White House officials yesterday described a torn-up note left by deputy counsel Vincent Foster Jr. as a "written argument with himself" about problems with his job. Its discovery Monday produced hours of high-level debate and consultations with Attorney General Janet Reno before key officials agreed the note should be turned over to police.
The 30-hour White House delay in informing U.S. Park Police of the existence of the note and producing it increased frustration among police investigators, who have felt hindered in their pursuit of the case. While convinced that Foster's death was a suicide, investigators believe the White House slowed examination of evidence and interviews necessary to determine if some sudden event connected with his job prompted President Clinton's friend to take his own life, sources said.
In an effort to defend and explain their actions after Foster's apparent suicide July 20, White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, counselor David R. Gergen and others yesterday offered reasons for what has seemed to be a less than fully candid and cooperative attitude toward the investigation.
In addition, the White House yesterday said it would turn over telephone logs from the last two weeks of Foster's life to Park Police, who are investigating the death in a Virginia riverside park, made administration officials available to investigating officers and reported that Foster's widow, Lisa, yesterday was interviewed for the first time by police.
Yesterday's increased effort to aid investigators and the availability of senior aides to answer reporters' questions reflected concern that the private tragedy of Foster's death has also become a public liability. White House credibility has been called into question by a series of sometimes contradictory statements about the investigation and knowledge on the part of the president and others about Foster's mental state.
Officials said they have tried to balance their responsibility to aid the investigation with concerns about preserving the privacy of Foster's family and safeguarding the privileged material he regularly dealt with as the No. 2 person in the office that advises the president on legal and personnel matters.
U.S. Park Police Chief Robert E. Langston last night said, "It's been hard getting some material out of them . . . a lot of political sensitivity has been brought into it." But, he said, his investigators now are "pretty well wrapping this up."
"The evidence led to the conclusion he was suffering from depression, he was dejected by his job."
Langston said investigators had learned Foster was being treated by a physician in Arkansas and that some medication, believed to be an antidepressant, had been shipped to him. But he said it was unclear whether Foster had started taking the medicine.
Langston also said that Foster's widow had been unable to identify the 1913 Army Colt revolver that Foster used to shoot himself. But investigators were sending the weapon to a family member in Arkansas after it was suggested that some firearms similar to it had been "given away by a grandfather" to members of Foster's family some years ago.
White House officials yesterday continued to paint a portrait of Foster as a man who was "down" and "unhappy" and "worried about his performance," but whose suicide was shocking.
The officials said that none of the material recovered thus far -- including the note discovered Monday and a list found in his possession with the names and phone numbers of two psychiatrists -- offered any explanation for the suicide beyond a depression whose seriousness was visible only in hindsight.
Beyond the delay in informing investigators about the note discovered Monday, officials acknowledged other problems that police say made their investigation more difficult. Despite orders by McLarty, Foster's office was not sealed by White House officials the night his body was found but only at midmorning the next day. And when police later moved to search the office, Nussbaum insisted he would conduct the search in the presence of police, describing what he found but not allowing them to search independently or look at documents, records or other items.
"This was not a crime," Gergen said of the Foster death. He said the White House had been told by authorities that Foster had killed himself, and officials were not preoccupied with preserving evidence or sealing offices.
White House officials yesterday would not release the contents of the note found this week. McLarty described it as "a note of frustration, not of scandal." While it could be read as an explanation for suicide, he said, it also could have been read as "consistent with Vince wanting to quit his job."
"It was curious and vague, it had no date or signature, no reference to suicide," McLarty said, "We don't know when it was written. If one did not know Vince had committed suicide, one could conclude it was a series of arguments on why the job was going badly, that he was going to resign."
Park Police Chief Langston described the note as "dealing with negative things that have occurred," including references to the role of the White House counsel's office in the May firing of officials in the White House travel office and the resulting controversy.
Langston declined to describe the reference to the travel office, but said that "it could be other agencies may be looking at that note," adding that the FBI had been given a copy.
The officials described its discovery in Foster's briefcase this past Monday afternoon as "a chapter out of a John le Carre." In the original search of the office, Nussbaum took what he thought were all the contents out of the briefcase, described as a "battered, leather accordion-style" container. But as Steve Neuwirth, an associate counsel asked to inventory the Foster office on Monday, picked up the briefcase and turned it over to pack it in a box with other personal belongings, scraps of yellow legal paper fell out, one official said. Neuwirth started putting the pieces together, and called Nussbaum.
