FBI assails White House on 408 files Agency says aides had no right to data on Republican foes

'Egregious violations' cited

Freeh wants safeguards on access to sensitive information

June 15, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Delivering a report sharply critical of the White House, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh called yesterday for sweeping new safeguards on how and when confidential bureau files can be released to the president's aides.

The investigation, conducted by the FBI's general counsel, concludes that the White House had "no official purpose" and was "without justification" in requesting and receiving 408 FBI files on people who once worked in the White House, most of them Republicans.

The issue burst into the news -- and the presidential campaign -- last week, when the White House turned over more than 300 of these FBI files, while acknowledging that it had no legitimate reason ever to have requested them.

President Clinton has apologized, explaining the problem as simply a "bureaucratic snafu."

Yesterday, the FBI revealed that it had found 88 additional files at the White House and that 71 of them were returned to the bureau Thursday. The 17 others are being studied to determine whether they were valid.

Both the report of the FBI general counsel, Howard M. Shapiro, and Freeh's statements assert that the release of the files constituted "egregious violations of privacy."

To ensure that the problem will not be repeated, Freeh issued guidelines requiring written permission from the person whose file is being sought before such files can be released to the White House.

Official purposes

The White House must also certify that the information sought is for official purposes, explain in detail why it is needed and include the signature of an attorney in the White House counsel's office.

"The prior system of providing files to the White House relied on good faith and honor," Freeh said in a statement accompanying the report. "Unfortunately, the FBI and I were victimized. I promise the American people that it will not happen again on my watch."

Freeh, a Clinton appointee, also said he was forwarding the results of his investigation to Kenneth W. Starr, the Whitewater special prosecutor.

In addition, the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, led by Rep. William F. Clinger Jr., is to hold hearings on the FBI files beginning Wednesday.

Noting that the FBI did not explore White House motives for acquiring nearly 500 personnel files, or what, if any, use was made of them, the Pennsylvania Republican said he hoped to get answers at the hearings.

"I continue to be skeptical that the White House has told the whole story," he said.

Bob Dole, the likely Republican presidential candidate, who was campaigning in Savannah, Ga., said yesterday: "Today, Freeh reported an 'egregious' violation of policy. How far will this White House go? We need an investigation to find out the truth."

For months, Republicans seeking to capitalize on what they call the "character issue" have been frustrated that the myriad scandals and charges included under the umbrella of Whitewater have been hard to explain to voters.

Politicization of FBI

In the past week, however, Republican leaders say, the word has taken on a meaning that everyday Americans can understand: the politicization of the FBI.

That charge was one of three leveled against President Richard M. Nixon in his impeachment hearings.

Eager to dispel the notion that they had exploited the bureau for political gain -- and spooked by a new Time-CNN poll that showed Clinton's lead over Dole dropping from 22 percentage points to 6 -- White House officials yesterday took extraordinary steps toward damage control.

Within minutes of Freeh's report, Jack M. Quinn, the White House counsel, issued guidelines of his own governing the White House request for FBI personnel files that parallel the new FBI regulations.

In addition, Quinn's office released affidavits from William Kennedy and D. Craig Livingston, the White House officials who acquired the FBI files, in which they asserted, under oath, that they never used the files for any improper purpose.

Nothing 'improper'

Late in the day, White House press secretary Mike McCurry warned the media not to jump to conclusions.

"I'm not aware of any evidence that's developed in any of these discussions here to indicate any improper use of material or anything that contradicts the president's assertion that this appears to be an innocent bureaucratic mistake," he said.

This latest episode was prompted by the discovery last week that White House officials had requested the FBI file of Billy R. Dale about six months after he had been fired as director of the White House travel office.

Subsequently, the White House conceded that that Dale's was one of many such files obtained by Clinton aides. Another was of a second fired travel office employee, Barnaby "Barney" Brasseux. Most of the rest appear to have been Republicans in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

"Among the unquestionably unjustified acquisitions were reports relating to discharged travel office employees Billy Ray Dale and Barnaby Brasseux," Freeh said.

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