Democratic support wavers after FBI file issue Backing not as solid now for White House

June 24, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- On Dec. 6, 1993, an official in the White House basement filled out a form requesting the FBI background file on a woman named Carol Blym Aarhus.

The man seeking the file typed in a single word -- "access" -- to explain why he wanted the highly confidential material.

But Carol Aarhus, a former Bush administration aide, didn't require access to the White House. And the acquisition of such files -- this was the first of many -- seems to have shaken the faith of some of President Clinton's fellow Democrats.

From December 1993 to February 1994, about 479 other requests for FBI files were made, and 408 of the files belonged to Republicans who worked in the Bush or Reagan administrations. One, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, was then being mentioned as a Republican presidential candidate.

At the White House, the episode is characterized as a serious breach of privacy, but one that resulted from bumbling, not malevolence. Clinton has apologized, but termed the matter an "honest bureaucratic snafu."

Until now, on issues ranging from the Whitewater land deal to the Paula Corbin Jones' sexual harassment suit, Democrats have rallied around the president and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in a virtually unanimous show of support. This time, that support is not as solid.

Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, who strenuously supported the president while on the Senate Whitewater Committee, adopted a different posture last week as the Judiciary Committee began probing the FBI files episode.

"We held hearings just recently in this room on Whitewater," Simon told his colleagues. "The basic question was: Was there an abuse of power by Bill Clinton either as governor of Arkansas or president of the United States and I think any objective observer would come to the conclusion that there was not an abuse of power.

"Here, however, we have an abuse of power," Simon said. "I am not suggesting it is by the president, but it is in the White House, and we should treat it very, very seriously."

To be sure, in two days of hearings in Congress, numerous Democrats rushed to Clinton's defense. They blamed "stupid" and "incompetent" presidential aides, and charged Republicans with pursuing election-year investigations to help Republican Bob Dole.

But just as many took the Paul Simon approach, including some of the most liberal members of Congress. Rep. Cardiss Collins, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, said she was keeping an open mind about the extent of White House wrongdoing.

Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, the only Socialist in Congress, termed the wholesale release of FBI files to the White House "an abomination," and said that he didn't know "whether it was a bureaucratic mistake or a politically motivated one."

For their part, Republicans employed the analogy of Watergate, noting that misuse of the FBI was one of the articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. It was left to one of their own, a man with special qualifications, to remind them not to go too far.

"Watergate is different," said Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who in 1973 served as the Republican counsel to the Senate Watergate committee.

Thompson cautioned Democrats against rallying unconditionally around the White House -- the way some Republicans did for Nixon: "The defense of stupidity and incompetence can only go so far," he said. "I remember back in the old days [Watergate] was a 'third-rate burglary' carried out by a bunch of idiots."

This time, those being blamed by the White House are Anthony Marceca, the official who requested the files from the FBI, and his boss, Craig Livingstone, head of the White House office of personnel security.

Marceca, 54, is a civilian employee of the Army who was detailed, upon Livingtone's request, to the White House. As a former investigator attached to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he is said by colleagues to have fancied undercover work.

Livingstone, 37, is known for telling fellow Clinton appointees -- perhaps in jest -- that he had read their FBI files, according to various press accounts.

Both men have worked in Democratic presidential campaigns and do not fit the profile of the anonymous civil servants and low-profile political appointees who had held comparable posts in previous administrations. According to those who worked with them in other campaigns, they shared an interest in the sometimes shadowy world of "opposition research," a euphemism for digging up dirt on political opponents.

Dennis M. Casey, a Democratic political consultant from western Pennsylvania, has told House investigators that in the 1984 Gary Hart presidential campaign, both men pressured him to use personally derogatory information on Democratic labor leaders loyal to Walter Mondale.

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