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Files Case Rates an Explanation : White House account of FBI-data incident isn't satisfactory

June 11, 1996

"A completely honest bureaucratic snafu" was President Clinton's assessment of how the White House got hold of more than 300 confidential personnel files from the FBI. On the contrary, suggests Bob Dole, Clinton's presumptive Republican challenger for the presidency, this is a matter that "smells to high heaven." With investigations by the FBI, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and at least one congressional committee pending, it's likely to be a while before the hows and whys of what happened are clarified. For now, the least controversial description comes from Leon Panetta, the White House chief of staff: The request for and perusal of the files were simply "inexcusable."

There would of course be less of a to-do if some of those files weren't on prominent Republicans, like former Secretary of State James Baker and Kenneth Duberstein, President George Bush's onetime chief of staff. There would also be less ground for concern--and not just partisan concern--if this incident didn't disturbingly bring to mind how the FBI was misused for attempted political advantage by President Richard Nixon and his staff. And the claim of a bureaucratic goof would be far more credible if this whole business hadn't been exposed by the White House's improper request for the FBI file on Billy R. Hale. That request came seven months after Hale was sacked as head of the White House travel office to make room for a Clinton crony, and the request appears very much to have been a retrospective effort to justify what was eventually acknowledged to be a grossly unfair firing.

To accept the claim of a bureaucratic--implying low-level--mistake is to buy the idea that no one on the presidential staff in 1993 and early 1994 noticed that many of the names on the list of those being reviewed for security clearances had in fact departed with Bush. But surely even the most inexperienced or least politically astute staffer might have noticed that big-name Republicans were no longer very prominent in the White House. That awareness appears to have been an inexplicably long time in coming.

Because FBI files are highly sensitive and can touch on the most private of matters they must be guarded with the greatest care and shared, if at all, with the greatest discretion. It seems that in this case neither of those conditions was met. Exactly why demands a fuller explanation than has so far been given.

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