GAO probe of passports is widening Focus shifts from Clinton file to eavesdropping

December 03, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Congress is expanding a probe triggered by the State Department's search of Bill Clinton's passport file to find out if there was a more pervasive and systemic violation of privacy than has already been uncovered.

The General Accounting Office, the congressional investigative arm, was asked this week to broaden a probe into secret monitoring of phone calls made by State Department employees.

While the department insists that steps have been taken to correct the abuses, Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., one of those who asked for the probe, says legislation may be needed. He wants the GAO to produce "a complete picture of what has been going on."

Sherman Funk, the State Department's inspector general, disclosed that past telephone monitoring by State's operations center, a 24-hour communications facility, went well beyond its own guidelines. Those rules themselves exceeded what was allowed by law and were changed in mid-October.

The center caught investigators' attention after it monitored calls between Elizabeth Tamposi, the former assistant secretary who approved the Clinton passport search, and Steven Berry, who at the time headed the department's congressional liaison bureau.

The content of those conversations alerted senior officials to the political motivation behind the search. But the fact that they were monitored also raised investigators' alarm about possible violations of privacy, and triggered an FBI criminal probe.

The center also monitored a conversation between Mr. Funk and Attorney General William P. Barr, Mr. Funk disclosed in his report on the affair.

The monitoring system's intent is to help top officials keep a record of important conversations, particularly with foreign leaders, that were "patched" through the operations center.

But past practices allowed center staffers to monitor some conversations without either party's knowledge. While seen by some critics as a way for the department's permanent bureaucracy to keep tabs on political appointees, it also offered top officials a way to learn what subordinates were doing.

The center keeps a "shift log" of its activities, including the calls it has patched through. In addition, center personnel were able to brief members of the secretary of state's office staff on conversations they thought should be brought to senior officials' attention.

"They might brief on the basis of notes," a senior official said. Before the rules were changed to bar monitoring of calls without the consent of one of the parties, these briefings could occur regardless of whether anyone had consented to be monitored, the official added.

Although some officials knew that the operations center could monitor patched calls, others, including some senior officials, say they were never told about the practice.

Mr. Berman said, "I have made calls and been called through the zTC operations center by officials at the State Department," without knowing his conversations might be monitored. "I find it obnoxious," he added.

The FBI probe has caused anguish in the center, which prides itself on its service.

In a letter to Lawrence S. Eagleburger, the acting secretary of state, at the end of October, department officials also hinted that the probe could compromise sensitive information:

"FBI investigators have tried to interrogate us in depth about the nature of calls among department officials and foreign leaders, as well as the notes and other records we have made of such conversations.

"The requirement that we be responsive to our questioners collides with our loyalty to you, the department and the Foreign Service."

The GAO is also being asked to probe why the passport office retained some 1,500 files out of tens of thousands, since destroyed, that were developed through the 1960s on possible subversives.

The whole passport affair has raised another privacy issue that Mr. Funk said should be addressed: the ability of members of Congress to obtain private information from the State Department that would be denied to the press and the public under the Privacy Act.

A Republican congressman, Gerald B. Solomon of New York was a key figure in pressing for information on Mr. Clinton.

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