REGIONAL EDITORS ON THE FBI FILES
JUNE 12, 1996
The story of the White House and the FBI files. Jim Lehrer is joined by the NewsHour's panel of regional commentators after a backgrounder by Kwame Holman.
MR. HOLMAN: In 1993, a White House security aide asked for and received FBI background files on 341 people. The requests came on standard form 86, often used to procure information on people seeking White House jobs, but the background files the aide requested were those of former officials of the Reagan and Bush administrations. Among them, James Baker, President Bush's secretary of state, former Reagan press secretary James Brady, Reagan chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein, and Marlin Fitzwater, President Bush's press secretary. The files were collected and read at the White House by an army civilian investigator who said there was potentially negative information on only three of the three hundred forty-one. The White House says the requests were made mistakenly during an effort to streamline security procedures. Last Sunday, chief of staff Leon Panetta apologized.
LEON PANETTA, White House Chief of Staff: ("Meet the Press") A mistake has been made here. It is inexcusable, and I think an apology is owed to those that were involved.
MR. HOLMAN: Later that day on a campaign trip to California, the President, himself, spoke about the files.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: It appears to have been a completely honest bureaucratic snafu when we were trying to straighten out who had the security--who should get the security clearances to come into the White House.
MR. HOLMAN: But Republicans in Congress have questioned why the FBI would provide such data to the White House at all and were not mollified by the White House statements.
REP. DICK ARMY, Majority Leader: ("This Week with David Brinkley") What business did they have nosing around in files on people who had long since left the White House when we know they weren't even getting their own people properly cleared?
MR. HOLMAN: The chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee called the White House statements about the files conflicting and has called for hearings into the matter.
REP. WILLIAM CLINGER, Chair, Government Reform Committee: The conduct of this House, as well as its truthfulness, given the last week of less than accurate statements, plus I must say a whole history of, of where we've been sort of misled, documents have been discovered after the fact, and so forth, I think demands a thorough examination.
MR. HOLMAN: Among the files requested was that of Billy Dale, the former head of the White House Travel Office whose firing led to a congressional investigation. Yesterday prosecutors for Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr questioned the White House security aide who read the files. An FBI report on the release of the files is due on Friday. This afternoon, President Clinton responded to Republican charges the files may have been some sort of White House enemies list.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: You know, I would never condone or tolerate any kind of enemies list or anything of that kind. I do believe based on the evidence that we know it's just an innocent bureaucratic snafu which is what I said all along, and I'm sorry that it occurred, and I believe that we will correct it, and I think that the FBI will correct it on their end as well, so that nothing like this will happen again.
MR. LEHRER: Now, how all of this looks to our six regional commentators, Clarence Page of the "Chicago Tribune," Lee Cullum of the "Dallas Morning News," Patrick McGuigan of the "Daily Oklahoman," William Wong of the "San Francisco Examiner," Cynthia Tucker of the "Atlanta Constitution," and Mike Barnicle of the "Boston Globe." Pat McGuigan, does this look like an honest mistake to you?
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: (Oklahoma City) Well, uh, I think there's room for skepticism. Umm, I'm not going to be quite as conclusary as Mr. Clinger and some of the others. I think one of the problems we have these days is that everybody feels we have to have the whole answer to a situation within, you know, hours or minutes or days after something happens. I do think there's room for skepticism, given that Mr. Clinton was so critical of the Bush White House for its look at background information in 1992. Then we had that incident early in the Clinton presidency that involved about 160 files, and they had to eventually not only apologize for that, but if I remember right, Warren Christopher had to fire a couple of people at the State Department. So I think you've got--at a minimum you've got something here that looks like a problem in terms of management of sensitive information. Now those of us in the press corps know, for example, colleagues that work at the White House, information like this exists, you know, FBI files exist on anybody that has regular access to White House grounds. So I think it's important to get a handle on how this abuse or misuse of information occurred and then go forward and put in place safeguards to ensure that it doesn't happen again. We thought a lot of these kinds of things had been fixed as a result of abuses of the Nixon era, but apparently there's still the potential for information to be flying around when it ought to be more secure.
MR. LEHRER: Cynthia, how does it look to you?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: (Atlanta) Well, I do not believe that President Clinton was about the business of trying to construct some sort of White House enemies list. But I am disappointed that the President has not set a tone throughout his administration so that aides, no matter how low-ranking they are, know that this kind of thing is completely unacceptable. If you think back to 1992, when Bill Clinton was campaigning for office, he had something vaguely similar happen to him. High ranking GOP officials were digging through his passport files apparently looking through embarrassing information back to his days as a student when he protested the war in Vietnam. He said then very clearly if anyone in my administration ever did something like this, I'd have them fired. Clearly, he has not set that kind of tone at the White House, and he should have.
