Was It Passportgate?

November 23, 1992

Sherman Funk, the State Department inspector general, said of his investigation into the handling of the passport files of Bill Clinton, his mother and Ross Perot: "The basic conclusion of the report is that there was indeed an attempt to use the Department of State, the records and the people of the Department of State to influence the outcome of a presidential election."

He also said none of the violations and improprieties he discovered were criminal. Oh, really?

Title 5, Sec. 522a of the U.S. Code prohibits disclosure of such information as is found in citizens' passport files and says anyone who knowingly violates this prohibition "shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined not more than $5,000."

If there was such disclosure, as seems probable, then that's the good news for anyone who was involved in this "heinous" (Mr. Funk's adjective) affair. The bad news is: Title 18, Sec. 595 of the U.S. Code says "A person employed in any administrative position by the United States. . . [who] uses his official authority for the purpose of interfering with, or affecting, the nomination or the election of any candidate for the office of President. . . shall be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned not more than one year, or both."

It seems to us that is exactly what Mr. Funk found had happened. We do not know that criminal laws were broken. But Mr. Funk does not know, either. He was not conducting a criminal investigation. He did not even demand sworn testimony from many of the witnesses and participants interviewed in this passport caper.

Something else that is not now known is the complete list of persons involved in this improper, if not illegal, operation. It may be true but it is hard to believe that only the few relatively low-level State Department officials who were fired, demoted or reprimanded were responsible.

This is serious business. All government agencies should be isolated from campaign involvement of the sort revealed here. It may not be Passportgate, but it does suggest some high level officials in the Bush White House may have confused their political obligations with their governmental ones. Or ignored the latter because of the former. Maybe to the point of illegality.

Congress is going to review the inspector general's investigation. But it seems more interested in rewriting laws that may not work well. We believe the American people want to know for sure if laws on the books were actually broken and, if so, see the guilty punished. That's a job for the Department of Justice. Specifically, there should be an investigation by the U.S. attorney for Maryland, where the passport records were stored.

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