Whom to believe? What to believe? FBI vs. White House: Alleged Chinese intervention in 1996 election causes dispute.

March 12, 1997

DID THE FBI really try to stop information on China's alleged attempts to influence the 1996 U.S. election from getting to President Clinton? The mere suggestion is implausible on its face:

First, because anything passed by the FBI to the National Security Council is fair game to go up the chain of command. To suggest otherwise is bizarre.

Second, because the FBI was busily passing the same stuff to at least six members of Congress. Would the FBI consider Pat Moynihan or Nancy Pelosi or Diane Feinstein better repositories of its deep, dark secrets than the president? Clearly, White House spinmasters will have to do better than that.

Even if FBI agents told two NSC staffers to keep such explosive material to themselves, which the FBI denies and the White House asserts, they obviously had no power to enforce such a stricture. So was it just a misunderstanding between two agencies of government that live in a culture of chaos? The Department of Justice is suggesting as much after observing the spectacle of a public spat between the White House and the FBI, which are blaming one another for this latest sensation in the campaign funding scandal.

Mr. Clinton says he should have been told of Chinese intervention so he might have been more alert to improper donations to his campaign from grateful Asian high-rollers. But that raises another question: If China was pleased by the administration's willingness to overlook its human rights violations in order to promote bilateral trade, why then would it try to contribute to the campaign of a China-basher like Representative Pelosi? Or was Taiwan at work? 'Tis a tale that gets curiouser and curiouser.

That there was bumbling on the American side is manifest enough. That China, or some promoters of what they conceive to be Chinese interests, made a mess of trying to play in the sandbox of U.S. politics is also clear enough.

Influence sought is not necessarily influence gained. And if the president's Republican opponents are to nail him, they will need to show specific instances in which foreign money altered U.S. foreign policy. Otherwise, they will merely be illuminating Democratic transgressions in a big-money campaign funding system that the GOP is unwisely trying to preserve.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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