The fund-raising furor in Washington gets curiouser and curiouser. Now we have the China angle, which in turn has led to a unique confrontation between the FBI and the White House as to who told what to whom--i.e., who's telling the truth.
At least we know when: It was on June 3 that FBI agents advised the White House national security staff that the Chinese government might be trying to buy influence by spiriting illegal contributions into U.S. congressional election campaigns.
President Clinton says the agents told the NSC officials not to pass the information on to higher officials in the White House. Why the FBI would do that was not explained. Had they done so, Clinton said, it might have raised a "red flag" about fund-raising tactics of his own election campaign, which was focusing on Asian American business interests.
The FBI retorted that the White House was wrong, insisting that the agents did not admonish the NSC officials to keep the information to themselves. The White House stuck by its story.
As tends to be the nature of rapidly unfolding scandal, the developments of the evening overtook the original event. Suddenly the story was whether the FBI or the White House was lying. Left in the murk was the China question and what intelligence the FBI had that prompted it to issue such a warning.
The latest incident adds more weight to the argument that a special counsel should be appointed to investigate all the myriad allegations of potential law violations in the manner in which the Democratic National Committee, under White House direction, raised hundreds of millions of dollars last year.
Atty. Gen. Janet Reno insists that the Justice Department can fairly handle the probe. Her argument is eroded by the involvement of the FBI, which reports to her, in the China angle.
The FBI's battle with the White House occurred in an exchange of news statements and not under oath. So there can be no accusation of lawbreaking, the usual requirement for summoning an independent prosecutor. But it's the sort of issue that demands an independent airing by a noninvolved source.
Beyond that, what caused the FBI to issue its warning? Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was one member of Congress receiving a similar briefing by agents. Feinstein demanded more information from FBI Director Louis Freeh on Monday, and got only the same vague caution about possible Chinese contributions.
This is pertinent to the White House fund-raising investigation because of allegations that funds raised from some sources might have originated with foreign nationals or foreign governments, which would be a violation of U.S. election law. A full investigation by an independent counsel is needed to ferret out the truth and begin restoring some public confidence in the American political system.