In Files Case, All Sides Claim Interest In Ferreting Out Motive for Requests
By George Lardner Jr.
The FBI files controversy has become the talk of Washington, if not the nation. Congress is angry about it. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh is angry about it. And according to the top lawyer at the White House, so is President Clinton.
But getting to the bottom of it all may take some time. As Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), a veteran of the Senate Watergate investigation, put it yesterday, "We still don't know exactly what they were looking for in Watergate."
The improper collection by Clinton aides of sensitive FBI files on hundreds of Republicans has left the question of "what for?" uppermost in the minds of investigators, and defenders, of the Clinton White House. Some of the FBI reports were on prominent Republicans, but most were little-known staffers from the Reagan and Bush administrations who would seem unlikely candidates for any "enemies list."
"I don't think you know or anybody else knows exactly what happened here except that it was wrong," White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said yesterday on CBS's "Face the Nation." But he reiterated the White House view that it was "a bureaucratic mistake," albeit an inexcusable one.
Republicans voiced suspicions of "a darker motive," particularly in light of the credentials of the two men at the White House personnel security office linked to the acquisition of the files, personnel security director Craig Livingstone and investigator Anthony B. Marceca, a friend and sidekick from several past Democratic presidential campaigns. Both were advance men and according to a consultant who met them on the 1984 Hart campaign, both professed a taste for political "hardball."
"I think they were trolling for trash," former Reagan White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein said on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley." But when asked "to what end," Duberstein replied, "Well, I think that's something we're going to find out." He said it might be, as Thompson a minority counsel on the Senate Watergate committee in 1973 and 1974 suggested earlier on the program, that the big list was a smoke screen, masking a plan to get the FBI files on just a few people such as Billy R. Dale, fired director of the White House travel office, and his associates. They were initially replaced by companies linked to friends of the Clintons.
Dale and six other veterans of the travel office were fired in May 1993, seven months before Marceca began asking for the FBI for its background reports under the printed imprimatur of then-White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum. Marceca claimed that the files were required because the individuals listed 407 improperly so needed access to the White House complex. He has since said he didn't realize he was working from outdated lists.
White House counsel Jack Quinn, also on the ABC program, protested that "there is as yet not a shred of evidence that these files were requested out of political motivation, or that they were put to any political use, or that they were looked at by anyone outside the White House security operations."
The files were stored in a walk-in vault that had a photocopying machine.
The discomfiture of congressional Democrats was evident on yesterday's talk shows with the repetition of calls for the dismissal of Livingstone, who has been put on paid leave. Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Paul Simon (D-Ill.) called for his ouster, but Panetta rejected the idea, saying he might be "old-fashioned this way, but I don't think you fire anybody or destroy their lives without evidence of wrongdoing."
Rep. William F. Clinger Jr. (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "it would appear that the administration is attempting to sort of have designated scapegoats in Mr. Livingstone and Mr. Marceca." He said that former White House associate counsel William H. Kennedy III, to whom Livingstone reported, was "the one who actually wrote to the Pentagon" asking that Marceca, a civilian investigator for the Army, be detailed to the White House.
Kennedy, who came under fire during the White House travel office controversy and for failing to pay taxes for his family's nanny, left the White House in November 1994 and moved back to Arkansas where he is "of counsel" to the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock.
Clinger said "the most important question is who really authorized the requisitioning of these files? Who prepared the lists? Nobody seems to want to claim paternity" for them.
Whatever the answer, officials indicated it is not likely to be contained in the 2,000 documents on the travel office controversy that the House is demanding before a scheduled vote on a contempt of Congress citation on Thursday, with Quinn as the main target.
Clinger and Quinn both voiced hope yesterday that continuing negotiations could resolve the dispute. Clinger indicated he would not insist on documents bearing on White House dealings with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
Quinn said none of the documents has "anything to do" with the FBI files flap. Quinn said that "there is no one, no one in this country who is more determined to get to the bottom of it, and who is more angry about it than the president of the United States."
House and Senate investigations are already underway, and Starr was authorized Friday by a special three-judge court to conduct a grand jury inquiry. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.), among others, has urged investigators to consider whether the improperly collected files contain any private, protected taxpayer information. Archer has said he believes at least one file does.
It could be a felony if improperly collected taxpayer information acquired by the White House came from the IRS, but that does not appear to be the case. A Justice Department source said the FBI does not collect taxpayer information from the IRS as part of its background investigations process.
Clinger said that while the controversy has yet to have any effect on Clinton's standing in election-year polls, he predicted that "this is ultimately going to resonate with the American people because they can sort of say, `There, but for the grace of God, go I.' "
On CNN's "Late Edition," Vice President Gore said that the Republicans have to talk about such matters because "that's all they've got to do. They can't talk about the issues and so . . . they're going to talk about everything except the economic boom in America and the declining crime rate and the advancing prospects for American families."
Asked about Livingstone, who worked as an advance man for Gore's 1988 Democratic presidential campaign, Gore said he didn't know him well, but "he seemed to me to be very competent at what he did."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company