The passport story is not over

November 23, 1992

According to the local legal grapevine, U.S. Attorney Richard Bennett is looking into the story out of Washington concerning State Department officials' probing of the passport files of Bill Clinton, his mother and Ross Perot. The passports were stored in a government facility in Suitland, Md., which is in Mr. Bennett's jurisdiction. The perusal of those files, the removal of some of them and the possible reporting of what was in them to unauthorized persons may well have been violations of federal law.

It is too soon to say whether illegalities did occur. Or didn't. But the U.S. attorney here ought to keep monitoring the situation (or start doing so if in fact he hasn't).

Everyone who has looked closely at this story agrees that what happened was completely improper.

State Department Inspector General Sherman Funk called it "very heinous." Acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, though not personally implicated in any way, was so ashamed of what happened that he offered to resign.

Those are understandable reactions. Citizens have a right to know that the institutions of government are not abused for purely partisan political purposes. The people looking into those files were admittedly looking for political dirt.

If an administration can get away with this, no one's privacy is secure. More people than just the Clintons and Mr. Perot were harmed by this nasty business.

On the basis of a State Department probe, neither Mr. Eagleburger nor Mr. Funk believes there were crimes committed. But that probe was not a criminal investigation. It left a lot of stones unturned and witnesses and potential culprits unpressured.

Congress promises further inquiries, but not apparently into the issue of criminality. That leaves it up to the Justice Department, either in the District of Columbia or Maryland. Our own preference would be the latter, away from the political hothouse environment of the national capital.

Mr. Funk says he is convinced the White House did not direct the search of the passports, but he seems to believe it acquiesced in it at the very highest staff level. If high-ranking members of the president's staff were involved in the search of confidential and private passport files for political purposes, they almost certainly crossed the line into illegal behavior.

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