President, FBI argue on briefing Suspicion that China sought influence was withheld, Clinton says

Public denials exchanged

White House aides say FBI wanted to keep Oval Office in dark

March 11, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton complained yesterday that the FBI had decided to keep him in the dark in June about its suspicions that China was trying to influence the 1996 U.S. elections -- an assertion challenged hours later in a statement by the FBI.

The FBI version was, in turn, immediately challenged at the White House, where it was characterized as "in error."

The extraordinary public spat between the White House and one of the administration's own agencies escalated the controversy over Democratic fund-raising activity in the 1996 campaign and China's possible role in funneling money to Clinton and his party.

Last year, FBI agents did brief members of Congress who it believed were targets of the Chinese effort and warned them to be wary of suspicious contributions or requests for unusual access, those lawmakers confirmed.

Yesterday morning, Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry said FBI agents had carried the same warning to the White House. But McCurry asserted that the two midlevel White House National Security Council aides who were briefed were inexplicably told by the FBI that they could not inform their superiors.

McCurry told reporters that he did not know why the FBI had given such an instruction or why the two NSC staff members had adhered to it. The Associated Press reported that one of the people receiving the briefing was an FBI agent detailed to the NSC, Edward J. Appel. The other NSC staff member was identified as Rand Beers.

When a reporter suggested that it was "appalling" that the NSC would not inform Clinton of such a momentous matter, McCurry paused and then answered carefully: "That's an idea that has not gone unnoticed."

Hours later, the president expressed the same sentiments when asked, at a joint news conference with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, about the FBI's briefing on China.

"I absolutely did not know it was done," Clinton said. "It is my understanding that two members of the National Security Council were briefed by the FBI. And then the agent, for whatever reasons, asked that they not share the briefing, and they honored the request."

Clinton said he has ordered a high-level review of the incident to find out who did what and why. Although the president refrained from pointing fingers, he did convey some disappointment about the actions of the FBI officials.

"Yes, I believe I should have known," Clinton said. "Had we known about the reports, the first thing I would have done is I would have given them to [senior White House officials], and I'd say, 'Listen, look at these, evaluate them and make recommendations about what, if any, changes we ought to make and what we should be alert to.' And so, it would have provoked a red flag on my part."

But hours later, the FBI released a statement saying senior officials of the bureau's national security division had conducted the briefing and "the FBI placed no restriction whatsoever on the dissemination up the chain-of-command at the NSC."

At the White House, McCurry held his third session of the day with reporters -- to dispute the FBI's statement.

"The White House legal counsel has had very specific conversations with the two NSC staffers in question, and they are adamant in recalling they were urged not to disseminate the information outside the briefing room," McCurry said. "Therefore, the White House considers the FBI's statement to be in error."

The dispute brought a new round of intrigue to the swirling allegations about what the Clinton-Gore re-election team knew about foreign campaign donations -- and when they knew it. The seepage of large donations of Asian money into the campaign is at the heart of the furor over the Democratic Party's fund-raising methods during the 1996 election cycle.

So far, the Democratic National Committee has returned about $3 million in large donations, most of it solicited by three high-flying Chinese-American political activists. That money has been returned because of evidence that it may have come from abroad. Foreign contributions are banned by federal election law.

As the furor over Democratic fund raising has heightened, new revelations have surfaced almost daily. Yesterday, the Washington Post published an article detailing how DNC finance officials solicited $107,000 from the Cheyenne-Arapaho Indians of El Reno, Okla. In exchange, the Indians, an impoverished tribe of 11,000 people, were promised an audience with the president to press their claims to 7,000 acres of land administered by the Agriculture Department.

Tribal leaders were invited to one of the questionable White House "coffees," but no action followed. After the election, tribal leaders said, Nathan Landow, a former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, told them that if they wanted a positive resolution, they would have to hire the lobbying firm of Peter Knight, the campaign manager of Clinton-Gore '96, for $100,000 up front and a monthly retainer of $10,000.

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