An irate Bill Clinton is sounding off to reporters about the ignominious FBI, but perhaps he should worry more about Fred Thompson. The Republican senator from Tennessee is determined to find out what happened to missing investigative notes about 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign fund-raising.

At a Sept. 22 hearing by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Chairman Thompson told Justice Department officials to explain, by the next day, this mystery: the disappearance of 27 pages from veteran FBI agent Barbara Parker's notebook relating to the investigation of Democratic fund-raiser Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie. When Justice and FBI officials gathered in Thompson's office on Sept. 23, he encountered a familiar stall. He was told that getting an answer would take several weeks.

Not good enough, said Thompson. Supported by the committee's senior Democrat (Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut), he launched his own investigation and began taking depositions this week. Thompson is inured to failure after five years of Justice Department runarounds, but this time he plans full investigative techniques--perhaps even fingerprints. All for some missing notes on a virtually forgotten scandal? Thompson is really aiming at what he calls the "shadow government" that controls both Justice and its nominal chief, Attorney General Janet Reno.

President Clinton did not become a world-class survivor by ignoring threats. So his face turned red last Friday evening at the rope line of a White House event when reporters questioned him about testimony of FBI agents before the Thompson committee. "The FBI wants you to write about that rather than write about Waco," the president told them, as quoted by Investor's Business Daily.

What enraged Clinton was the FBI's Sept. 22 testimony. Erstwhile Little Rock restaurateur Charlie Trie's assistant Maria Mapili, in 1997, was destroying documents subpoenaed by a grand jury, while Justice lawyers prevented agents from searching her home. Little Rock agent-in-charge Ivian C. Smith (now retired) sent Director Louis Freeh a memo detailing obstruction by Justice. After Justice was served with a congressional subpoena, somebody tore 27 pages out of agent Parker's notebook.

Parker discovered that last month, after her notebook was returned to her by the Justice task force investigating campaign finance irregularities. The 27 pages cover her notes from June 14 to July 17, 1997--a detailed record of the FBI's investigation thwarted by Justice. The culmination of the case was Trie's getting a slap on the wrist four months ago after plea bargaining.

Agent-in-charge Smith's Aug. 4, 1997, extraordinary memo to Freeh revealed "an increasing amount of frustration by the working street agents . . . where very elementary investigative steps are being ignored or delayed." Smith told the FBI director: "I am convinced the team at DOJ [Department of Justice] leading this investigation is, at best, simply not up to the task."

Smith revealed he had urged Parker to preserve a record for "future historians" of why her requested search warrants had been rejected. As Sen. Thompson put the question: "Why did Justice stand by while Trie destroyed documents?"

No Republican in Congress has been more unhappy than Thompson with Attorney General Reno's perpetual stonewalling when asked for information. But he truly believes she is out of the loop on nearly everything that goes on in her department, and surely is unaware of the defacement of FBI agent notes.

Laura Ingersoll, the Justice Department lawyer who headed the campaign finance task force, may be the scapegoat for stymieing the FBI. But Thompson sees a politicized Justice triumvirate as the "shadow government" calling the tune: Robert Litt, principal associate deputy attorney general; Mark Richard, deputy assistant attorney general in the criminal division; and Lee Radek, chief of the criminal division's public integrity division. These are not the disinterested career prosecutors that Reno claims have been running the campaign finance task force.

As he ranted at the rope line last Friday night, President Clinton did not limit his attacks to the FBI. He accused Republicans of wanting to avoid gun control and claimed Haley Barbour and Bob Dole were the real campaign finance miscreants. But that counteraction is not likely to deflect Fred Thompson from trying to find, after all these years, what really goes on inside the Justice Department.

(c) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.