We'll never know truth about Clinton file search ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- When government agencies investigate themselves we never seem to get to the bottom -- or the top -- of the story. That pattern was never more clear than in the State Department investigation of the search of Bill Clinton's passport files during the election campaign.

We are now told that the department was guilty of "very heinous activity" by becoming involved in a purely partisan political matter. One mid-level political appointee, Elizabeth Tamposi, has been fired, and a second, Steven Berry, is being "disciplined." This, too, is part of the usual pattern: Minor players taking the fall.

But there is no evidence, we are told, that the White House or Bush re-election campaign were involved. Nor is it clear where impetus for the inquiry into the Clinton files originated. We are supposed to believe it all started with some Freedom of Information Act requests from news organizations that were improperly expedited after a member of Congress also expressed interest in the files.

This requires some suspension of disbelief. At the time the search was made, a rumor was circulating that Clinton, as a student at Oxford, had renounced his citizenship or applied for dual citizenship as a way of avoiding the draft during the war in Vietnam. The rumor was obviously far-fetched, since Clinton already had shown he had a compelling interest in preserving his political viability for the future, an interest that would be destroyed by any attempt to renounce his citizenship.

But it was also a rumor that, if true, could have destroyed his credibility and campaign for the presidency. And that, of course, would have been the answer to the dreams of President Bush and his chief of staff and de facto campaign director, James A. Baker III.

That being the case, an alarm bell should ring at the finding that Berry, the inside man at State, "frequently talked" about the searches with Janet Mullins, a top aide to Baker.

The memorandum from State Department Inspector General Sherman M. Funk to acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said that the "continuing dialogue" between Berry and Mullins "per se cannot be taken as conspiratorial."

Are we supposed to believe that Mullins' role was totally passive in these frequent conversations with her former assistant? Or that Baker, informed of the searches by Mullins Sept. 30 or Oct. 1, adopted a similar attitude?

This was a matter with potential life-or-death consequences for the Bush campaign, but we are expected to accept the notion that no one in the White House or campaign pushed it along.

"We found no evidence," the Funk report says, "that the White House -- or any other external source -- orchestrated an attack on the Clinton files." That "external source" apparently is the Bush-Quayle campaign.

That's always possible, of course, but it does take a stretch to believe it. It's like being asked to believe Vice President Bush didn't know of the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran a few years ago. It could have happened, but it doesn't sound right.

In his report, Funk made a point of anticipating a skeptical response to his findings. "There is always, in an event such as the search for Clinton's passport files . . . a tendency to believe that there must be a correspondingly big and/or sinister cause," the memorandum says. "We did not find this here. What we did find was bad enough: not a carefully thought out conspiratorial ,, plan but, rather, a general inability of the system in the State Department, of the people and procedures that make up some of the daily operations of the Department, to resist a kind of ad hoc attempt to politicize a process. This is dangerous at any time. During a presidential election campaign, in a matter relating directly to one of the candidates, it could have boiled over."

Eagleburger offered the predictable breast-beating mea culpa about the blot on the good name of the State Department and even offered to resign as secretary. But all the hand-wringing and the scapegoating of Berry and Tamposi somehow doesn't fill the bill.

If someone higher up didn't, at the very least, encourage the speedy scouring of Clinton's records, it would be a surprise. It will be an even greater surprise if we ever find out.

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