When the FBI calls

IN the next few weeks, an army of Federal Bureau of Investigation agents will be interviewing candidates being considered for high-level jobs in the Bush administration. The FBI interviews the candidates, people who know the candidates, and then people who know the people who know the candidates. The idea behind this exhaustive security check is to flush out any inclinations, frailties, or wrongdoing that would bar the candidate from holding government office. For the candidate being interviewed, it is generally an intriguing experience. It is often entertaining for the candidates' friends. The only people who do not seem to have much fun are the FBI agents. They are told only that their man, or woman, is up for a presidential appointment. They aren't told what the job is. And if they miss some deep-hidden communist leaning, or some pecadillo that later emerges to haunt the administration, somebody will end up investigating them.

My own experience with the system came some years ago. My appointment came from the president and required a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and confirmation by the Senate. That makes the White House folks very skittish. First comes an initial background check conducted in secret. If you survive that, the president announces his ``intention'' to nominate you. After further investigation, the president actually nominates you. The idea is that the president has several opportunities along the way to dissociate his administration from you.

So you have been told by the White House that you are under consideration, but warned that this is confidential. A leak will jeopardize the nomination. That's fine unless you live in a small Cape Cod town, population 5,000, when the FBI descends.

I was home at lunch when the receptionist at the little weekly newspaper I owned telephoned me.

``Mr. Hughes,'' she said, ``are you in trouble with the law?''

``Not that I know of,'' I replied.

``Well,'' she said, ``there's a man here from the FBI asking questions about you.'' And then, with splendid Cape Cod independence, ``of course, we won't tell him ANYTHING.''

Next came my son home from high school.

``Guess you're being screened by the feds,'' he said laconically.

``How do you know?'' I asked.

``Well,'' he said, ``there's a guy at the head of our road in a black limo with all kinds of electronic stuff in it. He asked me what I knew about you. I gave him all the scoop - and then I told him I was your son.''

My neighbor, who had spent a career in Washington, told the FBI: ``PLEASE don't take him to Washington. It's a terrible place.''

Over the days, the net spread wider and friends as far afield as Hawaii and Alaska were visited by FBI agents. Many of my friends are journalists. There is something about a visit from the FBI that brings out the irreverent in them. So some of them told the FBI I was a communist (I'm not), or that I was on drugs (I don't take drugs), or that I was an alcoholic (I don't drink). The FBI sorted it all out but was not amused.

Neither was the White House counsel, who asked whether I had ever written anything ``controversial.'' Sure, I replied - on most days of my life. When asked for details, I sent them 30 years of clippings from a career in daily journalism.

Take heart, pending presidential appointee. I made it. You may too.

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