The rumpus began with a Washington Post report to the effect that a senior State Department official had ordered US embassies in London and Oslo to to make a 'thorough search' for such data, in response to Freedom of Information Act requests put in by US news organisations last month.
The inquiries yielded nothing. But with the increasingly desperate Republican campaign focusing on the issue of Mr Clinton's 'character', his avoidance of the Vietnam draft 23 years ago and rumours that he had even sought to renounce US citizenship, the mere word of the search yesterday created uproar in Democratic ranks.
In a statement, Mr Gore denounced the move as 'very disturbing, even outrageous'. The White House, he said, 'was using the State Department to rummage through the personal files of an American citizen for political purposes' in violation of every constitutional right to privacy.
In fact, the State Department seems to have taken precautions to avoid any politically explosive material being leaked without its knowledge. The risks were underlined a fortnight ago by reports that Mr Clinton's passport file had been tampered with. The FBI was called in, only to report that all was in order.
The latest episode may have no greater practical consequence, but it adds fresh fuel to tonight's debate between the presidential contenders, in which Mr Bush is due to mount a fierce assault on Mr Clinton's 'character' in an effort to make up his deficit in the polls.