A petition to a federal judge last week raised the possibility that the FBI files case, one of the capital's great all-time mysteries, might yet be broken open -- with political implications for Hillary Rodham Clinton. It requests the deposition of a former Clinton White House aide's ex-wife, who claims she observed her husband transferring FBI files into his lap-top computer.

The June 29 filing by the conservative Judicial Watch asked U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington to authorize the sworn testimony of Leslie Gail Kennedy, who was married until late 1994 to then White House associate counsel William H. Kennedy. The request also quotes Mrs. Kennedy's opinion that Mrs. Clinton was associated with the FBI files. The next day, Judicial Watch also asked Lamberth for a deposition of the first lady herself on grounds that "she was involved in, if not responsible for, making key decisions that bear on `Filegate.' "

Most inscrutable of the Clinton scandals is the appearance in the White House during President Clinton's first two years in office of FBI personal files of prominent Republicans. Even partisan Democrats suggested this was an inexcusable invasion of privacy. Yet after the White House shrugged it off as a "bureaucratic snafu," independent counsel Kenneth Starr seemed to lose interest.

But not the dogged Larry Klayman, chairman of Judicial Watch. His class-action suit against the White House, the FBI, selected aides and Mrs. Clinton asks $90 million for personages whose confidential files went astray. Happily for Klayman, the case is in the courtroom of Lamberth -- a Reagan appointee who shows no deference to the Clinton administration.

Still, the case looked dead until Judicial Watch employee Christopher Farrell interviewed Mrs. Kennedy at her Little Rock home June 11. According to Farrell's court filing, she told him that her former husband "brought FBI files from his White House office to their home in Alexandria, Va." She observed him "on several occasions" working for hours, "making entries from the files into a database he maintained on his lap-top computer."

Kennedy's wife, according to the filing, asserted that the database "was intended to make FBI file information accessible and useful to the Clinton Administration." Asked whether these were files of Reagan and Bush administration staffers, she replied there would be no need to review files of Democrats "routinely available" at the White House. Her statement tended to be confirmed by the deposition in the case last December by Linda Tripp, swearing that as a White House staffer she knew of Kennedy's putting FBI files into his database.

Farrell visited Mrs. Kennedy again June 16 to get a sworn affidavit, but she demurred. According to the filing, she said she "could not be seen by people in this administration as being out here volunteering information. If I get subpoenaed, that's a different story. At least, I'll have some cover."

If she is telling the truth, her ex-husband is in trouble. When deposed by Judicial Watch last October, William Kennedy denied ever using a lap-top computer while working at the White House. He said he didn't recall bringing home work related to the personnel clearance process and declared FBI files were "locked up after-hours in the White House." Kennedy's attorneys did not respond to my telephone calls.

Kennedy was no underling in the category of file purveyors Craig Livingstone and Anthony Marceca. He was Mrs. Clinton's colleague at the famous Rose Law Firm in Little Rock and is back there now. It is improbable that he would carry on activities alleged by his former wife without higher approval.

Mrs. Kennedy expressed personal views about how high the scandal goes. Asked what use might be made of the files, the court filing says, she "pointed out that Mrs. Clinton's first major policy objective was `health care reform' and that Mrs. Clinton anticipated resistance from many people in forwarding her agenda."

What Mrs. Kennedy would say under oath and cross-examination remains to be seen. Judge Lamberth now must decide whether she will be brought to Washington. He also must decide whether the first lady must finally tell what she knows about her erstwhile law partner and what he was doing with those FBI files.

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.