WASHINGTON — Watergate tapes they are not.
When congressional Republicans were probing White House campaign fund-raising coffees after the last presidential election, they rejoiced when they learned belatedly that the White House Communications Agency had filmed most of the events.
Videotapes showed President Clinton greeting John Huang, Pauline Kanchanalak and other major figures in the 1996 Democratic fund-raising scandal. But the biggest disappointment for Republicans was that the audio portions were scratchy or nonexistent.
A frustrated Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), the bete noire of the Clinton administration, went on national television in 1997 to say he was hiring lip-readers to scrutinize the videos for possible incriminating statements.
Scrutiny Yields Few Official Actions
The technique proved fruitless. Congressional inquiries wound down. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno refused GOP demands to appoint an outside prosecutor and instead established a campaign finance task force within the Justice Department that has convicted more than 25 people. Republicans note that no high-ranking officials have been charged.
Now Burton and his colleagues say they are unhappy that the Justice Department has ignored the tapes as evidence. But how good are they?
In the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, Richard Nixon was told on his secretly recorded tapes that "there's a cancer growing on the presidency." He dismissed that dire warning from his White House counsel, John W. Dean III.
Instead, Nixon proceeded in another taped conversation to advise his top aides that they could lie to a federal grand jury. "You could say you can't remember," he told John N. Mitchell, his former attorney general, who subsequently was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury before a grand jury.
Burton and Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) recently drew snickers in a congressional hearing room by offering what they said was taped evidence of another scandal. They claim that an analysis of a coffee videotape of Dec. 15, 1995, reveals Vice President Al Gore suggesting that a campaign "issue ad" made for television by the Democrats should be shown to James T. Riady.
Barr played the three-minute tape segment on a giant screen. Although Gore is off-camera, Barr said a barely audible voice belongs to the vice president and says:
"We oughta, we oughta, we oughta show Mr. Riady the tapes, some of the ad tapes."
Criminal evidence of a halting speech pattern? No, explained Barr, it suggests that Gore must have been aware of illegal foreign contributions by Riady, an Indonesian businessman and longtime Clinton friend.
Barr and Burton, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, demanded to know from Robert J. Conrad Jr., who heads the Justice Department's campaign finance task force, whether he had scrutinized this tape and why Gore was never questioned about Riady.
Conrad said he could not answer questions about an ongoing investigation. But he politely told Barr that he's always glad to receive any evidence, particularly from members of Congress. Gore, as Clinton, has denied under oath being aware of receiving any illegal foreign donations in the last election, including illicit funds from Riady.
Waxman Questions Tape 'Evidence'
Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, the committee's ranking Democrat, told Burton and Barr that this "evidence" should be put in proper perspective. First of all, said Waxman, no one can be sure that the barely audible voice belongs to Gore.
Secondly, is the reference really to Riady? "Maybe it's to Dottie or Lottie or even John Gotti," said Waxman, throwing up his hands.
Gore's spokesman, Jim Kennedy, had another suggestion. "Maybe if Mr. Burton has Oliver Stone as a witness we can truly get to the bottom of this," he said, referring to the producer who based a movie on the conspiracy theory of President Kennedy's assassination.