Clinton seeks to defuse files controversy

Battered by Whitewater and still enmeshed in "Travelgate," the Clinton Administration yesterday tried to defuse the separate but perilous controversy over purloined FBI files by naming a career bureaucrat to head a revamped White House office to supervise the use of such sensitive material.

The move came as Congress opened new hearings into what has been dubbed "Filegate" - the mystery over how and why White House political operatives in 1993 and 1994 sought and obtained confidential FBI background files on more than 400 people, some of them prominent Republicans, purportedly to "update lists" of people with access to the White House.

The new security chief will be Charles Easley, a Reagan-era appointee picked to avoid the slightest hint of partisanship. As a further safeguard, the White House said, anyone whose file could be needed will henceforth have to give written consent before it can even be requested from the FBI.

But this latest exercise in damage control had little impact on Capitol Hill where a Republican-controlled House Committee began hearings into the incident, tailored to cause maximum election year discomfort for the Clinton camp.

"Was this part of a larger pattern to compromise the FBI," thundered the committee chairman, William Clinger of Pennsylvania, as he opened proceedings, "or part of an all-too-familiar pattern of incompetence and incredibly misman- aged record-keeping

The latter, insists President Bill Clinton, who has described the incident as a "straightforward bureaucratic snafu". However, subsequent revelations cast doubt on that assertion. Far from being a petty bureaucrat, Craig Livingstone, the official who sought the files, was a battle-hardened Clinton campaign operative. Anthony Marceca, the aide who actually obtained them, transpires to have been not a humble Pentagon clerk on temporary secondment - as the White House said initially - but also a lifelong Democratic Party worker.

To the intense relief of the White House, the fiasco will not be coming under the scrutiny of the Whitewater special counsel, Kenneth Starr, who told the Justice Department this week that he lacked jurisdiction to carry out the investigation.

Far more than raucous Republicans on Capitol Hill, or the continuing fuss over the sacking of the White House travel office in 1993, it is Mr Starr's relentless digging in Little Rock and Washington that poses the real threat to the Clintons: possible criminal charges against several of their close aides and, in the very worst case, indictment of the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, for perjury or obstruction of justice.

Only yesterday for instance, Bruce Lindsey, one of the President's closest advisers and treasurer of his 1990 gubernatorial campaign in Arkansas, was named an indicted co-conspirator in the case Mr Starr is bringing in Little Rock against two smalltown bankers charged with illegally channelling $13,000 into that campaign.

None the less, the files affair could prove more than just another campaign year flap. The intricacies of Whitewater proper may surpass most mortal understanding, but misuse of confidential FBI information is all too easy to understand, for generations of Americans summoning the ghosts of Richard Nixon, Watergate and "dirty tricks" past. Once again the spotlight has been turned on the "character" question.

Leading article, page 15

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