A senior State Department official this month ordered the U.S. Embassy in London to conduct an "extremely thorough" search for files on Bill Clinton's years as a graduate student in England, including any documents relating to the Democratic presidential candidate's draft status and citizenship, according to department officials.
The unusual instructions -- communicated in an Oct. 1 telephone call by Elizabeth M. Tamposi, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs -- came during a period in which Republican campaign officials and members of Congress were escalating their attacks on Clinton's draft history and role in the antiwar movement while he was a 22-year-old Rhodes scholar studying at Oxford University in 1969.
State Department officials said the telephone call was part of a department-wide search for records on Clinton in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from several news organizations that included a separate call by Tamposi to the U.S. Embassy in Oslo. As a result of one of those FOIA requests, from Hearst Newspapers, the embassy in London received a State Department cable on Sept. 30 specifically requesting a search of files relating to Clinton's draft status during the Vietnam War, student visas and citizenship, department officials said.
Norbert J. Krieg, U.S. consul general in London, said he assigned the request to his staff that evening. The next morning, however, Tamposi called and asked him "to be extremely thorough" in the search. Krieg said that he saw nothing improper in the request but decided to handle the matter personally and began looking through old files.
"I personally checked the files, and I can tell you we found absolutely nothing," Krieg said in an interview.
Krieg and other current and former department officials said the direct intervention by Tamposi -- a political appointee -- underscored the urgency of the Clinton search and showed it was receiving extraordinarily high-level attention within the department.
"It was unusual in the sense that I got a call from Betty Tamposi," said Krieg. "Normally, I personally don't get involved in handling these checks."
A spokeswoman said that Tamposi was on personal leave yesterday and unavailable for comment. State Department spokesman Joe Snyder refused to comment yesterday on any questions relating to the telephone calls. "We're not going to be going into the details as to how we pursued this," said Snyder. "It's a bottomless pit, basically."
A department official who said he discussed the matter with Tamposi said last night that Tamposi called the embassies in London and Oslo and told them to make sure that "you've got more than one person there when you're making the search." Tamposi's reason for making the request was to ensure that the department "can't be accused of any kind of political impropriety . . . to keep it all above reproach, that was her intent."
In fact, according to Krieg, there was little hope of finding any files because such records are routinely destroyed at the embassy in London after five years. Nevertheless, Krieg said, he searched through a small number of old records of "unusual" cases that are kept by a supervisor for training purposes.
The news of Tamposi's calls is the latest in a number of disclosures that have raised questions on Capitol Hill about whether senior State Department officials deviated for political purposes from standard procedures in the handling of Clinton's passport and other personal records. Last week, a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee and a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, asked the State Department for a briefing to determine "whether established procedures are being properly adhered to," a spokesman for one of the panels said yesterday.
Those questions in part relate to the State Department's decision, disclosed last week, to retrieve Clinton's passport files from the National Records Center in Suitland. Officials said they were acting in response to the same FOIA requests that prompted Tamposi's calls.
Frank Machak, director of the department's Freedom of Information Office, said yesterday in an interview that such files are not routinely pulled in response to FOIA requests. Instead, he said, FOIA requests relating to an individual's passport, citizenship or other records are handled by his office with a letter back to the requestor noting that such documents cannot be released without the written consent of the individual.
"We would ask them if they had your consent," said Machak. "Otherwise, your passport file is covered by the Privacy Act."
Machak said yesterday in an interview that the department received "four or five" letters from news organizations in September seeking documents on Clinton's draft or citizenship status.
These requests came at a time that rumors that Clinton had once sought to renounce his U.S. citizenship to avoid the draft were circulating widely among journalists. For example, one of the requests, dated Sept. 25 from the Associated Press, asked for a "a reported letter written by Bill Clinton years ago stating his intention to renounce his U.S. citizenship and take up residence in Norway." Clinton has denied all such rumors and no evidence to the contrary has surfaced.
Regarding these requests, Machak said his office decided to distribute copies of them to all State Department offices that might have documents on Clinton that would not be covered by the Privacy Act. He described this as a "typical bureaucratic" decision made by his subordinates and, he said, the decision was justified because some of the requests were generally worded so that there could have been some documents in other files that could be released.
When the requests were distributed to the Consular Affairs Office headed by Tamposi, however, officials there decided to order Clinton's passport files retrieved. A department official said the passport section was acting on the advice of department lawyers. But Machak said such "name specific" files could never be released under the law. Asked if he could explain why the files were pulled, Machak said, "I really can't."
Last week, the State Department confirmed that, after pulling the files, it forwarded them to the FBI after officials saw a tear that suggested the file might have been altered.
The FBI officials said last week they found no evidence of tampering with the files and expressed surprise that the State Department publicly announced the matter. The tear most likely resulted from staple holes caused when a routing slip or photograph had been torn from the application as part of routine processing.
Robinson reported from London.