WASHINGTON -- In a surprising reversal, Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr announced yesterday that he would not investigate how the White House obtained 481 confidential FBI files, most of them on Republicans.
Attorney General Janet Reno responded by ordering a "complete and thorough" investigation of her own, which would be conducted by the FBI. Republicans, noting that Reno could either have expanded Starr's mandate to include the file controversy or appointed an additional special prosecutor, questioned how independent she would be.
"The Clinton administration has no credibility when it comes to investigation of itself," said Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, a Republican congressional leader.
Last week, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh issued a report critical of the White House -- and of his own bureau -- about the handling of the files. Freeh tightened the procedures by which the White House obtains such files. He also turned over the results of his inquiry to Starr.
Last week, all indications were that Starr welcomed this additional responsibility. His office interviewed at least one of the former White House officials involved in requesting the files last week.
Republicans theorized that Starr recognized that "Filegate," as they dubbed the controversy, was too complex to be merely an adjunct to his Whitewater duties. But Starr's associates explained that they recognized that it was a separate matter not covered by their charter.
In the meantime, Republicans on Capitol Hill are directing an investigation of their own led by Rep. William F. Clinger Jr., a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight.
"I continue to be skeptical the White House has told the whole story," said Clinger, whose hearings begin today.
Since the controversy arose two weeks ago, the administration's explanation as to why it obtained the files, most of them on former Republican White House staff members, has evolved.
Initially, White House officials revealed that in December 1993 they had acquired the "personnel" file of Billy R. Dale, who had been fired as head of the White House travel office seven months before. Jane Sherburne, an attorney in the White House counsel's office, characterized this as a "routine mistake."
The next day, White House officials said that it sought Dale's file because it had been requested by the General Accounting Office, a government agency investigating the firings of the travel office.
After GAO officials said they had never sought Dale's FBI file, the White House amended its answer again, saying Dale's name was among many acquired in a project to update the files of those who need White House passes.
In addition, White House officials said it had been a project run by low-level appointees, one of whom they identified as an Army employee. It turned out that this person, Anthony Marceca, was a longtime Democratic operative.
According to documents released yesterday by the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Marceca was hand-picked for assignment to the White House by Craig Livingstone, head of the White House security office, and William H. Kennedy III, former associate White House counsel.
White House officials have said the list was of people who might need White House access, and that it was provided by the Secret Service. But Secret Service officials said it does not conform to any of its lists.
Livingtone's lawyer, Randall J. Turk, said neither man had done anything improper with the files, and that Livingstone had not even read them. White House officials cite this assertion as evidence that nothing untoward happened.
This week, Livingstone, Kennedy and Marceca are expected to get their chance to give their side of the story as Clinger convenes his hearings. Among the answers sought by Republicans are:
Who compiled the list of 481 names going back three administrations?
Why did White House officials keep the FBI files in a vault after higher-ups discovered the files project and discontinued it?
How did Livingstone, then a 34-year-old Democratic activist whose main employment was as an advance man in Democratic campaigns, land a crucial post in the White House?
Why was the White House not more sensitive to how amassing files of Republicans would appear after a similar flap in 1993 over State Department files cost two Clinton appointees their jobs and led to a presidential pledge to be more careful?
Meanwhile, Democrats on Clinger's committee are poised to denounce today's hearings as a witch hunt in language similar to that used by White House press secretary Mike McCurry.
"It clearly will last through the November election because the Republican candidate and the Republican Party, lacking any other substantive reason to make an appeal to the voters, is intent on taking these issues," McCurry said.
Pub Date: 6/19/96