The 28th piece: questions Foster left behind

William Safire

August 13, 1993|By William Safire

Washington -- THE Justice Department released the text, but not the photocopy, of the note handwritten by White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster, ostensibly out of deference to the feelings of the suicide's family. Another reason was to prevent the public from focusing on the missing 28th piece, a triangular piece of the puzzle where the signature would have been.

The gaping hole in the page symbolized unanswered questions in the case:

Who tore up Mr. Foster's note? How could he, or a subsequent finder, tear it up without leaving fingerprints? Why preserve the pieces in a briefcase and not a burnbag? Why remove the signature fragment? How could the pieces be overlooked in a search of a briefcase? Did the belated discovery of the pieces reflect a decision not to destroy evidence? Where is the missing piece?

Why did the White House Counsel delay 27 hours before turning over the reassembled note to the Park Police? We were told it was to review the note with the Clintons on their return from Chicago; but the White House spokesman said Tuesday that "the president did not see the note." Did he review it without seeing it?

Did Mr. Foster bring the gun into the White House that morning? Did he leave it in the back of his car? Did he return home after lunch at his desk to get it? Why, with a secluded park within walking distance of his house, did he drive to a park across the Potomac? Was he familiar with that spot? Did he meet anyone there?

Where is the white middle-aged male, no tie or jacket, driving a white van, who reported finding the body to a parkway attendant? Did any of the people in the cars parked in the parkway lot hear the shot? Was Mr. Foster alone when the shot was fired?

After the body was reported found at 6 p.m., why was Mr. Foster's office not sealed until mid-morning the next day? Park Police Chief Robert Langston told reporters twice after releasing the torn-up note that "a box, a carton of documents, was removed" during that time and later returned, which was independently corroborated by his spokesman, Maj. R.H. Hines; is this true?

Counsel Bernard Nussbaum adamantly disputes the chief's account, claiming that only a plastic bag of trash was removed by a cleaning woman and retrieved. After being reached by David Margolies of Justice, Mr. Langston's memory suddenly became befogged. Who was telling the truth and when?

After noting Mr. Foster's allegation of a federal crime -- "the Ushers office plotted to have excessive costs incurred" -- why did the FBI fail to investigate possibly intentional 50 percent cost overruns in White House redecoration? Did anyone seek to block or delay an inquiry into this? Did Justice's Criminal Division question FBI officials about the charge that "the FBI lied in their report to the AG" about the travel office?

Was dread of further scandal a triggering cause of the apparent suicide? Was there anything else Mr. Foster was working on, in Arkansas business dealings involving Clinton friends or in intelligence matters, that bear on his state of mind?

Is this why the police and FBI reports remain secret, being vetted for national security and privacy exemptions before release six weeks from now under the Freedom of Information Act?

Were Park Police or FBI agents permitted unrestricted access to Mr. Foster's telephone logs, calendar and computer files, as well as home and office long-distance records, to determine a motive for suicide? Did White House officials claim executive or attorney-client privilege? Why did Janet Reno allow the White House counsel to determine what Justice could not see?

Why did officials of the Public Integrity Division wait from July 27 until Aug. 6 to interview White House aides about the criminal allegations in the Foster note? Did the absence of FBI agents in these visits mean that Justice finds a conflict of interest within the FBI on this matter? Did Public Integrity ask Mrs. Clinton about unbudgeted overtime costs in redecoration? What's the point of this questioning, when eight out of 10 suicides are driven by depressive illnesses, not external pressures? It may not lead to revelations, but will surely show us how this White House malfunctions in an emergency and its aftermath. That's worth pursuing.

William Safire is a New York Times columnist.

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