The scandal in foreign service

William Safire

November 24, 1992|By William Safire

ALL last week, the foreign service officer establishment was huffing indignantly at the way political appointees of George Bush had abused State Department procedures. Lusting to find dirt in Bill Clinton's passport files, these pols ran roughshod over foreign service professionals. "Heinous," cried Acting Secretary Larry Eagleburger, long the department's ranking FSO.

Yes, James Baker and his aides had guilty knowledge of an improper search. Frankly, to expect a campaign chief to call off a search for a document that would have changed the result of an election is to presume a degree of ethical purity rare in politics, but let us stipulate that State's political appointees abused their governmental power.

That impropriety was as nothing compared with the possibility of habitual criminal behavior by the so-called professionals at State -- the executive secretariat in control of the operations center -- in eavesdropping on their bosses, perhaps over a long period.

In the course of looking into the story of a State appointee's contacts with the White House, the inspector general at Foggy Bottom tripped over a much more far-reaching scandal: that foreign service officers in the communications nerve center of our diplomacy may have been routinely listening in to telephone conversations of their superiors without the consent of either the caller or the call's recipient.

This was not limited to tapping an over-eager consular official's call to the White House, and putting it on the speakerphone for the amusement of op center career eavesdroppers. It included "monitoring" (the euphemism for eavesdropping on) a call from the department's inspector general to the attorney general of the United States.

According to the overlooked Appendix E of the I.G.'s recent report, the directors of the secretariat and op center, Robert Pearson and Glyn Davies, were cautioned "that interception of telephonic conversations, in violation of department guidelines and without the express consent of one party to the communication, may well be in violation of Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, codified in Title 18, U.S. Code (NU)2510."

That's not stretching procedural rules; that's breaking the law. Although Inspector General Sherman Funk said his men "considered it most unlikely that the Justice Department would pursue criminal investigation in the operations center matter," State's whitewashers of career official misconduct were mistaken. Last week, a Justice spokesman (relieved that I was not calling about Iraqgate) told me that "the FBI and the Justice Department are investigating whether anyone at State monitored telephone conversations without authorization."

Dig a little deeper, fellows. Remember a generation ago, when the Joint Chiefs had a spy in the White House? State's bureaucrats may have long been running a similar "monitoring" operation against presidential appointees, some of whom tell me they were warned about the bureaucracy's surveillance. A few questions not yet being asked:

1. Were the last five directors of the op center and secretariat -- two of whom are now senior diplomats -- aware of the surreptitious tapping? What happened to notes made of these illegally intercepted calls?

2. Who at State's security division has the capacity to monitor phone calls by senior officials not passed through the op center, and have they been doing so? Do they also intercept messages sent on the Centrex computer system?

3. Were any intercepts, recorded or transcribed, ever passed on to presidential appointees on the seventh floor? Any spies ever discovered or leakers found?

That's only the beginning. Sen. John Glenn of the Government Operations Committee should demand a report from each of the 24 inspectors general under his oversight about unlawful tapping in departments and agencies. He will be astounded at the unlawful eavesdropping going on today.

As noted here last week, we must end the dirty business of eavesdropping by secretly recording conversations. Step one is to vigorously enforce the law against unwarranted snooping -- which will keep the bureaucracy's nose out of the business of an elected president.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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