MR. LEHRER: Mike Barnicle, what do you think?
MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: (Boston) Well, I think it probably points to the fact that the median age of the White House staff is about 13 years of age and they were dumb enough to go and ask for these files and someone over at the FBI was dumb enough to provide them as if they were just library papers being sent over on 30-day loan. There is absolutely zero interest in this among the American electorate, or the American public actually. I think the interest would probably lie more towards what is going on at the FBI that you can call them up and say, hey, I got nothing to do today, could you send me over a pack of files, so I can read through them and find out whether Marlin Fitzwater was on an all-water diet six years ago.
MR. LEHRER: Yeah. Lee Cullum.
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: (Dallas) Well, Jim, I think it's most unfortunate. It's very strange to me that this out-of-date list would--of 300 people--would contain numerous Republicans and the former secretary of state and press secretary and the others, not to mention the head of the Travel Office and one of his associates. I think we certainly had a young administration three years ago that was having a difficult time finding its way. If you remember, there were a number of other things that happened that shouldn't have. I remember the chairman of the Holocaust Museum was summarily let go right before the museum was going to open. It was to my mind an outrage, and I think Mike Barnicle is right. This was a matter of a young staff feeling its way and I think in the case of these FBI files very well might have been out of bounds. I feel that more needs to be known about it. I don't accept it frankly as an innocent mistake at all.
MR. LEHRER: But, Mike, your point is that if mistakes were made, they were made by the FBI, is that right?
MR. BARNICLE: Yeah. I mean, what's Louie Freeh running down there? If you can call up--never mind--never mind who calls from the White House. You should--you ought to have a very good reason for calling up and getting clearance files--
MR. LEHRER: Yeah.
MR. BARNICLE: --being read by some civilian over at the White House. I mean, Lou Freeh should know what's going on in his own department. I think that's the issue.
MR. LEHRER: Yeah. And that goes back to Pat's point that the procedure should have stepped in even if somebody was 13 years old, right, doing the wrong thing, that's your point, Mike?
MR. BARNICLE: Yeah, that is my point.
MR. LEHRER: Okay. Bill Wong, what's your point about this?
WILLIAM WONG, San Francisco Examiner: (San Francisco) Well, I think that we really don't know enough yet to, to make any conclusions one way or the other. It strikes me that if--some of the Republicans on here are, are a little outdated themselves, and it would surprise me that the Clinton White House, if it were constructing an enemies list, would be looking into the backgrounds of some Republicans who are current--who would not be in power, and why, for example, Gingrich or the congressional Republicans wouldn't be on the list, so that throws into doubt for me whether this was a purposeful search for an enemies list. But I would have some questions for the White House as to why they asked for the files on Billy Dale months after he had been let go from the Travel Office, and I think that would be a central question to answer. And thirdly, I would say, who ordered--who from the White House ordered it, and play off of Mike Barnicle's point--somebody at the, at the FBI wouldn't--shouldn't necessarily just hand over these files from a low-level request from the White House. It would--I would think it would have to come from somebody fairly high up.
MR. LEHRER: Yeah. Clarence, how does it look to you?
CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: Well, I get to be the cleanup man here, I guess. (laughing)
MR. LEHRER: Exactly. You get to summarize or disagree with everything that's been said, right.
MR. PAGE: I would agree with what's been said insofar as first of all, we don't know enough to make any conclusions about there being an enemies list but what we know it's just illogical to, to draw that kind of a conclusion. It certainly makes more sense to say, yes, this was a new administration, they were, they were guilty of rank amateurism, if anything, in the way this was handled. It's not just a question of, of the FBI getting ahold of these files or providing them to the White House, but the fact that the administration hung onto them for a couple of years. That also needs to be investigated. Uh, when Clinton says snafu as our editorial said in yesterday's paper, we must remember that the first couple of words in that acronym are situation normal. You being a former Marine, I haven't got to tell you what the rest of it is.
MR. LEHRER: I know. Never mind.
MR. PAGE: But if this is the normal situation, then we certainly do need investigation to see what is wrong with that normal situation and how it needs to be changed for the future.
MR. LEHRER: Many Republicans are complaining that if this had happened in a Republican White House that the press and the public would be in a state of high outrage now over this. Are they right?
MR. PAGE: We are in a state of high dudgeon. This is dudgeon.
MR. LEHRER: This is dudgeon?
MR. PAGE: This is high dudgeon. But the fact is that even though some of the press have been comparing this to Watergate, let's not kid ourselves, at the same time it don't look like Watergate to me. Uh, I don't see a cancer on a presidency. I see a--early on in the presidency some, some mistakes being made, but the question is were they made with malicious intent, or was there a cover-up here of the fact that to some degree there was business as usual going on, and this administration was just embarrassed to be conducting business as usual, and so tried, tried to cover that up with some variety of excuses.
