JUNE 6, 1996
Evidence has cropped up that Clinton staff members ordered the FBI to investigate the fired employees of the White House travel office. Following a backgrounder by Kwame Holman, Jim Lehrer is joined by Representatives William Clinger (R) New York, chair of the Government Reform and Oversight Committeeand James Moran (D) Virginia.
MR. HOLMAN: Yesterday Rep. William Clinger disclosed that the White House requested and got FBI background material on Billy Dale, the man ousted as head of the White House Travel Office in the early days of the Clinton administration. The disclosure was the latest in the ongoing political controversy known as Travelgate. In May of 1993, Dale and six other Travel Office staff members were fired by the White House, charged with incompetence and possible criminal activity. Office Director Dale later was tried on embezzlement charges but was found "not guilty" by a jury. The six other employees were exonerated and were offered jobs in other agencies of the government. But congressional Republicans accused the White House of pushing out those long-time staffers so that friends of the Clintons could take over the Travel Office, and they said White House officials asked the FBI to investigate criminal charges against the seven in order to justify the firings. As the ranking minority member of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, Clinger called for an investigation into the matter in 1993. It wasn't undertaken but five other investigations were conducted by government agencies, including the Justice Department and the General Accounting Office. Those inquiries did not substantiate any wrongdoing by the White House but did reveal a memorandum by former White House aide David Watkins that suggested First Lady Hillary Clinton called for the firings, a charge Mrs. Clinton has denied. Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel looking into the Whitewater matter, has said he'll also examine whether administration officials tried to block or mislead any of the Travel Office investigation. Last year, Rep. Clinger became head of the Oversight Committee and requested thousands of pages of White House documents related to the Travel Office. In May of this year, the White House Counsel's Office wrote a letter to Clinger invoking executive privilege over some of those documents, refusing to hand them over. Clinger's committee then voted to push for contempt of Congress charges against White House Counsel Jack Quinn and two former White House aides. That citation carries a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison. But last Thursday, a few hours before the contempt charge was to be brought up on the floor of the House, the White House relented and delivered 1,000 pages of documents to Congress. But the administration did invoke executive privilege in refusing to send over other documents that had been requesting, providing only an index of that material. At his press conference yesterday, Clinger said that among the papers the White House released was a letter to the FBI sent seven months after Dale was fired. The letter had the name of former White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum printed on it and requested background reports on Dale because it said the administration was considering whether to give Dale access to the executive mansion. Yesterday Bernard Nussbaum denied sending the letter, saying he never even knew of its existence. The White House said the request may have been made by mistake by junior officials trying to clear a backlog of security clearances.
MR. LEHRER: Now two key members of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, the chairman, New York Republican William Clinger and Virginia Democrat James Moran. Congressman Clinger, on the request to the FBI on the Billy Dale matter, what do you believe the White House people were up to?
REP. WILLIAM CLINGER, Chair, Government Reform and Oversight Committee: (Capitol Hill) Well, that's hard to figure out. I mean, this request, as you noted, came seven months after Billy Dale had been summarily fired and was no longer a member of the White House staff. The request indicated that it was being made because access to the White House was being considered for Billy Dale. He had not asked for access. Clearly the White House didn't want him to have access, so you have to assume that there was some other reason why this request was being made at that stage of the game, which was in December of 1993, after he'd been fired in May of 1993. And it also, I think, raises some Privacy Act considerations as well.
MR. LEHRER: What kind of Privacy Act considerations?
REP. CLINGER: Well, the Privacy Act would say that you cannot just sort of start rooting around in people's confidential personnel files, private citizens. It's considered a crime.
MR. LEHRER: Yeah. Do you consider this a serious matter, this Dale request?
REP. CLINGER: Well, I think it is, and I think it's not--I can tell you that it's not, it's not unique. In other words, we, Inspector--or Director Freeh has told me that there was another request for another one of the White House Travel Office people, Barney Purcell, which also came in at about the same time, actually a little earlier than the one for Billy Dale. But I think it does raise questions. And all we're suggesting is these have to be answered. Thus far I really do not feel that the White House has given us a really credible answer, and I would hope that they'll be more forthcoming in the days ahead.
MR. LEHRER: Congressman Moran, what do you think of this, this Billy Dale request?
