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Glitches May Be Culprits in Files Affair, Panel Told

June 29, 1996|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — White House career employees and Secret Service agents testified Friday that a series of technical problems and computer flaws may have created confusion that led to improper requests for more than 700 FBI files on past Republican appointees.

The testimony provided the strongest corroboration to date of White House claims that its office of personnel security unwittingly got outdated lists in 1993 and 1994 from the Secret Service. The agency had insisted previously that its lists of individuals with White House clearances were updated every few days and could not have been in error.

But in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Secret Service agent Jeffrey Undercoffer said that "our computer system was at capacity and overloaded for several months" during the time in question and did not update personnel changes properly.

Undercoffer and his supervisor, Arnold Cole, sought to minimize the troubles, however, and suggested that computer glitches in their separate rosters of "active" and "inactive" passholders could not have caused as many improper White House requests for FBI background files as occurred.

Democrats sought solace in the men's testimony, which was supported by several White House career employees, and declared that it showed the 3-week-old files controversy resulted from an apparently innocent blunder.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the committee's ranking Democrat, said the Secret Service deserves a large share of the blame for what he called an inadvertent "screw-up," and asked: "Is this the outfit we're counting on to protect the president?" He also said that the White House and the FBI shared in the blame.

Republicans said that the operation still could have been sinister.

The Democratic cause was not helped when Anthony Marceca, a central figure in the case, refused to appear for further congressional testimony. His lawyer said that Marceca, a former Democratic political worker who requested the files, was invoking his constitutional right against self-incrimination.

The move was surprising because Marceca had given lengthy testimony two days earlier to a House committee investigating the same matter. His attorney, Robert F. Muse, did not explain the shift in tactics, although it could have stemmed from the criminal investigation of the case that Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr began a week ago.

Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said Marceca's refusal to testify signaled that "this investigation is getting somewhere."

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) proposed that the committee consider granting Marceca immunity from prosecution. But Hatch said the Senate should first consult Starr, who later announced he would oppose such a move because it would interfere with his investigation.

Besides the Secret Service, Biden said, fault can be found with "a very inexperienced staff in the White House office of personnel security in 1993, who received little if any formal training" in updating lists of persons who had clearance to enter the White House complex.

Also, he said, the FBI should never have sent Marceca its background files on GOP officials who clearly had left government, such as former White House Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), saying he still suspects something "sinister," noted that, according to the White House, the list Marceca used cannot be found.

"All we've heard is a bunch of hearsay about outdated lists," Grassley said, adding that some deception may have been "based on a list that would give them a cover story in case they got caught."

Testimony by the agents and by White House career employees left unsettled how the list used by Marceca was created. The White House earlier acknowledged that the list contained more than 400 names of persons who had left government service, most of them once employed by the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Earlier this week, it was disclosed that Marceca had requested additional FBI summaries on about 300 other people who had worked for the National Security Council in the White House during past administrations.

Cole, the Secret Service supervisor, said that D. Craig Livingstone--Marceca's boss at the White House--told him early this month that "using the old list was our fault" but that he was going to blame the Secret Service.

Livingstone, who testified earlier Friday, had sought to assure senators that no FBI data on past Republican employees or officials ever left his office. He left the hearing room before Cole testified and could not be asked for his reaction. His attorney did not return subsequent phone calls.

In other testimony, Mary Beck, who first went to work at the White House during the Bush administration and now is an associate director of the White House office of administration, said that a task force she headed discovered problems with Secret Service lists in late 1993 and early 1994.

Beck said that a Secret Service pass database contained names of many lower-level White House employees who were no longer on her "personnel payroll database" and that "this problem continued for months."

Charles Easley, White House security chief, told the committee that two former White House officials he knew were still listed by the Secret Service as "active" five years after they had told the agency to remove their names.

Earlier this month, Richard Miller, head of protective operations for the Secret Service, testified that his agency is not capable of producing outdated lists. He said that on its registry of 24,000 names, it clearly separates persons who no longer have White House access from those who are still active.

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