What's Behind Latest White House Scandal?


With nary a moment to catch our breath from the Senate's concluded Whitewater investigation, Congress has plunged right into the next Clinton administration intrigue: the case of the wayward FBI files.

Already the flap has attained the aura of scandal, the requisite "gate" suffix incorporated into its moniker, "Filegate." Indeed, Republicans hint that the case - in which a White House office improperly requested from the FBI 481 background files, mainly of departed officials from Republican administrations - involves Watergate-esque abuses of executive power.

Others hark back to the era of longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who routinely used his agency to invade citizens' privacy at the White House's request. Democrats agree that the acquisition of the files was a gross violation of privacy, but they are so far giving the Clinton administration the benefit of the doubt. The White House claims incompetence, not malice.

A congressional committee began hearings on the matter this week. Following are some questions pertinent to the case:

*So far, what is reported to have happened?

In 1993, Craig Livingstone, a political appointee who directed the White House's office of personnel security, was asked to create current security files on employees from previous administrations who still needed White House access. So he got a friend, a civilian Army investigator named Anthony Marceca, detailed to the White House to help with the project.

Mr. Marceca got what turned out to be an outdated list of White House passholders - a list of more than 400 names that included former Secretary of State James Baker III and White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. Marceca says he got the list from a retiring employee, and that he was unaware the list was out of date. That employee, Nancy Gemmell, told Congress Wednesday that she did not hand Marceca a list, and that the only list she knew of was one from the Secret Service that she had "left behind at the time of my departure."

Marceca, who has not testified yet to Congress, says he gave the list he had - its origin still unclear - to the FBI, which responded routinely. Files were handed over between December 1993 and February 1994, at which point Marceca left the White House and a replacement aide came in. The replacement realized the mistake and halted the acquisition of files, which had gone alphabetically through last names that began with letters A through G.

*What was done with the files?

Mr. Livingstone says the files sat in a vault behind his desk in the White House.

*Has anybody allegedly done anything illegal?

So far, no violations of the law have been claimed. But no one doubts that the old system of requests for background files was too lax. It "relied on good faith and honor," says FBI director Louis Freeh. An FBI report on the incident released last Friday concluded the system "is overbroad and should be eliminated."

*So will the system of background requests be changed?

Yes. FBI director Freeh has announced controls to prevent new invasions of privacy. In future, requests for FBI files must be signed by a White House counsel and reviewed by high-level FBI officials. On Wednesday, the White House put a career professional, Charles Easley, in charge of personnel security.

*Why has this situation surfaced only now?

Congressional investigators discovered the file transfers early this month in their work on the "Travelgate" flap. They discovered that the White House had requested the FBI background file on Billy Dale, the fired head of the White House travel office, long after he had been fired. That led the White House to acknowledge that many other background files had been obtained, calling the acquisitions an innocent mistake. Republicans charge the White House was looking for damaging information about political opponents.

*Where does the investigation into the files situation now stand?

On Tuesday, Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the FBI to investigate the matter after Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr stated he lacked the jurisdiction to look into it himself. But some Republicans complain it's inappropriate for political appointees - Attorney General Reno and FBI chief Freeh - to be in charge of the investigation.

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