Inside the White House File Scandal

by Gary W. Aldrich, an investigative writer, who retired from the FBI in June 1995. This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Thursday, June 13, 1996.

I loved my career with the FBI and treasure my years as a special
agent. Of the many assignments I was privileged to have over the
course of a 26-year career, the highlight was the five years, just
prior to my 1995 retirement, I spent assigned to the White House.
 
For more than three decades the FBI, the Secret Service and the White
House Counsel's Office had worked as a team to clear the hundreds of
new staff members who come with each new administration.  This
clearance process entailed a lengthy FBI background investigation to
document the good character of every White House employee.  It was a
comprehensive and effective security system, perfected by six
presidents to protect national security, the taxpayer and the White
House itself.
 
Deeply Disturbing
 
But the things I saw in the last 2 1/2 years of my tenure deeply
disturbed me. And the recent disclosures that the Clinton White House
requested, and the FBI provided, more than 340 background
investigations on previous administrations' employees raise questions
that pierce the very heart of national security, and call into
question the relationship between the White House and the FBI.
 
Some presidents have made good use of the FBI background
investigations, and some, to their regret, have not.  But never before
has any administration used background investigations of another
president's political staff.  FBI employees knew it would be wrong to
give raw FBI files on political opponents to the other party.  In
fact, they knew it would be illegal, each disclosure a violation of
the federal Privacy Act.
 
Why, then, did the Clinton administration request such files, and why
did the FBI provide them?  The White House's "explanation"-that it was
"an honest bureaucratic snafu"--is really too much for this FBI
veteran to believe. How does a unit at FBI headquarters copy and box
for shipment to the White House Counsel's Office more than 340 highly
confidential files, when the two FBI supervisors are both lawyers? Do
the White House and the FBI really expect us to believe that the
wholesale copying of hundreds of FBI files wouldn't raise an eye brow?
That the two FBI supervisors didn't know who James Baker was?  If the
FBI supervisors didn't know that hundreds of confidential files were
going out the door, they were so grossly negligent as to imperil not
only the civil rights of more than 340 individuals, but also national
security.
 
In truth, I know that FBI management had plenty of warning that
elements of security and background investigations were drastically
wrong at the Clinton White House.  As early as May 1993, Special Agent
James Bourke, supervisor of the FBI office responsible for background
investigations, had come under fire when, at the behest of the White
House, he started a criminal investigation of seven innocent men in
the Travel Office.
 
Not publicly known until now were the constant warnings that Mr.
Bourke and other FBI management received from me and from my partner,
Dennis Sculimbrene (who would go on to testify against his own agency
and the White House as a defense witness in the Billy Dale trial). Why
are Mr. Bourke and the good folks at the FBI just now finding serious
reasons to check on the legitimacy of the requests of this White
House?  Documents exist that prove they have known about these
problems for years.  Mr. Bourke declined to be interviewed for this
article, so one can only speculate as to why he ignored the repeated
warnings. It may be that, like any bureaucrat, Mr. Bourke was simply
trying to win favor from those he thought could advance his career-in
this case, officials at the White House.
 
These allegations are more serious than anything we have seen in
decades.  So how can the White House, through Attorney General Janet
Reno, be allowed to order the FBI to investigate itself?  No federal
bureaucracy is good at conducting an internal probe that has this kind
of potential for explosive political revelation.
 
Right up to the time I retired in June 1995, Mr. Bourke and other FBI
supervisors responsible for background investigations continued to
honor each and every outrageous request the Clinton White House
Counsel's Office made.  Mr. Bourke cannot claim he did not know these
requests were improper.  He was well aware the Clinton administration
had relaxed the security system at the White House so that those loyal
to the administration could evade background checks.  Other agents and
I had told him so, and scores of documents going across his desk
provided more evidence, just in case he did not believe his own
agents.  In fact, at the time the White House requested the files on
previous administrations' appointees-one full year into the Clinton
administration-more than 100 Clinton staffers, including then Press
Secretary Dee Dee Myers, still had not been investigated by the FBI
for passes or clearances.
 
Yet the Clinton's White House Counsel's office apparently was wasting
no time looking deeply into the background of anyone who was not lucky
enough to have been hired by President Clinton.  As Mr. Bourke also
knew, permanent White House employees whose loyalty to the Clintons
was in question were in for some "special" attention, Hillary Clinton
style.  For example, permanent employees in the White House residence
who were suspected of being disloyal to the first lady were
reinvestigated out of sequence, that is, early-in some cases four
years before their periodic review was due.
 
Some of these staff members, appointed by Presidents Carter, Reagan or
Bush, had just been cleared by the FBI.  When I attempted to head off
what appeared to be unnecessary and premature investigations by
offering to obtain copies of the background investigations, my
superiors at the FBI and Craig Livingstone, director of security for
the White House Counsel's Office, effectively told me to mind my own
business.  What prompted the White House to investigate these staffers
was a story, leaked to the press, that Mrs. Clinton had thrown a lamp
at the president during a domestic argument. The Clintons had to know
who the leaker was.  Result: Decent, loyal, law abiding citizens with
spotless records were investigated by the FBI again, just to make
sure.  I believe that these permanent employees were being harassed
and that if anything, anything at all, had turned up in a new FBI
probe, they would have been summarily tossed out the door tod indeed,
other employees besides Billy Dale were fired on the basis of these
investigations.
 
At the same time, the White House was requesting copies of FBI
investigations of hundreds of long-gone Reagan and Bush staffers. Why?
 Knowing that the Clintons casually used the FBI to weed out
politically suspect employees, would it be so unreasonable to suspect
them of also misusing the FBI to investigate political "enemies"?
Statements by Clinton spokesmen that nobody looked at these FBI files
are as plausible as saying that if 340 Playboy magazines were sent to
a boys' high school, they would remain in their boxes, unmolested.
 
Bedroom-Size Safe
 
The safe where these secret records were allegedly kept was the size
of a small bedroom.  Maybe the files were taken out of the safe, and
maybe they weren't. There was no need to take them out to examine
them.  Anyone--including Mr. Livingstone, whose desk was just outside
the entrance to the safe--could have walked in, sat down at the table
and perused the files to his heart's content.  And the security office
was equipped with a photocopy machine.  I knew Mr. Livingstone as a
fierce defender of the Clintons, especially Mrs. Clinton, who
handpicked him for this sensitive position.
 
Which of these files were copied, and where were the copies sent?  The
time has come for real explanations, real investigations of the
Clinton White House Counsel's Office and, sadly, maybe even of the
FBI.  In particular, Mr. Bourke and Mr. Livingstone should explain
their roles.  These FBI files could not have been requested, received
and maintained without Mr. Livingstone's full knowledge, consent and
direction.  Mr. Bourke is responsible for protecting the FBI files and
for ensuring the FBI's arm's-length relationship with this or any
administration.
 
These two men should be brought before both a federal grand jury and
Congress to account for this highly irregular conduct-conduct that has
embarrassed the presidency and the FBI, undermined the public's trust
in both institutions and potentially violated federal law.  The
Clinton administration has earned its reputation.  But the FBI--my
FBI--deserves better. Enough is enough.

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