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National Perspective | Update

Pentagon Faces Legal Trouble for Release of Details on Tripp

March 22, 2000|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Near the start of President Clinton's political troubles over "that woman" two years ago, Pentagon officials released details from the confidential security file of Linda Tripp, the Defense Department employee who launched the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal with her secretly recorded tapes.

It may turn out to be an action the Pentagon long will regret.

Tripp is a plaintiff in two related federal lawsuits against the government.

First, she is pursuing an invasion-of-privacy suit against the Pentagon for revealing that she had concealed a long-ago shoplifting arrest in obtaining her security clearance.

Second, she is among hundreds of former Reagan and Bush appointees who are suing the White House for improperly obtaining their FBI security files at the start of the Clinton administration. The White House has claimed that this brouhaha, known as "Filegate," resulted from an innocent mistake by lower-level officials--and the Whitewater independent counsel recently announced he could find no criminal wrongdoing. Tripp and the other plaintiffs in the civil suit are represented by the conservative legal foundation Judicial Watch.

The Filegate case and Tripp's privacy lawsuit are in their pretrial phases, and both are being heard by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, a frequent administration critic.

Tripp and Judicial Watch earlier this month won a round against the Pentagon when Lamberth examined the Defense Department's release of confidential information about Tripp to see if there was any connection between that matter and Filegate--whether the White House, for example, had encouraged the Pentagon to release the Tripp information.

Although he concluded that the Defense Department appeared to be acting alone, Lamberth cited its action as "a clear violation of the Privacy Act."

It was just weeks after Tripp had blown the whistle on the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship that Pentagon officials released the potentially damaging information from Tripp's personnel folder.

Responding to a request from New Yorker magazine, Defense officials disclosed that Tripp--in an apparent violation of reporting rules--had failed to tell her superiors about her arrest in upstate New York in 1969, when she was a teen.

Tripp was arrested on suspicion of stealing $263 in cash and a $600 watch but said the items were planted in her handbag by friends as a prank. The case was resolved in a plea bargain when Tripp pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of loitering.

The magazine reported that Tripp had failed to tell her superiors about the episode.

In a deposition to Judicial Watch lawyers, Kenneth Bacon, assistant Defense secretary for public affairs, said he regretted allowing the disclosure without determining if it violated the federal Privacy Act.

Lamberth also suggested that the Pentagon was dragging its feet on its inquiry into the disclosure.

Pointing out that officials began their inquiry two years ago, Lamberth said: "The court finds it impossible to fathom how an internal investigation into such a simple matter could take so long to conclude."

Tripp's lawyers are expected to use Lamberth's ruling to bolster their separate invasion-of-privacy lawsuit, since the judge believes the Privacy Act was violated. Pentagon officials declined comment.

Federal employees have limited immunity from damage suits, but the suits can be sanctioned if courts determine the employees willfully violated federal law, legal experts said.

Tripp, who makes more than $100,000 a year as a public affairs specialist for the Pengagon, faces trial herself in Maryland this summer on state wiretapping charges for her recording of Lewinsky's phone calls. She has pleaded not guilty.

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