Perils of a Fishbowl White House
The erosion of presidential privacy, now on display, poses risks to governing.
WASHINGTON — Fisheye lenses are fastened on the doors of the Oval Office. The peepholes allow the staff to look in to see if a meeting is still under way. They also help the Secret Service monitor the president.
But increasingly, warn scholars and White House insiders, another wide-angle lens is being created - one providing an unprecedented view into an institution that has a need for a legitimate degree of secrecy.
While the public is preoccupied with the buzz of scandal, layers of invasive scrutiny are becoming quietly institutionalized by the courts, the office of independent counsel, even former staffers that could extend into future administrations. The result: an emerging "transparent presidency" in which virtually no chat or scribbled note is off limits.
To be sure, some argue that such accountability for those conducting the public's business is good in a democracy. But others believe the decline of secrecy is chilling discussion and note-taking within the White House and could imperil policymaking on sensitive matters.
"There is concern that whatever one says or writes could one day be the subject of a subpoena," says a White House source. "All you have to do is think of any conversation you might have in your house ... or at the water cooler and imagine it winding up in public, in a court setting under scrutiny of the law and the American people."
Historically, such clarity into the inner workings of the White House has come after a president leaves office. Secret audiotapes recorded by presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon continue to provide an unfiltered glimpse into the men and decisions that shaped a nation in turbulent times.
But with the current investigative forces at play, in particular the Office of the Independent Counsel (OIC), sensitive information about the day-to-day workings of the White House is surfacing while the president and his staff remain in office.
Some of the information from the Monica Lewinsky inquiry dribbles into the headlines through leaks to the media. Volumes will be recorded and contained in the OIC's eventual report. "It really does raise legitimate questions about the president's ability to communicate," says Charles Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "The protections or firewalls are fairly thin at present compared to what we thought they were in the past."
The shield of privacy has been under attack ever since Mr. Clinton became president. In his first term, he was compelled to give videotaped testimony in two different investigations.
Hillary Rodham Clinton was subpoenaed and appeared in the first-ever questioning of a first lady before a grand jury as part of the Whitewater probe. The personal journals of Cabinet-level staff were also subpoenaed during congressional hearings into Whitewater and the controversy surrounding the White House travel office.
"I'd love to keep a diary to remember my experience, but I know better," says the White House source.
During Clinton's second term, the Supreme Court allowed the Paula Jones sexual-harassment suit to go forward. The court also rejected Clinton's attempt to claim executive privilege in his conversations with White House attorneys. As a result, virtually all talks with anyone other than his wife or personal lawyers now seem subject to subpoena.
The court's rulings have also set the groundwork for independent counsel Kenneth Starr to subpoena the president himself in the civil matter. The White House is reluctant to discuss how it would respond to such a request. Some historians believe that, were he to testify, it would significantly lower the threshold of presidential privacy.
As the possibility of a presidential subpoena is considered by both the White House and OIC, administration staffers - past and present - continue to be summoned before Mr. Starr's grand jury. The witness list runs from the most senior presidential aides to a White House steward and former interns.
"Is this really what we want?" asks Mark Rozell, a political scientist at American University in Washington. "All presidents have clear national security and privacy interests. Presidents have a need to protect the public interest and confidentiality of internal deliberations."
UNKNOWN at press time are the ground rules under which active-duty Secret Service officers might testify - a much-sought-after goal of the Starr staff. The Justice Department, which oversees the agency, argues that allowing open-ended questioning would jeopardize the fundamental relationship between the Secret Service and those it protects. One possible compromise the OIC and Justice are negotiating would preclude the questioning of agents about Clinton's movements or discussions.
The degree of scrutiny Starr has placed on the Oval Office will be central to the reevaluation of the independent-counsel statute, scheduled for reauthorization next year. In the meantime, White House officials are bristling over what they consider another breach of privacy - former staffers writing tell-all books and becoming TV commentators.
Such books were common during the Reagan years. But former Clinton confidants are refining the art form, according to critics in the White House. One "commen-traitor" they single out: former adviser George Stephanopoulos, now a contributor to ABC News and Newsweek, who is writing his memoirs.