REP. JAMES MORAN, (D) Virginia: (Capitol Hill) I just can't find the beef in this burger, Bill. I don't--I think it's much ado about nothing. You know, there were hundreds of people that were held over from the Bush administration, uh, to the Clinton administration, and Billy Ray Dale was one of them. The Bush administration had cleared out virtually of the personnel files, and it took months for the Clinton administration to gets it act in gear and to have adequate back-up information so that they could give permanent security clearance, in other words, access to the White House. And so it was routine to be asking for these people in a long list of, of personnel, and, uh, it was a clerk that did it. Nussbaum wasn't aware of it, but there had been an article in the Washington Post, I think it was in the summer of '93, that these security clearances had been delayed. And so Mack McLarty, who was the chief of staff at the time, sent out an order, get this stuff cleared up, I want this back-up information so that they can get their security clearances in time. And some security--some clerk in the General Counsel's Office went ahead one by one and Billy Ray Dale's name came up at the end of the year. Now this clerk should have known, should have been reading the papers, but, you know, they were just going through the pro forma exercise of listing the people on a form and, and as Director Freeh of the FBI says, this was a routine matter handled in a routine way. They sent the information. It was immediately put into a vault. Nobody asked to look at it, and, in fact, until Chairman Clinger released it to the public, nobody had seen these files. So if it's a privacy issue, then I'm afraid that the chairman of the committee is the one who violated the privacy.
REP. CLINGER: Well, let me say I have not released these files to the public and don't intend to release the files to the public, but I do think, Jim, that there really is more here than you would suggest. This was 30 years' worth of documentation. If we were just talking about filling in the gaps or supplementing an existing file, that was one thing, but in this case, we had the request--the material that came over--about 30 years of very confidential, very sensitive material. Uh, when I talked to Director Freeh about this a day or so ago, he said, yeah, there was a routine request but it is not routine for them to release very sensitive material. And I guess the other question I would raise is: Mr. Nussbaum says he knows nothing about this, and he hadn't seen anything, didn't request and so forth, but that raises the question in my mind, who has authority to make these kinds of requests for extremely sensitive information coming across the Privacy Act if Nussbaum doesn't approve of it?
MR. LEHRER: Congressman Moran.
REP. MORAN: I don't think that, that this is extremely sensitive. Everyone has their personnel files. In fact, if you want to work in the White House, you have to subject yourself to an FBI investigation, even the lowliest level people, and they keep that information. As long as they keep it confidential, I don't see what the problem is. It was put into a vault. It was never released. In fact, the White House objected to releasing any of this information. That's why they had a subpoena subjected upon them because they wouldn't release this information until the committee demanded it.
MR. LEHRER: Congressman Clinger, in a more general way, what, what is the purpose of your investigation now? What are you trying to find out about the Travel Office affair that you do not now know?
REP. CLINGER: We're really trying to just come to closure, and I guess one of the items that we were exploring and I think which this most recent thing has raised is: Was the FBI in any way inappropriately used in the whole episode surrounding the Travelgate situation? The other agency of government we are looking into and would like to get to conclusion was with the IRS. There's some implication that the IRS had some involvement in this matter. And the final issue is: What role did Harry Thomasen, who was not a government employee, although he may have been what we call a special government employee, what role did he play, and was he the one who triggered this--
MR. LEHRER: He's a friend of the Clintons who--
REP. CLINGER: A very close friend of the Clintons.
MR. LEHRER: Right.
REP. CLINGER: And then again, you know, we, I think we've already established, although the First Lady would deny that she had any direct role in this, that she was certainly very deeply interested in this whole question.
MR. LEHRER: What's the bottom line, Congressman Clinger, as to what, what, what evils were committed and by whom here?
REP. CLINGER: Well, I think that, you know, we, we would say that from my point of view, the overriding issue is: How can the Congress affect oversight of an administration that really has been stonewalling us for literally three years? I mean, when were in the minority three years ago and I tried to get into this matter, they would not give us any information. They've personally denied it--still are, even though we now have the subpoena power. But I would say to Jim, that you know, it's hard for me to understand how you can claim executive privilege over a document that was sent to the FBI requesting this information. It doesn't seem to me that that rises to the level of executive privilege.
