What's a Poor G-Man Supposed to Do?

Consider the dilemma of Louis Freeh. In June of last year, the FBI director complains of having been "victimized" in handing over some 600 personnel files for political use in the White House, and he angrily promises that it will not happen again.

Then FBI counterintelligence receives from the secret eavesdropping organization, the National Security Agency, information from highly sensitive intercepts indicating that China, through its embassy in Washington, may be involved in funneling money into the American political campaign. Several members of Congress are mentioned by name.

After checking with Attorney General Janet Reno, you send agents to brief legislators confidentially in very general terms. What do you do about informing the White House that has burned you before?

You buck that question to the attorney general, who, after one unreturned phone call to then national security adviser Anthony Lake, bucks the problem back to you.

Well, you don't trust the loose-lipped political types in the White House, but it's your duty to let them know. So two FBI officers meet with their White House intelligence liaison opposite numbers, tell them about the China intercepts, and warn them to hold the sensitive information very closely.

So impressed are they by the need for secrecy that they don't even tell their boss, Tony Lake, or the president.

Now it's February 1997, and word of what happened last June leaks to The Washington Post. There is a big flap about the president being left in the dark, officially explained as being the result of a "misunderstanding." But now the situation has become more complicated.

The attorney general has ordered the FBI to investigate the Chinese connection, and some people in the White House are potentially involved in the flow of Asian money into the campaign.

So, when White House counsel Charles Ruff asks the FBI, formally, in writing, that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright be briefed on possible Chinese illegal contributions in preparation for her upcoming trip to China, the FBI says no.

Mr. Freeh says he fears a leak. He doesn't say that he also fears the FBI being put in a position analogous to 1973, when White House counsel John Dean demanded Watergate information from the FBI and used it to try to frustrate the Watergate investigation.

That means that Secretary Albright, and then Vice President Al Gore, went to Beijing, themselves not knowing the full story when they discussed the campaign money with Chinese officials.

President Clinton indicated his anger with Freeh, saying that the FBI has a dual obligation to provide information needed for national security while preserving the integrity of criminal investigations.

But what if those obligations clash because your investigation reaches into the White House? Then you sit tight, take comfort from the fact that Attorney General Reno has publicly backed you, and trust that President Clinton will realize he can't afford to fire you. Not now, anyway.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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