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A 'Snafu' Worthy of a Full-Blown Probe

CAMPAIGN ROADMAP. A continuing series of articles analyzing the '96 presidential strategies.

June 16, 1996|John P. Sears | John P. Sears, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980

WASHINGTON — Anyone who lived in Washington in the early 1970s was probably alarmed at hearing that the Clinton White House had obtained FBI files on more than 400 former White House pass-holders, most of them prominent Republicans. The White House claimed the files were requested in the course of "updating" its access list. But those who remember Watergate know the evil purposes that can be served when the FBI delivers personal information to the White House on people the White House views as unfriendly.

Most people think the FBI is a detective agency. In truth, its agents are either accountants or lawyers highly skilled at tracking involved financial transactions, money-laundering schemes, criminal fraud, bribery and corruption. While the FBI maintains a criminal laboratory and an extensive fingerprint facility, which are available to state and local law-enforcement agencies, it is limited to investigating federal crimes.

But in the hands of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI became a collector of personal information on everybody and anybody in whom he took an interest. The agency was not specifically authorized to carry out this mission, but it wasn't prohibited from doing so, either.

In the '60s, it was well known in Washington that Hoover kept files on all members of Congress, Cabinet members and the president of the United States. People who were critical of the FBI could expect Drew Pearson, or some other columnist favored by Hoover, to write a article denouncing them on some unrelated issue. If they persisted, the critics could expect a column revealing some embarrassing personal incident in their lives. Blackmail was not too harsh a word when it came to Hoover's use of personal information to embellish his power and deal with his critics.

With Hoover's death and the unfolding of the Watergate scandal, some of what the FBI had been doing, at taxpayer expense, came to light. It was a sordid picture of attempts to discredit civil rights leaders and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators, of burglary to secure privileged information on individuals, of wire-taps under the guise of "national security" and of a general pattern of violating the constitutional rights of American citizens. President Richard M. Nixon got much of the blame for this conduct, but it was obvious that the bureau had been behaving in this fashion for at least 20 years before Nixon's presidency.

Calls for reform came from Congress, legislation was passed and each succeeding director of the FBI has assured us that the bureau no longer indulges in the kinds of activity it once did.

If true, why would the FBI even have a file on Bob Dole to send to the White House? Why did the agency cooperate, at the request of the White House, in what it must have quickly recognized as an attempt to discredit members of the White House travel office? How many files does the FBI possess? Who do they keep them on?

I suppose the FBI would say that it still must protect the "national security" of the country. But the Cold War is over, the communists don't even dare act like communists anymore and, surely, the need for prying into the private lives of people who come and go at the White House, or work there, has diminished considerably. Do you need to keep a current file on Dole to determine that his visits to the White House pose no national-security risk to the United States?

President Bill Clinton assures us the whole affair was simply a "completely honest bureaucratic snafu." He seeks to deny any evil intent by charging incompetence on the part of his own administration. Ann Lewis, the deputy campaign chair for the Clinton-Gore reelection effort, tells us we shouldn't be concerned, because the files were only read up to the "D's." I wonder if they got to the "Do's," as in Dole.

Rep. William F. Clinger Jr. (R-Pa.) promises hearings. He would do well to broaden his investigation to include the full range of any contacts between the FBI and the White House. You might turn up a "completely honest bureaucratic snafu" resulting in a few, good-old "national security" wire-taps. Also, the congressman's seeming lack of interest in asking the FBI any embarrassing questions about its own conduct creates the horrible suspicion that Congress may still fear the FBI too much to question its practices.

Presidents should be required to report any contacts they have with the FBI to Congress, and Congress should force the FBI to destroy all its files that don't pertain to ongoing criminal investigations. Criminal and political blackmail are not proper enterprises for presidents or the FBI.*

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