A mistake, a "dirty tricks" maneuver, or a murky combination of the two? It's far from clear which category the White House use of confidential FBI files falls into.
The files, requisitioned by White House staffers in 1993, included personal information on dozens of prominent Republicans. What happened, according to President Clinton's chief of staff Leon Panetta, was a monumental snafu by an aide who was detailed to check the backgrounds of people to be given access to the White House.
The aide got hold of an old list from the Bush administration, so the explanation goes, and hence the wholesale alphabetical search of Republicans' files - at least until the letter "G," when the mistake was detected.
By then, supposedly, the transferred files included one on Billy Dale, former head of the White House travel office who had been fired, amid considerable controversy, by the Clintons' staff. It was Mr. Dale's FBI file that aroused the suspicions of members of the House Government Reform and Oversight committee.
Discovery that the Dale file was accompanied by 337 others immediately enhanced the scent of scandal - so much so that GOP standard bearer Bob Dole decided to seize this latest White House revelation for his offensive on the character issue.
Have we in Bill Clinton a president who, as Mr. Dole implies, shares the "enemies" mentality of a Richard Nixon - who is inclined to use the nation's top police agency to tar political opponents? Or, perhaps more plausibly, have we a president whose early years in the White House were marked by administrative confusion, of which this misuse of FBI information is an awful example?
In his defense of the White House, Mr. Panetta insists the files were not put to improper use. Nevertheless, one listee, President Reagan's last chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, noted that when he was in charge of checking White House access credentials he never saw FBI files involved.
It was certainly improper that such files were given to the White House at all, under rules that didn't even require an authorizing signature on the requests. FBI director Louis Freeh promises to institute stricter procedures to avoid this happening again.
Recent US history has had too many examples of presidents misusing the investigative powers at their command. In a democracy, those powers must never take on a political taint. When a hint of that taint appears, the circumstances have to be laid bare. The public deserves no less.