MR. LEHRER: Congressman Moran, where's the bottom line on this for you?
REP. MORAN: The bottom line is we ought to get back to the business that the public wants us to be working on, welfare and Medicare and getting our appropriation bill passed so we don't shut down the government again. We've had six investigations into the Travel Office firings. Forty thousand documents have been supplied to this committee. I don't know what more they can do. The reality is we have far more important things to be working on, and that's where we should be putting our attention.
MR. LEHRER: Congressman Moran, do you see anything from your perspective that was done improperly or illegally by people at the White House involving this Travel Office matter?
REP. MORAN: You know, Jim, I don't. Billy Ray Dale lives in my district. He can vote for me. The President can't vote for me. If I saw something improper, I'd like to be defending Billy Ray Dale. But, you know, the Republican majority fired hundreds of people that have no political connection last Christmas so they didn't have to pay them overtime in January since we passed this law saying that laws that apply in the private sector ought to apply to the Congress as well. You know, we ought to do an investigation of that. It seems to me that's far more egregious. This is one of those things. These people in the Travel Office serve at the pleasure of the President, and unfortunately, that's the way politics work, and I'm sorry Billy Ray Dale lost his job. They offered him another one. Let's see if we can find him a better one that'll make him happy.
REP. CLINGER: May I just respond to that very briefly?
MR. LEHRER: Yes, sir.
REP. CLINGER: And that is the difference between the firing up here in the Congress was that there was a change in the majority, and obviously I think Jim would agree there's going to be a change of the guard. The same thing applied in the White House. But the difference here was that the White House attempted to invent a cover story to give them sort of a cover for the fact that they were firing these people. They tried to invent, and the result was that they engaged in kind of a political persecution of Billy Dale and the rest of them for over nine years. That is a significant difference, and I think that is where this administration could be faulted.
REP. MORAN: Well, you're right. They went immediately on the defensive, and the Republican majority didn't bother them at all, so they didn't feel defensive about it.
REP. CLINGER: At least we were honest. We were honest about it.
REP. MORAN: Well, you fired all your staff when you took over the committee. Those things happen.
MR. LEHRER: But Congressman Clinger, is there anything more than, in your opinion, based on what you know about this, other than just faulting them for doing, doing some--for mishandling this or was there--were there laws violated, do you think?
REP. CLINGER: Well, I think there's been one criminal referral out of this matter so far. That's with Mr. David Watkins, who was the head of administration who gave one story to the GAO and another story to my committee, and that has been Mr. Starr is looking into that matter. Mr. Starr is exploring other possible mis-statements and perhaps perjury charges, but, you know, that's going to be in his charge. This is not our role. Our role is not to explore criminal activity. Our role is to determine how do we conduct effective oversight with an administration that's very secretive and has been very secretive not just about this matter but about a whole range of matters that we've been trying to look into?
MR. LEHRER: Congressman Moran.
REP. MORAN: I think Bill's been charged by the speaker to keep this story on the front page, and he's managed to do that, but I don't think it amounts to anything more than that.
MR. LEHRER: Do you think that's what this is all about, Congressman Moran?
REP. MORAN: I think that's what this is all about. You know, there was a front page story today, "Nussbaum Required Files on Billy Ray Dale," front page. This is nothing. There is nothing here, but, but what it is, it's an attempt as part of a larger effort to keep pressure on the White House to embarrass them, to--if they can't find anything, they're going to invent something, and unfortunately, a good man like Bill Clinger is put in the role of having to dig this stuff up and keep it on the front page every day.
MR. LEHRER: That's what you're doing, Congressman Clinger?
REP. CLINGER: This is my voice (getting hoarse)--
MR. LEHRER: What's he doing to you up there?
REP. CLINGER: --defending my position. (laughter among group) I would hope not. I mean, I think Jim knows, we are the principal oversight committee, and we really have a responsibility. We are looking into the other issues that he mentioned--welfare, Medicare, and so forth--but I think this an issue that deserves to be explored.
MR. LEHRER: All right. Before you lose your voice completely, I'm going to put you out of your misery, and thank you both very much.
MR. LEHRER: By the way, Congressman Clinger is from Pennsylvania, not New York, as I said he was when I introduced him.