Nussbaum called McLarty in Chicago, where he and Gergen were with the president. "He told me it went to Vince's state of mind," McLarty said. ". . . Bernie said there was no reference to suicide, that it was not a suicide note."
McLarty and Gergen said they agreed the note must be turned over to the Justice Department, but Gergen said, "there were outstanding issues." Included among them were whether it contained material covered by executive privilege and concern that "basic decency" dictated that it not be turned over until Lisa Foster was notified.
McLarty said he wanted Gergen involved in the discussions over how to proceed because of McLarty's own personal connection with Foster -- the two had been friends since they and Clinton were youngsters together in Hope, Ark.
McLarty and Gergen said they wanted to wait until Tuesday to decide how to handle the note because they wanted to research legal issues and discuss it with the president.
On Tuesday, the two men said, they had a series of meetings as they awaited the arrival in Washington of Lisa Foster and her attorney. Reno and Deputy Attorney General Philip B. Heymann were asked to go to the White House for a discussion late in the day, as soon as Clinton's tight schedule allowed him to fully discuss the matter.
Reno said the note should not be given to the Justice Department but to the Park Police as the lead investigators. By 8 p.m. Tuesday, more than 30 hours after its discovery, police investigators were called to the White House and given the note.
The delay in turning over the note was not the only White House action that police believed hindered their investigation. Police were upset about the failure to seal Foster's office immediately to ensure that no documents, notes or correspondence were removed. McLarty acknowledged that, while he had ordered the office sealed the night Foster died, it remained open and unguarded until at least 10 or 11 a.m. the following day. One person with firsthand knowledge said, "One or two or three" people went in and out before Nussbaum got the Secret Service to post a guard outside the office.
Later, when Nussbaum searched the office in the presence of law enforcement officials and a lawyer representing Foster's family, one source said, an FBI agent was reprimanded by a White House official when he stood up from the chair to which he had been relegated. The official accused the agent of attempting to "peek" at some of the material Nussbaum was removing, and ordered him to sit down.
Police who arrived at Foster's house the night of the death were turned away after being told Lisa Foster and family members were too distraught to talk. Investigators were not allowed to interview her until yesterday. "That was a matter between her lawyers and the police," Gergen said, and the White House "had no role in it."
Despite increasing acknowledgement by White House officials that Foster had been far more upset than they originally had suggested, McLarty, Gergen, White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers and others said yesterday that nothing resembling deep depression was evident to them.
"He was not quite the same can-do guy. His attitude was not the same. But he was working at his job, accomplishing his work. He was less than upbeat, yes, but he did not send any signals of suicide," McLarty said.
Judging from the late-discovered note, and from conversations with friends, Foster did appear to be weighed down by a sense of failures in his work as lawyer to the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The list discovered by Park Police in Foster's possession after his death contained the names of two Washington psychiatrists: Stefan A. Pasternack and Martin G. Allen, clinical professors of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. But Foster did not contact or visit either of them. "And that's the tragedy of it all," said Pasternack. "This could have been prevented."
Friends and associates reported that he showed certain signs of a person suffering from depression, including weight loss and insomnia. But Foster's friends and colleagues cautioned against painting the picture of a suicidal man too starkly. "Yeah, he was under a lot of pressure, but everyone at the White House is under a lot of pressure," said Skip Rutherford, a friend of Foster and confidant of McLarty.
Many friends noted that Foster attended a pool party three weekends before his death, worked both days two weekends before his death, and vacationed at the beach house of Washington lawyer Michael Cardozo the weekend before his death.
"He seemed relaxed and he seemed to be enjoying himself," said Harolyn Cardozo. "There was no indication he was significantly troubled. . . . His relationship with his wife seemed wonderful."
In separate interviews yesterday, Harolyn Cardozo and Michael Cardozo said the weekend had not been designed to cheer up Foster, but had been planned more than a week before as a means for everybody concerned to get a break from the stress of their Washington jobs.
Staff writer David Von Drehle contributed to this report.