MR. LEHRER: Yeah. Pat, how--how has your newspaper been playing this story in local television, if at all?
MR. McGUIGAN: Well, we initially had a mildly critical editorial over the weekend, and we haven't done another one. I think if we comment on it again, we'll probably be a little more critical. You know, we are three and a half years or whatever the timeframe is, I guess, into this presidency, and when are these guys going to get ready for prime time? If this is just a matter of incompetence, a mistake, sensitive information being left around that shouldn't be left lying around, why is this still happening after three and a half years, particularly given the sensitivity that the President, himself, expressed about such matters in his campaign in 1992? So I'm not quite as forgiving as Clarence, but I think it's possible that this will turn out to be just incompetence, a mistake, however you want to characterize it. But I'm a little bit skeptical. I'm looking for more information.
MR. LEHRER: Sure.
MR. McGUIGAN: And I'm glad my colleagues based there in the nation's capital are paying some close scrutiny to it because I think we'll know a little more in a couple of weeks.
MR. LEHRER: Mike Barnicle, do you agree with the Republicans when they say, hey, if this was a bunch of Republicans, that everybody would be all over 'em like a blanket, including the people in Boston, Massachusetts?
MR. BARNICLE: Oh, it'd be on "Frontline" tonight. You know, it'd be a documentary already. If it were Newt Gingrich, it'd be on the front page of the "Globe" every single day since it had happened, but because this was a bureaucratic snafu made by well-intentioned, moderate to progressive Democrats, it's not much of a story.
MR. LEHRER: So I think that's a "yes," right?
MR. BARNICLE: Yeah.
MR. LEHRER: Yeah. Cynthia, what do you think?
MS. TUCKER: Well--
MR. LEHRER: Do you think--do you think that the press hasn't been playing this right?
MS. TUCKER: I, I think the press has been giving it a fair amount of attention. Here in the suburbs of Atlanta, Sen. Dole visited last weekend. He made a very pointed address dealing with the issues of the FBI files. He took Clinton to task. He had a rousing audience in attendance, and so naturally, the newspaper covered that story. We have had an editorial mildly castigating the Clinton White House for this. But the fact of the matter is that this does--is not one of those issues that connects well yet with the American public. We have absolutely no evidence, for example, that the Clinton White House was using these files to damage people in any way. As Bill said earlier, if, in fact, the Clinton White House were constructing an enemies list, wouldn't Newt Gingrich be on it? I mean, they are looking for information on Republicans who have been out of office for a while, whose influence is long past.
MR. LEHRER: Yeah.
MS. TUCKER: So it doesn't look that suspicious to me, and the--you know, the Republicans are certainly going to try to make as much political pay out of this. They're talking about even holding hearings on the subject. I think the American public would be bored to tears by congressional hearings on these FBI files.
MR. LEHRER: Lee, is the--has this story connected--is this story connecting in Texas, in your part of Texas? Is there any evidence one way or another on that?
MS. CULLUM: I think it's connecting somewhat, Jim. The "Dallas Morning News" had an editorial saying that we need some answers, and the editorial acknowledged that it could, indeed, be ineptitude. That's perfectly possible. But if it isn't, we need to know more. I think it's just one more thing in the mine field that lies ahead for President Clinton, and I don't think that it is to be dismissed or is being dismissed, not by any means.
MS. FARNSWORTH: Bill, what do you think, in terms of just the way it's connecting thus far?
MR. WONG: Well, I don't see any evidence that it's connecting at this point, and that may be perhaps a public that has grown pretty cynical about these what I would call partisan political games, and, uh, I would be disappointed, frankly, if the Republicans didn't make some hay of this. But it is still pretty early, and everything has to be viewed in terms of presidential politics, and the President was out here the other day, and he got a lot of attention for a lot of other things, and the FBI files was certainly not one of the central figures.
MR. LEHRER: But this story isn't over, is it?
MR. PAGE: No. It's still at the third rate burglary stage. Let's remember how Watergate began.
MR. LEHRER: Oh, boy, that's a bad phrase.
MR. PAGE: Do you remember?
MR. LEHRER: Right, sure.
MR. PAGE: Remember that?
MR. LEHRER: Sure.
MR. PAGE: The White House tried to dismiss it as a third rate burglary, and when the Washington Post pursued it, Woodward and Bernstein pursued it, a lot of other people were saying, why are you going after this, why are you badgering the President? And it takes a while for something like this to gel. I don't see the indications right now that it is another Watergate, but you've got to pursue this sort of thing whenever it happens. I don't blame Congress for wanting to hold hearings.
MR. LEHRER: Okay. Thank you all six very much.