asked for results of routine background investigations of Dale, who had worked at the White House for 32 years before he was fired and escorted from the White House complex seven months earlier. It said the information was needed because Dale was being considered for "access." The top of the document says "To: FBI liaison, From Bernard W. Nussbaum." Nussbaum, who was then White House counsel, said in a statement yesterday he had "absolutely no knowledge of any request being made by anyone in the White House to the FBI for any report concerning Billy Dale."
"I made no such request. Nor did I authorize anyone to make such a request. Nor did I ever see any FBI reports concerning Billy Dale," Nussbaum said.
The FBI gave the White House 11 letters and 11 memos it had compiled on Dale. According to evidence presented at Dale's criminal trial, FBI background interviews with neighbors and acquaintances turned up nothing negative.
The White House relinquished the request form last week to Clinger's Government Reform and Oversight Committee along with about 1,000 other documents, after first asserting the papers should remain confidential under a claim of executive privilege. White House aides said yesterday they did not notice the document request for background information on Dale.
The firing of Dale and his colleagues in the early months of the administration spawned enormous controversy. The first Whitewater independent counsel, Robert B. Fiske Jr., found the furor over the firings was a factor in the suicide of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster in July 1993.
The White House was accused of pushing out veteran workers to make way for friends of the Clintons, and of bringing in the FBI to trump up criminal charges to justify their actions. Dale was tried and acquitted of charges he embezzled money from the travel office.
A grand jury, empaneled this week in Washington, will begin hearing evidence on whether administration officials tried to impede investigators looking into the dismissals. Starr's office did not know about the White House request for background information on Dale, according to a source close to the investigation.
Fabiani said background investigative files for every White House employee are kept in a vault of the security office. These files are requested from the FBI using a standard form, like the one Clinger produced, under the White House counsel's name.
Fabiani said records show Dale's file was delivered to the White House Jan. 6, 1994, and placed in the vault and not checked out by anyone. The file was sent to the archives Dec. 1, 1994, he said, and then sent to Clinger after he subpoenaed them. Fabiani said White House aides did not examine the file, according to security office logs.
One former White House official said when the form went to the FBI, the White House had been repeatedly embarrassed by delays in getting officials through the security clearance process. Under orders from then-White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McClarty a crash effort was undertaken to get the security pass situation cleared up.
"We do not know if Mr. Dale's file was sought as part of this effort," Fabiani said, but that was possible.
Even longtime employees like Dale must have security clearances and passes periodically renewed. The former official said he had no explanation, other than "the general incompetence of that period," for why the White House would seek a background file on Dale after his firing.
Staff writers John E. Yang and Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.
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