WASHINGTON -- In an effort to ensure that their personal files on a controversial Arkansas land deal do not become public, Bill and Hillary Clinton have sought and received legal protection for documents the president volunteered to turn over to the Justice Department.
A senior White House adviser, Bruce R. Lindsey, said in a statement last night that the Clintons' lawyer, David E. Kendall, requested a Justice Department subpoena last month, on the same day that President Clinton voluntarily agreed to turn over the files, to "assure the integrity of the documents and the privacy of the process."
The files, most of which were in the office of Vincent Foster Jr., the deputy White House counsel who committed suicide last summer, pertain to Whitewater Development Corp., a real estate venture the Clintons invested in with the head of a failed Arkansas savings and loan, Madison Guaranty, that is under federal investigation.
Yesterday's disclosure of the White House request for a grand jury subpoena comes amid a growing chorus of calls for more openness by the Clintons in the Whitewater case, as well as mounting pressure for the appointment of a special prosecutor to take over the investigation.
Newspaper editorials this week have added their voices to the Republican drum beat for a special prosecutor. And House Republicans, led by Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, who has pushed for a separate congressional probe, began negotiations with the Resolution Trust Corp., the federal S&L cleanup agency, for records related to Madison, congressional sources told the Associated Press.
Earlier this week, the White House said it would take several weeks to deliver the Whitewater documents to the Justice Department. But in light of the growing criticism and suspicion about the delay, Mr. Lindsey said in the statement that the White House would begin delivering documents today. He said the subpoena required all documents -- five boxes of materials, according to Mr. Lindsey -- to be turned over by Jan. 18.
Although the Clintons received the subpoena Dec. 24, the day after it was requested, its existence was not revealed until yesterday. White House aides offered no explanation for that.
The White House has said repeatedly that the Clintons aren't targets in the federal investigation, yet it used a grand jury subpoena -- normally used only for investigative purposes -- to gain protection for the Whitewater papers. Under federal law, a grand jury subpoena assures secrecy because all grand jury materials are given long-term protection from disclosure during and after investigations.
The request for a legal cloak of secrecy for the documents, along with the administration's resistance to the idea of a special prosecutor, threatens to further fuel suspicions about the contents of the Clintons' personal files and their involvement with the failed S&L.
"What kills people in Washington is the cover-up or the appearance of a cover-up," says David C. King, a public policy professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
He believes that, rather than shielding the documents from public scrutiny, the Clintons will be able to put the Whitewater issue to rest only by releasing the files publicly and supporting the appointment of an independent counsel.
The complex and murky nature of the investigation, along with the still-mysterious suicide of Mr. Foster, who held the Whitewater documents in his possession until his death, is further reason for full disclosure by the White House, presidential scholars say.
Investigators are trying to determine whether depositors' funds at Madison were diverted to then-Governor Clinton's 1984 re-election campaign and also to Whitewater. There are also questions about whether James McDougal, the S&L head and fTC Mr. Clinton's partner in Whitewater, received favorable treatment from state regulators investigating the thrift.
The state's decision to allow the failing thrift to continue operating cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
Raising more questions was the revelation last month that the Whitewater files were removed from Mr. Foster's office by senior White House officials immediately after his suicide, rather than being turned over with other files to the U.S. Park Police.
"It all adds up to something I think has to be fully aired," says R. Gordon Hoxie, president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency. "And the sooner they can get it behind them the better because it will continue to fester. For the president and first lady to protest that they did nothing wrong without making or encouraging a clean breast of the thing is destructive of their best interest as well as the best interest of the nation."
To resist the appointment of a special prosecutor or the public disclosure of documents, he says, "is a great mistake. Every president who's done it has suffered from it."
White House officials, saying that the appointment of independent counsel is up to Attorney General Janet Reno, believe the outcry by Mr. Leach, Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole and House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich is politically driven -- Republicans have traditionally opposed their use in investigations.
In fact, the law that allows for a court-appointed special prosecutor for cases that involve the executive branch expired and was not renewed during the Bush administration. It is likely, however, to be passed by Congress after it reconvenes this month.
For her part, Ms. Reno has said she has no plans to name a special counsel, contending that the impartiality of anyone she appointed would still be questioned since that person would be her appointee.